T.M. Soundararajan’s contribution to South Indian film music is priceless. The veteran singer is the recipient of this year’s Swaralaya Award.
T.M. Soundararajan, popularly known as TMS, is a living legend among film music lovers. The nonagenarian singer, in a career that has spanned decades and several generations of filmmakers, has sung songs of all genres and for audiences of all kinds. Classical, folk, western or popular, everything turns mellifluous at the touch of his magical voice. He has sung for just about all the actors who dominated the scene during the last five decades in South Indian cinema such as M. G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, N. T. Rama Rao, Gemini Ganesan, S. S. Rajendran, Jaishankar, Rajkumar and A. Nageswara Rao, to name a few, thus lending voice to the dreams and yearnings, and also angst and anger of several generations of film viewers in the post-independence era.
Thuguluva Meenatchi Iyengar Soundararajan was born in Madurai in 1922. He learnt Carnatic music from Ariyakkudi Rajamani Iyengar and started giving stage concerts in the voice of M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, the most celebrated film singer of the time.
His film career began in 1946 with Krishnavijayam, which was released in 1950 in which he sang five songs, including the hit ‘Raadhey Ennai vittu odathedi…’ After that there was no looking back. He went on to sing more than 11,000 film songs in Tamil alone, apart from several other languages. TMS entered films in an era when the scene was dominated by singing stars such as Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and P.U. Chinnappa. One can describe TMS as ‘the ethical voice’ of Tamil cinema, for, in film after film, song after song, he gave voice to the social and moral angst of the protagonists in the narratives of the time played by larger-than-life figures such as MGR and Sivaji Ganesan. His was a voice that sculpted through songs, the moral timbre of the characters who personified universal values and through generations of Tamil actors.
The best years of his singing life coincide with the very turbulent, yet hope-filled decades of post-independence era, the tone and tenor of which were set by resistance against social and political ‘unfreedoms’. TMS’ heart-wrenching songs expressed the outpourings of melancholy and conflicts, struggles and victories of Tamilians in particular, and the Indian nation in general, at various levels. No wonder it was he who gave voice to the ‘Tamil Semmozhi Meet’ anthem composed by A. R. Rahman in 2010. TMS received this year’s Swaralaya Award for his lifetime contribution to cinema. Excerpts from an interview with the maestro, who was in Thiruvananthapuram to receive the award…
How do you look back on your career?
I had the opportunity to work with some of the best artistes of my times – music composers, lyricists, directors and actors. They had something to tell the world, for which I could lend my voice. People who watched and loved those films listened to my songs with great enthusiasm and love, and made them timeless. I also sang with some of the best. For instance, Yesudas described my voice as ‘Daivakkural’ (Voice of God).
You are one of those rare singers who has sung for almost all the major stars in South Indian filmdom. But when you sang for each one of these actors, you adopted a different style and tone that suited the actor’s voice and character.
Yes, I closely follow the voice of the actors and their tonal modulations when I sing for them. For each actor, I sang in a voice that matched his voice, his persona and the character he played in that particular film. On some occasions I had to bring in a melancholic mood, in others, romantic situations, tragedy, comedy… Sometimes I had to make my voice sound masculine, sometimes very youthful or aged. I have done it all according to the situation and the actor. A film singer has to be sensitive to all these things; it’s not just a matter of singing in front of a mike. In many instances, I literally used to ‘act’ while I sang many songs; many of the actors used to come and watch me sing to get a feel of my acting so that they could use it in front of the camera! I think playback singing involves the element of acting too. Most importantly, the actors admired my songs and had great faith in me. My songs helped to lend character to their roles, adding to their charm and intensity, the reason why great actors such as Sivaji and MGR insisted on my singing for them. Jayalalitha once said that it was my songs that brought her close to MGR…
You have also sung for generations of music composers from Mahadevan and Dakshinamoorthy to Ilayaraja and A.R. Rahman, and sung with all the great singers of your time…
True. I am happy that I could work with such wonderful people. Although each composer had a different style and manner, they were all happy with my voice.
Many a time I used to improvise on their compositions, in my attempt to give life to the poet’s lines. In many songs, I have used several variations while singing certain lines to embellish a mood or a situation, which was appreciated by the composers, and later, the audience. For example, the song ‘Annakkiliye…’ (in the film Annakkili, for which Ilayaraja composed music for the first time) I have sung the same line in the end in three different ways. There were also instances, when I used to change the music scores to suit the character and scenes. The composers and directors were graceful enough to accept my suggestions. The acceptance and admiration of the audience is the ultimate proof of their popularity.
What do you think is your legacy in film music?
I belong to a generation whose films had a message to convey. But a lot of people still listen to me. Otherwise, why would someone like Vijayraj, a young fan of mine, take such pains to document the history of my music for television? He spent years on this project, ‘Imayathudan’, collecting material. I took such great pain to give life to each song, and he did the same to document my life in songs.
‘Imayathudan’, directed by Vijayraj, is a television documentary that tracks the history and evolution of TMS as a singer. Vijayraj has been working on the project for almost a decade now, weaving together the songs, clippings and interviews of various actors, directors, musicians and technicians to pay homage to one of the greatest singers of our time. Says Vijayraj: “There are many films from the 1950s whose prints are not available. Many are lost forever. I even had to hunt for some of them in places such as Singapore. I also went to the actual locations where the songs were picturised and the studios where they were recorded. TMS sir was initially hesitant about the project but after I convinced him about my passion for his music, he cooperated whole-heartedly; he even travelled with me to studios and locations, and talked to his erstwhile colleagues and rasikas about music. The documentary will go on air this year.”