Playback singer P. Susheela on a city of vibrant cultures, the making of classic songs and the joy of travelling by trams.
I hail from Vizianagaram, and used to make frequent trips to Madras with my lawyer-father, even as a child. Madras had the only court for the entire Madras Presidency. Later, I would accompany him to take part in music competitions or attend music assignments in AIR. We would stay at Woodlands, and the hotel means a lot to me even today.
Once my sister got married and moved to the city, I came here in 1950 to study music (vidwan course) at the Central College of Carnatic Music, Adyar. I came alone to Madras by train; it was not very comfortable travelling third class.
Once here, I waited at the station for my sister to come; for, I had no idea where to go or how to reach her house. The station, though bereft of people, was a safe place. And, people had lots of humaneness; so, I was not afraid to be alone. Actually, even the city was a quiet place; there were hardly any people on the streets, unlike now, when there is no space to move.
I stayed in Triplicane with my sister and travelled to college, a half-an-hour ride by a hand-pulled cart. The same person would pick me up in the evening. That's all I knew about Madras, till I got a chance to sing for films, and my horizon suddenly expanded.
From Triplicane, we moved to Veerabhadra Street in Mylapore, and then to a rent control house in Vinayagar Nagar Colony near the Mylapore Police Station for Rs. 125 — we got a palace, three rooms on the ground floor and two upstairs!
How I used to love travelling by tram! We bought a car in 1958, soon after my wedding in 1957 to Dr. Mohan Rao, and I've travelled by many cars hence, but I still miss the trips by the tram.
We would get off at Santhome, and run down to the beach, all the while stopping to buy ice cream or verkadalai. And, if at all I caught a cold, I would pop pills and continue.
When I see all the flyovers that rule the city today, I wonder if there was just no space for my beloved trams to continue plying the roads.
I started work at AVM at a princely contract of Rs. 500 a month, a huge sum those days. It was like going to school; I would reach there by 10 a.m., and be dropped off before six. In between, we sang what were to become classics.
What great recording engineers we had — the likes of Rangaswami, Jeeva and Swaminathan. The orchestra, singers and chorus artistes would all assemble in one room, and the engineers ensured that our voices and the instruments were captured in all their richness.
Madras was a great centre for the arts. It was a dream city for creative people. It helped every art form — classical music and dance, film music, theatre — evolve and flourish. How can I forget the wonderful concerts at Rasika Ranjani Sabha — even a child knew where it was! How many stalwarts performed there — D.K. Pattammal, M.S. Subbulakshmi, Honnappa Bhagavathar, GNB…
And, the theatres! There were so many — I would watch films at Odeon, Wellington, Roxy, Casino and more.
Madras has the wonderful ability to accept people from anywhere, and treat them as its own. Take us singers — TM Soundarajan is a Saurashtrian, S.P. Balasubrahmanyam and I are from Andhra Pradesh, S. Janaki and Chitra are from Kerala… Today, this is home.
The city is a melting pot of cultures, traditions and people. This reflects in the peaceful co-existence people have had here for centuries. From trams to the TIDEL Park, a lot has changed, but if one thing has not, it's the culture of the city.
As for me, I've learnt to accept things and move on, never looking back, a trait I learnt from the city I'm come to love as much as my music.
Sometime in the initial years of my career, I was to sing for the AVM film “Chithi” starring Padmini. All of a sudden, I lost my voice, and the hope that I would ever sing. The recording engineer Jeeva convinced the management to wait for me; even the sets were not removed. I finally rendered the melodious hit number, ‘Kaalamithu Kaalamithu', composed by M.S. Viswanathan.
Born in 1935, this versatile singer known for her mellifluous voice and perfect diction has rendered nearly 12,000 songs in Tamil, besides many more in Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Sinhalese and even Hindi. She has won the National Award five times besides many State awards. She was bestowed with the Padma Bhushan in 2008 for her contribution to music.