Nithi Kanagaratnam on how he uses Tamil Baila music to reach social messages to people

Remember ‘Chinna Maamiye' — that hugely popular song among generations of college students in Tamil Nadu? But, not many Tamil music listeners have heard of Nithi Kanagaratnam, who composed and sang it. Tamil Baila music is his forte, however, Nithi has not received recognition in proportion to his talent. Not surprising, since his contributions to Tamil music came mostly while he was living in Sri Lanka and Australia, and at a time when he was balancing music and academics.

Resounding success

Nithi composed ‘Chinna Maamiye' in the mid-1960s, and put it to the test during a cricket match in Jaffna. As this Tamil song set to racy Baila music was greeted with enthusiasm, Nithi felt encouraged to concentrate on the genre. Nithi started off with English bands in Colombo as a singer who could also play the drums and the guitar. He specialised in singing cover versions of Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck. Following ‘Chinna Maamiye's resounding success in Tamil Nadu as well as in Sri Lanka, Nithi began to focus on Tamil pop.

While studying agriculture at Allahabad University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he composed music prodigiously. “I put together six solo albums,” says Nithi. Colleges in Tamil Nadu were a testing field for his songs, but he did not totally ignore the North. He displayed his music skillsat singing competitions up North, and won several trophies.

Music took a backseat after Nithi finished his Masters in Plant Pathology, and immersed himself in research work. Responsible and prestigious positions such as the Head of the Department of Agriculture at the Eastern University of Sri Lanka meant Nithi had to constantly squeeze out time for music. As he believed social reformation could be effected through music, Nithi wrote, composed, arranged and sang songs despite a hectic academic career.

Nithi discovered that the peppy Baila was a reliable vehicle to reach social messages to people. Nithi's song ‘Kallukada Pakkam Pogatha' is a Baila classic against alcoholism. “M.G. Ramachandran, the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, used this song in the campaign against alcohol consumption,” recalls Nithi.

In the 1980s, Nithi migrated to Australia, and at present, teaches pharmaceutics at Victoria University. He continues to compose songs in English and Tamil, and translate from Sinhalese to Tamil. He is credited with writing the Tamil version of the Australian national anthem. His Tamil Baila songs have been broadcast on Music Deli, a programme on Australian national radio, on Songs In Language (BBC) and Songs Of The World (Voice of America).

Sixty-five-year old, Nithi now devotes much of his leisure to an etymological and philological research of the Tamil language and to visit Chennai. During a recent visit, he spent most of his time expounding Tamil Baila at various forums.

BAILA BASICS

* Baila music is Sri Lanka’s signature sound. In truth, it was born of an international music collaboration that took place in an atmosphere of informality many centuries ago.

* It is traced down to ‘kaffir’, a mixed community influenced by the Portuguese, African and Sinhalese ethos; the buoyant dance music of this community was known as ‘kaffirhina’.

* While it existed in the island for many centuries, kaffirhina gained prominence only in the mid-Twentieth century. After a large number of Sinhalese songs was set to racy kaffirhina, a new name was coined for the genre — Baila, which drawn from the Portuguese verb for dancing.

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