Playback singer, television actor and anchor A. V. Ramanan is now cutting an innovative, allegorical album featuring whistled sounds mimicking birds. It's music that'll leave a lasting impression, he tells Prince Frederick in an interview
Like Santiago, the fisherman from Hemingway's “Old Man and the Sea” who refuses to give up a hooked marlin that is being chewed by opportunistic sharks, A.V. Ramanan refuses to give up his calling card as a singer-musician, defying the predatory ways of the current-day music scene that has practically forgotten him.
This sixty-year-old still believes in Musiano, his light music troupe of 38 years that has seen better days. And he still nurtures the long-unfulfilled desire to make music that will leave a lasting impact on generations to come. The latter seems to be taking a definite shape — a novel album consisting solely of whistled sounds and keyboard notes.
Ramanan plays two of the 13 compositions from the album, where he whistles out the calls of birds and animals to the strains of a keyboard played by Shahjahan, a young sound engineer.
Turning off the system, Ramanan proceeds to ‘enact' these compositions, which have immense allegorical significance. (For example, warring squawks between birds on a tree subside when another bird, capable only of sweet calls, intervenes and shows them the way to peace; in another composition, a mother struggles with the memory of a fledgling lost in the past, even as it goes about teaching another one how to fly).
For the “live performance”, Ramanan wears a frilly shirt beneath his coat. As his puckered lips convey a range of sounds belonging to the wild, he jumps, prances about, inclines his head and stretches his arms out, gesticulating all the while. Eyes sparkling with excitement, he proceeds to unravel the stories encrypted in the uplifting music.
Down memory lane
The animated performance brings another facet of Ramanan to the fore — that of presenter and actor. More precisely, it evokes memories of Sapthaswarangal, a popular music contest that he anchored from 1994 to 2004 on Sun TV, enthralling millions with racy lines and complete involvement. (His cheerful opening line, “Vanakkam! Vandanam! Suswagatham! Welcome to Sapthaswarangal”, became a trademark).
“The show made me a household name. The Tamil-speaking world was so accustomed to watching me every week that when I left the show, wild rumours did the rounds. At a temple, a woman walked up to me and asked if I suffered from cancer. Another fan wanted to know if there was trouble on the domestic front. Knocked down by a motorist, I was nursing an injured leg by the side of the Adyar bridge, when an incredibly curious gentleman hunkered down and requested that I get back to presenting television shows. I promised him I would.” Ramanan has obviously not kept this promise.
“After climbing a mountain, it is natural to want to scale something higher,” says Ramanan. “The presenter in me is still robust, untouched by time, but I am waiting for a show as good as or better than Sapthaswarangal.” Ramanan has also resolved not to accept insignificant roles as an actor. His portrayal of U. Ve. Swaminatha Iyer in “Tamizh Thatha” (1999), a serial on Doordarshan, is a memory he cherishes. “At this stage of my life, I can't settle for anything less than that.”
Ramanan has recognised his primary calling as a singer-musician and does not want to waste time on futile pursuits. He does not want to repeat the mistakes of the past. “In the early decades of Musiano, I shouldered the entire burden of organising things and neglected my vocation as a singer,” says Ramanan. “When any emergency cropped up, I was the only man relied on for a solution. On a concert tour in Switzerland, a musician decided to starve to death unless he was given curd rice. Where could I go for curd rice in Switzerland? But I got it for him. During a concert at home, the troupe's long-time keyboardist took French leave and I got my son Vignesh — a little boy then — to step into the oversized shoes of a senior musician.”
Ramanan is now going slow, taking time out for music that's unshackled by the constraints of performance. He now basks in the lasting good in his life – a family knit together by a deep love of music and the legacy left by great musicians of all time.
Ramanan and his wife, playback singer Uma, have plans for an annual concert, ‘Voices of India', which will showcase over 30 memorable voices the country has produced. Ramanan, a past-master at mimicking, will attempt to sing their popular songs their way. Also being planned is a concert dedicated to world masters, including Louis Armstrong, Engelbert Humperdinck, Cliff Richard and Jim Reeves. He sings “What a Wonderful World” in Armstrong's rich baritone to show he can do it.
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