An upcoming documentary offers rare insights into the life of S. Rajam,musician and artist

There is a prevalent belief among Carnatic musicians that singing vivadhi ragas (those with dissonant notes, or notes that drift – as is in Rasikapriya or Vagadeeshwari) will cut short their life span. But one person who single-handedly demolished this myth was S. Rajam – musician, teacher and artist.

 “On one occasion he told the audience at The Music Academy that he was 80 and still going strong, to indicate that the belief was baseless,” recalls Lalitha Ram, one of the directors of Sakala Kala Acharyar, a documentary on S. Rajam to be released on November 11.

The film seeks to offer rare insights into the life of the musician, who popularised vivadhi ragas and went on to live a robust and active 92 years. He brought out authentic renditions of the popular 72 melakartha raga keerthanas of Kotteeswara Iyer. A true Chennai resident, he lived in a home on Nadu Street, Mylapore, for 86 years.

 Lalitha Ram said he had started shooting his conversations with Rajam in 2009. “I had already completed 30 hours of recording, but suddenly when his health deteriorated, I wanted to release the film as early as possible. So I needed professional help and went to S.B. Khanthan,” says Ram.

Mr. Kanthan says of the film: “It really is a difficult task to condense 30 hours of recording into two hours.”

In the documentary, Rajam says that if his father Sundaram Iyer was instrumental in developing his interest in music, his mother Parvathi encouraged him to paint. While at the Government College of Fine Arts, he challenged principal Debiprasad Roy Chowdhry’s ideas of painting, which he found too westernised.

 “It takes a great deal of conviction to actually take on a person of that stature. Chowdhury was himself a great artist, but Rajam was greater. He knew what was ideal for the Indian sensibility. That was the difference,” says Keshav, cartoonist of The Hindu.

It was Rajam who gave a face to the Carnatitc trinity — Thyagraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri — and many other Indian saints and composers.

The Hindu had a role in Rajam’s foray into the film world. His picture appeared in the newspaper after he won the music competition of The Music Academy and film director Shantaram, approached him for his film Seetha Kalyanam to play Rama.

 Interestingly, Rajam’s entire family acted in that movie. One of his sisters, Jayalakshmi, was given the role of Seetha, his father Sundaram was Janakar and younger brother S. Balachandar appeared in a minor role, playing kanjira in Ravana’s court. The film also marked the entry of the legendary Papansam Sivam into the film world as lyricist and music composer.

 Though Rajam was a singer par excellence and his repertoire was any musician’s envy, it is beyond one’s comprehension why he could not become a popular musician, while he achieved great heights as an artiste.

 “When I was 10 years old Lingaiah (uncle of celebrated artist Maniam) told me pothum yendra manamey pon seiyum marunthu. It still rings in my ears,” says Rajam in the documentary, with a note of self content.

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