His music is like a breath of fresh air even today. It must have been even more so in 1954, the year of Neelakkuyil.
Malayalam cinema came of age with that film, directed by Ramu Kariat and P. Bhaskaran. And its music found a new tune too. A tune that was so original and so unlike anything that was heard in Malayalam cinema till then. The songs K. Raghavan composed for Neelakkuyil changed Malayalam film music for ever.
Malayalam songs before him were just parodies, both in words and tune, of popular Hindi songs. Songs like ‘Kayalarikathu…,’ sung by Raghavan himself, ‘Ellarum chollanu…’ (Janamma David) and ‘Engane nee marakkum…’ (Kozhikode Abdul Khader) bowled listeners over.
They could smell the sweetness of Malayalam in those songs, penned beautifully by Bhaskaran, Raghavan’s colleague at the Kozhikode station of All India Radio.
During an interview six years ago, Raghavan had told this writer that he was surprised by the sensation the music of Neelakkuyil created. “I remember seeing the audience in cinemas singing along when the song sequences came on screen,” he had said. “Since it was dark inside the hall, they read the songs from books after lighting candles stuck inside coconut shells. It was an unforgettable experience.”
The experience must have inspired him to create masterpiece after masterpiece over the next five decades. Songs continued to flow under his baton. Songs such as ‘Nazhiyuripalu kondu…’ (Gayathri Srikrishnan and Santha P. Nair, Rarichan Enna Pauran), ‘Aattinakkareyakkare…’ (Yesudas, Ummachu), ‘Manjubhashinee…’ (Yesudas, Kodungallooramma) and ‘Kizhakku dikkile chenthengil…’ (A.P. Komala, Adyakiranangal) went straight to the Malayali’s heart.
He is rightly credited for introducing folk music to Malayalam cinema. “While growing up in Thalassery, I was exposed to a variety of art forms such as Kolkali, Theyyam, and Mappila pattu; maybe that’s how the folk element came into my music,” he had said.
He was as much at home composing songs in the pure Carnatic classical mould, such as ‘Manivarnane kandu…’ (M.L. Vasanthakumari, Koodapirappu) and ‘Ayiram phanamezhum…’ (Kannappanunni).
MLV’s style was apt for ‘Manivarnane kandu…’ Raghavan had, in fact, a knack for voice casting. Unlike most composers of the day, he did not bother to use the most popular singers.
He gave a song to the voice that was most ideal for it (a practice that A.R. Rahman would use decades later). Among those who sang his songs were Brahmanandan, M. Balamuralikrishna, K.P. Udayabhanu, M.G. Radhakrishnan, P.B. Sreenivas, Vani Jayaram, Jikki, Renuka, V.T. Murali, K.S. Chitra, G. Venugopal, and Arundhathi.
He was not just a pioneering composer. He was remarkably versatile too. He could create a haunting melody, such as ‘Ekantha pathikan njaan…’ (P. Jayachandran, Ummachu), as easily as he could tune a comic song, such as ‘Kathu sookshichoru…’ (Mehboob, Nayaru Pidicha Pulival). And, he composed a vast number of songs for drama and radio too.
He was always referred to as Raghavan Master. He was one of our last masters of music.