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Devotion and music go hand in hand

As a genre, devotional music has always drawn the devout. And religious albums mean big business today. MALATHI RANGARAJAN talks to a few who have made a mark on the devotional music scene.

Ramesh Vinayakam

"Intially it was a just a commercial exercise, we were paid for doing devotionals and that was it ... but now it's very different," begins Gangai Amaran. The composer's albums on the Mother of Pondicherry are a lilting treat that sway you to mellifluous heights. Mention them and immediately he begins singing, "Malar Pola Malargindra Manam ... " a scintillating song in his collection, as you listen fascinated. Amaran writes the lyrics too. "I don't claim credit for the words or the tunes. Till I sit in front of the harmonium I've no idea what I would compose. Once I place my hands on the instrument, things fall in place smoothly. It is all the grace of the Mother," says this ardent devotee.

You notice a lot of humility and piety in Amaran. The film director, singer, lyricist and composer of the 1980s whose emceeing skills on many a podium had left listeners in splits, is a much mellowed down man now. "I've always been religious," he laughs. A cassette on the Poondi Madha is one of his earlier works and then followed "Ammavukku," "Amma," and others. Gangai Amaran recalls the "Thiruvannamalai Venba" he had worked on. "Tuning Venba is quite a challenging task," he tells you.

Gangai Amaran

"Thaai," the new album that will soon be released has Amaran touching upon the classical, with flautist Shashank, veena exponent Gayatri and violinists Ganesh and Kumaresh. "I'm sure it will do well," he says. Son, actor and singer Venkat Prabhu, as in dad's other albums, has also sung for "Thaai." As with brother Ilaiyaraja and his sons, the musical trio in Gangai Amaran's family also includes Premji, Amaran's second son and Yuvan Shankar Raja's assistant. Gangai Amaran is not too keen on composing or penning lyrics for films or directing them anymore. "Devotionals give me the satisfaction my mind craves for ... " he asserts.

Fulfilling task

You catch Ramesh Vinayakam just as the composer is working on a new, meditative project for Sivaratri. "It is going to be an album of Sivan slokas," he says. Ramesh entered the composing scene with devotional music. Like Gangai Amaran, Ramesh is a composer and lyricist, though he does not always write the lyrics for his songs. "I think the two should go hand in hand ... done simultaneously."

Veeramani Raju

"Pratidhwani" a compilation of songs on 10 deities, was Ramesh's first devotional album. S. P. Balasubramaniam lent his voice for all the scintillating numbers. Ramesh is a music director in films, but the craving to make devotionals is always there, he says. "My cassettes such as `Shambo Mahadeva' are still available in the market." The entire album of Ramesh's "Krishna Janardhana" has been made in Malayalam as "Radha Madhavam" with lyrics written by Sreekumaran Thambi. "I feel the sustaining power of the genre is more ... Jagjit Singh's "Ma" or M. S. Subbulakshmi's Suprabhatham can never lose their freshness or appeal," says Ramesh. The musician has used the piano, shehnai and santoor in his album on the Lord of Sabarimala, "Aaha Oho Ayyappa" — a novelty that gives an appealing sheen to his music.

Rich in experience

Talking of Ayyappa songs leads us to K. Veeramani, the yesteryear singer who carved a niche for himself in the world of devotional songs. Following his footsteps is his nephew Veeramani Raju. "From the age of seven, I have accompanied my uncle," he says. Raju has just returned from Singapore after a temple concert. Deeply religious from childhood, Raju decided early in life that religious music would be his vocation. He recalls the day when after a religious discourse Kirupananda Variar stayed back to listen to a couple of Raju's songs, but remained glued to his chair till th end. "I was mesmerised by the music," Variar told him later, "When you begin singing the Lord Himself seems to take over the stage ... " Raju's musical journey is dotted with many such exhilarating experiences. With more than 100 cassettes and 3,000 songs to his credit Raju, like Ramesh, feels that the staying power of religious songs is great. His next album "Ulagaalum Murugan" will have songs on the Muruga shrines all over the world. Raju agrees that the trend as far as songs on Ayyappa goes, is to have more of pounding percussion. "That's because you have Ayyappa devotees among all classes ... and it is sad that film tunes are used to lure them ... " Naturally. Just imagine having to listen to a religious number in the "Manmadha Raasa ... " format! Raju finds such degeneration in the name of devotional music, absolutely disconcerting.

Veeramani Dasan

Rewarding vocation

"I've imbibed a lot from Veeramani's songs ... so I consider him my guru. And people say that my voice is like his ... " Veeramani Dasan cites enough reasons for naming himself so. Earlier Dasan had a light music troupe, Sruti Laya. But now it is devotional singing most of the way — he has sung for a couple of films too. Beginning with Ramanuja Suprabhatham, Veeramani Dasan has come out with quite a few albums including the recent "108 Lakshmi Narasimhar." His "Irumudi" has a song, which brings out the bhakti of a Nari kurava. "After listening to it more than 50 Narikuravas have begun going to Sabarimala every year. Such experiences make life worthwhile," says Dasan. Having sung more than 3,500 songs this singer who travels extensively for concerts is at home in Kannada and Telugu devotionals too.

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