K. Santhosh

The maestro was in the forefront of changing society through art

Thrissur: Sixteen years after Malayalam cinema was born, G. Devarajan wielded the baton. He was perhaps the first composer whose oeuvre defined and exemplified light music in its truest sense, broadening the emotions of the medium and reflecting the aspirations, agonies, joys and hopes of Kerala society.

His death in Chennai last night leaves Malayalam cinema and the world of music infinitely poorer. He was 79.

Among his peers, he was the one who used the maximum number of ragas in film music. Yet, Devarajan's art was not restricted by the orthodoxy of classical music. The raga was the means and not the end. His music embraced different styles, with the Carnatic and Hindustani melody lines meeting folk idioms and Western harmony.

Devarajan's assistant R.K. Sekhar contributed significantly to the eclecticism of the veteran's songs. Take the case of the violin score for Ayiram Padasarangal or Poonthenaruvi, piano section in Poovukalkku Punyakalam, the cello part in Kaattil Ilam Kaattil, or the dilruba and shehnai pieces in countless songs. "Till then, Malayalam cinema was unfamiliar with this kind of arrangement. He offered the best of melody and harmony," said Johnson, composer and Devarajan's one-time assistant.

Devarajan's manner of composing, reverence for musical traditions and breadth of vision, influenced an entire generation of composers, including M.K. Arjunan, Shyam, Ilaiyaraja, K.G. Joy, Johnson, Ouseppachan, M.G. Radhakrishnan, S.P. Venkitesh and Vidyasagar most of whom had associated with the veteran in one way or the other. In this sense, Devarajan has been a major force that laid the foundation of Malayalam film music.

Another important feature of his work is his respect for lyrics. In Devarajan's hands, musical flourishes did not mutilate the lyrics. And he got the best lyrics to tune. The songs penned by Vayalar Rama Varma and tuned by Devarajan constitute the golden era of Malayalam film music. The voice of K.J. Jesudas is inseparable from Devarajan's work. The Jesudas-Devarajan hits include Kayamboo, Padmatheerthame, Venchandralekhayorapsara Sthree, Arikil Nee Undayirunnenkil, Pathinalam Ravudichathu, ManikyaveenayumayenThe composer introduced Jayachandran through the song, Manjalayil Mungithorthi. The singer went on to breathe life into the composer's songs such as Poovum Prasadavum and Malayala Bhasha Than.

P. Susheela was Devarajan's favourite singer. "No other singer has sung my compositions as she has. The rendering has been perfect," the composer told this writer in an interview in 1994.

The accessibility of Devarajan's art had its roots in the Communist ideals he cherished. He was at the forefront of changing society through art in a socio-cultural revolution launched by the Kerala People's Art Club (KPAC). Devarajan's songs were the backbone of KPAC plays such as Sarvekkallu and Ningalenne Communistakki. The songs, including Ponnarivalambiliyilu, Marivillin and Vellaramkunnile, are still on every Malayali lip.

"He made my words dance with his magical music," said O.N.V. Kurup, veteran lyricist and Devarajan's associate.

Born in Paravur as the son of a percussionist, Devarajan trained to be a classical singer. In 1955, he wrote his first score for films. The songs for his debut work, Kalam Marunnu, produced by Kailas Pictures, were recorded at Merryland Studio, Thiruvananthapuram.

"When I went to Chennai to work for films, all I knew was Indian classical music and the ability to play the harmonium. I worked hard and assimilated other forms of music," Devarajan once said.

Most importantly, he learnt the Western chord progression. His research was phenomenal. P.D. Francis, Thrissur-based pianist and keyboards player who worked under Devarajan for a few years, fondly preserves notes containing the veteran's derivation of the possible chords for popular Carnatic ragas. Devarajan did not suffer fools gladly. He was gruff with errant musicians and film folks who could not tell 'Sa' from 'Ri' but would wax eloquent about Mohanam and Malkauns. He was a champion of the purity and originality of creation, and once returned the State awards he won in protest against conferment of the honour on alleged plagiarists.

"But beneath his tough exterior, there was deep concern for human beings. But for his help and patronage, many like me would not have made it to the recording industry," composer Ouseppachan was quoted as saying. Devarajan elevated the status of the music composer in the film industry. He composed music for 337 Malayalam and 12 Tamil films, and 41 plays. One line from his masterpiece, Nadabrahmathin, sums up the composer's art and life, Alla Parajithanalla Njan Sangeetha Suraloka Gangayithil Mungidumbol (I cannot be defeated when I'm immersed in the Ganges of music).

As John Donne said, Death be not proud.