Interview | Movies

Singer-composer Pradeep Kumar explains why his documentary is a tribute to ‘Thiruppugazh’

Singer-composer V Pradeep Kumar   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“Won’t people think I wrote a story about myself?” ponders singer-composer V Pradeep Kumar, with whom this writer shares a name and initial, as he winds up our telephonic conversation with a laugh.

Before parting ways, we discuss aspects of his musical documentary Arunagiri Perumale at length; Pradeep uploaded the film to YouTube last week.

Filmed in 2014-15, the documentary has, as its centrepiece, an arrangement that features a 16-piece classical ensemble in a live concert, produced in Boston, and features Pradeep besides fellow musicians Kalyani Nair, Susha and Sean Roldan.

The film also tracks Pradeep’s journey of discovering Arunagirinathar, the 15th-Century Tamil saint poet known for composing Thiruppugazh.

Pradeep Kumar (C, on stage), Sean Roldan (R, on stage), Susha (L, on the cajón) and Kalyani Nair (conductor) during the 2014 live concert in Boston as shown in the film

Pradeep Kumar (C, on stage), Sean Roldan (R, on stage), Susha (L, on the cajón) and Kalyani Nair (conductor) during the 2014 live concert in Boston as shown in the film   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“The film was ready in 2016. I had been waiting for the right platform to release it; there were talks going on with digital streaming players but nothing materialised. So I decided to release it on YouTube,” says Pradeep.

Excerpts from an interview:

What drew you to Thiruppugazh?

The inspiration was my guru J Venkatraman.

For many years, Thiruppugazh’s position in performances was as an add-on. For instance, in a Carnatic kutcheri, people would conclude the concert by singing a few lines from Thiruppugazh.

But my guru had this rabid desire to compose songs out of it, which his guru Alathur Venkatesa Iyer had passed on to him.

Pradeep Kumar (L) and Sean Roldan (R) during the 2014 concert as shown in the film

Pradeep Kumar (L) and Sean Roldan (R) during the 2014 concert as shown in the film   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

I too shared this desire, and, for a long time, I had wanted to make a symphonic arrangement. Thiruppugazh was good material. Also, it would be a tribute to Arunagirinathar’s compositions and so the original idea was to do a concert but it evolved into a documentary.

The film gives the idea that you are drawing a parallel between the journey of Arunagirinathar and your own journey of self-discovery...

Yes, I’m telling the world about this big personality they should know about, hence I named the film Arunagiri Perumale (Perumale, in this context, suggestive of a divine equivalence).

But the story, if there is any in the film (laughs), is about my journey.

There are many stories about Arunagirinathar, all laced with mysticism. For example: the story of his metempsychosis, that after the people who disliked him burned his body, he lived out the rest of his life as a parrot when he sang more songs. If you have watched the TM Soundararajan film (Arunagirinathar, 1964) you would know.

A visual grab from the film ‘Arunagiri Perumale’

A visual grab from the film ‘Arunagiri Perumale’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

But I only had wonderment. How could anyone write so many songs in one life time?

So, when approaching such a subject as a documentary filmmaker, I could have gone into the aspect of mysticism, asking questions like how could a man turn into a parrot?

Or, I could have approached it with a religious lens, singing praise of Muruga (the Hindu deity to whom Arunagirinathar wrote his songs), but for me all of this was a story. It didn’t make a difference if Arunagirinathar lived in the 15th or 10th Century, or if he was living in the present.

So, I erased the time concept from my film. I was on a search and I needed to travel, meet people, and ask them what they knew of this person I was searching about. I did not want to tell people what I knew.

Music was key to achieving what I sought because that was the only tool in my disposal. I wanted to give people an experience.

In the film, you express regret that you are not able to pursue such offbeat subjects which demand time and research as the support is missing. Are you suggesting that mainstream musicians should work outside the commercial framework?

What happens is that when we are learning music, we don’t think about these things. All we, as musicians, try to do is expose ourselves to many different styles of music.

Pradeep Kumar in the film ‘Arunagiri Perumale’

Pradeep Kumar in the film ‘Arunagiri Perumale’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

However, once we get the stamp, say, a singer... we start doing only what is needed for us to continue our existence and support our livelihood. But we always have the option to do such projects, except it should be something we seek out.

Do you find working within the commercial framework stifling to your art?

There used to be a time when musicians used to sing and the society would take care of their needs like feeding them.

Today, the artistes have evolved. A music director should be as adept at picking calls and speaking to people over the phone without getting offended like a BPO employee as he is at making music (laughs).

What happens here in commercial cinema is that music composers are given an amount and we are asked to take care of everything. But this is not production; however, all of us are adapting to it.

Are you advocating that it is time for mainstream musicians to embrace alternative culture?

I’m not a representative of alternative culture because I too work in the commercial circuit. But I will give you an example.

A visual grab from the film ‘Arunagiri Perumale’

A visual grab from the film ‘Arunagiri Perumale’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A few years ago, I picked up a guitar and started playing at the Besant Nagar beach (Elliot’s Beach in Chennai) with Sean Roldan and my friends. Slowly, a community started to listen to us.

In a few months, we had inspired a few students from the fishing hamlets nearby to take up guitar and start making music. All this happened without expecations. But I did not facilitate it, my music did.

So, if everyone tried to do a simple thing to break free of the prisons they are in, it will leave a big impact.

All the musicians I work with, we always talk about how unnecessary it is to judge what the audience will listen to, but that is what is happening [in mainstream music].

We make music for target audiences because the record label asks for it. They ask for stuff like fusion music. As artistes, we are not meant to suppress what we want to do.

Since you mention artistes, the Odhuvars and their vocation that you feature in the documentary are fading out from existence due to lack of support...

We need to support these artistes. We met a lot of folk music artistes like parai exponents, karagattam dancers and others during the Chennai Sangamam music festival years ago. Unfortunately, the festival doesn’t happen anymore. But I’m glad you asked me this question because I’m making another documentary. This is on nadaswaram artistes.

Can you elaborate?

Many nadaswaram artistes have had to change their professions and discontinue the art because of economic needs. I know of one very good nadaswaram player who now runs a salon in Medavakkam. Even the ones who make the nadaswaram are quitting the trade.

A visual grab from the film ‘Arunagiri Perumale’

A visual grab from the film ‘Arunagiri Perumale’   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

But I want to make something clear. What we should understand is that an artform will never cease to exist but the people involved in it will. Because they are humans. That is why it is critical that we extend support to these artistes.

And I wanted to start filming for this documentary after a recce in November last year but I put it off for some reason. Now I don’t think I can start until later this year due to the lockdown. I will be filming it from Thanjavur.

How have you spent lockdown? What are the film projects you are working on?

I have spent all of lockdown at home working on my remaining projects.

I am the composer for Arun Prabhu Purushothaman’s Vaazhl (produced by actor Sivakarthikeyan). There is also Kuthiraivaal, Vignarajan’s Andhagaaram (produced by filmmaker Atlee) and a project each in Malayalam and Telugu that I’m working on at the moment.

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Printable version | Jul 29, 2021 11:52:44 AM |

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