Weaving magic with music

Vidyasagar   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

At a time when in mainstream music, the place of melody, music’s basic building block, is being reduced substantially, Vidyasagar gives us plenty of reasons to cheer. Since he made his début 30 years ago, Vidyasagar has built his music around melody, harmony and rhythm interacting in a meaningful way that is powerful and magical.

Taking time off from a packed schedule to speak to FridayReview, the music director looks back at his inspirations, associations, early beginnings, the art of composing tunes, the music industry and more.

The beginning

I started off playing the harmonium and singing. By the time I was eight or so, my interest moved to Western instrumental music. My father, [U Ramachander], a musician involved in film music, put me on to Dhanraj Master with whom I studied the guitar and the piano. My father was more of a self-made musician. He started off by playing the tabla and when he found that this was not helping him earn much, he bought instruments like the vibraphone and the santoor and began learning to play them. And very soon I was playing them too. My father set a strict regimen for me. He insisted that I learn to play many musical instruments before I choose one. Along with music classes, I had to go every morning for typewriting lessons too. Do you know that I might be the youngest and fastest typist in India? A feat I achieved when I was 11! They never allowed me to write a follow-up exam in Tamil Nadu because I was too young!

Before the début

I joined my father for recordings when I was 11 or so. By then, I could play a dozen instruments. My first professional recording was around that time. I played the vibraphone for Shankar-Ganesh in a Tamil film. I was in school then and used to go to the studios on my cycle. Perhaps my professionalism at the age impressed those in the music industry. By the age of 12, I was earning. But, from that very first day I had stepped into the recording studio, I decided that my goal was to be a music director. The reason was obvious – the music director was in control and hogged all the attention. Moreover, I had to become a composer to create something of my own.

Ghost works

I did a lot of ghost work before I became an independent music director. I must have done this for around 900 films in various languages. I was not bothered about the language; I simply did the re-recording, sometimes the background for songs, interludes and often suggested changes in tunes of the songs. The best part of it all was that everyone loved me and my work. Perhaps they spotted an eager, young musician preparing himself for bigger things. I was fortunate that every one encouraged and promoted me at that stage. But even then, I was determined to study and joined Trinity College for piano lessons, which I had to discontinue when I became busy with recordings.

First break

I got my first break as independent composer for the Tamil film Poo Manam (1989, directed by Rajasekhar). A couple of other films followed. However, the best thing was that I never had to ask anyone for a chance in films. Somehow everything came my way. I then moved to Telugu cinema, where I met with, say, mixed success.


I consider myself lucky to have been associated with some of the greatest minds of the 20th century film music. I assisted musicians such as RD Burman, Laxmikant-Pyarelal and G Devarajan. Of all the greats, MS Viswanathan sir was like a God to me. While everyone created songs with a firm raga base, MSV sir did it in a way that you could not spot it.

Ragas were diluted to the simplest form so that anyone could sing along even while not discerning what raga it was. And he had the great Kannadasan by his side. The first time I met him, he seemed to be impressed with what little music I could play and asked me to come for all his recordings from the next day onwards. I was with MSV sir for four years from 1977. The other composer with whom I strike a similarity in style in the use of certain phrases and ragas is the great Madan Mohan. I love his music.

On Andhra Pradesh

I was born in Vizianagaram but have lived all my life in Chennai. My grandfather was a court vidwan in Bobbili. Gradually, talented artistes migrated to Chennai. In my case, it was because the film industry for all South Indian languages was based in Chennai. And even when the industry moved out to their respective States in course of time, Andhraites like me settled down in Chennai. There were more opportunities for people who wanted to exhibit their talent and also for those who wanted to learn. So many gurus, Dr M Balamuralikrishna Sir for example, never wanted to return to Andhra. One reason was perhaps because Andhra could never celebrate the success of their talents, like say how Kerala celebrates my music, my success.

National award

Ironically, I got my only National Award for a Telugu film, Swarabhishekam (2003), which I did after a gap of nearly five years. But there was K Viswanath sir, who is not like the others. He was a connoisseur of fine arts who used classical music and dance effectively in his films. I was fortunate to be associated in his film and I owe a lot to SP Balasubramaniam sir who recommended my name to Viswanath sir.

Malayalam films

When I made my entry into Malayalam films in 1996, it was the fag-end of a golden period. It was a transition phase and I was sort of a link between the music of the two eras. I’m thankful to my directors, especially Kamal, Sibi Malayil and Lal Jose. We came up with some aces. The confidence and belief they had in me was multi-fold. They never bothered about what I was composing, leaving me free to do my job.

All the songs, right from Azhakiya Ravanan, the first one (Vidyasagar won his first Kerala State Award for the songs in the film), were different and huge hits such as those in Pranayavarnangal, Summer in Bethlehem, Millennium Stars, Niram and Devadoothan.

[He won the Kerala State film awards for the best music director for Pranayavarnangal and Devadoothan]

Work in Devadoothan

The writer and director created a music instrument called Seven Bells and told me the story and its connection with the instrument. When I saw what they had created, I realised that it was not just a musical instrument but a living soul, a living organism. I created the music of the bells, which is obviously the seven notes, with the sound of an organ but something like it was breathing. This created a creepy effect. The idea was theirs but the music was mine. The music of Seven Bells runs right through the film. I also gave a western tweak to the classical ‘Endaro mahanubhavulu’, an experimentation that was critically acclaimed.

Teaming up with Puthenchery

There was some magic when we got together. It was the most memorable phase of my career. The biggest plus was that Gireesh was a musician at heart and a lyricist by profession. So he could enjoy the nuances of music while we were composing and come up with the right words to fit into the tune. He used to sing along and write down words to fit the glides, the subtle nuances.

Lyrics flowed and it took hardly 10 minutes to complete a song. We set a trend. Looking back, I think I was able to create music that would stay for long. I was not just an also-ran.

On composing tunes


Vidyasagar   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

I can’t explain how it happens, it just comes (laughs). The song by itself demands something and that in turn will decide on the instruments to be used. I always believe that the music part of the song should be an extension of the main song. So, when it is a melody, the background score is also melodious. I sing my songs and with the tune, the background music also falls in place. When the mind is set to a frequency, you can find music even on a plain, white wall. Music is divine; it comes from the ether, you need to catch it. Your antenna must be properly formatted and tuned for that. Then you can find music everywhere. I cannot explain it better…(laughs)

Getting the right voices

I’m always on the lookout for new voices. In 1992, I heard Shubha Mudgal on Doordarshan. She was not famous then. I thought she had an amazing voice, got hold of her number, invited her to sing in a Tamil film for me.

She was reluctant, saying she would have trouble with the language. But I assured her that she would be comfortable. Shubha sang for the film Araisiyal. Five years later, she turned into the Shubha Mudgal, the great Thumri singer the world now knows.

The same was with Sadhana Sargam, whom I introduced in the Tamil film Coimbatore Mappillai. I think I have so far introduced 34 new voices. I note the voices that impress me and when the occasion demands it, I call for them. It is not like doing a song for them. So, I’ve had Udit Narayanan, Sukhwinder Singh and newcomers like Manikka Vinayagam who made his playback début for me in Dhill.

Will audio industry wake up?

It won’t because technological advancements are here to stay. Piracy is rampant. People are not listening to songs the hard way any longer.

Everything is there on music apps and there’s so much for people to listen to. As a result of this proliferation, there’s no focus and standards have shifted. It all depends on who’s making the noise that seems to matter. It is all about instant popularity and instant decline. No one is looking for sustenance.

On musicals

If films with songs do well, that is fine. In Hollywood, musicals are a separate genre and it is still big business. In India it is still entwined with films. There are still very few who made it big in independent music. Here, music is still dependent on films, on the stars and its success. Music cannot stand on its own. There may be exceptions like the song ‘Marannitum enthino’ in Randaam Bhavam, for example. I’m sure you cannot forget that song. We need more such songs that have the strength to survive independent of the success or failure of the film.

Vidyasagar was recently awarded this year’s Dakshinamoorthy Sangeethameru Puraskaram instituted in memory of the noted music composer at Vaikom.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2021 8:49:23 PM |

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