‘You need to be lucky in the world of films’: M. K. Arjunan

Malayalam music composer M. K. Arjunan

Malayalam music composer M. K. Arjunan   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Maestro M. K. Arjunan rewinds to his long and illustrious career as a music director in Malayalam cinema. He won his first Kerala State Film Award for the best composer this year

It was a quiet morning at M.K. Arjunan’s house in one of those narrow streets, hemmed in on both sides by row houses, at Palluruthy, near Kochi. The master composer, dressed in his white shirt and dhothi, sat facing the street with a calm expression. The last few days following the announcement of the Kerala State Film Awards were hectic for this 82-year-old with relatives, friends, neighbours and journalists thronging his house to celebrate.

It took 50 long years for the State to recognise this great talent. Not being recognised all these years never seemed to disturb Arjunan. Life’s experiences perhaps steeled him against disappointments. The first ever State film award brings him joy, but nothing to shake him off his feet.

“During those days of struggle, trying to make ends meet, learning music in between, and composing for amateur plays, my dream was to listen to one of my songs on radio. From there I have journeyed this far. What more can I ask for?” Arjunan says, clearing his throat.

Were there times when he actually thought he was going to win an award? “No, not really. Yesu (K.J. Yesudas) once said my song Sukham oru bindu... (Ithu Manushyano) stood a good chance of winning that year but that did not happen. There were so many good songs in Malayalam cinema those days. Then in 2011, many people told me I would win it for Naayika. But I was not really concerned. Perhaps, my songs were not as good as the others…,” breaks off Arjunan, interrupted by a phone call.

Noted singer Sujatha was on the line, calling to wish Arjunan on his award. With a smile, he thanks Sujatha, and tells her that each of his songs that became popular were in a way awards for him. Sujatha should know as it was Arjunan who gave this singer her first chance to sing in films (Tourist Bungalow in 1975), like many others such as Jolly Abraham, Jency and Abhijith Vijayan and Sobhu Alathoor, in his award-winning film Bhayanakam.

There are three songs in the film, written by his long-time comrade-in-arms, Sreekumaran Thampi. “Director Jayaraj clearly told me the kind of music he wanted. The film is set in the backdrop of a village during World War II. So the songs had to have that feel. There’s a melody that begins Ninne thodum poonilavu… sung by Rashmi Madhu, Kuttanadan kaattu chodikunnu…, which is about pain, rendered brilliantly by Abhijith, and a chakram chavittu song, Vadakanamanaam manathoppil…by Kalabhavan Sabu and Sobhu.”

Apart from winning for Arjunan his first State award, these songs are special for another reason. Three generations from Arjunan’s family were involved in the making of the songs. It was his son Ashokan who found the singers, his grandson Mithun Ashok has done the programming and the final mix was done by his second son, Anil M. Arjun.

Quite suddenly three little boys, two of them in school uniform, run into the room and crowd around Arjunan. “They are his friends, who visit him every day,” says Ashokan, who made his debut as music director in the film Veyilum Mazhayum (2014). Arjunan spends time with his young friends, enquires about the three missing members of the ‘gang’, and gives them chocolates, and makes them promise they would come the next day.

“In cinema, songs should blend with the visuals. I remember occasions when the situation given to us and what appeared on screen did not match at all. There was this given situation: a moonlit night, a beautiful young woman with jasmine in her long hair, coyly dreaming of her wedding night. The song was written, composed and recorded. But when the film came we saw a young girl frolicking in a skimpy frock with the song in the background.”

Moreover, in Arjunan’s case, many films that had good songs were never submitted for awards by the producers. “They perhaps felt that the ‘CID’ films or comic entertainers were not worthy enough. I must have lost out that way too.”

Many of Arjunan’s songs, lilting melodies, ones that have outlived generations, such as Maanathin muttathu..(Karutha Pournami), Pournami chandrika…(Rest House), Ninmaniyarayile…(CID Nazir), Paalaruvi karayil…(Padmavyuham), Anuragame anuragame…(Hello Darling), Nakshatra kinnaranmaar…(Pushpanjali), Urangaan kidannaal…(Padmaragam), Thalirvalayo…(Cheenavala) and many more perhaps never reached a jury panel.

“You need to be lucky in the world of films. It is a deciding factor,” says Arjunan and adds, “So many talented singers and musicians never got their due. Pattanakad Purushotaman and C.O. Anto were excellent singers who proved their mettle in drama but somehow ended up with just a handful of film songs. Even Raveendran, who aspired to be a singer, ended up as a chorus singer till he switched to music direction.”

Arjunan has a strong bond with theatre. It was drama, he says, that gave him the hope to pursue a career in music and also a livelihood. “I owe a lot to theatre. After I returned from the ashram at Palani there was nothing to fall back on. I knew music was my future, the swami at Jeevakarunyananda Ashram, had said so on the day my brother and I were to leave. I used to compose music for amateur plays, tried to get chances to sing Carnatic concerts, but nothing really seemed to work. That’s when I got a break with the play Pallikuttam. Some of the leading professional troupes noticed my work and I joined Changanassery Geedha. By then I had married and it was what I earned here that helped us survive.”

Arjunan leads you to the room where the 14 State awards he received for his drama songs are displayed along with many others in a wall-to-wall showcase. He has also been honoured with the fellowship by the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi and has been associated with some of the leading drama troupes in the State. “In 1960 I joined Kalidasa Kalakendram as G. Devarajan’s harmonist. When he became very busy with films and settled down in Madras [Chennai] he chose me as his successor. I worked for this troupe for more than 50 years. In fact, it was Devarajan Master who introduced me to KPAC too.”

On the wall hangs a photograph of Arjunan’s three ‘gurus’ – Kumarayya Pillai Bhagavathar, who taught him the basics of Carnatic music at Palani, Vijayarajan Master of Mattanchery, with whom he studied for many intermittent years, and G. Devarajan. “I also owe a lot to Vathakat Raghava Menon, with whom I also studied for a while. He was a real tiger, so learned, short-tempered, but a great teacher. I’m waiting to get a photo of his too.”

Ask Arjunan about Devarajan and he has so much to say. “He never wore his heart on his sleeve. But I knew he liked me and my music. When I reached Madras [Chennai] for my first film, I went straight to him. He introduced me to R.K. Sekhar, which was the beginning a long relationship.

“Devarajan Master also decided when my recording for Karutha Pournami should take place. Strangely, he insisted that the songs be recorded at different studios rather than at one place. I later came to know from the producers that Devarajan Master had said that I was going to be in Madras for quite some time and that it would be good if I was acquainted with all the studios. He was so thoughtful.”

Music composer M. K. Arjunan with singer Shahabaz Aman and composer Bijibal

Music composer M. K. Arjunan with singer Shahabaz Aman and composer Bijibal   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

It’s half past twelve and just when we decide to wrap up the conversation, Bijibal and Shahabaz Aman come in. Shahabaz, winner of the State film award for best male singer, his first, was meeting Arjunan for the first time. “I just came to seek his blessings. I feel so honoured, so lucky to be recognised along with this great master. It’s like generations are being condensed into one dot,” says the singer.

Prompted by Bijibal, Shahabaz sits before Arjunan’s harmonium and offers ‘a musical tribute’ to the maestro. A Mehdi Hassan ghazal, followed by Ghulam Ali’s famous Chupke chupke raat din.... Arjunan, his eyes closed in rapt attention, begins to hum a tune, one that he composed, Nakshtra kinnaranmar.... “The route was so close to the Ghulam Ali ghazal. Even his famous Paalaruvi karayil... follows the same sort of pattern. And the part where Susheelamma sings Rajini... is so different from what Arjunan Master sings,” explains Shahabaz.

A music composer knows his work as a woodsman knows a path he has traced and retraced many times. It remains his own creation. “No singer, however, perfectly he renders a song, can match what a composer has in mind. They come close at times. This answers questions on the subtle variations,” says Arjunan.

Shahabaz sings the M.S. Baburaj gem, Asthamanakadalin akale... His soulful singing, the strains of the harmonium and Arjunan sitting enraptured in absolute bliss lingered long after we moved away.

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Printable version | Jul 8, 2020 4:07:01 PM |

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