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Bichu Thirumala’s evocative lyrics always struck a chord with listeners

Bichu Thirumala   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Bichu Thirumala (B Sivasankaran Nair) never wanted to be a lyricist. His heart was in writing stories, acting and directing plays. The graduate in Economics found a good job but the pull of theatre and everything associated with it was too strong to resist. He moved to Chennai, then called Madras.

When I met Bichu for the first time, he was undergoing rejuvenation therapy at an Ayurveda hospital in Kochi after he had survived a near-fatal fall from the terrace. The details of that lengthy conversation about his career are recorded but the lasting impression is of the man — unpretentious and accessible, so much like his songs.

When Bichu wrote a few lines in rhyme and meter as a gift to his sister (singer P Susheela Devi) on her wedding, he “never thought this would turn into my vocation,” Bichu said with a smile. But then life comes up with such strange things, Bichu added. “It is like riding a huge wave that takes one to great heights and brings you down. You just have to go with the wave. All you need to do was to be prepared for this swing,” Bichu added.

When the stage beckoned

Bichu simply moved with the wave. Theatre was the touchstone of his talent. In 1962, he wrote and acted in Ballatha Duniyav at an inter-university radio drama competition. Bichu spent a lot of time and energy scripting and composing for plays. In fact, hardly anyone knows that he was the inspiration behind the formation of Sangamithra Theatres (later Cochin Sangamithra). He even helped in the production of its first professional play.

The year 1972 was a decisive point in Bichu’s life. He met Sathish Sangamithra (K J Thomas) who was actively involved in the activities of various Malayali Samajams and also helmed a cultural organisation called ‘Kala Keralam’ in Madras.

Bichu’s request to Thomas was to help him produce and stage a play, Dandakaranyam, which he had written. “Bichu said he would write the songs. This surprised me. But I got to know that he had by then penned a few devotional songs,” Thomas recalls. The play was staged at Ambattur. Both Bichu and Thomas acted in it. “There was a song in this play, ‘Manase ashwasikoo…’ that Bichu had written. After the play two people, filmmakers, came backstage, enquired about the lyricist and asked if they could use the song for their film,” says Thomas.

Those lines were later used in the film Njan Ninne Premikkunnu (1975), which had music by M S Baburaj and was sung by S Janaki, a singer who has given life to some of Bichu’s immortal lines. Of course, the tune was different from the original.

In 1975, Thomas returned to Ernakulam. Bichu used to make frequent visits to meet his friend. “On one such visit Bichu persuaded me to stage Dandakaranyam at a few venues in Kerala. I reluctantly agreed. The same cast from Madras Chennai came down and we staged it successfully in five places.”

A month later Bichu was back again. “This time the request was to stage the play at an all-Kerala drama competition slated to be held at Kerala Fine Arts Hall, Ernakulam. This was when we decided to form a group. We named it Sangamithra Theatres and entered the competition.”

Bichu wanted to include new songs. “Kannur Rajan was our music director. Bichu wrote ‘Thushara bindukkale…’. The play won seven awards.” Most of the companies in and around Ernakulam wanted to stage this play as part of their regular monthly art programmes. “Cochin Sangamithra was officially launched at a function at Sacred Heart College, Thevara, by film actor Jos Prakash,” recalls Thomas.

Director I V Sasi happened to hear this song and wanted to include it in his film Aalinganam (1976). But the music director for the film was A.T. Ummer and the songs were listed in his name. ‘Thushara bindukkale…’ won for Ummer the Kerala State award for best music director and the best singer honour for S Janaki.

Even before all this, Bichu had made his film debut as lyricist with some soulful lines. “It was sheer destiny. In 1970 I was assisting Krishnan Nair Sir in the making of Sabarimala Sree Dharmasastha. The producer of this film C R K Nair persuaded me to try my hand at writing songs. He gave me an opportunity in his next film Bhajagovindam, which, however, was not released,” said Bichu, flipping through a diary that had important names, days, dates and events of his life.

Bichu wrote four songs in his debut as a lyricist for film music. They were set to music by Jaya-Vijaya, with whom he formed a superb bond resulting in a number of memorable film and non-film songs. This film included the melodious ‘Brahma muhoorthathil pranasakhi…’ rendered by K J Yesudas.

Bichu’s Best
  • ‘Pranaya sarovara theeram…’ Innale Innu
  • ‘Lalitha sahasranamajapam…’ Ahalya
  • ‘Brahmanapadam vazhi…’ Uthrada Raathri
  • ‘Nakshatra deepangal…’ Nirakudam
  • ‘Kannodu kannoram…’ Ente Mamattikuttiyammakku
  • ‘Olathumbathirunnu…’ Pappayude Swantham Appoos
  • ‘Evidayo kalanju poya…’ Sakthi
  • ‘Akaleppolum alakal…’ Aazhi
  • ‘Sandramaya chandrikayil…’ Manasa Vaacha Karmana
  • ‘Unni Aarariro’ Avalude Ravukal
  • Ezhu swarangalum…’ Chiriyo Chiri
  • ‘Mainakam kadalil…’ Trishna
  • ‘Pavanarachezhuthunnu…’ Vietnam Colony
  • ‘Jalasankhu pushpam…’ Ahimsa

The year that cemented Bichu’s career was 1975. Some songs like ‘Sarvam Brahmamayam…’ (Prayanam), ‘Manase aaswasikku...’ (Njan Ninne Premikkunnu), ‘Neelakashavum meghangalum…’ (Akkaldaama), and ‘Unmadam gandharva sangeetha…’ (Kaamam Krodham Moham) turned hits. It marked the arrival of a new lyricist.

Between 70s and 90s, Bichu wrote some of Malayalam’s most popular songs. There was humour, prayer, love, pathos, encouragement, hope and inspiration in his lines. Bichu was versatile and prolific, penning around 3,000 film songs and several non-film and devotional songs.

Simplicity was the hallmark of Bichu’s lyrics. His ability to infuse in them a message, often tending to philosophise in the layman’s language, endeared him to the masses and the critics alike. “I firmly believe that it is not just the tune or the light nature of the lines that make some songs popular,” Bichu said. He then sang a few lines from two of his popular songs — ‘Paavada venam…’ (Angadi) and ‘Ola thumbathirunnooyalaadum…’ (Pappayude Swantham Appoos) — and said that the hint of universal truth, very often forgotten in this mad world, is what won the songs wide acceptance.

Pushing poetry into film songs was not Bichu’s way. He quickly adapted to the changing trends of film music. When he started, composing was an exciting affair with the lyricist, music director, singers, producer and director getting into a huddle in search of the best song. Soon the tunes were composed first and the lyricist had to write verse that suited the music. In such situations, when he had to sync his words with the length and mood of the tune, there was no space to indulge in poetry. Bichu then attempted to be succinct, sticking to the brief given by the director, creating evocative images.

Hits with different music directors
  • ‘Hridayam devalayam…’ (Jaya-Vijaya)
  • ‘Neelajalaashayathil…’ (A T Ummer)
  • ‘Kasturimaan kurunne…’ (Shyam)
  • ‘Nananju neriya patturumaal…’ (V Dakshinamurthy)
  • ‘Yamasakholi…’ (G Devarajan)
  • ‘Pichakapponkaattil…’ (K Raghavan)
  • ‘Sruthimandalam…’ (M S Viswanathan)
  • ‘En swaram…’ (K J Joy)
  • ‘Nee oru vasantham…’ (Kannur Rajan)
  • ‘Mizhiyoram…’ (Jerry Amaldev)
  • ‘Samayaradhangallil…’ (Raveendran)
  • ‘Vaalittezhuthiya…’ (Ilayaraja)
  • ‘Kannaam thumbi…’ (Ousephachan)
  • ‘Unnam marannu…’ (S Balakrishnan)
  • ‘Kilukil pambaram…’ (S P Venkatesh)
  • ‘Pazham Thamizhpaatu…’ (M G Radhakrishnan)

This coupled with an uncanny ability to write fast made Bichu the first-choice of many filmmakers and composers. He ‘teamed’ with a long line of music directors but was never spoken of as part of a team like Vayalar-Devarajan or P Bhaskaran-Baburaj. Yes, he ‘teamed’ up in numerous films with composers such as Shyam but then Bichu has also been part of the success stories of many others such as Jaya-Vijaya, K J Joy, Jerry Amaldev, A T Ummer, Raveendran and others.

Apart from lyrics Bichu tried his hand at music direction (in Sathyam, which was not released); he wrote the script and dialogues for the film Ishtapraneswari (1979) and the story for the film Sakthi. Bichu, who was trained in Carnatic music for a few years, has also sung in many films starting with Kaamam Krodham Moham. Not surprising as he hailed from a family where music was in their blood — his sister Susheela is a well-known singer, brother Darshan Raman and son Suman Bichu are music directors.

Bichu has written some of the best non-film and devotional songs in the language. Songs like ‘Vishnu maayayil…’ (Jaya-Vijaya, Ayappa Suprabhatham); ‘Maamankam...’ (Raveendran, Vasantha Geethangal); ‘Appavum veenjumayinin…’ (Shyam, Parishudha Ganangal); ‘Cheppadi kunnil…’ (Mohan Sithara, Jungle Book); ‘Japamala enniyen…’ (Oduvil Unnikrishnan, Dasapushpam); ‘Shararanthal velichathil…’ (M G Radhakrishnan, AIR Light Songs); ‘Paathu pathungi…’ (Alleppey Ranganath, Children’s Songs Vol 1); ‘Sankara dhyana…’ (Kannur Rajan, Hrudayanjali) and many more.

The music that Bichu composed for a popular devotional album titled Deepam Makara Deepam was wrongly credited to Raveendran. Only recently was this error corrected. Raveendran had only composed the background score. All the songs written by Bichu were sung by P Jayachandran. It included the eternal hit ‘Kulathurpuzhayile balakane…’ Another devotional album that merits mention is Sarana Keerthanam. This album had nine songs written by Bichu and set to music by Suman.

Verses and images

I remember asking Bichu how he managed to conjure up images, weave it into meaningful lines and blend it with the tunes. His answer was simple: “When a situation is explained, I take a few minutes to understand the mood. Then I plunge deep into the reserves stored through the years. Here my reading of the epics, classics, poems by great poets and my training in music help. All the rigorous methods my grandfather, a widely-read scholar, employed to make me learn a poem often bears fruit.”

Bichu won the Kerala State Award for Best Lyricist twice — for Thenum Vayambum and Trishna (1981) and Kadinjool Kalyanam (1991). He certainly deserved more especially when you notice that his songs have won laurels for so many singers and music directors many a time.

“If you ask me I will say that the criteria is strange. A good song is a combination of the singer, composer and lyricist. I don’t know how you can separate them and judge them individually. But frankly, these things have never really bothered me too much. After all, even after the film fades away, if the song lingers I’m happy.”

This extraordinary wordsmith leaves behind a legacy etched in the hearts of every music lover. He has left an indelible mark crafting timeless lyrics matched seamlessly with his boundless knowledge of subjects running the gamut from classic literature to street life.


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Printable version | Jan 18, 2022 4:53:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/tribute-to-malayalam-lyricist-bichu-thirumala/article37785037.ece

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