The uncrowned Raja of sacred music

Innumerable gems of composer/musician J. Cooling Rajaiah’s phenomenal body of work continue to enthral listeners and performers way beyond the shores of their birth

July 08, 2016 04:43 pm | Updated October 18, 2016 02:25 pm IST

An early photograph of J. Cooling Rajaiah (in suit) at work. Photo: Special Arrangement

An early photograph of J. Cooling Rajaiah (in suit) at work. Photo: Special Arrangement

Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,

Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;

Along the cool sequester'd vale of life

They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

Elegy written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray (1716–1771)

TIRUCHI: Six years after he passed away on July 10, 2010, J. Cooling Rajaiah’s genius survives in the bounteous legacy of sacred music compositions that are the toast of the Tamil Christian community till today. Weddings are rarely complete without a rendition of Mangalam Nithya Mangalam , or Mangalam Nithya Pongidavey.

As one of the founders of Tiruchi’s oldest choir group, The Carollers, Mr. Rajaiah’s rousing The Carollers’ March is the star performance during choral presentations at Christmas.

These, and innumerable other gems of Mr. Rajaiah’s phenomenal body of work continue to enthral listeners and performers way beyond the shores of their birth.

“Uncle never left Tiruchi, but his music travelled all over the world,” says J. Philip Baskar, his nephew, and the founder of the city-based gospel choir Singspirations.

On a breezy afternoon, Mr. Baskar and his mother Mrs. Louisa Steward, and cousin A. Charles Chelladurai share their memories of the maverick who once lit up many lives with his tunes.

A talented and completely self-taught player of the piano and piano-accordion, Mr. Rajaiah seemed to have imbibed music from his cradle. “My grandfather used to keep him on his lap when playing the organ, when he was a toddler. Later, Uncle would be drawing the scores on the sand as his father took music lessons for others,” says Mr. Baskar.

Early exposure

Born on December 5, 1927 to Mr. and Mrs. James Williams, Rajaiah was the second-eldest (the only boy) of six children. The family’s roots go back to Jabagnana Puram, in Tirunelveli. He was named after the English Methodist missionary Reverend James Cooling.

“We all knew our brother had a unique gift for music very early on,” recalls Mrs. Louisa, 84, a retired lady welfare superintendent at the Telecom Department. His first organ performance was at the age of 9 at St. Peter’s Church, Golden Rock (where Mr. Baskar is the organist now), and his first composition was done at the age of 13.

Even while studying at the Bishop Heber School, the young Rajaiah was a much sought-after composer and musician for student plays.

“His compositional skills were in place by the time he was in his 20s,” says Mr. Baskar. “People who study music, don’t really break down its elements. But whatever Uncle did was so formal, despite his lack of formal education. His sense of rhythm was perfect.”

A brief stint in Tamil cinema followed. Mr. Rajaiah joined the orchestra of Gemini Studios in Chennai as a pianist and piano-accordion player. “He played the accordion and piano in the gypsy song for the 1948 film Chandralekha ,” says Mrs. Louisa with pride.

But the real turning point in his nascent career, was his membership of the Madras Jazz Club. “In spite of its name, all its members were musicians from Tiruchi,” says Mr. Baskar. “Uncle got most of his exposure to world music through the Jazz Club.”

Despite his early success in films, Mr. Rajaiah was put off by the cutthroat competition. On his father’s advice, he returned to Tiruchi and joined him to work for the Southern Railways. He retired as Divisional Commercial Inspector with a career that lasted over 30 years.

His piano skills were in great demand during the festive season in all the dance clubs frequented by Europeans in Yercaud, Ooty and Kodaikanal. “Cooling, you must come,’ they’d say, and my brother would be on the train,” recalls Mrs. Louisa. “He had a band, and managed to balance his work with music throughout his life.”

His compositions blended rhumba and swing elements, as he accompanied the Minstrels and All Saints Church choirs in the rendering of the oratorios – the highest musical offering of choral praise.

Man of many talents

A man with a voracious appetite for reading music aided by a sharp memory, Mr. Rajaiah could deconstruct group performances with great accuracy.

“He was the first person to ensure that the whole book of cantatas - 100 to 150 pages - was scored,” says Mr. Baskar, who collaborated with him since the mid-1990s.

Mr. Rajaiah’s expertise in interpreting scores was so great, that his violin track for Mozart’s Gloria earned him the epithet of ‘Mozart of Tiruchi’.

Mr. Rajaiah, who never married, needed complete silence when he was composing, say his relatives. “A flask of black coffee, his packet of cigarettes, and pin-drop silence late into the night … Uncle would write the basic singing score, then the sections for organ, violin and blowing instruments. It would be a well-planned structure and complete work of art,” says Mr. Baskar.

Of his prolific output, it is the wedding songs, which weave in elements of jazz and samba into the traditional Indian celebratory notes, that have helped to serve as constant reminders of Mr. Rajaiah’s talent. ( See related story )

“Uncle never got upset by criticism,” says his nephew Charles Chelladurai, who has sung for Mr. Rajaiah.

“He was among the few people who would encourage younger musicians by giving them a platform to perform. Nobody could match up to Uncle, but he was always trying to learn new things from the youth.”

Mr. Rajaiah stopped composing at the age of 81. His works though, will sustain many generations of congregations in the years to come.


Memorable melodies

J. Cooling Rajaiah’s very first marriage song Mangalam Nithya Pongidavey was written as a gift for his younger sister Louisa’s wedding in 1963. With lyrics by Tamil scholar and well-wisher Mary Lazarus, the song was well-received.

This was followed by Mangalam Nithya Mangalam , composed for a favourite niece’s wedding. The number, played with a full band in attendance, was an instant hit that managed to replace the traditional wedding songs of the day.

Even as the complex harmony and chord work of the Mangalam Nithya Mangalam impressed listeners, Aabiragamai Aseervadhitha was appreciated for its multi-layered score.

Mr. Rajaiah’s songs were brought out in cassettes and CDs by independent record producers, but he rarely got any monetary benefit out of his scores, barring the initial fee.

As a more copyright-savvy music scene emerged in later years, he was able to release 5 books on wedding songs, 3 books of musical scores and lyrics on religious music, for Easter and prayer.

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