Swarnalatha – The Lonely Voice That Faded Away

Years ago Ashokan, my friend from Kerala, who coordinates music programs, had consulted me on the choice of female singers for a Special Music program of Ilayaraja’s songs he was organizing in Trivandrum for the ensuing Onam Festival. He wanted singers who had sung songs under Ilayaraja’s music direction. Immediately, without any hesitation, I suggested the name of Swarnalatha. He was extremely happy with my suggestion and requested me to coordinate with her for the program.

I contacted a few of my friends in the field of film music as I was neither personally familiar with her nor was I in touch with her. But nobody knew of her whereabouts. Nobody had heard of her participation either in song recordings or stage shows over a lengthy period of time. Whenever she was contacted over the phone at her residence either for song recording or stage shows the only information conveyed again and again was that she will not sing for some time to come as she had throat related problems.

Nobody had any clear idea of what had indeed happened to her. Only unconfirmed rumours floated around that she was secretly married and had stopped singing. Some information even conveyed that she had left Chennai and settled abroad. Whatever the status of her position, it remained a closely guarded secret.

I was astounded how a person as famous as Swarnalatha could be in such a state of non-being. She was a rare phenomenon with many things special about her singing. In her time, she alone was the singer who brilliantly rendered every emotional dimension that is there to her songs. She had this great rendering ability to sing any type of song given to her brilliantly with her distinctive voice. I have marveled at her magical singing of the song ‘Hai Rama Yeh Kya Hua’ from the Hindi film Rangeela (1995). It was the first Hindi film of A.R.Rahman. It was songs like ‘Hai Rama’ that laid the foundation of his big successes in Hindi films that came later. It was a song where Swarnalatha scintillatingly brought out the deep emotions of yearning for love far better than her co singer Hariharan. Swarnalatha’s accent and pronunciation was so exact that nobody suspected her of being a South Indian. Another brilliant testimony to Swarnalatha’s rendering style is ‘Jannath Hain Yeh Zameen’ from Rakth (2004) with Anand Raj Anand scoring the music. It was a solo song expressing the pangs of desire with a moving depth. It is said that composers like Anu Mallik who heard her voice and the singing style in such Hindi songs thought Swarnalatha was a stunning looker!

Swarnalatha who had an illustrious career in film music from 1987 to 2006 sang the compositions of diverse music composers during this period. Many among these composers were unique in their selection of their singing voices. Swarnalatha was barely 14 when she was introduced by M.S.Viswanathan in 1987 in the film Neethikku Dhandanai. That first song, Bharatiar’s ‘Chinnanjiru Kiliye Kannamma’ was an immaculate classic set to a modern arrangement. The way Swarnalatha sang this song with self-confidence and maturity far beyond her age in spite of it being a first song sung with a veteran genius like Yesudas was unbelievable. If you were to hear this song, you will be spell-bound in wondrous disbelief, even today. That a 14 year old girl, still a child, could sing to express the depth of a mother’s love so touchingly. M.S.V. had once remarked: “Swarnalatha is a gift. She is great among the rare singers I have met. I am proud to have introduced her.”

Everyone thought that Swarnalatha must be a Tamilian from her accurate pronunciation of Tamil that was evident in her very first song. In exactly the same way whether she sang in Hindi, Kannada, Telugu or Malayalam, people of these respective languages thought that their language was her mother tongue. She sang with accurate pronunciation in Bengali as well! There is not an iota of doubt that, among singers, after S Janaki, Swarnalatha alone sang without pronunciation mistakes grasping the nuances of the language, whichever the language she sang in. Many had concluded that she was from Karnataka as her family had migrated from Karnataka and she chose to write down her lyrics in Kannada before singing. Kannada was her preferred language as she had grown up in Karnataka and had her education through Kannada medium as well.

She was, in fact, like P.Leela, Chithra and Sujatha, a Malayalee born in Kerala. She was born in 1973 in the village Kizhakkaepparra near Athikkode in Chittur Taluk of Palakkad District. M.S.V., Malaysia Vasudevan and P.Leela, too, hailed from these parts. Swarnalatha with many brothers and sisters was the ninth child of a big family of music lovers. Her father Cherukkutty was a singer and a harmonium player. Her mother Kalyani was also musically inclined. She was taught to sing and play the harmonium by her father and her elder sister Saroja. Later, her family migrated to Shimoga in Karnataka.

Music came like magic to young Swarna. All who heard her sing were dumbstruck by her singing and music sense. All were unanimous in their opinion that she should sing for films. Members of her family realized that she was a singing prodigy and migrated to Chennai to seek film opportunities for her singing talent. The first opportunity came from M.S.V. without any struggle. When they had gone to M.S.V’s house, he had asked her to sing a song of her choice. She chose ‘Naalai Indha Velai Paarthu’ composed by M.S.V. for the film Uyarndha Manidhan and won her chance to sing under M.S.V’s baton there and then.

Soon Ilayaraja, too, hearing about Swarnalatha gave her a chance to sing for the film Guru Sishyan (1988). The song was ‘Uthama Puthiri Naan’, a cabaret dance like number where the actress, evidently under the influence of liquor, explicitly expresses physical desire. One cannot help wondering, after listening to the sexy number, how a 15 year old girl can bring out the desire for sex in her rendering so professionally. Swarnalatha who exemplified mother’s love in her rendering of ‘Chinnanjiru Kiliye Kannamma’ brought out an emotion so totally different in this dance number!

Later, Ilayaraja asked her to sing the song ‘Maalayil Yaaro Manadhodu Pesa’ for the film Kshathiriyan produced by Maniratnam. This was a landmark song that revealed another dimension of Swarnalatha’s singing felicity. It is an attractive number that comes to mind whenever you think of Swarnalatha. Here her mesmerizing voice weaves magic expressing subtly the yearnings for love of a lonely woman. It was the success of this song which made Swarnalatha a full-time Playback singer.

In latter years she had sung many great songs under Ilayaraja’s music direction. The numbers based on the same tune ‘Povoema Oorkolam’ and ‘Nee Yengae Enn Anbae’ from the film Chinnathambi were huge hits. Songs like these made Swarnalatha the singing voice of Khushbu who was ruling the roost as a Super Star for whom fans had built a temple. One might even say that a good percentage the temple built for Khushbu should belong to Swarnalatha. Government of Tamilnadu honoured her with the award of Best Singer for the song ‘Povoema Oorkolam’.

With her song ‘Aattama Therottama’ in the film Captain Prabhakaran she proved that she was incomparable in singing peppy dance numbers as well. Many songs, one different from the other, from Ilayaraja-Swarnalatha combine like ‘Maasi Maasam Aalana Ponnu’ from Dharmadurai, ‘Malliye Chinna Mullaye’ and ‘Kaana Karunkuyile’ from Paandidurai, ‘Kuyil Paattu Vandhadenna’ from En Rasaavin Manasile, ‘Malligai Mottu Manasa Thottu’ from Shakthivel, ‘Ennulle Ennulle’ from film Valli, ‘Vedalappulla Nesathukku’ from film Periya Marudhu and ‘Rajaadhi Raja Un Thandhirangal’ from film Mannan went on to become big hits. Their song ‘Raakkamma Kayyathattu’ from the film Thalapathi figured in BBC’s Hits List of world songs. Swarnalatha’s song from the film Veera, ‘Malaikkoyil Vaasalil Kaarthigai Deepam Minnuthe’, is a rare and nostalgic song.

Swarnalatha was not given any song in A.R.Rahman’s first film in spite of being the prominent singer of the time. But the very next year he gave her to sing ‘Raakkozhi Rendum’ for Uzhavan and ‘Usilampatti Pennkutty’ for the film Gentleman, two very big hit songs of the year. A.R.Rahman gave her many songs for the films for which he composed music in 1994. Though not exactly great songs ‘Madrasa Suthi Paarka’ of May Maadham and ‘Ye Muthu Paappa’ of Vandicholai Chinnaraasu were illustrative of the many dimensions of Swarnalatha’s singing style.

There is no doubt that no other song released during that period found the kind of popularity which the dance number ‘Mukkala Muqabala’ from the film Kaadhalan achieved. Similarly the song ‘Porale Ponnuthayi’ from the film Karuthamma reigned in everyone’s heart leaving an indelible sadness with its manner of rendition. These two songs at the two emotional extremes suffice as testimony to the uncommon singing felicity of Swarnalatha. The way she had rendered ‘Mukkala Muqabala’, a number meant to please the mass, was amazing. It is doubtful if any of her contemporaries could have brought out the lines like ‘Badhil Nee Sollu Kaadhala’ with the kind of élan she brought to them.

The same way, it is difficult to imagine ‘Porale Ponnuthayi’ number in the voice of any other singer. I do not believe that any other singer could have brought to the song either in quality or degree anything like the penetrating pain and sadness that Swarnalatha was able to bestow on it. Swarnalatha had said that she wept uncontrollably in many places while recording the song. Swarnalatha swept both the National Award and the State Award as the Best Singer for this song.

In the years that followed A.R.Rahman gave her all genres of songs. The same voice that drowned us in sorrow with ‘Evano Oruvan Vaasikkiran’ from the film Alai Paayuthe also reminded us of our childhood pranks and playfulness with the song ‘Kuchi Kuchi Raakkamma’ from the film Bombay. Both Urmila Matondkar’s seductive and teasing lip-play in the film Indian and the ‘Maayaa Machindra’ dance movements of sexy Manisha Koirala pouting love that titillated the fans in the same film had the giant advantage of Swarnalatha’s captivating voice.

Swarnalatha’s infinite singing ability can be found in ‘Anjathe Jeeva (Jodi), Kaadhalenum Thervezhudhi (Kaadhalar Dinam), ‘Mellisaiye’ (Mister Romeo), ‘Ulundu Vidhaikkayile’ (Mudhalvan), ‘Mercury Pookkal’ (Ratchakan) and the few lines in ‘Poonkatrile Unn Suvasathai’ (Uyire). Swarnalatha has given hit numbers working with composers like Deva, Vidhyasagar, Harris Jayaraj, Anu Mallik, Shankar-Ehsan-Loy, Kiravani, Hamsalekha and Raj Koti.

Swarnalatha had even sung for the famous Hindi composer Naushad! The legendary Hindi film Mughal-e-Azam which was released in 1960 with Naushad’s score was reconstructed in colour and released in 2004. It was also released in Tamil as Anaarkali. Swarnalatha was the female voice for the songs in the film. Swarnalatha created a stir by singing in two different voices the song ‘Kana Neram Unadharuge’ which was the Tamil version of the Hindi song ‘Mehfil Mein Kismat’. In the original song Lata Mangeshkar and Shamshad Begum had sung the song to which Madhubhala and Nigar Sultana had danced. But in Tamil, Swarnalatha sang for both the dancers in two voices that brilliantly matched them. Naushad who came to Chennai for the Audio release for this film blessed Swarnalatha praising her amazing feat.

Swarnalatha had sung most of the songs in other language versions as well of the Tamil films for which she had sung. Many of the songs that she sang in Telugu were also hits. Government of Andhra Pradesh had honoured Swarnalatha by giving her the Nandi Award in 1995. She has sung only less than twenty songs in Malayalam. She did not find any recognition in her mother tongue though all her songs were widely appreciated.

She got Kalai Maamani by Government of Tamilnadu before she was 20 years old. She won the Filmfare Award in Hindi for the year 1996 for ‘Hai Rama’. She won a Filmfare Award in Tamil as well for ‘Mukkala Muqabala’. She won Cinema Express Awards four times. Though it is difficult to make out a case that she was overlooked by the film world, the Governments or the social organizations, it must be mentioned that many good compositions that should have come her way, went to other less deserving singers.

Her singing opportunities went on dwindling from the year 2000 onwards. It remains an enigma that year by year the singing offers that came her way became scarcer and scarcer even when the fact remained that none could outshine the singing merit of Swarnalatha, the singer prodigy. It was a period when Television started dominating film songs and singers. As she was extremely camera-shy, she could not confidently appear in the new, now popular medium. Her Television appearances were extremely rare. It was said that she avoided even the stage music shows because of her stage-fright. To add insult to injury, it was said, she was always in a struggle to avoid air travel because of acute air sickness. This effectively put a stop to all music shows in other states or abroad. Song recording remained her only medium of expression. And that too dwindled to nothing for unknown reasons.

Her last significant song appeared in 2006. She sang ‘Kummiyadi’ in the film Jillendru Oru Kaadhal for A.R.Rahman. Though there were other voices in the song, Swarnalatha’s portions stood out. In the same film ‘Munbe Vaa En Anbe Vaa’ was a tailor made-for-Swarnalatha number, but it was Shreya Ghosal who rendered it.

Though she always put in an appearance in colourful clothes with ornaments in chunks and heavy makeup, she always was a silent and lonely sight. Swarnalatha rarely spoke and certainly not to every one. She used to arrive for the song recording only with her brothers in tow or more. Once in the studio she will straight away write down her lyrics in Kannada letters. Then she will proceed to listen carefully to the tune and train singing her lines to the tune. She had the ear to grasp the music notes quickly and the discipline to impart the exact emotions to the song with a high amount of finesse. During the recording she never allowed her attention to move away from the song. She had an approach to the nuances of the score that was totally different from that of other singers. Those singers who have sung with her had always marveled at her capacity to impart to the song’s every fine nuance, some explicit and many implicit. Once the recording was over she will attentively listen to her lines of the song and depart quietly.

Since she was ever an introvert, many believed that she had some deep mental agonies that were suppressed. There is nothing to show that she had ever frankly opened up her mind to anybody connected to film music. It appeared that she had no friends at all. A few had felt that she loved being alone probably because of a complex about her looks that stopped her from coming out. There were people who opined that she was a naturally introverted person and that there was no particular reason behind her preference for being alone. But as far as her felicity in music was concerned, she was supremely confident and believed in high standards of rendering. It appears that she was well aware of the strength of her rendering and the difference it made.

She had lost her parents long ago. At 37 she was still unmarried. Her recording and stage assignments and her income were all entirely managed by her brothers. They were the ones who ever spoke on Swarnalatha’s behalf. Her elder brother is on record as saying that she was always on music practice and that apart from eating and sleeping, she had no interest other than music. But singer Pushpavanam Kuppuswamy had a different take. These are the lines, roughly translated from Tamil, he sang in a Television show titled ‘Tearful Tribute to Swarnalatha’:

Your singing warmed our hearts here Oh Lark
Why did you hasten to warm the hearts in heaven?
Had your parents not hastened to leave
You would have found a fate better to live
And a wedding of your mother’s choice
With her blessings of longevity to your voice!

Is this true? Swarnalatha is not with us today to answer this.

Swarnalatha was suffering from breathing related problems since many years. She had trouble climbing stairs and any small effort left her breathless. In the early stages of her breathing problem, she still continued to sing well. Later the problem became serious and she was not even able to speak. She went from hospital to hospital in Chennai seeking remedy but doctors struggled to diagnose the root cause of her problem. Some doctors even said that there was nothing serious.

In the end, it was diagnosed that she suffered from a rare condition called Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis. The disease makes breathing difficult by choking off air from going to Lungs. For a singer, a fate worse than this cannot be imagined! Till now the specific reason causing this condition has not been found. Hence Medical Science has given the appellation ‘Idiopathic’ for such diseases. No final solution for curing this disease has been found by the medical world.

Swarnalatha’s brothers say that they made all possible efforts to save her. But, they say, the disease was beyond the capabilities of doctors attending Swarnalatha, in spite of the best efforts put in by them. They also say that they kept details of her condition secret as they believed that she will be cured and will come back to her singing career. But her condition only grew worse. She was repeatedly admitted in hospitals and then taken back home the moment she found a little relief. Her health broke down completely both because of the severity of the attacks and excessive medicines she was administered to treat them. By now the purpose of medicines was only to prolong her tragic life for some more days. Finally, on 12th of September, at the age of 37 Swarnalatha bid goodbye to her sufferings and unbearable pain.

In the year 2003, after singing ‘Porale Ponnuthayi’ number in her out-of-this-world performance one more time at A.R.Rahman’s music show ‘Unity of Lights’, Swarnalatha said: “I am proud to have participated in this event conducted for the cause of poor children suffering from Cancer. I am happy to have done my small bit for them.” She had indeed done her bit for our sensitivities too. But when she was struggling to draw her breath nobody could do anything to help her. We had actually forgotten her even as her life’s song was ebbing. Today we are still listening to the many songs sung by her. But we can never again hear the rest of the magical song called Swarnalatha that faded out unfinished.