T M Soundararajan – Singer of The People

A current Tamil film singer told me, “I hate TMS songs.” When I asked him the reason for his hatred, he could not name a proper one for it. He lamely said, “His songs remind me of the dust and heat of Tamilnadu.” I retorted: “You must have come to Tamilnadu only during your summer vacations and heard his songs only at the height of those summers.” His opinion was only a reflection of a youngster born in Tamilnadu but brought up elsewhere. Some never outgrow their juvenile state of mind!

Honestly, I too did not like TMS songs in my childhood. It was a time when I was under the impression that Yesudas was world’s greatest singer. But after a few years I started listening to TMS songs. I sang a song of his during a school function as that song had made a deep impression on me. I made a mess of it neither knowing the tune well nor having learnt the lyrics properly. That earned me a warning from the head master to desist from singing again.

My memories of TMS go back to a person we had all called ‘Annachi’. In our place all Tamilians are called ‘Annachi’. I do not recollect his name. He was a daily wage-earner in a tea shop. He was a dark slender person who always sported an innocent smile on his face. He used to marvelously render the song ‘Sathiyame Latchiyamaai Kolladaa’. I was absolutely certain in my mind that ‘Annachi’ was my hero from the day I heard him sing that TMS song.

His job was to draw water from the wells of the village and bring it to the tea shop. He used to fill water in two recycled square oil tins dangling from the ends of a bamboo pole and bring them to the tea shop balancing them on his shoulder. I would walk alongside beseeching him to sing the song ‘Sathiyame Latchiyamaai’. Some of the times he would oblige me. I can never forget that majestic opening ‘Sathiyamae’ and the softer landing word ‘Selladaa’. I can also never forget the scene of Annachi leaving our village in tears, after he was dismissed from tea shop work for some reason.

Many TMS songs like ‘Pattikkaadaa Pattanamaa’, ‘Adi Ennadi Raakkamma’, and ‘Poomazhai Thoovi Vasanthangal Vaazhtha’ were very popular in our cool hill villages. I slowly found myself beginning to appreciate his songs for his emotionally rich rendering style. But it was many years later during my Hyderabad days that I have attentively listened most of his important songs.

I was then living in Feroze Guda, a semi-slum area of Hyderabad. It was the place bachelors from all over India, coming in search of jobs roamed the streets. They stayed together in small one room dwellings. They cooked, ate and slept in those tenements sharing dreams and talking of landing well-earning jobs abroad. Summer in Hyderabad is hotter than summers of Tamilnadu and people sleep on roofs and terraces at night. I was part of this crowd. There was a bachelor in the corner of our street. But he stayed alone in his room. He was rarely seen outdoors and never interacted with people. His name was Dennis and he hailed from Kuzhithurai of Kanyakumari district in Tamilnadu. Even when the summer heat touched 47 degree Centigrade he never came out!

He will get up quite early in the morning and immediately play a TMS devotional song on his tape-recorder. The songs played would be anything like his ‘Pullaanguzhal Kodutha Moongilgale’, ‘Nee Oru Thaayaanal’, ‘Karpanai Endraalum’, etc. After that till his departure for work he will play some film song or other of TMS without a gap. His tape recorder would again start broadcasting TMS songs as soon as he returned from work in the evening.  I do not remember him playing the songs of any other singer! On Sundays the TMS songs will play continuously from morning to night. I was a daily fan of this very devoted broadcast.

Dennis always had a forbidding expression that warned all to keep away. But I wanted to befriend him. My intention was, in particular to see his collection of tapes and have a good look at his tape recorder which reproduced such superb quality sound. My room mates had warned me that Dennis had some incurable skin disease and that it was contagious. His face and exposed parts of the body had reddish allergic skin lesions. This unprepossessing look had alienated him from others.

One fine morning I made bold to knock on his door. When he opened the door he only had his vest on. The skin was coming off his body like thin patties. It was an allergic skin disease called psoriasis. I asked him in Tamil whether we could talk. He did not allow me in. He sent me off saying he was busy.

It took me many days and as many efforts to befriend him and enter his room. But once I made friends with him I realized that he was such a wonderful friend. I explained to him that psoriasis was not a big disease and that it was not contagious. That brought him closer to me. His tape recorder was a big one. It was the original made-in-Holland Philips. His collection of TMS songs was huge. You name a song and he would play it for you. 

I had spent many sultry nights in his room listening to TMS songs and talking about them. Whenever I went to his room he will serve me his fantastic tea. Some of the times he had even cooked a meal for me. He would never allow anyone to touch his collection of tapes; much less lend it to anybody. But he had lent to me many tapes which I copied. Even today I have with me the copies of his tapes of TMS songs.

After some years there, the mental depression caused by a failed love affair made me leave Hyderabad for Bombay. With barely a hundred rupees in hand I landed in Bombay thanks to the free lift offered by a tanker lorry driver. I roamed Bombay for two days looking for job. I approached a few distant relatives and old friends for help. But none was forthcoming.

On a moment of depression I spent twenty rupees of the last thirty rupees that remained in hand on a bottle of beer that I drank. Then I caught a bus to Taloja area looking for a person hailing from my native place. The owner of the house where he stayed said that he had left for the city on a welding job and that the date of his return was uncertain.

At around eight in the night I reached a place called Kalamboli on Mumbai Pune Hyderabad Highway. I tried to thumb a ride in the passing trucks. But no one stopped. I started hiking pointlessly on the highway. My mind had been numbed by hunger and exhaustion. The ‘swish’ of wakes left by thrusts of trucks that whizzed past buffeted me. After what seemed an interminable half an hour I saw a Truck Stop where drivers stopped for rest and refreshment. As I neared it, I heard the TMS song ‘Yennai Theriyuma’ and that woke me up from my numbness. The joint had the name ‘Mani Ka Dhaba’ in red letters on white tin board written on it in English, Hindi, Telugu and Tamil. It was a road-side eatery. I staggered towards it.

There, the usual customers, the drivers and their assistants were busy tucking into the tandoori chicken and rotis with different gravies to ease their way. I went and stood before the cashier there with a pathetic look. He asked me ‘What?’ in a most sullen Hindi. I explained my position to him in Tamil. He could not make out what I was telling him as he did not know Tamil.

He called out to the kitchen. “Come! Somebody here is asking something in Tamil.” A black person who was stoutly built came out without wearing a shirt. He was Mani, the owner of the eatery. It appeared that he was the cook there as well. I told him that I stopped by as I heard the TMS song. He heard out my story with a touch of skepticism. Then he just went back into the kitchen without saying anything. A procession of TMS songs, seemingly so appropriate to my situation, was parading for the benefit of my ears.  ‘Pallaakku Vaanga Poenaen’, ‘Kann Pona Pokkile Kaal Pogalaama’, ‘Yaarai Nambi Naan Porandaen’, ‘Sodhanai Mel Sodhanai’ and so on. They made me forget my hunger. I sat there looking at those who were sitting on the cots and eating, waiting for the proverbial ship that will take me to the farther shore, as Tagore had waxed eloquently in his poem.

Mani came out and talked to me when he found respite from his work in the kitchen. He was from Trichy and totally plighted to TMS. He spoke of TMS with considerable emotion. His tape recorder was very old fashioned. But his pile of TMS song tapes was unbelievably huge. “Brother, TMS songs alone are my life. Foolish chaps categorise his songs as MGR songs and Sivaji songs. But they are all TMS songs and his songs alone. Till my death my place of living will resound with TMS songs.” Mani served me tandoori roti and chicken gravy. He asked me to rest there.

I stretched myself on a dhaba cot under a big tree. I kept carefully listening to the TMS songs that were being played like ‘Ulagam Pirandadu Enakkaaga’ and ‘Arivukku Velai Kodu’. Suddenly the hope that these songs offered dawned on me. They offered encouragement and strength. The songs had a confidence, clarity, a can-do enunciation and above all a majesty that leads one to greater heights. I felt that millions of simple people loved TMS songs because of the hope that it offered in their hopeless lives. Suddenly, I too felt comforted and rejuvenated.

I never knew when I had dozed off. Mani woke me up after arranging with the driver of a Mazda van to take me back to Hyderabad. I could pay him after reaching Hyderabad. I was speechless with gratitude. TMS was singing in the background: ‘Nee Yenge En Ninaivugal Ange’. I did not know why, but tears ran down my cheeks.

Many years later when I met TMS in Chennai for an interview I told him the stories of Annachi, Dennis and Mani. I saw the same innocent smile of Annachi on the face of TMS. TMS said: “Brother, when I started my life I too was like your Annachi. At first I had stood in front of many with extended hand like a beggar asking for money so that I can go for my music lessons. Later I became another type of beggar asking for a chance to sing. Did you know that in those days I have even acted as a beggar in a film? You would not have seen it; it was in 1951 for the film Devaki where I sing the song ‘Theeraadha Thuyaraaley Paazhaagiye’ as I beg. In the credit titles they did not mention my name as a singer; instead they put me down as ‘T.M.Soundararajan – A beggar’.” As he said this his smile widened and broke into laughter. “Millions of fans are what I earned in my life, nothing else. That was the biggest alms, the beggar’s bounty that God granted me.”

Thoguluva Meenatchi Soundararajan was born on 24.3.1923. He was already past 45 when I was born. But even today wherever I go I am still hearing TMS songs played or sung. He is the biggest and most famous of Tamil Playback singers with almost 10,000 songs to his credit. He has a tremendous voice that travels from low bass to the highest notes with utmost ease. TMS, who had dreamt of becoming a classical singer of Carnatic music, had in those days M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar as his idol and ideal. When he began singing he adopted the style of M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar but later moved to his own popular style of rendering.

Beginning his career as a singer in films in 1950, pretty soon he became a star singer. During his time as singer he sang as a playback for all front rank stars. He had a unique ability to recreate the emotions in his songs with a dramatic singing style that adapted itself to the acting style of the star for whom he sang and still match it with the emotions required of the song in the film. Everyone is aware how his voice was employed to make a film star, a leader of the people and the Chief Minister of a state. Even today his voice is serving as an efficacious tool to garner the votes of common man!

T.M.S. was born in a very poor family in Madurai. His father Meenatchi Ayyangar was barely able to eke out enough for two meals a day from his occasional income as a priest. He was also a singer of bhajans. He used to take his son too for his bhajans. Meanwhile TMS cultivated his interest in music by seeing the films and hearing the songs of M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar. TMS who could sing the songs of MKT so marvelously well unfortunately flopped in his studies. But he was least bothered. His only goal was to somehow learn Carnatic music from a good master. He did not have the money for the ‘Guru Dakshina’, the token payment for the master. He pleaded and collected pittances from the rich of his Sowrashtra community and with that small amount started learning music in a formal manner as the disciple of Karaikudi Rajamani Ayyangar. But this did not last beyond a year.

TMS says that in that one year he had learnt from his master clear delineation of notes of Carnatic music, the basics of the classical music, twelve varnams and 48 keerthanas. He also claims that after this learning curve he had no more doubts to be clarified in Carnatic music. He says he learnt on his own through utmost dedicated hard work whatever was left to be learned. With that kind of self-confidence backing him he tried to arrange his own debut show, the Arangaetram. But he did not have the kind of money needed to hire the auditorium and other event expenses. So he started accepting concerts however small the concert money paid to him. When he started singing the songs of M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar in some of his concerts it attracted people in droves to his concerts. This kind of adulation for film music encouraged him to try his hand at film music. He was by then married and badly needed the income to run his household.

Central Studio of Coimbatore was in those days producing important Tamil films. TMS started frequenting Central Studio in search of opportunities. At that time the film Sudarshan was being produced with P.U.Chinnappa in the lead role. He joined the studio as an odd job person. He did all that he was asked to do from cooking, cleaning, serving the male and female artistes to taking care of their children. At the same time he made every effort to attract attention to himself in the hope that those looking for a different voice will one day notice him. Once when a P.U.Chinnappa song was being rehearsed before Subbiah Naidu, the composer, T.M.S. stood just outside and sang a P.U.Chinnappa song in a loud voice. When a person who was there asked ‘Is this boy mad?’ P.U.Chinnappa was supposed to have remarked, “No, he is singing well. He has a good voice. If he continues this practice, he can become a good singer.”

In 1950 Director Sundar Rao Natkarni gave TMS his first chance in a film. The film was Krishna Vijayam. In today’s cinema language we can call it a remix song. It was more or less a copy of the song ‘Radhey Unakku Kopam Aagaadhadi’ in Chenchurutti raga sung by MKT for the film Chintamani in 1936. It had the same tune with lyrics changed to ‘Radhey Nee Ennaivittu Oadadhedi’. Its background score had been altered to a more contemporary score. On his own TMS added a few combination notes and Jathis or dance notes. It took about ten hours to record the song. Hearing that song today, one gets the impression that he was a new version of MKT. This song heralded the arrival of a new singer. TMS sang three other songs as well in the same film.

But the struggle was not over for TMS. He got no further chance. After knocking on many doors at last he got a chance to sing ‘Annamitta Veettiley’ in the film Mandiri Kumari, the same year. G.Ramanathan was the composer, but the song itself was barely noticed. TMS was not mentioned in the titles either. This was followed by the beggar’s song mentioned earlier. Two whole years passed without any further chance to sing. Then in 1952 he sang two duets for the film Valaiyapathi.  But nothing happened even thereafter.

By this time Chennai had become the centre for Tamil films. Studios in other towns lost their importance. A.M.Rajah and Ghantasala had come up as prominent singers. With the little money left in his hand, TMS arrived in Chennai. He visited various producing companies beseeching for a chance. Nobody showed interest in him. The experience of having sung seven songs in Coimbatore and Salem studios did not wash well enough in Chennai.  Money in hand was running out and even eating once a day was becoming difficult.  TMS made up his mind to return to Madurai.

As a last resort he approached K.V.Mahadevan who was working as composer in HMV Company and begged for a chance with tears in his eyes. He sang a select few songs that were K.V.Mahadevan’s favourites while asking for a chance. Mahadevan saw the talent in the young singer and immediately engaged him to sing two devotionals. He also arranged to have the fee for the two songs to be paid to him immediately. He advised TMS to approach AVM Studios for a chance.

The very next day he went to AVM Studio and put in his attendance before the company’s composer Sudarshanam asking for an opportunity. Sudarshanam took him to the AVM owner Meiyappa Chettiar. T.M.S. sang a keerthanai with all its flourishes. Though Chettiar did not display any reaction he asked TMS to sing a comedy song. He sang a comedy song ‘Nalla Kazhudai’ with all his hearty might. That clicked. TMS got the opportunity of singing two similar comedy songs for the film Chellappillai.

In between K.V.Mahadevan called him to sing in chorus for the film Koondukili. The film’s lyricist Thanjai Ramiah Das liked the voice and singing style of TMS and asked Mahadevan to give him a solo song in the film. That was how TMS got to sing the song ‘Konjum Killiyana Pennai’ in the film. This song in the film Koondukili, the only film in which Sivaji and MGR ever acted together is noticeable even today for TMS’ unique rendering style evoking high emotions.

One day as he was aimlessly walking through the streets a car came and stopped alongside. Lyricist Marudakasi got down from the car and accosted TMS. Marudakasi took him to the office of Aruna Films which was producing the movie Thookkuthookki starring Sivaji Ganesan. There were eight songs in the film with G.Ramanathan composing the music. Tiruchi Loganathan, the star singer of the day, was supposed to sing all the eight. Producers asked Loganathan to accept a lower package price as there were eight songs in the film. As he refused to accept the package deal the producers were in the frame of mind to get somebody else to sing the songs. T.M.S, who was in acute financial trouble and on a hungry lookout for a chance, grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

But his travails had a course to run. Sivaji Ganesan, who was basking in the glory of the success that the film Paraasakthi, felt that C.S.Jayaraman who sang for him in that film had the voice that suited him best. Therefore, he wanted that C.S.Jayaraman should sing his songs in Thookkuthookki as well. G.Ramanathan who was already aware of TMS’ talent argued his case. He was of the firm opinion that as most of the songs in the film was folksy in nature the songs will come out well if TMS sang them. But Sivaji was firm on C.S.Jayaraman’s behalf. The goings on depressed TMS who told them: “Just give me three songs. If you don’t like them, I will return to Madurai for ever.”

Thus three songs ‘Sundari Soundari Nirandariye’, ‘Yeraadha Malaithaniley’ and ‘Penngalai Nambaadhey’ came to be recorded. After Sivaji heard the songs he went straight to TMS and apologized. “When they told me that you are singing the song I thought just another singer is going to sing. But I had not expected the songs to come out so well. Please sing rest of the songs as well.” The songs of the film Thookkuthookki which was released in 1954 took TMS’ career in film music towards fame and set it on a firm path. TMS became Sivaji’s voice in films. His voice, pronunciation and rendering style became the talking point of Tamil world.

At that time Pakshiraja Studios of Coimbatore was producing the film Malaikkallan with MGR playing the protagonist. Having heard TMS songs in the film Koondukili MGR had specified that TMS alone should sing for him.  Pakshiraja sent TMS a first class train ticket welcoming him to Coimbatore. On arrival he was accorded a grand welcome and treated like a king.  In the same Pakshiraja Studios TMS had been insulted and rejected many times whenever he went there  pleading for a singing opportunity! After Malaikkallan TMS became the singing voice of MGR as well.

Arrival of TMS saw Tamil film songs getting a permanent makeover. Whether traditional songs or folk songs or western songs, TMS placed emotions upfront in every song of all genres. TMS created in the songs of those times emotional dramas through his eloquently emotive singing style. The light songs, social songs or traditional songs every genre suited him so well. “I have sung all songs given to me with complete devotion of worshipping God.” Depending on the acting style of the actors and the requirements of the characters in the film TMS got his voice to over-emote or underplay in every song to suit the situation.

From the thousands of songs TMS sang I have a long and endless list of favourite songs like ‘Ninaithu Ninaithu Nenjam Urugudhey’, ‘Muthukkalo Kangal’, ‘Kallellam Manikka Kallaguma’, ‘Yennai Yaarendru Enni Enni’, ‘Madhavippon Mayilaal’, ‘Solladi Abiraami’, ‘Poomaalaiyil Oar Malligai’, ‘Thottal Poo Malarum’, ‘Paattum Naaney Bhaavamum Naaney’, ‘Isai Kettal Bhuvi Asaindaadum’, ‘Mullai Malar Meley’, ‘Oaraayiram Paarvaiyiley’, ‘ Maasila Nilavey Nam’, ‘Yaarukkaaga’, ‘Anbae Vaa’, Yaen Pirandhaai Maganey’, ‘Vasantha Mullai Poley’, ‘Yaaradi Nee Moginee’, ‘Paar Magaley Paar’, ‘Muthaitharu Pathithiru Nagai’, ‘Mella Mella Arugil Vandhu’, ‘Naan Yaen Pirandhen’, ‘Malargallaippol Thangai’, ‘Yaar Andha Nilavu’……This is not a list that I can easily complete.

The middle of Seventies signified the end to the highs of TMS’ career, especially after the arrival of Ilaiyaraja.  Though TMS-Ilaiyaraja duo had given hit songs like ‘Andhapurathil Oru Maharani’, ‘Nallavarkellam Satchigal Rendu’, ‘Amma Nee Sumandha Pillai’ and ‘Sindhu Nadhikkaraiyoram’, their combination did not last long. It is said that their relation was fraught with misunderstandings and differences. Be that as it may Ilaiyaraja’s arrival signaled the end of TMS era. It was contended that TMS’ voice did not suit the action of new emerging stars like Rajnikant and Kamal Hasan. In no time at all TMS passed from singing a few oracle songs to no songs at all. It was perhaps coincidental that his last few songs were songs of self-pity like ‘Naan Oru Raasiyilla Raja’ and ‘Enn Kadhai Mudiyum Neramidhu’.

I have been hearing since many years diverse criticisms on TMS songs. That TMS was not able to sing as per the requirements of composers like M.S.Viswanathan is one such criticism. I have only heard that no singer has rendered hundred percent the compositions of M.S.Viswanathan. I think TMS sang those songs in his own inimitable style to gain the attention of listeners. Another criticism is that his classical music-based rendering is flawed. TMS answers this criticism in this fashion: “I was born with music in my blood. I have been singing from a very young age. I have my strong base in carnatic music. That serves me to sing in cinema.” Classical or not, the truth is that his singing style was attractive for his die-hard fans. We must also take note of the fact that he learnt Carnatic music for just one year.

When asked about his songs being classified as MGR songs and Sivaji songs, TMS is humble enough to answer in these words: “Brother, I came here to sing for survival. But I did it with total dedication. When I sing for a hero, I sit for hours noting his talk, pronunciation and style. When I sing I imitate the hero by acting with my voice. That is why my songs are seen as MGR songs and Sivaji songs. There is nothing wrong in it.” This unique rendering style of TMS enchanted simple fans in the belief that actors themselves rendered the songs.

A few people believe that a TMS song involves voice calisthenics and mere mimicry. But as a person who has listened to TMS without seeing most of the films in which the songs were picturised, it does not appear that he changed his voice wholesale for any actor. Regardless of who he sang for, his songs were TMS songs hundred percent. He might have changed the tonal effect by the use of nasal twang, roll of tongue or throat-flexing. But I have never accepted TMS’ claim that he sang for one actor from his midriff, for another from his heart and for someone else from his throat. Voice is that which is produced by air that comes from lungs through the vocal chord.

But this is not a big deal for me. As already mentioned I have not seen most of the films that TMS sang for. I do not lose much sleep over whether his voice suits the actors or not. I have been enjoying his songs without the benefit of those visuals. In fact later when I saw some of those the song scenes on television, I was extremely disappointed with most of them.  The visuals those songs evoked in my mind were far superior to the actual visuals in the films. Even though film music is a part of cinema, I have always believed that film music is something that can stand on its own merits as another genre of music without the support of visuals.

In my assessment the most important feature of TMS songs is the clarity and consistency of the way the emotions are expressed. If a song has exaggerated emotions, it is uniform exaggeration over the entire length of the song. If the song portrays soft sensitivity, the entire song will display that pleasant under-stated elegance. TMS as a singer had never emoted more or less than what was required of the song.

TMS has been living now in Chennai for many years in practical oblivion. There was news that he was appointed as the President of Tamilnadu Music and Drama Academy in 2002. Then came the shocking news that on 22nd June of 2003 he attempted suicide by drinking acid. It was said that he made the attempt suddenly because of acute mental depression. But this was denied by his family. They explained that he drank floor cleaning acid under the impression that it was cough syrup!

TMS used to say: “Brother, I sing with the mien of a lion.” As I write this, I am watching on YouTube a home video somebody had taken that shows TMS attempting to sing his ‘Deivam Iruppadhu Yenge’ in a high pitch. He could not sing any of the notes properly. That disappointment showed on his face. He was in considerable pain as he accepts the present reality that he is unable to sing. “I still have the voice. I have the desire to sing. The spirit is there. But the flesh is weak. I am old now.” TMS made a stubborn effort to sing at least one line of the high pitched song properly. Breathless, the face reddened and eyes clouded. 

A lot of loud chatter could be heard in that house. Nobody seemed to be paying any attention to him. Nobody cared that a star singer who touched millions and stayed with exalted fame and felicity was now struggling with the lows of disappointment, at the loss of his art to his old age. I could not suppress my own tears. As I closed my eyes, the faces of Annachi, Dennis and Mani came floating in on my mental screen. Those were the faces of millions of people who drew their hopes to live from the songs of T M Soundararajan.