Philip Francis: The Music We Never Heard

Whenever I visited the home of Sabira, daughter of that eternal marvel of a composer of Malayalam film music, Baburaj, I had felt that the house and the people within were all like a Baburaj song. I always felt that the family was like a love-filled Baburaj song of sincerity, truthfulness and simplicity. On a rainy day they told me about Philip Francis, the musician. He was a person who loved the songs of Baburaj like they were the very breath of his life. At that time I only thought of him as another singer among thousands who worshipped Baburaj. But when I got to listen to the songs sung by Philip Francis in an album titled ‘Baburajinte Swarabhedangal (Variations of Baburaj)’ I felt that nobody else had sung those Ghazals of Baburaj that every Malayalee knew well. Philip Francis, the musician was not another one among thousands of singers. His was the rarest among rare musicians!

Who was this Philip Francis really? We will see this personality wearing many hats and find it hard to define him. Let us see. He was the best Ghazal singer ever from Kerala. He was the only real Tabla Ustad with a national stature from Kerala. He was India’s Cultural Representative to the Republic of Guyana, a Latin American nation. He was a great instrumentalist who was a self-taught maestro of Guitar, Harmonium, Keyboard and Conga Drum. He was a musician equally adept at western classical and Indian classical music styles. He was one of Kerala’s finest church choir masters. He was the music director of many heart-melting devotional songs. He was an assistant to Malayalam film music composer Ravindran in a few movies. He was the one who scored the enchanting background music of the film Oridathu Oru Puzhayundu. He was the composer of the very many mellifluous light music songs that were broadcast from Trichur Radio Station of Kerala. He was chosen by the citizenry of Trichur to be counted among 50 all-time great personalities of Trichur. That he was a rare multi-faceted music genius who made music the language of his heart and spent every day and night of his life steeped in musicality just about sums up Philip Francis.

As I said Philip was the best Ghazal singer to have come out of Kerala. A pacifying voice most suited for Ghazal, an unparalleled temperament that acknowledges the sovereignty of music and a well-modulated singing style that concentrated only the mood and emotion of the song were the stand-out aspects of Philip’s Ghazals. As the devoted fan of such great Ghazal singers as Mehdi Hassan, Ghulam Ali, Hariharan and Jagjit Singh, Philip incorporated many outstanding aspects of their singing style in his own style. With a unique rendering of over 150 great Urdu Ghazals he made them indelibly his own. Apart from these he rendered many songs that Baburaj in an entirely Ghazal format. One should listen to Philip’s Ghazal renditions of Baburaj’s eternal songs like ‘Innale Mayangumbol’, ‘Kadale Neelakkadale’, ‘Kavilathe Kanneer Kandu’, ‘Nadigalil Sundari Yamuna’, ‘Oru Kochu Swapnathin Chirakumaay’, ‘Paavada Prayathil’, ‘Suryakanthi’, ‘Surumayezhuthiya Mizhigale’, ‘Thaliritta Kinakkal’, ‘Thaedunnathaare Soonyathayil’ and ‘Vaasantha Panchami Naalil’. Listening to them in Philip’s mellifluous voice makes us feel that this must be the way Baburaj would have dreamed of hearing his own songs!

It was through his extraordinary felicity in playing the Tabla that Philip Francis became Ustad Philip Francis. He learnt playing Tabla at the feet of Ustad Fayaz Khan of Delhi Gharana, the oldest Tabla Gharana, staying in Delhi as his disciple for 6 years. Were he to concentrate only the Tabla, Philip Francis had both the genius and the felicity with the instrument to have become an Ahmed Jan Tirakhva or Alla Rakha or a Zakir Hussain. Fayaz Khan had on a later date commented that Philip was among his most talented and felicitous disciples of all time. Fayaz Khan impressed upon Indian Council for Cultural Relations functioning under the Ministry of External Affairs of Government of India about the considerable abilities of Philip Francis. This led to his appointment as the Cultural Attaché of India to the Republic of Guyana, a nation in South America with the people of Indian origin almost forming a majority.

Playback singers like S.Janaki, Jayachandran, Minmini, Srinivas, Gayathri and Pradeep Somasundaram were all Philip’s who had worked with him. Malayalam film industry’s favourite playback singer S.Janaki had said: “Philip was a musician the whole world should have known about.” Jayachandran’s take was more specific: “It is rare for a person to talented both as vocalist and instrumentalist. Philip was one such rare musician. Philip was very much the person that today’s music, which has been losing its musicality, needed.” Philip’s music was both admired and encouraged by such elites of Trichur’s cultural scene as Dr.S.P. Ramesh, Dr.Pisharody Chandran and the yesteryear music composer Pradeep Singh.

In spite of all this, how did Philip Francis end up as an artiste not very well known outside of Trichur? It is tough to put one’s finger on the exact reason for this sorry turn of events. Probably a look at the life and times of the person that was Philip will yield some idea. Philip was born on 5th November of 1964, the last of five children in a lower middle class family in Trichur. All the members of the family were musically inclined. Philip’s childhood inspiration for music came from the famous numbers of Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Baburaj, invariably sung by his elder brothers. Among them Rajan Francis went on to become Kerala’s famous sound recordist. Church became his heaven because of the musical instruments there and these became his play mates. That was the school where he became the self-taught maestro of many instruments. Philip was more interested in music than in the formal education.

By the time he was 15 he had started playing the Conga Drum for light music troupes. In the 1970s, Voice of Trichur was one of the most famous light music troupes in Kerala. It was the favourite troupe of all the famous playback singers of the time in Kerala. When Johnson, a playmate from his childhood joined Voice of Trichur as the guitarist, Philip too arrived there as the Conga player. Then followed many happy years of stage music programmes all over Kerala, all over India and the foreign shores as well. Philip, who spent all his time trying to master some musical instrument or the other, was ever on an intellectual tour to arrive at the yet unseen frontiers of music. And when his elder sister, permanently settled in Ahmadabad, started sending him cassettes of Ghazals sung by the maestro Ghulam Ali, he was at once smitten by this romantic format of music starting him on a search for Ghazals. Philip, who was till then concentrating on musical instruments, was set on the path to becoming a Ghazal singer.

With the sorrow of a failed love affair weighing his heart, Philip left Kerala in 1990. He was introduced to Ustad Fayaz Khan in Delhi who accepted him as his disciple. Simultaneously he learnt Hindustani classical music by joining Gandharva Maha Vidyalaya, a hallowed institution established 55 years earlier by such doyens of Hindustani music as Pundit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and Pundit Vinayak Rao Patwardhan. Philip paid his fees for this formal music education by teaching others to play the Guitar and the Keyboard, which he had not learnt through formal education! Philip is remembered by Ustad Fayaz Khan and the then principal of Gandharva Maha Vidyalaya, Vijaya Varma as a ‘personification of hard work, humility and blemish less humaneness’.

Philip returned to Kerala in 1996 as an Ustad of the Tabla. But his restive musical mind was too disquieted to allow him to concentrate on Tabla as it was treated as a mere accompaniment! He believed that he will be a huge success as a Ghazal singer, a vocation that few dared to enter. Unfortunately for Philip Ghazal held the attention only a few fans in Kerala and he could not find a purchase there. Sad fact was that Kerala neither recognized nor found any use for his rare music genius and his felicity with instruments not found in others. It was a time of crisis and Philip had to restrict himself to such mundane parts as teaching music in the church and instructing children on playing the music instruments. But amidst all these he earned the love and affection of every student he taught and left the indelible imprint of his personality on their minds.

It was during these days that he worked as an assistant to composer Ravindran besides composing many songs for All India Radio, Trichur. He had roamed around in Chennai and Mumbai with the expectation that some opportunities will turn up. But Philip was a musician innocent of any trade tricks or the capacity to get the opportunities he deserved. Philip was a pure artiste who could not even collect the fees due to him for the work done. Yet he was optimistic that he will, one day be recognized and that he will succeed. But no such thing happened.

Then came the invitation to go to the Republic of Guyana. There he organized and presented many cultural shows for the general public of that country as well as specific programs for people of Indian origin in that country. He sang Ghazals and played Tabla. I remember reading an article on the website of Guyana Chronicle about Philip’s Tabla concert held on 3rd December 2003. I had the good fortune of listening to the recording of the event in a concert hall in Guyana. I heard the endless ovation after Philip’s rendition of Baburaj’s ‘Oru Pushpam Mathram’ in Desh raag and ‘Thaedunnadhaare Soonyathayil’ in Raageshri raag, I felt again that music has no language. I remember too, reading Philip’s comment that for him music meant Bach, Beethoven and Baburaj. This told me that Philip could effortlessly transcend the borders of wide and varied systems of music.

Philip had been allotted a bungalow to stay in and a luxury car to travel in, in Guyana. But constant call of Trichur was irresistible for him. He carried the nostalgia for Trichur like a calling card. Philip longed to live in Trichur, his own soil, where people recognized him rather than live in a land where nobody knew him even when it came with all creature comforts. He would come back on leave whenever he could. On one such homecoming he married Vidhu, a well educated girl. He returned to Guyana with his wife and travelled to other countries like Trinidad, Canada and America. In many places that he visited he left memories of ‘Ghazal Mehfils’ that he held there. On 23rd December of 2005 Philip had a son born to him in USA. He named his son Johann after his greatest favourite in Western classical music, Johann Sebastian Bach. When his term of appointment in Guyana ended, ignoring the possibility of getting it extended, he returned to Trichur.

After his return he organized a huge national festival of music called ‘Clarion 2007’ in Trichur. Musicians arriving from all over India presented on the festival forum diverse programs in Western classical, Hindustani classical, Carnatic music, Folk music and Jazz. Doyens of music like Philip’s Guru Ustad Fayaz Khan and Sarangi Ustad Liaquat Ali Khan participated. It was a huge cultural success for Trichur. But it was a cruel blow to Philip’s financial standing as well. Philip made many brave attempts to come out of the deep financial hole he was in. Nothing succeeded. During this time he released a few devotional albums and composed music for the film Oridathu Oru Puzhayundu.

As far as his personal life was concerned, it was a torrential rain of problems. Problems began to mount from the time he arrived from the comforts abroad to the below par life in Trichur. Indebtedness, financial dependence on whims of others took their toll. The sad truth was that even those close to him had no idea of his greatness. Our social value system, which prescribes high education, employment in highest echelons and a guaranteed and enviable monthly income, can be very cruel to a sensitive artiste.

Philip was on a listless journey with friends, Ghazal mehfils, church music rehearsals and recordings. But these brought nothing tangible for his problems. Things came to a pass where meeting daily needs became an uphill task. Having boxed himself into an intolerable corner, he decided to seek better fortune abroad again. This time he intended to travel to Gulf countries as a Ghazal singer or a music teacher.

It was 26th February 2008. Philip had recorded a song for All India Radio, Trichur. After the recording he had started on a visit to see a few of his friends riding on the back of a disciple’s bike. That bike collided with a bike coming the other way, just in front of the compound of the church where he had spent considerable part of his life and learnt the early lessons in music. When Philip fell from the bike his head had hit the edge of the cement platform. Philip sat up saying ‘I am alright’ but fell on his back the next moment. Somewhere in its depth, the brain had been damaged. Philip did not recover consciousness. After five days of struggle with Death, Philip was pronounced dead. Philip was then 44 years old.

Philip should have been famous all over the world. But he passed away unknown, so disquietingly anonymous. Philip Francis, the genius who knew that love and music are not two different things, an artiste who never demanded a price for his music and a humane person who preserved his smile professing music and brotherhood among all life’s sorrows remains just a memory to those few who knew and cherished him. Even as Philip rests in peace, the minds of people who knew of Philips, who had heard his song at least once, will keep resonating with the lines of that honest, humble Baburaj song:  
In the end you may become dust unto dust
but the world will still warm to the purity of your love

My mind goes to a Ghazal Philip had sung:
Who says that love does not survive on earth?
Unblemished love slumbers in peace, in graveyards.