Minmini – Times of a Firefly

So small
Yet for one moment in the twilight
Its sparkle triumphs over all stars
To disappear forever

It is unlikely that there will be an Indian who has not heard the song ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ from Mani Ratnam’s film Roja even once. It garnered hitherto unheard of popularity among film music buffs because of its new format, its simple tune that got everyone’s ears at the very first hearing, its fine music score and the quality of recording that brought out every note with a clarity which never heard before in Indian film music. But not only that, the lilt in that female singer’s voice that embraced you in its desires and the lively rendering style so impacted the listeners that it remains a much appreciated song about the last twenty years.

Everyone knows that Minmini sang ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ which was the first song of A R Rahman who is today considered among towering personalities of world film music. When Rahman became famous all over the world, the song ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ as his debut song which is still among his most important songs became world famous as well. Today it has become a song that is most enthusiastically rendered even by Americans and Chinese, albeit with their quaint pronunciation. Many may even know that Minmini sang the equally famous Hindi and Telugu versions of the song as well.  But today no one pauses to ponder what happened to the once famous singer who with just one song had garnered fame equal to that of A R Rahman. That is fame for you, here today and gone tomorrow.

Many thought ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ to be the first song of Minmini because of the immense attention it drew. But Minmini had been singing in films for five years before the film Roja was released. Her first film song was for the Malayalam film ‘Swagatham’ released in 1988. But her name was not Minmini, then. It was just Mini. Contrary to what many believed, it was not A R Rahman who introduced her to Tamil films, it was Ilayaraja. And it was he who changed her name to Minmini from Mini.  Minmini’s first Tamil song found a place in the film Meera that was released at the beginning of the year 1992.

Minmini sang songs of diverse genres but the way she sang some of her songs in classical Carnatic ragas is unbelievable. She had never learnt Carnatic music! Leave alone Classical music she never even learnt the basic notes starting with sa, ri, ga, ma. Without knowing the positions of any note on the scale, she sang raga-based songs flawlessly. Apart from her many songs in Malayalam, songs in Tamil like ‘Manamagale Manamagale’ in Raga Shuddha Saaveri and ‘Maasaru Ponne Varuga’ in Raga Maayamalava Gowla composed by Ilayaraja for the film Devar Magan are great examples of her felicitous rendering. Even today, after all her experience of singing raga-based songs, Minmini cannot sing any classical piece of music. Nor can she identify any raga!

Before she became well-known, the Malayalam composer Vidhyadharan had once called Minmini to render the track of a devotional song to be sung by S.Janaki. Before instructing her on the tune of the track, the composer asked her whether she knew Classical music. When she said ‘No’ he was beside himself with anger and shouted at his assistant for bringing her in spite of his clear instruction to bring a singer who had trained in Carnatic music. He asked Minmini to leave. But musicians present there were already aware of what Minmini was capable of. They convinced Vidhyadharan sufficiently to give her a chance to rehearse. But when he heard Minmini sing he maintained that it was a lie to say that Minmini did not know Carnatic music!

Like this the music and life of Minmini was stranger than fiction. She quickly gained the attention of people like a firefly (Minmini in Tamil means firefly) shining and gaining attention with a scintillating brilliance and then disappeared from the scene even faster. The birth place of Rosily called as Mini was a village called Keezhmaadu in Aluva area near Kochi. Mini had at the age of five displayed a rare singing talent and before long had won many state-wide awards. She became famous through stage shows and devotional tapes. But her home was without electricity, radio, a cassette player or a phone!

Mini was born last of four girls in a poor family in 1970. All the four girls had the singing talent. Her father Joseph was a part-time employee in an Aluminium company. But it was not often that he attended his work. He was a music-lover. Mother was Theresa. She had that rare singing felicity that enabled her to recollect the film songs that she had learnt in Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam from her childhood and to impart them to her four girls.

Mini started singing at church functions and soon graduated to the position of prime stage singer of such famous music troupes of Kochi as Kala Bhavan and C.A.C. As many of her cassettes became famous she became, by eighties, quite a popular singer in Kerala. She used to receive her invitations for stage shows and recordings at a phone in the nearby panchayat office! In spite of the pay being poor, she kept singing day and night.

Mini was having Asha Bhonsle and S.Janaki as her idols and following their rendering styles. Philip Francis, an extraordinary musician living in Trichur at that time, introduced to Mini the world of Ghazals. Mehdi Hasan, Ghulam Ali and Jagjit Singh sang to her from the cassettes gifted by him and both enriched and mellowed her singing style. Tours undertaken for her endless music programs in Kerala, other parts of India and abroad and continuous music recording engagements affected her school studies. In spite of getting admission to study classical music at Kerala’s famous R.L.V. Music College she could not find the time to join there.

She sang her first film song at the age of eighteen. During this time she sang with Yesudas, Jayachandran and S.P.Balasubramaniam on music shows.  One day Ilayaraja expressed his concern on the scarcity of good new female singers to singer Jayachandran, he strongly suggested that he should try Mini. Ilayaraja bade Jayachandran to bring her immediately. Jayachandran then left this message for Mini at the office of C.A.C, the music troupe with which Mini was singing at the time. Not wanting to lose their best singer, they never told Mini about it!

When a few months later Mini learned of this, she could not believe that a great opportunity was hers. Finally when Mini entered Ilayaraja’s recording studio at Prasad studios, Chennai ,her idol Asha Bhonsle was singing, standing amidst hundreds of music instruments and musicians, the song ‘Panivizhum Maalayil Pazhamudhir Cholayil’ for the film Meera. A clearly flustered Mini, who pinched herself to see if it was all for real, was asked by Ilayaraja to sing a song to demonstrate her ability. Within the hour Mini had become Minmini and was standing at the same spot stood on earlier by her idol Asha Bhonsle .She sang a song for the same film: ‘Love Enna Lovvu’.

Ilaiyaraja continued to give Minmini some very sweet numbers. ‘Oru Maalai Chandran Malarai Theduthu Malai Adivaarathile’ is a good example. This was picturised in the film Unnai Vaazhthi Paadukiren. Minmini sang this song with S.P.B. with finer expressions. This was especially evident in the way she had rendered lines like ‘Kulir Veesum Maasiyile…Oru Degam Vendhadhu Mogatheeyinile’.

Minmini has sung many such songs for Ilayaraja with great felicity. One such honeyed rendering with Ilayaraja composing is ‘Raathriyil Paadum Paattu’ sung with Malaysia Vasudevan and Arulmozhi for the film Aranmanai Kili. Minmini was able match Malaysia Vasudevan note for note in bringing out the fine and tender sentiments of the song. One can see Minmini’s standout talent in the song ‘Adi Poonkuyile Poonkuyile Kaelu’ of the same film when she renders the line ‘Kukkoo Kukkoo Paattu Sokki Sokki Poachu’ in the charanam portion set over a complex beat. Then there is the duet song ‘Muthaalamma Muthaalamma’ in the film Maappillai Vandhaachu where her rendering stands head and shoulders above that of co-singer Mano.

Minmini was great when she rendered for the film Chinna Maappillai with clarity and felicity the song ‘Kannmanikkul Chinna Chinna Minminigal Minna Minna’, which includes her name also in the lyric, a song that was so totally western. The same Minmini went on to sing for the film Enga Thambi the song ‘Malaiyoram Maankuruvi Maavilaiyil Paattezhudhi’ set to Kiravani Raga with flawless fidelity to the Raga strains in the composition. While she conveyed the yearnings of love so well in the high pitched song ‘Anbe Anbe Vaa’ in the film Yezhai Jaadhi she expressed a sensuality in the folksy dance number ‘Kurrukku Paathaiyilay Marrichi Vazhiyil Ninnu’ for the film I Love India that speaks of her versatility. Just listen to the line ‘Onna Paarkarrappo Ullaara Onnu Varudhayya, Neeyum Parisam Pottu Orasi Paarka Varuviya’ to feel the heat of the sensuality!

Minmini has sung the song ‘Kuthaala Kaaththukku Maththaalam Ethukku' with Malaysia Vasudevan in the film Chinna Devan. At the end of the first charanam Malaysia Vasudevan had woven magic with an extraordinary rendering of the word ‘Maane’ at the end of the line ‘Ini Thaangaadhamma Maane’. Minmini riposted with a brilliant enumeration of Malaysia Vasudevan’s bit in the last line of next charanam ‘Adhu Pola Yogam Yedhu’ with the word ‘Yedhu’. ‘Kothumani Muthumani’ number of the same film was a brilliant illustration of possibilities of Minmini’s voice and her unique ability in imparting unique sensuality to songs. 'Kuthaalakkuyile Kuthaalakkuyile Ukkaandhu Pesalaama’ from Thirumathi Planisamy is another brilliant song from the Minmini Malaysia duo.

Minmini has sung less than ten songs under A R Rahman’s baton. After the path breaking ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ she sang ‘Chithirai Nilavu Chelaiyil Vandhadhu’ with Jayachandran for the film Vandicholai Chinnaraasu. Sensuality conveyed in a subdued tone was the song’s undertone. Minmini had barely a couple of lines in the emotional number ‘Yeduda Andha Sooriya Melam’ of the film Pudhiya Mannargal but her lively rendering made her stand out. This song, which she sang with SPB and others, is a gem from among A R Rahman’s great creations. There is a very special pitch shift at the end of this song but it went unnoticed. It was only when he very demonstratively resorted to pitch shift in the ‘Humma Humma’ number of Mani Ratnam’s film Bombay that everyone noticed it.

Minmini sang with Sunanda the female version of the hit number ‘Ennavale Adi Ennavale’ for the film Kaadhalan, ‘Indiraiyo Ival Sundariyo’. The lively Karuthamma number ‘Pachaikkilli Paadum Ooru’ became famous both because of the unique beat that consisted of cocks’ crowing sound and Minmini’s ability to render a song well in husky tone. The arrangement of backing vocals of the song ‘Raasaathee Enn Usiru Ennadhilla’ from the film Thiruda Thiruda is a great example fine backing vocal arrangements. It was rendered by Minmini. The ‘Sambo Sambo’ number set in Spanish music mode for the film Pudhiya Mugam and the sensuous number from the film Gentleman, ‘Paarkaadhe Paarkaadhe Panchaangathai Paarkaadhe’ (an adaptation from Osibisa number ‘Kilelay Kilelay’) were the last songs that Minmini sang for A R Rahman.

Even though she had sung in many languages, it was only in Tamil that Minmini was given maximum singing opportunities. She received only a few chances to sing in her own mother tongue. Even among these few chances a few of the more popular numbers were under Ilaiyaraja’s composition. The ‘Kaakkaa Poocha’ number from the film Pappayude Swantham Appoos is an example. The same song in the Tamil film Enn Poove Pon Poove, ‘Kaakkaa Poonai’, was also sung by Minmini.

‘Ee Vazhiyay Nila Villakkum Yendhi’ under Mohan Sithara’s composition is one of those rare songs that brought out so well the ability of Minmini’s rendering style to expressive singing. ‘Sowparnikamrutha Veechigal’ for the film Kizhakku Unarum Pakshi  with Ravindran as composer, ‘Neela Raavil Innu Ninte’ and ‘Oonnjaalurangi’ for Lohitha Das film Kudumbasametham with Johnson as composer, ‘Kannaadiyatril Avall Kanaga Nilaavu’ for the film Vaachaalam again with Johnson as composer and ‘Paadhiraavaaya Neram’ for the film Vietnam Colony with S.Balakrishnan as composer about sums up Minmini’s Malayalam film songs worth mention!

After the huge success of ‘Chinna Chinna Aasai’ Minmini became a very busy playback singer recording furiously at about eight songs a day on average days, going up to twelve songs on some days. She was participating practically non-stop on the stage music shows and recording of devotionals. Then one day, in a Tamil Film Star Nite held in London where many stars of Tamil Film world took part, as Minmini was singing her voice suddenly ceased altogether. She was not even able to speak for many months after that!

Minmini’s voice was more or less cultured to resemble that of S.Janaki. Her voice got patterned unconsciously from her childhood by singing songs of S.Janaki. Apparently such voices do not have the recuperative ability of one’s own natural voice, when subjected to the strain of continuous singing. It is possible that excessive pressure exerted on vocal chords by years of continuous singing had caused a sudden snap in her voice. Expert treatment and therapy restored her speech and to some extend her singing ability. But that old magic was gone from Minmini’s voice and singing.

Minmini’s wedding with the keyboard artiste Joy had been fixed when she was working furiously shuttling between recording theatres and music shows. Joy married Minmini who was slipping into depression because of her inability to sing. Composers who loved her singing came forward to book her and record her song line by line and word by word, if necessary. But Minmini stopped singing on her own as she had lost confidence in her own capacity to sing. She spent all her money on treatments and therapies. Years rolled by. But when she regained the confidence to sing again, there was nobody to call her.

Having lost her all, with no means of living in Chennai, Minmini had gone back to Kerala many years ago. Today, with her own two teenagers to raise, Minmini is living with her husband in Kochi, running her own school of music. She claims that all her problems with the voice are now past and that she can sing like before. But, now there is none to invite her for recordings.