Whether it was melodies, lyrics loaded with political statements or philosophy, folksy tunes, or a raga-based song, T.M. Soundararajan’s (1923-2013) singing was unparalleled. His voice captured the nuances and majesty of the Tamil language completely. By B. KOLAPPAN

THE Tamil film music industry lost three outstanding personalities in less than two months—playback singer P.B. Sreenivas passed away on April 13; music director T.K. Ramamurthy who had teamed up with M.S. Viswanthan to give numerous hit songs died three days later; and on May 25, T.M. Soundararajan, popularly known as TMS, died in Chennai at the age of 90.

Although singers and music directors have enriched Tamil film music with their immense contributions, TMS alone can be described as the quintessential Tamil playback singer. He had a robust voice, and his full-throated singing perfectly suited the two mega stars of yesteryear, M.G. Ramachandran, or MGR, and Sivaji Ganesan.

“Though the film world had travelled a great distance from the days of P.U. Chinnappa and M.K. Thiyagaraja Bhagavathar, both actors-cum-singers, the remnants of the past continued to hang heavy on the generation that succeeded them. TMS arrived at that period and soon became indispensable to any music director. However, it was Viswanathan-Ramamurthy who evolved a middle path and exploited TMS’ talent to the maximum,” said film director Suka.

A versatile singer, TMS modulated his voice so that a listener could easily identify the star, whether it was MGR or Sivaji, from the songs without even watching the movie. He was a thorough professional, never once letting his deep faith in religion come in the way of singing for MGR, who sought to articulate the ideas of the rationalist Dravidian movement in his films.

MGR was meticulously building an image through his films for a future political launch, and TMS’ voice effectively supported the actor’s ambition. Lyricists penned songs packed with political messages for MGR’s films and TMS lent his voice to capture the imagination of the masses.

On the other hand, Sivaji Ganesan, known for method acting and experimenting with new roles, could not succeed in politics even though he raised the art of lip-sync in song sequences to a new level.

Initially, Sivaji Ganesan was said to be averse to the idea of TMS as his playback singer. When TMS was signed up by Aruna Films to render the songs for the Sivaji starrer Thooku Thooki for a salary of Rs.2,000, Sivaji Ganesan is said to have objected to the introduction of a new singer.

“He wanted only Chidambaram S. Jayaraman, who was his playback singer in Parasakthi, his first film, and could not imagine anyone else in his place. A crestfallen TMS said he would render the songs to the best of his ability, but if Sivaji Ganesan did not like them he would not press further. TMS did record the songs, and when Sivaji listened to the takes, he was immensely pleased with the result. The two later proved to be a terrific combination,” said Vamanan, a historian of Tamil film music and biographer of TMS. After listening to TMS’ singing, MGR sought him out as his playback singer, and thus another actor-singer combination was born after Malaikkallan.

TMS had acted in a few films, which include Arunagirinathar, Pattinatthar, Kallum Kaniyagum and Kavi Kalamegam. The song “Muthaitharu” set in raga Shanmugapriya for Arunagirinathar remains a playback singer’s envy even today. He played the role of a beggar in Devaki and sang “Theeratha thuiariley”. TMS became a quintessential Tamil playback singer with a voice that captured the nuances and majesty of the Tamil language. Unlike many other singers who won fame in other languages, TMS could not replicate his success in Tamil in those languages.

Humble background

Like many well-known Tamil singers whose mother tongue is not Tamil, Thoguluva Meenakshi Iyengar Soundararajan belonged to the Sourastrian community, whose members had migrated from Gujarat to Madurai over the centuries. He was born in 1923 and was named after Kallazhagar, or Soundararaja Perumal, the presiding deity of the Vaishnava temple in Madurai. His father was a small-time purohit (priest) and was eking out a living by performing poojas and singing bhajans. The family languished in poverty. Young TMS could not afford a monthly fee of Rs.15 to pursue his lessons in classical music. He would render the songs of M.K. Thiyagaraja Bhagavathar, his favourite actor-singer, in return for pakoda and coffee. His singing talent soon caught the attention of a few rich men of his community who agreed to meet his tuition expenses.

TMS learnt classical music from Karaikudi Rajamani Iyengar, a relative of Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar of Ramanathapuram. Srinivasa Iyengar was the guru of another Carnatic music exponent, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. “My parents were too poor to support my passion,” he has said in his biography, TMS—Oru Pann-pattu Sarithiram, penned by Vamanan. TMS gave his debut classical music performance when he was 23 and a father of two children.

TMS left Madurai in search of a career and joined the Royal Talkies in Coimbatore for a monthly salary of Rs.50. But a break in the film industry eluded him. It was only in 1950 that he got a chance to sing in Tamil films. His first song was “Radhey nee yennai vitte pogathadi” for Krishna Vijayam. It was an imitation of “Radhey unakku kobam aagathady” sung by Thiyagaraja Bhagavathar. He sang four songs for the film. Later, he was to render many songs for films produced by Salem Modern Theatres, a pioneering production house.

Although he had rendered a song for the MGR-starrer Mandhirikumari in 1950 itself (the song “Annamitta veetiley”), his first song for MGR was “Yethanai kaalamthaan yemaatruvar indha naatile” for Malaikkallan (1954). He was forced to leave Modern Theatres after the management brought in singer A.M. Raja and Ghantasala, who had already established a name for themselves in the film world.

TMS left for Chennai filled with hope and a handful of gramophone records. He visited all the studios in search of an opportunity. In those days of struggle he had to be content with just one meal a day. At one point, a dejected TMS even decided to leave Chennai. But the tide turned when music director K.V. Mahadevan gave him an opportunity to sing two devotional songs for a payment of Rs.80. Mahadevan asked him to approach AVM Studios, where Sudharsanam was the music director. TMS rendered two humorous songs for “Danal” K.A. Thangavelu for the film Chellapillai.

The real break came when he was booked for Thooku Thooki. When the producer could not convince singer Tiruchi Loganathan to accept a rate, someone suggested a new singer from Madurai as an alternative. All the three songs—“Pengalai nambathey”, “Sundari Soundari” and “Yeraatha malaithaniley”—announced the arrival of TMS in the film world in a big way. The film changed forever the life of the aspiring singer and the quietude of the neighbourhood of Alwarpet where he stayed in a one-room pad. The place shot to fame almost overnight with the approach roads crammed with cars of film producers.

MGR and TMS

Although it was impossible to imagine another playback singer for MGR in the place of TMS, the former Chief Minister introduced S.P. Balasubramanyam, or SPB, in Adimaipen. The song “Aayiram nilavey vaa” launched SPB. But TMS was the choice for singing “Yemaatradhey, yemaradhey”, a song with a strong social message, for MGR in that film. “MGR should be thanked for introducing a fine singer to the Tamil film music. But it also helped me increase my rate,” TMS’ biography records.

The relationship between MGR and TMS was always on a roller-coaster. Some of the brilliant songs that took MGR’s popularity to new heights came from films such as Nadodi Mannan, Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban, Netru Indru Naalai, Idhayakkani and Neethikku Thalaivangu, and TMS was the playback singer in all these films. He even sang for MGR’s last film, Madurayai Meeta Sundarapandiyan.

Whether it was romantic melodies, lyrics loaded with political statements or philosophy, a simple folk tune or a classical raga-based song, TMS was unparalleled in rendering them. His high-pitched voice captured the majesty of the Tamil language, but TMS could also render duets that evoked an intensity of emotion beyond imagination. If “Ammaadi, ponnuku thangamanasu”, “Yerikaraimelay poravale ponmayile” and “Thaalaiyam poomudichu” had the fine elements of folk music, “Isai kettal puvi asainthadum” (Kalyani), “Paatum naane bhavamum naane” (Gowri Manohari), “Sinthanai seimanamey” (Kalyani), “Deivathin theraduthu” (Chakravakam), “Amma, nee sumantha pillai”, “Vasantha mullai” (Charukesi) and “Vadivelu mayilum thunai” (Ragamalika) are examples of his talent in classical singing. His duets are too many to list here.

The haunting “Aahaya panthalilay ponnuujal aduthama”, “Nee yenenna sonnalum” (a fine song in Bhagesri raga), “Oruvar meethu oruvar saainthu” and all the songs in films directed by Bhim Singh bear testimony to his calibre as a melody singer.

While P.B. Sreenivas with an extremely pleasing voice had to step aside for the new crop of singers, TMS’ dominance in the film world was unshaken. He rendered “Annakiliye unnai theduthey” for music director Ilayaraja’s first film Annakili. Ilayaraja continued to bank on him for many other fine melodies such as “Anthapuraithil oru maharani” (Deepam), “Sindunathikarai oram” (Nallathoru Kudumbam), and “Amma nee sumantha pillai (Annai Oru Aalayam). Director T. Rajender also used him as a playback singer in his films, and gave him the songs, “Naan oru raasi illa raja” and “Noolum illai vaalum illai”.

TMS’ “Iravu varum pagalum varum” for Jaisankar, the “James Bond” of Tamil cinema, was an instant hit. He also sang for other Tamil film heroes of yesteryear, including S.S. Rajendran, Gemini Ganesan, A.V.M. Rajan, S.A. Ashokan, and later even for Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth.

TMS excelled in singing lyrics that had a philosophical touch. When lyricist Kannadasan appeared on the big screen, he lip-synced for TMS’ rendering of “Paramasivan kazhuthil irunthu” and “Oru koppaiyilay yen kudiyiruppu”. Other songs that have the TMS stamp are “Yaar antha nilavu”, “Yengay nimmathi”, “Pallakku vaanga ponein”, “Veeduvari uravu” and “Satti suttathada”.

In 1989, he rendered all the songs for actor Sathyaraj in Thainadu. Along with P. Susheela he sang the “Tamil Thai Vaazhthu” (a musical tribute to “Mother Tamil”) composed by M.S. Viswanathan. He was one of the singers who lent his voice to “Semmozhiyaana Thamizh Mozhiyaam”, the theme song for the World Classical Tamil Conference in 2010, composed by A.R. Rahman. That probably was his last song.

TMS’ devotional renditions are a genre by themselves. “Karpagavalli nin porpadangal pidithen” sung in praise of Karpagambal, the female deity of Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore, “Mannanaalum Tiruchenduril mannaven” on Murugan, the presiding deity of Tiruchendur, “Ullam uruguthaiya” also on Murugan, and “Pulangulal kodutha mongilgale” on Krishna remain popular even today. Although TMS sang for many music directors, he always spoke with gratitude of G. Ramanathan, who he said was instrumental in shaping his voice and capturing its nuances.