The last of a kind

Posted on May 27, 2013


A tribute to TM Soundararajan, the voice of a generation.

To know why TM Soundararajan, TMS, was the last representative of a certain kind of playback singer, you’ll first have to consider that he rose to fame in an era where not everyone could become a playback singer – not even if you had a good voice and could sing on key and hold your breath over long melismatic lines. Those were just the basic considerations, the equivalent of an actor’s ability to remember dialogue and know where to stand in relation to the furniture. Those days – the 1950s, the 1960s – a singer was chosen because he could pronounce, because he could project. A singer had to be able to pronounce the words properly because language was important, because lyrics were important, which meant that the vocal parts of the song were important, more important than the instrumental parts. And a singer had to be able to project because when you sang for MGR, the listener had to hear MGR when he closed his eyes as the song played on the radio, and when you sang for Sivaji Ganesan, the listener had to hear Sivaji Ganesan.

That’s why, those days, there weren’t all that many playback singers, and the title cards during the opening credits would show the same names. TMS. P Sushila. LR Easwari. PB Srinivas. A few others. There weren’t all that many playback singers because there weren’t all that many films being made, which meant that there weren’t all that many songs being composed, at least compared to the numbers now. But the more important reason was that it wasn’t easy (and it isn’t easy now, either) to come by the combination of top-quality vocalising ability and top-quality pronouncing/projecting abilities, and when music directors found such a voice, a voice like TMS’s, they latched on to the singer and never let him go. It wasn’t because they didn’t want to give other singers a chance. It was because they knew a good thing when they saw it, heard it, and they knew how rare it was, and now that they had it, they wouldn’t settle for less.

Those were the general circumstances that made TMS the last representative of a certain kind of playback singer. The specific circumstance was that he was the last of the playback singers who made you sit bolt upright as you heard him, the way MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar could, the way Dhandapani Desikar could, the way a certain kind of Carnatic singer could. There was, first, the strength of the voice, rising from vocal cords made less from human tissue than the purest, finest alloys. If you wanted to be unkind, you’d call this kind of singer a gun-throat. If you wanted to be correct, though, you’d call him rare. The great singers who followed TMS had softer voices, the kind of voice you’d call mellifluous, that made you want to curl up in bed, at night, and experience emotions found in greeting cards and poetry. It’s not that TMS was incapable of invoking these feelings. You only have to listen to Yaar andha nilavu, for instance, to know that he could make you as sentimental as anyone possibly could. But his brand of mellifluousness was forged with a metallic strength. Those others wouldn’t sound quite as right singing Sindhanai sei maname. The word for that quality is gambeeram, majesty. If there’s one thing TMS will be remembered for, it’s that majesty.

And of course, the great variety of his songs and his singing in them. Listen to the crack timing of his phrasing in the big-band jazz stylings of Ninaithathai nadathiye mudippavan naan naan naan, each naan rising over the previous one, quelling the previous one. Listen to the way he sings the word kaadhaliye, beloved, in Radhe unakku kobam, making it both a plea (please don’t be angry, my darling) and an injunction (anger doesn’t behoove you, my darling). Listen to the teasing quality of romance he brings to Mella nada mella nada, the fondness with which he imbues the fun-making. Listen to the lazy drawl with which certain words taper off in Avalukkenna, an antidote to the rock ‘n’ roll bounce in the rest of the song. Anything that any music director could throw at him – at his peak – he caught and threw right back at us. It’s a cliché to say there won’t be another like him, because even as his popularity declined, there wasn’t another like him. He was one of a kind. He was also the last of a kind.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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