Readers Write In #32: O Butterfly and things that even Google can’t buy

Posted on January 27, 2018


A piece about things that still do not have a google address, such as an obscure rendition of O Butterfly. Seemed apt to put this up now, given the Padma Vibhushan for Ilayaraja (though this isn’t really about him).

Ilayaraja fans and maybe Vikram fans as well would be familiar with the 1991 hit song O Butterfly from the film Meera.  Unusually, for an Ilayaraja song, it has a distinct chorus made up of long sustained notes sung solo by either S P Balasubramaniam or Asha Bhonsle depending on the iteration.   That as well as its simultaneously mesmerising, awe-inspiring, vulnerable and delicate arrangements have long since made the track one of the ‘classics’.

However…in the early 90s, this butterfly passed me by.  With so many songs, so many soundtracks tumbling out in a breathless rush, it was hard to keep track.  That we lived far away from Tamil Nadu didn’t help.  So…my introduction to this uber-romantic duet was on the TV programme Sapthaswarangal!  Yeah, remember that one?

We, we here being my family, faithfully tuned into the A V Ramanan hosted singing contest up until the early noughties.   One such episode was being adjudged by Karthik Raja (I think and I am not very sure) and was a ‘finals’ of some sort.

One of the contestants was a lady named Manju Jayaram.  She delivered a solid rendition of Enna Enna Varthaigalo, evoking a dreamy quality somehow different from the original.  In the next round, she introduced us to this thingy called O Butterfly.  Her voice, as I recall it, was soft and light and verily floated like a butterfly through an elegant and soulful rendition, steering clear of any undue ostentation.  I can’t say if we were more in awe of the song or the singing.  To say we were captivated barely does justice to our reaction.

Mr Ramanan himself seemed to have a soft corner for another contestant whom we were not so impressed by.   We were anxious that he should not sway the judge’s opinion in her favour, certain as we were that Manju Jayaram deserved to win.  Fortunately, justice prevailed and our apprehensions amounted to a tempest in a teapot.  Manju Jayaram won, yay!

And…that was it.  We never heard about her again.  It would be a few more years before we finally heard O Butterfly and then only thanks to the advent of online jukeboxes.  We found the song on and had to first download Real Player to listen to the track.  Sounds like a piece of cake now but it was incredibly painful even with what passed for broadband in those days.

We were both thrilled and apprehensive about the prospect of listening to the real butterfly.  Would it grind MJ’s rendition to dust or would it pale in comparison?  Our apprehensions grew when we learnt that it was really a duet with Asha Bhonsle sharing duties with S P Balasubramaniam.  There’s no doubting Asha Bhonsle’s calibre and I wore out a tape of songs sung by Asha Bhonsle for O P Nayyar back in school.  But in 1991, she wasn’t exactly a spring chicken and not perhaps the right fit for what we had imagined to be a youthful romantic number.

Our apprehensions were sadly justified.  There is a particular English expression for a piece of singing that isn’t too kind to the ears and out of courtesy I shall refrain from using it.  On the other hand, the music in the original track scaled heights beyond the grasp of our collective imagination.  It was not long before O Butterfly became a perennial favourite, across composers, across genres, for me.

The question of what happened to MJ remained and remains to this day.  If nothing else, we hoped at least a youtube clip of that rendition would surface.  But nobody seems to have thought of recording it; maybe anybody else who liked it was also too enthralled by the singing to remember to record!  There are then some things that even Google can’t buy, such as a Manju Jayaram sapthaswarangal performance.

I wonder what it would be like if it happened to surface again.  Would it rise up to the lofty pedestal on which I have placed it in my imagination?  I have burnt my fingers previously.

In the late 90s, a singer named Bela Shende won the Sa Re Ga Ma Pa mega finals and duly received blessings and best wishes from O P Nayyar, Kalyanji Anandji, Khaiyyam, Parveen Sultana among others (hopefully enough expert testimony to cover my behind).  So, when years later, I heard Vaanam Mella, I found it very underwhelming. Initially, I wondered what had happened to her.

And then, I found a clip of her performance of Jo Wada Kiya on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa and went, “Idhudhaana?” I had to admit that in fact the singer I heard on Vaanam Mella was better so nothing really had happened except maybe too much wax in my ears.

What will it be with Manju Jayaram’s Butterfly?  Case of too much wax or a blissful trip down memory lane?  I don’t know.  But I would really like to know if there was at least somebody else who had heard it too and had a similar reaction so that I will have company if and when I am hanged for disastrous musical (mis)judgment.

(Madan Mohan, recreational tennis hack in the early morning, chartered accountant by day and wannabe writer by night)