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In fine fettle

SUGANTHY KRISHNAMACHARI

Light or serious, A.L. Raghavan adapted amazingly.

Photo: R. Shivaji Rao

Foil for each otherA.L. Raghavan and M.N. Rajam.

The hero meets his long lost love after many years only to find that she is married. He wishes her all the best through the heart-wrenching song, ‘Engirundhalum Vazhga.' The voice is that of A. L. Raghavan, a man whose ancestors were trained classical musicians.

Raghavan's father, a music teacher at Ayyampettai, died when Raghavan, a pampered child, was only eight. Raghavan then left home, and became a member of Arunachalam Chettiar's Sri Rama Bala Gana Vinoda Sabha, where he sang and acted in their mythological plays. Recalls Raghavan, “When I was 13, Chettiar took Suguna Vilasa Sabha on lease and our biggest hit at the time was ‘Tirumazhisai Azhwar.' To advertise the play, all we did was to draw a namam on the sides of trams, with the words Suguna Vilasa Sabha below it. People would know we were referring to our play ‘Tirumazhisai Azhwar'!” All the jewels that the actors wore in the play were made of real gold and studded with diamonds! Raghavan donned the roles of Vishnu and Narada in the play.

S.K. Mohideen and M. Somasundaram of Jupiter Pictures were so impressed with Raghavan's acting that they booked him to play the role of Krishna in their film ‘Krishna Vijayam.' For three years Raghavan was with Jupiter Pictures, and then had a stint with Royal Talkies. He then left Madras for Kumbakonam, where his mother resided. “I was 14 then. For three years I was with my mother and sister. Once again I experienced all the affection and family warmth that had gone out of my life for six years. On returning to Madras, I went back to playback singing for stage actors.” And it was then that he was noticed by M.S. Viswanathan and G.K. Venkatesh, and offered a chance to sing in ‘Pudhaiyal.'

But why is it that he never sang for the two big names in Tamil cinema – MGR and Sivaji? “In Seva Stages' plays, I sang for Sivaji. It's not that music directors didn't want me to sing for the two main heroes. But distributors felt that TMS's voice was ideal for them. For ‘Naan Vanangum Deivam,' I sang ‘Mullaippoo Manakkudu' for Sivaji. But because of objections from the distributors, the song was used for Chandrababu.”

King of comedy

When it came to comedy songs, music directors gave him carte blanche, so that he could experiment and enhance the comic effect. For ‘Pombale Oruthi Irundaalaam' (‘Adhe Kangal),' Raghavan and TMS, came up with some lines in Saurashtra, their mother tongue. The words, ‘Sodija' ‘daakara' in the song sound gibberish. Nagesh uses them to frighten Kanchana, but in Saurashtra the words mean ‘let me go,' ‘I am afraid.'

Many of the hit songs featuring Nagesh were sung by Raghavan. In the ‘A for Apple' song in ‘Sadhu Mirandal,' actor Vijay's mother Shoba and maternal uncle Surendar were part of the crowd of children singing the chorus. Those who have heard the song would have noticed a deep mysterious voice that says “Very good.” That's the villain ingratiating himself with the hero's children. The voice of course is Raghavan's although one wouldn't recognise it as the merry voice that sings the alphabet song. When he sings the song now, he is still able to segue seamlessly to the villain's booming voice!

How does he manage to keep his voice well trained? “Mystery to me”, says his wife M.N. Rajam. “He never sings at home and even when he had a recording the next day, he wouldn't rehearse at home. This is one of those rare occasions when he is singing at home and that is only because you are here.”

Raghavan has always had Marxist leanings and Communist leader Jeeva was a close friend. “I've even managed to convert my wife to Marxism,” he claims.

“Not at all,” Rajam stoutly denies. “Marxism is all right for a youngster, but not for anyone over the age of 30. A man's got to provide for his family and his old age.”

Provision for the family and their old age was something that became a matter of great concern to Rajam, when Raghavan incurred debts producing films. “My film ‘Kannil Theriyum Kadhaigal' had five music directors,” says Raghavan proudly.

Wasn't that the film that had the songs ‘Naan Onna Nenaichen' and Ilayaraja's ‘Naan Oru Ponnoviyam'? “Yes,” says Rajam. “And because the latter song was of six minutes duration, he had to make double payment to the singers. I was against the idea of film production, which eventually ruined my husband financially.”

Rajam is the more assertive of the two, Raghavan's demeanour being as gentle as his voice. Both Raghavan and Rajam recall an incident from Rajam's drama days. “Thangavelu wrote in a fan's autograph book – ‘Sinthikkathey. Siri' (don't cogitate, just laugh). N.S. Krishnan corrected him and said both contemplation and a sense of humour were necessary. It's a principle that has guided the couple throughout their lives. They ponder over their acts of commission and omission, but don't brood.

What they value most is the love they have enjoyed from the film and stage fraternity. A particularly poignant occasion was K.V. Mahadevan's 80 {+t} {+h} birthday. Mahadevan had lost his memory and couldn't recognise even his own children. But the moment he saw Raghavan he shouted, “Raghava,” and tears rolled down his cheeks. “He was like a father to me,” says an emotional Raghavan.

Is he sorry that he didn't become a classical musician like his ancestors? “No,” says Raghavan, and in this context recalls Balamuralikrishna's words to him: “I was famous in Andhra as a classical musician. But I became popular in Tamil Nadu only after I sang the film song ‘Thanga Ratham Vandadu.' There's nothing infra dig about film music.”

From classical to rock n' roll

The Ali brothers - Nazakat and Salamat Ali Khan- were Pakistani classical singers, whose rendering of thumris earned the praise of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. Their duets, where one brother would sing in the lower register and the other in a higher register, were very popular. Raghavan amazes one by giving a solo performance of a duet of a song popularised by them!

In 1968, Raghavan travelled to Russia, when the film he and TMS produced - ‘Kallum Kaniyaagum'- was selected for screening at the International Film Festival. There he sang a song popularised by the Ali brothers, and earned the appreciation of Broadcasting Minister Nandini Satpathy, Ramanand Sagar, who produced the ‘Ramayana' TV serial, actors Rajendra Kumar and Raj Kapoor.

In Russia, he also sang English songs popularised by American singer Gene Vincent, who is considered a pioneer of rock and roll. Even now he can sing Vincent's ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula' and then move on to a soulful piece in raga Bhageshri. That's the versatility of Raghavan!

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