Considered the “The Founding Father of Tamil Film Melodies”, Gopalsamy Ramanatha Iyer needs no introduction. Film Historians and his Crew including his Playback Singers fondly remember him as “Isai Medhai”. Though he never had proper training in music except through “Kelvi Gnanam” (through listening), his passion for Carnatic music drove him to incorporate many classical ragas into his compositions. He gave shape to the celebrated early melodies in Tamil Cinema. Well-known singers of that era such as M. L. Vasanthakumari, Jikki, P. Leela, T. M. Soundararajan, Sirgazhi Govindarajan, A. M. Raja, T. V. Ratnam, S. C. Krishnan and our own Susheelamma lent their voices to the songs. The title song “Rajayogame” (P Susheela), “Malaiye Un Nilai” ( Sirkazhi Govindarajan), “Pattum Bharathamum” (T M Soundararajan), “Ennai Pol Pennalavo” (P Susheela), “Siramathil Thigazhvathu ( M L Vasanthakumari), “Kattazhagu Mama” (P Leela), “Mohana Punnagai” (P Susheela , T M Soundararajan), “Aatchiyin” (Sirkazhi Govindarajan), “Kumukukumma Goyya – Filmed on Helen” (Jikki Krishnaveni), “Vazhvinile Vazhvinile” (A M Raja, P Susheela), “Eeraindhu Madhame” ( T M Soundararajan).
In this flick, Ma had the opportunity to contribute 4 songs for Mahanati (2 Duets and 2 Solos). All the mentioned songs by Susheelamma were huge hits and quite popular. The chosen song in the Carnatic raga ‘Thodi’, ‘Ennai Pol Pennallvo’ filmed on Savithri (Ma & Mahanati combo produced many a immortal songs in Telugu and Tamil) and rendered stunningly by Ma Sarswathi Susheelamma with such finesse attracted attention, especially from non-filmi quarters. Even Carnatic Legends & Stalwarts considered it the best ever film song composed in the Majestic or Towering Carnatic Raga “Thodi”. “Hanumathodi” or “Thodi” is the 8th Melakarta Ragam (parent scale) in the 72 melakarta rāgam system. This is sung very often in concerts. It is known to be a difficult rāgam to perform in owing to its complexity in prayoga (phrases of notes and intonation) and stunning bhrigas. Some call it “Janatodi” as well. The equivalent of Carnatic “Thodi” in Hindustani Classical is “Bhairavi Thaat”. “Thaye Yashoda” by Oothukkadu Venkatakavi is a popular composition in “Thodi”.
A “gem” by G Ramanatha Iyer that Ma Saraswathi Susheelamma vocals only could do justice to Mahanati’s expressions on screen. Let us pause for a second here. What prompted “Isai Medhai” (Musical Genius) to award this particular tough piece in “Thodi” to Ma (a 6 year veteran by then)? Her contemporaries P Leela and M L Vasanthakumari were still available for sure (recall a pure classical piece “Ellam Inba Mayam” by C R Subburaman in “Manamagal”). For that, one has to get into the mind of the Isai Medhai himself. The answer is perhaps “times were changing” or Ma’s “bhavam laden silken voice” or “amazing control” or “consistency and expressiveness”, “deliverance” or “phrasing” or “sense of timing” “colorful-dramatic”, “impressive breath technique”, “range-depth”, “tonal texture” and most importantly Leela’s voice (who has previously sung many a songs for Mahanati) was losing lustre incapable of handling the complex bhrigas and the required “Bhavam” itself (just singing in carnatic style without emoting won’t do any good, the need of the hour & the upcoming golden 60’s era is a “coloratura” – which Ma was). This song established with full force that Ma could handle complex Carnatic ragas with such ease and cinematic brilliance, let alone had the ability to crush her contemporaries or adversaries. May be you are born with it or you don’t.
Now let us immerse in the young (she was 22 then) Ma’s indescribably gorgeous rendition and its nuances. When Ma starts the pallavi “Ennai Pol Pennallavo” (panchama establishes the grandoise “Thodi”) & the repetition “Nee Ennai Pol Pennallavo”…..”Ulaga Irul Neengum Kannallavo Devi” (ending with racy bhrigas)- you know that Ma dutifully & successfully reproduced what was asked of her by Ramanatha Iyer.
In the first charanam “Ponnodu Porul Yaavaum Irundhalum…Thaye (the scale & the heavenly brigha and its extension executed with mathematical precision)…..”Naan Minnadha Sudar Pola Vazhendhenamma” (she releases her bhrigas in split second)…you know that Ma is into your soul already creating light tremors. “Kurayai Sonnalum Puriyadha Ulagathile” (the size of her voice especially at the top)..En Vazhvil Unaiandri Thunai Yedhamma (firstly the difficulty & ultimate surrender to the Omnipotent makes Ma beyond comparison). Given the technicalities, it is very difficult for any mortal to come close to this rendition. It is my ultimate belief – Ma’s impressive vocals and compelling rendition that Mahanati self consciously absorbed and invested the required expression on screen. In around 3 minutes she comprehensively covered the intricacies of the raga and I am awestruck by her technical brilliance.
In the second charanam, “Malarodu Manam Sera Nilai Venduma”..”Malai Pondra Idartheera Gathiyaramma”.. (Ma’s agility speed, and rock-solid techniques again at full display) Matha Un Arul Thandhu Kurai Theeramma ..Jaganmatha Un Arul Thandhu Kurai Theeramma. Her voice had many special characteristics which can be heard in this song. Her control of the timbre ensured her vocal tone was never stressed beyond limits. Ma is a genuine vocal phenomenon, a formidable force to reckon with. This “Thodi” piece has long been cherished as a standard in cine classical music. Marvelous technique, impeccable style, and convincing expressions are the hallmarks of Ma Saraswathi Susheelamma’s voice.