Singaaravelane Deva, This mesmerising number in the celluloid icon of the 1950s has fascinated a whole generation. In the same path of mellifluous music came the magic of the mangala isai in the enchanting avatar of Thillana Mohanambal in which Nadigar Thilakam and Natiya Peroli carried a gripping screenplay on their starry shoulders.
Veteran actor Sivaji Ganesan lived his role as a music maestro, Padmini was the expressive dance star. The immortal competition of music and dance as portrayed in the movie left an indelible mark on the minds of the earlier generation. The background for such a memorable experience was the grand, enriching and lingering music of the traditional wind instrument, the nadaswaram.
Can we forget the artistry, talent, musical navigation and emotive expressions moulding the melody of the MPN brothers. Nalam Dhana? Marainthirunthu parkum marmam Enna? Aayiram Kan Pothadhu Vannakiliye? These songs captured the imagination of fans for decades and flowed effortlessly through the windy path of the nadaswaram. Nagu Momu, the popular composition of Sri Thyagaraja, also reached the ears of the common man.
The elder of the MPN brothers Sethuraman passed away many years ago. The younger, Ponnusamy lives in Madurai at the ripe age of 86. On the occasion of the golden jubilee of the movie, we met Ponnusamy who lives with his son. He welcomed us with a pleasant smile.
Ponnusamy said that he suddenly got a call from director A.P.Nagarajan who said that we should play the nadaswaram for his film. The same night, MPN Sethuraman with his team left by train to Chennai. I did not accompany him as I had a concert. The next day I look a flight to Chennai when the air ticket was 150 rupees. The next day we went to the residence of APN. Puzhalendi, music director, K.V.Mahadevan’s assistant, was present. He was a connoisseur of music. He selected a few musical numbers, then said “A VIP will come here now, you have to render these numbers in his presence.” “When we saw Sivaji Ganesan walking out of the car it was a pleasant surprise for us. He sat in front of us. We were asked to play the nadaswaram. We presented a few classical compositions for three hours. Sivaji left without saying a word. We were tense and nervous. When Sivaji left, APN hugged us both and said that Sivaji had given the go ahead. We felt elated,” said Ponnusamy.
“Chennai was a pleasant place. We performed at the house warming ceremony of Yadartham Ponnusamy Pillai. After the first concert, we got several opportunities to perform in 20 venues. APN is supposed to have witnessed all the concerts.”
When he decided to make a film with the nadaswaram as the theme, he wrote the names of three nadaswaram artists and placed it in the prayer room. He asked a child to select one of the papers. Our names were picked thrice. We never asked who the other were, neither did he tell us.
Music director K.V.Mahadevan’s assistant Puzhalendi was a very efficient person. He would fine tune every note to further sharpen the nuances of the number. We stayed in Chennai for six months to work for the film. Our thavil exponent Santhanam use to visit actor Balaiah’s residence to play the thavil. Balaiah learnt the body language while playing the thavil for three months. Sivaji’s dedication is visible for all to see in the movie.
Whether we had a rehearsal or a recording, we are supposed to inform Sivaji Ganesan in advance. In the initial stages such events were held in Sarada Studio. Sivaji Ganesan used to watch with rapt attention even if it ran into two or three hours. He would watch my brother and AVM Rajan would observe me. Once at a function in Sivaji’s house we played the English note popularized by Madurai Mani Iyer on the nadaswaram. He liked it so much and wanted it to be included in the film. That's how the number was included in the film.
During the recording of the Nalam Dhaana song, P.Sushila the singer was in one room, we were in another, and the dance master negotiating the beats was in yet another. Puzhalendi was in overall control of the recording. In a single day we even had four recordings.
Do you know when we faced the real challenge? It happened when there was a competition between the nadaswaram music and the classical dance form of Bharatanatyam. When Sivaji heard the first rendition, he said, “Puppy (meaning Padmini) will handle it effortlessly, let it be even faster. Whenever we presented a fast number, Sivaji wanted to increase the pace even further. Finally only the eighth take was approved. Only when we saw the movie did we realize how much was extracted from us. The dance competition was recorded in AVM Studio. Nadaswaram music was in the recording theatre but the thavil and dance notes were recorded outside the theatre.
Ponnusamy went down memory lane and spoke about a concert in Sri Lanka where they played the nadaswaram non-stop from 9 pm to 6 am the next day. Sri Lankan radio broadcast the event live. The concert was held in the presence of lakhs of people amidst tight security. We have never seen such a crowd and such a response in our career, he said.
When we performed at a concert in Chennai, former Chief Minister Annadurai who had returned from the US after treatment, entered the venue. We aptly played the popular number - Nalam Dhaana - Udalum Ullanum Nalam Dhana (Are you fine? Is your health and mood fine?) Anna was happy. He waved at us and the applause of the audience hit the roof.
“You could have purchased half of Madurai at the height of fame,” I said.
“We were not greedy for money. We wanted only name and fame. What would we do with money? We need peace.”
When we requested him to play a song from Thillana Mohannambal, he said that it is four years since he touched the nadaswaram. “My fingers will not cooperate,” he said. At this juncture, he received a call on the mobile and most appropriately, the caller tune was Nalam Dhaana.
(The writer is a senior journalist)