Of all the silent and talking film versions of the Gopalakrishna Bharathiar’s immortal musical, ‘Nandan Charitram,’ the most successful one was the S. S. Vasan - Gemini Studio production of 1943, “Nandanar”. The well-known classical Carnatic musician and one of the pillars of the Thamizh Isai movement, and sometime Tamil movie star, M. M. Dhandapani Desikar, played the lead role of the 'Lord Nataraja- devotee'.
‘Murugadasa’, (Muthuswamy Iyer) one of the pioneers of Tamil cinema, directed “Nandanar”. Muthuswamy Iyer began his life as a reporter in the now-defunct Madras city eveninger, “ The Mail” for which he wrote film reviews. Drawn to the medium of cinema, he gave up his job and promoted a short-lived monthly, “Sound And Shadow” in the early 1930s. It was one of the early movie magazines in English in Madras and created much impact in those days. A critical analysis of the film music of Papanasam Sivan by Murugadasa attracted much attention and is still being talked about by old-timers. A talent scout he had two young men of multi-faceted talents and skills with him on the magazine, A.K. Sekar and K. Ramnoth. The three, ‘Murugadasa-Ramnoth-Sekar’ formed a talented trio and contributed immensely to early Tamil cinema as top technicians.
Papanasam Sivan and Kothamangalam Subbu penned the lyrics. Sivan used some of the original songs on ‘Nandan Charitram’. In some, only the first lines (Pallavi) and in some the original ragas were used. Subbu contributed the folk songs.
M.D. Parthasarathy and S. Rajeswara Rao composed the musical arrangement, orchestration, and background music score. Parthasarathy was a trained classical Carnatic musician who had worked for All India Radio (AIR), Trichy before he joined Gemini Studio in 1941.
Saluru Rajeswara Rao has been rightly acclaimed as one of the finest film music composers of India. A boy prodigy and the son of a harmonium-player, he made his debut as a film music composer when he was only nineteen in “ Illalu” (1939, Telugu)! He joined Gemini Studio in 1941 when Vasan launched his own studio on Mount Road, Madras. Rao composed music for many films in many languages for many producers, like Vasan, B. N. Reddy, B. Nagi Reddy-Chakrapani, and created immortal melodies, which are popular to this day. A versatile genius he was at home with the music of the East and West.
As a lad in early 1930's, he acted in Telugu films with success. He sang well too. His privately recorded gramophone discs sold like hot cakes in the bygone decades. His songs like “ Challa gaalilo Yamuna” “ Ooooo Vibhavaree”. And “Kala ganti” are immortal melodies remembered and hummed to this day after sixty and more years......
“Nandanar” not surprisingly, was a veritable musical feast with as many as 32 songs. Dhandapani Desikar sang 15 of them and many of them became popular. Papanasam Sivan, Partasarathy, and Rajeswara Rao used a wide range of ragas.
Interestingly the film begins with an off-screen background song as the credit titles roll “ Ananda nadamidum paathan”.(Kedaragowla) rendered by S.S. Mani, a close relative of Papanasam Sivan. Mani assisted Sivan and sang in films as voice-lending ‘playback’ singer. One such film was S.M. Sreeramulu Naidu's hit, “Kannika” in which he sang for the hero, T.E. Varadan.
The songs sung by Dhandapani Desikar are “Piravaavara varam thaarum”. (Lathangi) “Sivaloka nathanai kandu”. (Nadhanamakriya) “Paavi parayan intha ooril” (Thodi) “Enakkumiranginaan embiraan” (Kedaragowla) “Ellorum varungal” (Bilahari)... “Thillaiambala”. (Ragamalika) “ Kaana vendamo”. (Sriranjani). “Jaathiyulum kadaiyen” (Ragamalika) “Pittham theliya marundhu”. (Sankarabharanam. This song rendered on gramophone disc by K. B. Sundarambal during 1930's is popular to this day.) “Kaamam agatriya thooyavan”. (Gummi- song) “ Harahara Jagadeesa” (Sindhubhairavi) “Ennappan allavaa”. (Varaali, this song became a hit.) “Ayyey methakadinam”(Ragamalika) “Varugalamo ayyaa”. (Maanji, this song also became a hit.) and “ Veeradu muyalgal.” (Ragamalika).
The well known handsome singing actor, screenwriter, studio-owner, and more Serukalathur Sama who played the Brahmin landlord, Vedhiyar also sang songs. He had a long innings in Tamil cinema as a character actor for nearly three decades and during his day, he was one of the popular figures of South Indian cinema.
Besides Desikar and Sama, others in the cast of “Nandanar” included Kothmangalam Subbu, L. Narayana Rao, M.R. Swaminathan, V.P.S. Mani, “Pottai” Krishnamurthy, K.S. Angamuthu, Gnanambal, and M.S. Sundari Bai.
A ‘Shiva Thandavam’ dance number was rendered by the later day star and a fine actor, Ranjan of “ Chandralekha” fame. This was his third movie and in the credit titles his name appeared as ‘Ranjan, B. A, M. Lit.’
Dhandapani Desikar had a tough time during the recording of his songs. Vasan made him sing many songs repeatedly, Desikar's most admirable asset was his excellent and melodious voice. According to Fielden, the first Director-General of All India Radio Desikar's voice was the only one among Carnatic musicians acceptable according to the ‘voice culture’ standards of classical Western Music. He described the others as “mere crooners!”. Vasan created a sensation when he announced “An Indian Rupees Ten Thousand (`10, 000) - Song Contest” for “Nandanar”.
It was the first time such contest was launched in Indian film history! Many could not believe it. Ten thousand rupees were a megabuck fortune in 1943! The rules were simple. One had to get a coupon given along with a ticket at any cinema where the movie was being screened. The coupon - holder had to select ‘The Three Best Songs’ in the movie and enter them in the coupon in the order of his preference. The coupon, then had to be deposited in a box kept at the movie theatre. That was all! If more than one correct solution were submitted, the prize money would be a divided among the winners. Vasan had deposited the list containing the correct solution in a sealed envelope with the Indian Bank, First Line Beach, Madras, on the day before “Nandanar” was released. The contest generated enormous public interest and enthusiasm. In addition, it sold tickets, contributing to the box-office success of “Nandanar”!
“Nandanar” was a major success of 1943 when Madras was caught in the web of the Japanese bomb scare during the Second World War (1939-1945). Indeed the city was evacuated for a short time in 1942, which came to be known as “ the Evacuation Period”....