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A Musical Journey Home

Prem Nazir and Nandita Bose in Achani

Prem Nazir and Nandita Bose in Achani

This is quite a long post I know. Read only if you love old Malayalam songs.

I am just catching my breath now after a hectic year-end and New Year. We were away in the Smoky Mountains for New Year, at Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It was a much-needed break and though all my best bud/husband and I wanted was just some rest and relaxation, our girls wanted to explore and catch all the sights in town. We ended up walking around and scored off on the tourist brochure, Ripley’s aquarium and museum, the Guinness museum, a dumb ‘earthquake’ ride and the sky tram. The elder one was rather disappointed that we couldn’t make it to the ‘haunted house’ adventure as they did not allow kids under 6 in there, which meant the younger one had to be left behind. I might have enjoyed the ‘haunted night walk’ though. Apparently, a lot of paranormal activity has been reported here. If you ask me I don’t think any other country is as obsessed with the paranormal as the US of A is.

Anyway, after the enjoyable trip, it was a five-hour drive back home and we wanted to get back home before the ball dropped at Times Square. We are rather particular, at least my husband is, that we are home when the New Year starts. The drive back was the best part of the journey. My husband was very sleepy and I normally never sleep while traveling – it does not matter what mode of transportation I am in. Normally he resorts to music to keep him awake. This time too we did the same. Only difference is that this time, we decided to sing.

Now please don’t think I am an excellent singer. I can’t carry a tune to save my life. I don’t even sing in the shower, because I sound so bad even to me. But when it comes to lyrics, I have a photographic memory. Even songs that were composed long before I was born, I can give you the words in a gush. Come to think of it, I remember the words to the old songs much more than the new ones. I guess ‘inanity’ is the key word here. The new songs don’t make much sense do they? On the other hand, my husband is a pretty good singer, but hopeless when it comes to lyrics. He belts out absolute nonsense in perfect tune. I need to be around to rein him into sense. So together, we make a great pair. Perfectly in harmony, we make good music together.

It all started when my daughter asked me to sing one of her fav songs,”thedi varum kannugalil…”. You see, in spite of being so bad I do get requests for songs. I guess that’s the advantage of having a ‘captive’ audience. They couldn’t escape from the car you see. So they made the best of it. Then my other li’l girl told me she wanted lullabies and I launched into what according to me is the best lullaby ever written “omana thingal kidavo” composed by Irayimman Thampi to lull the baby Swathi Thirunal into slumber. My mom says as a kid I could never have enough of that song and I have passed on that love to my kids. Both are suckers for that song, even when I sing it. I am so emotionally attached to that song, that I consider it blasphemy when someone tries to play with that song- like AR Rahman did. I seriously have a bone to pick with him. And what a song to introduce it into! I might have forgiven him if it was set in a dignified scene or woven into a classical piece, but this. Come on, I know all about artistic liberty but there are some things YOU SIMPLY CANNOT PLAY WITH. This is one of them. Look what happened when someone tried to write a sequel to ‘Gone with the Wind’. They reduced the towering Scarlet O’Hara into a simpering Mills & Boon kind of dumb heroine. Ewwwwwww.

Anyway, back to my road trip. Soon the girls were nodding away and we had a few uninterrupted hours ahead of us. There would be no cries for “Amma play ‘High School Musical.’ “No I want to hear ‘Cheetah Girls’…” “Amma she is drinking from my water bottle..” “Amma tell deedi not to touch my car seat….” Ah simply heaven. So we decided to go ahead and have our own ganamela. Usually such sessions start with ‘manikkya veenayumayen’ or ‘alliyambal“. While on the subject, is there any Mallu who doesn’t go into throes of delicious nostalgia when they hear these numbers from the full-throated ease of that Gana Gandharvan Dasettan? But this time we kicked off with “aayiram paadasarangal” and floated gently on ‘Nadhi’ along with Naseer and Sarada in their houseboats, as we moved on to “kayampoo kannil viriyum” of course “thamassamenthe varuvaan“, “paarijaatham“, “ente swapnathin“, and “innale mayangumbol” followed. And the beautiful “oru pushpam maathram”. It’s a rare Malayalam qawwalli piece.

We moved on to a bunch of forlorn female numbers, all expressing the wait for the beloved, thaliritta kinaakkal, anjana kannezhuthi, oru kochu swapnathin, manathe mazhamukhil, priyathama…, vaasantha panchami naalil’…in this vein there are a couple of other songs also tho not female voices, “ezhilam paala poothu“, oru mukham maathram kannil. These songs express so much longing and hope for love, quite heart wrenching. That took us to another song from Etho oru Swapnam- “poomaanam” that song has a smoldering, haunting, sensuality about it, I don’t know if everyone feels that way.

The songwriters of those days knew a thing or two about underplayed sensuality. Look at thottene, sara ranthal, sangamam etc.It was beautiful the way they portrayed emotions and longings and the music only served to highlight the feelings. They were all beautiful, sensual, and erotic without being vulgar or crass. None of that ‘in your face vulgarity’ you see in the songs today. I am thankful that at least Malayalam songs haven’t yet come to that. At least I believe so.

I remember watching Etho oru Swappnam on Doordarshan starring the original superstar and strong man of Malayalam cinema –  “Oru bhoomikulukkam undayirunnenkkiilllllllllllllllllll” fame JAYAN, of course as, hold your breath – a sanyasi ! Speaking of Jayan of course we sang kannum kannum from Angadi, another sweet romantic number with Seema chechi.

That took us back to her first film, Avalude raavukal. A much maligned film if you ask me. I remember the cheesy posters all over town back when I was a kid in Nagercoil. Back then there always used to be a ‘Malayalam’ film screened every week in the town’s seediest theatre, with huge x-rated posters whether the movie featured them or not. I remember quite a few movies that were maligned this way in spite of being quite good movies. ‘Thakara’ ‘Eenadu’, ‘Vayanaadan Thampaan’. I caught all these movies much later on TV and wondered what exactly all those posters had meant. I saw nothing of the sort in the movie. That was when I realized how decent and realistic Malayalam movies were seen as porn and ridiculed. But let us not go into that here. Maybe that is the topic for another blog.

Anyway, I saw Avalude Raavukal, on Asianet and I was really disturbed, by the character of Seema. It haunted me for quite a few days, how circumstances and fate force her into the oldest profession. I felt sad watching it. I know many people still leer at that movie and watch it probably to ogle at Seema, but I thought it was a disturbing tale well told. And the songs (isn’t that what this blog is supposed to be about? Sorry for the digression) …. God they are beautiful. Raagendu kiranangal.. it sums up the story in a few lines, (reminiscent of Kannu thurakkatha deivangale) and that lullaby, Unniyarariro… both haunting music.

Then we moved on to Salil Chowdary. Ahhhh what can I say. We Mallus are a finicky lot when it comes to our language. We make fun of the way other language speakers cannot pronounce our words, tongue twisters though they are, their diction etc, their failure to grasp the nuances of our language…(come on guys everyone cannot enunciate words with the ‘sphudatha’ of Dasettan). Despite this, we have whole-heartedly, accepted Salilda who hopelessly breaks up words and syllables where they are not supposed to be broken. It just goes to show the man’s genius and how passionate we are about good music. We can overlook such small issues when it comes to beautiful music. To show our ultimate acceptance, we even sing Manasa maine varu like Manna Dey sings it. With a hard ‘r’ in ‘varu’ and not the soft usual mallu ‘r’ which Dey saab probably could not manage.

We roamed all along the Kadaappuram with Parikkutty as he sang his heart out, pouring his woes to the Kadalamma. Kadalile olavum, karalile mohavum adangukillomane adangukilla…’ what more can be said?. Simple and true. Of course, when it comes to Chemmeen, I think all of us Mallus break out into goose pimples and can never say enough. What a movie, what a story, what acting, what music, what photography…. I could go on. We sang all the songs, I think in the middle of ‘pennale pennale.. I heard my daughter mumbling in her sleep ,”I like that song…” thankfully she went back to sleep again.

While in the Salilda phase we skipped with the ill-fated Elsa and Raju as they sang mada prave vaa and ee malar kanyaka, unaware of the tragedy that was to befall them. We sang the sad songs too. Who does not love the heart wrenching pathos of sandhye and sagarame..? I love that movie Madanolsavam. Every time I watch it, I manage a couple of wet hankies. I love the scene where Jayan (in a rare cameo) says in a hushed voice, “She is dying.” Lifted straight from the original novel ‘Love Story’. I love it. Kamal Hasan and Zarina Wahab were wonderfully adorable as the young lovers and newly weds.

Speaking of young lovers, we paid tribute to Manjil virinja pookkal, we sang all the songs in that cult movie, the movie that made history… “Good morning Mrs. Prabha Narendran…’ and the rest as the cliché goes is history. While the insipid Shankar disappeared (ok he makes occasional appearances to get beaten up by the hero, usually Lalettan. Ah the irony of it!) And the talented Poornima Jayaram decided to bid adieu to a promising career to be Mrs. Bhagyaraj, it was the creepy villain who went on to conquer heights and redefine the limits of Malayalam cinema with his brilliant and understated acting.

You know we were careful to stick to the old numbers; we vehemently refused to stray into the 90s. Early eighties were as far as we go. So unfortunately, we included only ‘thenum vayambum’ by Raveendran Mash. But then his music is divine and the more recent ones we kept aside for another trip. Early eighties saw the wonderful songs from chillu. The only good thing about that movie was the music. The whole movie was one gloomy, dark, stretch and I had no idea what exactly happened in the end, except that someone went crazy. I almost did, watching the movie. Malayalam cinema went through that dark phase at one time. Everyone was either crying/dying/sick/unemployed/unloved/misunderstood/poor/insane or hopeless and helpless. Jalaja and Venu Nagavalli specialized in these kind of roles and raised depression to the level of high art. And their faces suited it. Gloomy and overcast all the time. Tell me have you ever seen them smile? If at all they did, it looked odd and out of place on their faces. But there were some beautiful songs in these movies. Like in chillu. The eternal favorite of old students and alumni… the nostalgic tribute to good ol’ student days. ONV’s memorable lines in ‘oru vattam koodi..’ and that other song, chaithram chayam chaalichu… and natha nee varum (I don’t remember the movie). The songs of ulkkadal, chithira thoniyil, nashta vasanthathin, shara ranthal…

We went back again to the 50s and 60s to sing pulayanaar maniyamma, which had Naseer attempting to jolt Jayabharathi’s memory through music in prasaadam, thaazhampoo manamulla, manjalayil mungi thorthi (I think that was the only Jayachandran number), oru nimisham tharu, and of course that evergreen favorite of jilted boy friends. ‘sanyasini…if sanyasini comes, can sumangali nee ormikkumo be far behind? We sang the whole list, sumangali…, thirayum theeravum…, mangalam nerunnu njan. Wonderful songs.

We went back to an earlier era with the quaintly beautiful ‘ellarum chollanu, chandana pallakkil, kuyiline thedi, ashtamudi kaayalile and remembered the lovely Ragini fluttering her eye-lashes as Satyan sang ‘periyare…’ we frolicked with Ramanan and his flock of lambs as we crooned ‘kanana chayayil.’

There was a brief interlude of mappila paattukal with ‘pathinaalam ravuthichathu, kadali vaazha kayyilirunnu, paavada venam, etc. and a KPAC phase with paambukalkku malamundu, marivillin, ambiliyammava, punchiri palu, illi mulam kaadukalil etc.. A short tribute to Kamukara with aathma vidyalayame and eswara chintha (we did not want to get too philosophical. So we stopped with that and did not venture into other such numbers like kaadu karutha kaadu, manushyan mathangale, kaadaru maasam, kaatadichu etc… which are otherwise excellent songs.

Then we sang a bunch of songs, all celebrating black. I think no other language has so many songs that celebrate the fact that black is beautiful. We have ‘karu karuthoru pennanu, kakka thampuratti, mari malar choriyunna karumbi penne, karutha penne karinkuzhali, and of course the more recent karutha penne from thenmavin kombathu and karuppinazhaku which we left out that day.

We sang just one Tamil number ennavale adi ennavale, which is sort of ‘our’ song. We have an ‘our’ song in Malayalam too, ‘enthinu veroru sooryodayam’, but we did not sing that song as it is newer. We have another special song too. One day I asked my husband just for fun what song he would sing to me and he said ‘nin thumbu kettiyitta churul mudiyil…’ and that was the only time I regretted chopping off my locks. (As an aside, I choose to forget that his first response to that question had been,’kali, bhadra kali’.)

Both of us are crazy about songs and can keep talking about songs for hours. I remember, when we were engaged, I once wrote to him quite a long letter with just words from Tamil, Malayalam and Hindi songs and I was touched and surprised to see that he replied the same way too. For a person who did not care about lyrics, that was some effort.

So there we were, almost at the end of our journey. We were nowhere near depleting the vast treasury of beautiful old numbers, but it was time for us to stop. The kids were slowly stirring in the backseat and the elder one soon woke up and asked us unbelievingly,” Have you guys been singing all this time?” “Weird” she concluded and went on to wake up her li’l sis. We decided to sum it all up with ‘keralam keralam, and maamalakalkkappurathu…”. We wondered if we should end with harivaraasanam or jana gana mana. Since it wasn’t exactly a bhajan session we went with jana gana mana and threw in sare jahan se achcha too for good measure.

And at exactly 30 minutes before midnight we turned into our driveway, to the strains of ‘jaya jaya jaya jayahe. We got home in time to welcome the New Year and with happy memories of a much enjoyed, musical, nostalgic drive back home. And looking forward to a beautiful melody of a year ahead.

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6 responses »

  1. That was great nanda. Nice to see eventhough far away from our cute state, in US still you have a raving heart for malayalam music and moreover u r lucky to have a nice hubby who shares the same feelings.

    U.Suni

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  2. thnx for dropping by.

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  3. hey, thnx. of course i didn’t miss periyare… how could i? i even wrote abt ragini fluttering her eye-lashes as satyan sang :). and oh yeah, suhani raat is definitely one of my favs.

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  4. hello…reached here whilst googling for omanathingal…geez ..it felt like an after exam boozing session which always ended up with old malayalam songs..how in the world did you miss periyare periyare..here in cold canada..those days seem so far away..thanks for taking me down memory lane….maybe the next time you folks take to the road you could concentrate on hindi songs..suhani raat dhal chukhi..naa jaane thum kabh aaoge is not very different from thaamasame enthe varuvan..thanks a lot

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  5. thank you shyam. glad you enjoyed it.

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  6. hai ,

    That was indeed a nice description of your family journey back home , you touched almost all the strings of malayalam musical chord and indeed some very good opinions expressed through those digressons …

    All together reading it was a nice experience

    -Shyam nair

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