The Telugu World Column No: 29
Telugus Dominate South Film Music
We saw last week how Carnatic Classical vocal music, whose greatest exponents Thyagaraja and Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna were both Telugu men, was more popular in Tamil Nadu. Thyagaraja, however, was born and lived in Tanjavur in Tamil Nadu and (as mentioned earlier) Balamurali vowed in his last days never to sing again in the Telugu states. And yet the Telugu world is proud of both! We also saw how a Telugu maestro, Nookala, was not just a singer or music teacher but also a musicologist.
Though Chennai has been the center of Carnatic music, Bengaluru has every year, music sessions spread over several days, where discussions on classical music are held in the morning with recitals in the evening. Once Balamurali propounded a new raga in the morning and had a song written –in Kannada, not Telugu –which he sang in the evening session.
Many may not know that the first music and dance college in the South was started not in Tamil Nadu but in Vizianagaram town of Andhra. At the cost of repetition, I recall how this came about. A great Telugu scholar, Adibhatla NarayanaDas, was a dancer, poet, musician, vaggeyakar, litterateur and linguist who knew Persian, English, Sanskrit and Urdu. Creator of the modern school of Harikatha, a Telugu art form, he was called ‘Harikatha Pitamaha’. He visited the court of Mysore king and impressed all with his knowledge. The king of Mysore then asked him to which ‘asthana’ (king’s court) he belonged to. Those days every ‘vidwan’ was from some court, but Narayan Das was on his own. As he hailed from Ajjada near Vizianagaram, he said he was from the cour of Vizianagaram, So the Mysore king wrote a letter to the king of Vizianagaram admiring the wisdom of Narayana Das, and saying Vizianagaram was fortunate in having such a great man. The Vizianagaram king then got the scholar searched out and invited him to his court. He planned a music college for him to head. Many great musicians like violinist Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu, playback singer Ghantasala, and vocalist Srirangam Gopalaratnam passed out from that college.
Dwaram (8 November 1893 – 25 November 1964) could have been the world’s greatest violinist instead of Yahudi Menuhin if only the Telugus promoted their own people as other groups did. His daughter Laxmi followed him as the Principal of the college, where she was a student earlier. His performances were a great draw all over the country. On violin he could depict the sounds of a door opening and footsteps of a man entering, the hoof beats of a running horse or a passing train. It was hard to believe.
Also from the Vizianagaram music college was the greatest playback singer and music director of the South, Ghantasala Venakteswara Rao (4 Dec.192–11 Feb. 1974). Born son of singer Ghantasala Soorayya at Chowtapalli village in Krishna District, he sang in several languages. Though he had many private records of songs, unique Telugu poem renderings and recitation of Bhagwadgita, this trained Carnatic musician is known more as a singer of Telugu and Kannada cinema. He also sang for Tamil, Malayalam, Tulu and Hindi films. Awarded Padma Shri in 1970 he “blended classical and light music and helped Telugu film music develop a distinct unparalleled character”. He also performed in the USA, England and Germany and for the United Nations. He used to dance to the Tarangams of his father who died when he was a child. He took formal music training from Patrayani Sitarama Sastry. He was jailed for 18 months for participating in the 1942 Quit India Movement In Alipore Jail in Bellary, now in Karnataka. He first sang for All India Radio and had private records before he debuted as a chorus singer in Seeta Rama Kalyanam in which he also had a bit role. Laxmamma was his first film as music director. He had great respect for his guru was close even to his son till his own death
Ghantasala was also the Aaasthana Gaayaka (court musician) for the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams. It runs the Tirupati temple which plays his recording of Bhagawad Gita regularly. Unconfirmed reports said he held the world record for recording most songs. The day before his death, from the hospital bed in Chennai, he recorded a song for a documentary on Bhakta Ramdas of Bhadrachalam temple. He was honoured with postage stamps in India and the USA.
P. Susheela, also born in Vizianagaram (1935), is another Telugu playback singer who sang in many languages. Telugu singer Prativaadi Bhayankara (PB) Srinivas (born in Kakinada in 1930) also sang in all southern films and was the main playback singer of Kannada –singing even for the early films Raj Kumar, himself a superb singer.
Another famous playback singer of all southern films is S. P. Balasubramaniam (born in Konetammapeta near Nellore in 1946). Popular as Balu, he won the National Award as playback singer six times and also the Nandi Award of the AP government 25 times. He has sung more than 40,000 songs in 16 different languages including Hindi. He has also done dubbing and played character roles. He hosts two Telugu and Kannada talent-hunt music programs on TV and no one would believe he is not a Kannadiga, He is equally proficient in Tamil. Great Tamil actor Kamalahasan and music director Ilayaraja were almost in tears when he was on ventilator in an ICU with Covide-19 in 2020.
There are many Telugu musicians who won national fame. Emani Shankara Sastri and Buchhi Babu were eminent Veena players. Dasari Yatiraja Sampath Kumar called “Andhra Jalari” (Andhra fisherman) also from the Maharaja Music and Dance College, won the first prize among 1400 artistes for the fisherman folk dance in the All-India Dance competitions at New Delhi.
Telugus dominated film music in the south for decades and Kuchipudi is well known all over India and even abroad.