T.R. Mahalingam – The Honeyed Voice of Tamil Language

It was from the elderly Lukose Chettan in my native place that I first heard of T.R.Mahalingam and I was twelve or thirteen then. Once, when talking about the contemporary film music, he said: “What you boys hear and sing nowadays is run-of-the-mill stuff. You guys must listen to the Carnatic music based Tamil film songs sung by T.R.Mahalingam.” He even made a weak mimicry of some of those songs. He made me stare at him in wonder by declaring that he had seen T.R.Mahalingam with his own eyes! 

Lukose Chettan claimed that he had seen T.R.Mahalingam in Cochin when he had come for the Golden Jubilee celebration of his wildly successful film Gnana Soundari. Directed by a Malayalee named Joseph Thaliyath, it was a Christian devotional story based film made in 1948. The songs of the film Gnana Soundari were not only super hits in Tamilnadu but were just as famous in Kerala. T.R.Mahalingam addressed thousands of his fans in Cochin’s Padma Theatre. Lukose Chettan demonstrated to me how the super star of those days, T.R.Mahalingam appeared on the balcony of the theatre and waved to his fans. The audience reached the heights of frenzy when they saw their handsome singing hero in person.

But it was much later I could truly listen to and appreciate the singing of T.R.Mahalingam. It was in the nineties in Chennai. I was engaged in the making of an advertisement film for the music album, titled ‘Legends-T.R.Mahalingam’ brought out by HMV. For me it was an opportunity of the life time to hear most of his songs in fairly good quality sound. I could also see the film clippings of some of his song scenes. I must say that T.R.Mahalingam, the actor did not catch my fancy. But, I was amazed by his extraordinary singing prowess demonstrated in his wide range of songs from Carnatic classical to simple light music.

M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar was the super star of the earlier era of Tamil films. But the considered opinion of connoisseurs of Tamil films of pre-1950s is that it was P.U.Chinnappa who was the undoubted star both in singing and acting. And T.R.Mahalingam was a great singer who lost his way as an actor in the film world. He took up the Carnatic music-based film music tradition pioneered by the likes of Thyagaraja Bhagavathar and P.U.Chinnappa. In the era before play-back singing and advanced recording technology took over, the success of a film or a drama depended on the number of songs and how a singer actor sang those Carnatic classical music-based songs on the stage or screen. It was an era when the Indian stage and screen was entirely music-centred and singers alone were the stars at that time.

Many great singer actors emerged from the South Indian drama stages of the time. S.G.Kittappa was the first super star among them. He was an exceptional singer. Some say that he was a good actor as well. His dramas popularized Carnatic music among the larger public. It is said that nobody before him ever sang rare ragas like Devamritha Varshini with such detailed enunciation. Fans who had listened to his voice in dramas and records never forget the intensity of his magnetic, high pitched, precise singing. Unfortunately, S.G. Kittappa passed away in 1933 at the age of 28, before cinema could become a talkie. But his rare high pitched singing of great resonance had become the most influential style to emulate among singers.

In those days when sound systems were not emerged, singers had the compulsion to sing in high voices that reached everyone in the audience. That is why the performer singers of the early era had to train their voices through strenuous exercises to sing in high pitched voices. Great singers of those days, faced as they were with no technology and many practical difficulties, produced amazingly great music. Today we are left with highly sophisticated technology but very little good music to go with it. From the pure Carnatic music of pre 50s most part of our popular music became bumbling mumblings that are difficult to identify as either speech or song and music lovers are left to regret this indifference.

Coming back to T.R. Mahalingam, there is none greater to have taken forward the S.G.Kittappa style of singing. Though T.R.Mahalingam, like S.G.Kittappa, had sung most of his songs in very high pitches, had no problem in singing in lower pitches as well. His ‘Naanandri Yaar Varuvaar’ and ‘Kanngalin Vennilave’ are all such songs. His immortal song ‘Senthamizh Thean Mozhiyal’ from the film Maalaiyitta Mangai starts with high notes, then becomes a light music elaboration and moves towards a dance number like springiness. All through this T.R.Mahalingam’s voice and singing style stands out in all majesty.

In his great songs like ‘Aadaikatti Vandha Nilavo’ from the film Amudhavalli the wealth of his voice and the exact fineness of his singing are on display. His pitching sense is very exact. His creative rendering surprises us at unexpected moments. The example of the fine musical flourish he employs just once in rendering the end of the line ‘Kaaduvittu Vandha Mayilo’, which makes us hear the song a hundred times over.

It is said that late Seergazhi Govindarajan was a great fan of T.R.Mahalingam. It is also said that he went to great lengths by training his voice and singing style to adapt T.R.Mahalingam’s style. But in my opinion, while he succeeded in being able to sing at high pitches he came nowhere near to T.R.Mahalingam in terms of originally natural singing and flawless rendering style. T.R.Mahalingam sang some songs with Seergazhi Govindarajan. The two songs in the film Agathiyar ‘Namachivaayam Ena Solvomae’ and ‘Isaiyaai Thamizhai Iruppavane’ are excellent bases to compare the two singers. T.R.Mahalingam effortlessly floats along rendering the song in his lovely singing style and flawless pitching, showing no strain whatsoever with fluent musical flourishes and lively emotional expressions. But the efforts of Seergazhi Govindarajan are forced and labored.

I have to admit that I was never able to appreciate either the voice or the singing style of Seergazhi Govindarajan. I have been of the opinion that his voice defied musicality, notwithstanding the many honorifics like ‘one with bell-metal voice’ bestowed on him. As a playback singer his voice neither suited the voice of any actor, nor was he able to adapt his voice to suit anybody. Though he had gone on to sing some songs for the likes of M.G.R, Sivaji Ganesan and Muthuraman, his songs were mostly in the nature of a disemboweled voice in the background.

My appreciation of Govindarajan’s voice is that it naturally trembles away from his pitch. We can clearly see this in the duet ‘Chithirame Chithirame Sirikkakkoodaadha’ when we compare him with the rendering by the fellow singer P.Suseela. In places like ‘Sirikkakkoodaadha’ he clearly strays from the pitch. He has this problem on most of his landing notes. We can see this even in his very famous songs like ‘Aadi Adangum Vaazhkaiyada’ and ‘Ullathil Nalla Ullam’. His excessive gamakas are highly labored to the musically sensitive listeners.

But listening to songs of T.R.Mahalingam like ‘Aandavan Darisaname’ in the film Agathiyar, we realize what a music marvel he is. His voice always flows effortlessly. The musical flourishes manifest themselves with flawless pitch in any note on his mere wish. We can see T.R.Mahalingam’s wizardry and craft of light music rendering in his many songs like ‘Aasaikonden Amudhame’, ‘Sangam Muzhangi Varum’, ‘Illaya Kanniyin Azhagiya Vadhanam’, ‘Ethirkondu Varaverkuthe’, ‘Kaatchiyum Neethaan Karpanaiyum Neethaan’, ‘Madhuramaana Rusiyullathe’, ‘Naan Deivama Illai Nee Deivama’ and ‘Kannirandum Ondrai Ondru’.

Like his role model and self-professed master S.G.Kittappa, T.R.Mahalingam started singing on the stage while still a child. He became famous in no time at all. It was his high pitch songs that earned him his fame. He was a Star singer in the Special dramas of those days. T.R.Mahalingam garnered fame and name as successful drama artiste and singer when he was a mere 14 year old boy and entered the film world on the back of that fame. The debut film was Nandakumar produced by AVM in 1937. T.R.Mahalingam acted as the young Krishna in the film. The songs were hits but the film failed. He had a continued run of 10 unimportant films thereafter. Not one of those films could establish him as star. He was mentally tired, but ploughed on nevertheless. That was when AVM produced the film Srivalli that had been scripted by Shankardas Swamigal for the wildly successful Special Drama of the same name. As he was yet to establish himself as a successful artiste, T.R.Mahalingam was engaged as the main protagonist on a very small fee.

T.R.Mahalingam was the Murugan in the film Srivalli released in 1945. That film established him as a big artiste. The film also turned out to be a great start for the production company of AVM. It was in this film that he sang his all-time famous high pitched number ‘Kaayaadha Kaanagathe Nindrulaavum’ with an amazing artistry that is envied to this day. This was a song already made famous by S.G.Kittappa’s magnificent rendering on Special Drama Stage and T.R.Mahalingam rendered it flawlessly with such magnificent style that even the diehard fans of S.G.Kittappa accepted him instantly. The film which celebrated Golden Jubilee in many theatres made T.R.Mahalingam a super star.

AVM released their social film Naam Iruvar in 1947 immediately after India attained Independence. Tamil language’s national poet Subramanya Bharathi’s patriotic songs were the main attraction of the film. T.R.Mahalingam captivated an entire generation of people with his immaculate rendering of Bharathi’s songs like ‘Solai Malaroliyo’, ‘Vaazhiya Senthamizh’, ‘Vetri Ettu Thikkum Kotta’ and ‘Vittu Viduthalaiyagi’. When he visited a cinema hall in Madurai during a screening of the film, his fans danced carrying T.R.Mahalingam on their shoulders. Though the success of the film owed a great deal to the ecstasy of having attained Independence and the famous lines of Bharathi, there was undeniably the role of the voice of T.R.Mahalingam, as well. Vedhala Ulagam released in 1948 by AVM was another runaway hit film for T.R.Mahalingam. There were many Bharathi songs in this film too. Songs like ‘Senthamizh Naadennum Pothinile’ and ‘Theeraatha Villaiyaattu Pillai’ in the stellar voice of T.R.Mahalingam were super hits. Mega hit film Gnana Soundari followed next.

But the next film Idhaya Geetham by the same director of Gnana Soundari with T.R.Mahalingam as the hero with a social theme was a big failure. T.R.Mahalingam’s fame as a star did not help the film at all. But his song in the film ‘Vaanulaavum Thaarai Neeye Idhaya Geethame’ still plays on the lips of the fans of his music. The film Laila Majnu that followed was also not successful. It was around this time that T.R.Mahalingam took the worst decision of his life. He decided to produce and act in his own films. He produced, on his own, films like Mohanasundaram, Chinnadurai and Machcha Rekhai. Mohanasundaram was based on the famous novel of J.R.Rangaraju. The film too became famous for the duets he sang with G.Varalakshmi like ‘O Jagamadhil Inbam’, ‘Pulli Maanaippola’, ‘Kanneer Thaano’ and ‘Kanavilum Unnai Maraven’. But the film itself was a big commercial flop. He also produced films likeTheruppaadakan and Villaiyaattu Bommai. These were not even released. This totally crippled T.R.Mahalingam financially.

It is said that he was totally abandoned by those around him when he lost his money and that he was saved from a difficult situation by Kannadasan’s film Maalaiyitta Mangai. Kannadasan boldly cast T.R.Mahalingam as the hero of that film which he himself produced. Many directors and big actors of the day had tried to dissuade Kannadasan because T.R.Mahalingam had drifted too far from the mainstream of the film world of the time. Maalaiyitta Mangai was a musical and Kannadasan boldly made the decision against all advices.

It is said that when the work on the film started Kannadasan’s friends in DMK party had pilloried him for casting a Brahmin as the protagonist in the film. In the Dravidian politics of those days anti-Brahmin sentiments were at their zenith. Kannadasan made T.R.Mahalingam sing ‘Engal Dravida Ponnade’ which was, in parenthesis, a high praise for the principles of DMK to pacify his party friends. Importantly, this was the film in which T.R.Mahalingam’s two immortal songs ‘Senthamizh Thenmozhiyall’ and ‘Naanandri Yaar Varuvaar’ featured. (The word was that Kannadasan wrote the song ‘Naanandri Yaar Varuvaar’ for the film Mahadevi. But M.G.R had rejected it as he did not like it. In its place A.M.Rajah - P.Suseela duet ‘Kannmoodum Velayilum’ was picturised in Mahadevi).

T.R.Mahalingam’s standing in the film world much improved after the film Maalaiyitta Mangai. But this lasted only a short while. The era of singer-actors like him was long past. The era of M.G.R and Sivaji Ganesan had started. Arrival of playback system obviated the need for actors to sing. Moreover, as dialogue was more important than songs in the films with social themes, which was the rage of the new era it did not suit his style of acting.

T.R.Mahalingam was also against the music trend of the time. He accepted songs that were in the traditional Carnatic music mode and rhythmic melodies. The taste of Tamil film music was remoulded by playback singers like A.M.Rajah, P.B.Srinivas and T.M.Soundararajan. T.R.Mahalingam could neither understand nor accept the new trend of playback singing. He was adamant about the tradition of actors singing their songs which was already relegated into oblivion. He refused offers to act insisting that he alone will sing for him. He also flatly refused to sing for other actors. He occasionally acted in films where he had the opportunity to sing. Thiruvilayaadal (1965), Agathiyar (1971), Thiruneelakhandar (1972) and Raajaraaja Chozhan (1973) were such rare films. His songs in these films were marvelous. ‘Isaithamizh Nee Seida’ of Thiruvilayaadal and ‘Malainindra Thirukkumara’ of Agathiyar were not only popular then are avidly listened to even now. Since he chose to stand aside rather than sing without an acting role or act without singing, the film world had to look beyond him. And his fans lost the opportunity of enjoying what could have been many more of his sweet songs.

Unable to understand his fall from grace in cinema, T.R.Mahalingam left Madras, the capital city of Tamil Cinema and retired to his native village Thenkarai. The super star of golden jubilee films like Gnana Soundari and Srivalli returned to the drama stage again. He sang and acted in dramas till his last, savoring the memories of his past as the wealthy super star of the masses. T.R.Mahalingam passed away in 1978 at the age of 58. But even today his enchanting voice and singing can be heard as the honeyed word of classical Tamil language, casting the magic of the soothing moonlight.