The train chugged on, smoke from the steam engine hurtling past the traversed path as destination Salem approached.
These are 50s, and this train often carried persons whom the public would die to have glimpse of. The Modern Theaters of Salem was then very much in the business of film-making , and directors and stars and story-writers and singers signed by the indomitable architect of the studios, T.R.Sundaram, traveled from Madras to his den of activity. Among these were "Kalaingnar" Karunanithi who went on to become the chief minister of the state twice and Kavingnar Kannadasan, deceased now but sure of a place in the history of the films he wrote lyrics for. But these ditinguished men aren't the subject of this day's writings. We have to do with two other men, especially with one of them, because he is dead too. He died some days back, and if ever a man deserved a requiem it is he.
These two men on the way to Salem were just a few years over twenty and their youth and ambition brought them together. The one was a story writer, he had hopes of becoming a director some day. His friend was a singer, he wanted to create music for films rather than deliver what other music directors taught him to sing. The aspiring director made a promise to the ambitious singer. This was it. If you don't get to achieve your ambition by the time I direct my first film, you will be my music man, he said. The other took it as a generous and friendly remark but because those were not only the days of steam engine and trams (in Madras) and no pollution but also of descency, the day came when words became action. This is then about how A.M.Raja, the singer, came to score music for the first time in Tamil films. The man who kept his words was the one and only Sridhar, the film was "Kalyanap Parisu" that spun a sentimentel web around a love triangle delighting film-goers no end by its romantic spirit as well as honeyed music, Raja's music.
"Diaries" and "directories' that circulate in the film industry give details about artistes and technical men in various spheres of film making. A current diary has A.M.Raja's name under the playback singers head, and gives his address and phone number. It's decades since AMR was 'busy' but somebody like Raja could not be shrugged off even if eclipsed from the film world. A single line entry, in the manner of a crisply worded classified ad would however suffice.
Times used to be different, and a 1956 publication in my possession titled "South Indian Directory" has one whole page on this singer. This is what it says and let me quote it despite the quaint turns of phrase:
The leading playback singer A.M.Raja was born to Manmadharaju and Lakshmamma on July 1 1929 at Ramachandrapuram in Chitoor district. When he was three months old his father passed away. The family shifted to Renukapuram where his studies began. He passed his B.A. at the Pachayppa's College in Madras in 1951. During his studies he was very much interested in music and learnt it in three years time. He won first prizes in Pachayappa's College music competitions. In 1951 he was booked to sing as a playback artiste in the picture "Kumari" Then he sang in the picture "Samsaaram". He has sung in almost all the films released in those days. He was very sociable with all the personnel in the film field. He had a soft and appealing voice that attracted thousands of admirers to his side each day and he acted in the role of a playback singer in the Telugu picture "Pakkinti Ammayi"
A.M.Raja had a meteoric rise, but circumstances weren't in his favour for long and changing trends and the rise of other singers and music directors cut short his career even as his own generally unbending attitudes did not earn him friends in the film world. Even his marriage with front ranking playback Jikki could not help him after the graph sloped down. In fact, he might have dragged her down with him.
In an interview to Indian Express in 1987 Raja seemed to have come to terms with his destiny: A brief but fascinating spell as singer and musician. He said then - I am really happy that my songs are still remembered and loved. That is why I have no regrets about the setbacks I have had to face in my life and in my career as a musician. He had become philosopical and said - It was all destiny. I achieved what I sought to although the ambition to do still better does not leave me. Yes, I believe I can do still better. I can tune better melodies than I did for films like "Kalyanap Parisu" and "Then Nilavu". But I am deeply satisfied too. I wanted to sing for films. I did. I yearned to make a name as a music director. I did that too. It was God's grace.
What was remarkable with Raja's singing was the quality of absolute ease that his voice suggested. Rajs's voice had the sweetness of honey, but he did not have to reckon with angry bees or press the honeycomb to extract it! But despite his natural ease in singing Raja could not be said to be an easygoing character. This was one of the reasons for his not being able to last in films. As director Sridhar recalls, Raja would not allow even a single note of his in a song for "Then Nilavu" to be altered. Kannadasan had had a swell pallavi but Raja would not budge and then the great lyricist himself made way, one of the reasons for his longevity in the film world being adaptability. But reliable sources, musicians and sound recordists who worked with Raja, confess he would come close to being paranoid when it came to his work. If a musician could not reproduce some notes he might be looked upon as a saboteur by Raja!
But idiosyncracies apart, Raja's claim to fame rests solidly on more than a score of immortal songs: the sad dirge-like love song "Sirpi SedukkAtha poRchilaiyE", the frivolous call to hedonism "Minor life romba jaali", the soul of sweetness and love "AadAtha manamum AduthE", the essence of raga Hamsanandhi "Kalaiyum neeyE mAlaiyum neeyE", just a bit of the dandyish and elegent touch in "paatu pAda vaa pArthu pEsa vaa" and "Oho! enthan baby", the tragic and lovelorn "KathalilE tholvi yutrAn kAlai oruvan" and so on. The list is long, and you can rarely find a Raja's song which is off colour.
Raja had strong ideas about the film music that we have today, but his days were over though he was directing music for a film or two and had even recorded a song with P.Sushila and his wife Jikki. Raja was for melody in songs, but his words would have no effect in times when noise is the closest cousin of music.
Filmdom with its quirky ways which make it flirt with the undeserving while geniuses languish in the shadows, might have all but turned its back on Raja, but he would be the man on the move. Destiny, however had struck its last tryst with him at a strange place. He was taking music to a temple at Koodalamoodu, a remote hamlet in Kanyakumari district when just one false step while boarding a moving train proved fatal.
The day news about Raja's tragic accident came this was what a musician said at a Vadapalani recording studio - What a sweet voice god had given him, and how cruel a death. Some times one finds it difficult to figure it out - which was more cruel, his life or death ? Despite his achievements in films there he was, marginalised, without work for decades, the film world having as it does a funny way of ignoring its past heroes.
But Raja was the sort of straight guy who would drive to the taxmen with his cheque and ask how much he would have to pay (he did just that) and perhaps he knew all the while that the crooked cinema world was not surely his haven. That he was but a wayfarer who when his destination comes must pack up and depart.