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Discernment. Online


'I worked with Naushad till Baiju Bawra. I was a freelancer. I used to go wherever I was called, and because of that I could gauge the work of various composers'
'I used to think, "What is it that is heard behind the main melody?" I became very curious about counterparts. I went to my piano teacher Mr Hunt and asked him about the sound in recorded songs. He said I should study theory to understand all that'
'Just Western music is not enough. It teaches you chord formation, and if you know melody formation you can do good work'

In Association with


Vijayabhaskar (wearing a tie) records for 'Sri Rama Puja' (1963) in Mysore










'No book can teach
you composing'

Vijayabhaskar talks about his long musical journey through Hindi, Kannada and Tamil films. He has just won the Rajkumar Award, Karnataka government's honour for
lifetime achievement in cinema

You came down from Bombay in 1953 for your first film Sri Rama Puja. How did that happen? Did you come to Bangalore or Mysore?

I came to Bangalore and then went to Mysore for the recording. There was an orchestra called Jai Maruti in Bangalore. I rehearsed them and took them along for the recording. I wrote down the score using Western notations. I had selected some Western vioinists; they looked at the score and played it after a couple of rehearsals. The Indian classical violinists were amazed at their grasping power. That is the advantage of being able to read the Western score.

You had both Indian and Western violinists?

Yes, and we also had something called the dulcitone. We recorded it at a makeshift studio, which didn't even have proper seating. The famous singer Kalinga Rao and I used to meet in Mysore. He said he would play the dulcitone for my recording.

Did he read notations?

No, he played by the ear.

You were very busy in Bombay, assisting music directors like Naushad and Madan Mohan. What prompted you to come down to Bangalore? I should think you were not well known in Karnataka then.

The papers used to write about me once in a while... In Bombay I was sitting in a restaurant in Matunga and chatting with a friend when I accidentally met B R Krishnamurthy. We were speaking in Kannada and he overheard us and came and spoke to us. He used to work as an assistant to R Nagendra Rao and had worked on several pictures with him. I told him I was a musician. He asked me whether I would make music for a Kannada picture they were making. I said yes.

What exactly were you doing in Bombay? You were in the company of some very big names.

Yes, I worked with Naushad till Baiju Bawra. I was a freelancer. I used to go wherever I was called, and because of that I could gauge the work of various composers.

Whose music did you like the most?

Madan Mohan, and then Naushad of course. Shankar Jaikishen had their own way of composing, and changed the trend. I was in contact with most composers.

What was the job like?

I used to write notations. And also play the piano.

You also used to play the sitar?

No, there used to be others to do that. I played the sitar only if no other sitarist was around. I would write notations in Hindi and give them to the sitarists. I mostly played the piano.

Then you should be the pianinst we hear in many old Hindi songs?


You then gave up Bombay and came away?

I wanted to do things on my own. Because Kannada films used to copy Hindi tunes, people there used to say, "Kya bhai, aap log copy karte hain". I wanted to make original music if I got a chance. So whatever privileges I had in Bombay, I came away.

The songs of your first film Sri Rama Puja became very popular?

Yes, but the film wasn't such a big success. 

Was there any big music composer in Kannada before you? Any names you can think of?

No, they mostly used to lift tunes. Almost 80 per cent of their tunes were lifted. In fact, I was inspired by New Theatres productions rather than Bombay ones. They used to have things like counterpoint.

New Theatres of Calcutta?

Yes. They used to have beautiful tunes. I used to think, "What is it that is heard behind the main melody?" That's how I became very curious about counterparts. I used to see more or less every picture released in those days. I went to my piano teacher Mr Hunt and asked him about the sound in recorded songs. He said I should study theory to understand all that.

How may years did you learn the piano?

Five years. We lived in Malleswaram in Bangalore. There were many English people in Bombay, Bangalore, Calcutta, Ooty. They used to have their piano exams. Mind you, I'm talking of pre-Independence days, when the Cantonment was separate from from the rest of Bangalore. There used to be a British resident in charge. Englishmen, Parsis, and soldiers lived there. Ulsoor also came under them. But you could go and come, there were no restrictions. By crossing Cubbon park, the Queen Victoria statue, you entered the Cantonment. There wasn't much of a crowd then, as you see now. It was very calm ... four or five peole walking on a street. 

But it looks like people who knew only Western music didn't make a big mark in Indian film music.

Just Western music is not enough. From my childhood, I was interested in Indian music and I had also learnt some Karnatak and Hindustani music. Western music teaches you chord formation, and if you know melody formation you can do good work.

Which means people like you were instinctively making a kind of fusion music, without consciously giving it a name?

Yes, take my song from Shubhamangala, Snehada Kadalalli. It begins in C sharp but then I come to C. It is like a shruti bedha. From a minor chord in the pallavi I move to a major chord in the charana. I again join them together somewhere. You see novelty and surprise. That's why I also use accidentals. Even when I use a raga, I've used accidentals. Sometimes they ask me why I used it -- you can't do it in pure classical music, but I say you can do it in film music.

Lighter forms like the thumri allow it.

Yes, the thing is that the raga shouldn't sound wrong to the ear.
Even with chord progression, it is no use if you are bookish. You should learn it and then break it. People routinely use three-note chords, but many times I use four-note chords are more. There is no book or theory for film music. I watched foreign films for their rerecording, instrumentation, and to understand points where they take up music. That is a lesson.

After Sri Rama Puja which was your first big hit?

Because of the unfamiliar sounds that my orchestra created, people started saying that I was good only to make Western scores. To add to it, I used to go around in a suit.
Until I made the music for Santa Tukaram and Naandi, people continued with my Western label. In those days there used to be only four or five Kannada films in a year. Naandi and Santa Tukaram came together, around the same time. 

Naandi had songs like Chandramukhi pranasakhi and Haadonda haaduve, and Santa Tukaram had Jayatu jaya vittala, and there was nothing 'Western' about them...

Yes, and in films like Santa Tukaram you can't do anything but traditional raga-based music. I composed tunes for Tukaram abhangas.

And you got P B Srinivas to sing them. He was your favourite singer for many years.

Before him there was A M Raja, who sang in Bhagya Chakra , Jikki, Balasaraswati and also Ghantasala. In 1960-61 I was composing for pictures that were dubbed into two or three languages, with Padmini Pictures and B R Pantulu. There was no multitrack recording then so we had to take the music afresh for each language. If the words didn't sound all right I changed them, and the producers were with me. I used to take the voice on a track, on a negative, and then print it on a positive. Otherwise I'd have had to do everything afresh.

You mean you did two tracks?

One only for the instruments. And one for the voice. Sometime later Film Centre got a Grundig spool player with four tracks. And then Golden Studios...

Would you say P B Srinivas's strength was his heavy timbre and his sensitive expression?

Can't call it heavy. His is a medium-range voice with its limitations. If you composed within his range he sang well. First class.

What was his key?

It was C and he could go up till ga in the next octave. Even ma was difficult after that. We had to compose within that range.

Mukesh is a great favourite even today among people who love slow-paced, melancholic songs. And the songs you composed with P B Srinivas compare with his best, and the best anywhere. Haadondu haaduve  was exquisite in his expression of sadness.

And Srinivas had that sort of interest also. He used to come one day before the recording and sit and learn the tune. Once we go to the studio I don't change a tune. And without expression music is dead.

And there were others in Kannada films who were doing good work too.

Three or four of us -- T G Lingappa, G K Venkatesh, and Rajan Nagendra.

After Belli Moda, you started working regularly with Puttanna Kanagal. That was also his first film.
Puttanna Kanagal and Vijayabhaskar at the 'Sharapanjara' recording. They called kombu-kahale (horn) musicians from Kodagu to record for the song 'Kodagina kaveri'
His first Kannada film. He had done some Sri Lankan films before that. In fact, many directors did their first films with me.

You became Kanagal's favourite composer and whatever songs you composed for him became very popular. Moodana maneya, the Bendre song in Belli Moda, became a classic. You just use a sparse, slow beat in it.

It's a poem about dawn, and I had to express the early morning calm. It couldn't have any gajibiji! We created all the birdsounds, with the help of the flute players.

Your choice was P Susheela for most of your songs?

Yes, Susheela, and I also gave songs to Janaki. She could start on the second harmonium key and touch ma and pa in the next octave. I used to call singers depending on the song, and there was no favouritism.

The simple orchestra style you used in Moodana maneya came back decades later in Lankesh's Ellindalo Bandavaru.

The situations were like that.

After Belli Moda, there was Gejje Pooje , and later Nagarahavu, which must have been your biggest commercial hit with Kanagal.

Yes, when there is newness in a film, I take a lot of interest. In Nagarahavu, if you have heard Havina dwesha hanneradu varusha, you will notice many changes in key. I come back again to where I started. You can't make a melody for something like this. I also saw Gitapriya's Yaava Janmada Maitri on TV the other day... the first time I saw the film. This character has become mentally disturbed, and I have composed a slow-paced background. I was happy to know I'd done it like that. Harmonic divisions, clusters of notes, unrelated chords -- when you hear it you understand the discordance in the character's mind.

Even in Sharapanjara you'd done a background like that.

Yes, if you ask me, between 1963-64 and 1980, Kannada songs were great. Each of us had our own style and there was variety. And even the songwriters used to write well. About 98 per cent of all my tunes I've composed only after looking at the lyrics. I haven't made the tunes first. Very rare. The words inspire me. If the words are good, I get inspired.

You worked with Kanagal continuously till the '90s and then there was a break when M Ranga Rao took over for films like Ranganayaki. You came back for Manasa Sarovara.

We were on good terms even then.   

You worked in Tamil, and you were a Sridhar regular. How did that happen?

Chitramala Krishnamurthy called me after seeing Nagarahavu. Before that I'd done Nagendra Rao's Premada Putri which was called Anbe Deivam in Tamil. After Krishnamurthy's film became a hit, I got 7-8 films in just one year. I have composed music for 56 Tamil films.

And Kannada?
More than 300.
Telugu and Malayalam also. In Malayalam, the famous writer P Bhaskaran and I were a combination. Konkani, Tulu and Marathi I can follow very easily. In Hindi I did G V Iyer's Vivekananda. All along I have written my own scores, and till Nagarahavu I did my own conducting. But all big music directors have arrangers. C Ramachandra had a Goan. Shankar Jaikishen had an arranger called Sebastian.

All Kannada composers were in Madras. Did you bump into each other and see each other's movies?

Yes, if we liked a song we'd tell the other. I was very close with G K Venkatesh. I used to tease him about many things.

How did Vani Jairam become your favourite singer later?

I gave her a song in Kesarina Kamala, Nagu nee nagu. I had heard her at a concert. I invited her. And after that she went to Bombay and became very busy. Whatever I say she can grasp quickly. I like her way of singing and range.

In Gangavva Gangamayi, which Vasant Mokashi made from his father Shankar Mokashi Punekar's novel, you recorded a thumri with her, but it never got released.

Sometimes one concentratres and does good work, but the films never come out. I used only three instruments for the songs in that film.

Your latest Neela is a contrast; it's rich in violins.

The subject is such. When you see so many people on screen, your ears also expect a kind of richness.

From Ghantasala to Vasundhara Das, you've worked with at least three generations of singers.

Music can't be static.

Why do you think that after the '80s, the quality of Kannada songs came down?

The words... people listen and forget. And they've forgotten the melody part. Traditional instruments are very rare.

How do you rate Hamsalekha and Manohar? Take Hamsalekha, for the first time in Kannada film history,  a music director started writing his own words.

Manohar also writes. But when one man is doing both jobs, there may be a lot of compromise. It becomes a one man show.

You also went to London and did an English film.

I was the Indian composer. I recorded the score, and took the notations with me. There was another British composer. There they don't rerecord for a full reel at one go, like we do. They give a click. One piece in one tala and the next in another ... even a simple 2/4 can have many differences. I said I'll do a reel. He saw me rehearsing the orchestra and said go for a take. The film was called Robert Clive, and it was released in India also. It was shot mostly in India, and I did a major part of the score. He added a few things to it... h
is name came first and I was the second composer.

You were associated with Kannada new wave films like Grahana. But how did you start working with Malayalam directors like Adoor Gopalakrishnan?

I think differently for those films. I also did Nagabharana's Anveshane  which had Smita Patil. The picture ran well. I have made music for three Adoor films -- Kathapurushan, Vidheyan and Mathilugal. He is one of the best people I have worked with. Never interferes unnecessarily, and gets what he wants. He only said don't use the keyboard. I said I will use it but very subtly. No preconceived ideas. He is very open. A fine director and a fine human being. We used to go regularly for film festivals and meet casually. He had gauged my taste.

What are you working on now?

Chandrashekhar, who was the hero in Puttanna Kanagal films like Edakallu Guddada Mele, is making a movie. We had to start work now. It's based on an M K Indira novel. It has run into some controversy. 

S R Ramakrishna

Posted on 3 July 01

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