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Madurai Somu & his mesmerizing ways
By T.M. Anantharaman
BANGALORE, June 1: Imagine an auditorium such as Shanmukhananda Hall at Matunga in Mumbai, with a seating capacity of over 2,000 people fully packed and the vast majority of them senior citizens but deeply loving Carnatic music and deeply religious. It was in the midst of such an audience when I was in my middle thirties that I witnessed a memorable musical con cert. I think the year was 1968 or 1969. One of the most popular musicians from Tamil Nadu had come to give a concert for the first time in the Shanmukhananda Hall, a venue patronized by the well-to-do, mostly Tamilian, Brahmin community in Mumbai. The singer was Madurai Somu, who, although a non-Brahmin, was deeply spiritual and devoted to Lord Muruga. He had a rich fluent voice which could scale octaves with ease and flourish. His devotional numbers on Lord Muruga were etched in beautiful Tamil, and, often, Somu chose uncommon ragas to present them. Such was the fan following he had among the Tamilian Brahmins that many elderly persons traveled a long distance by bus or train to be present at the venue where he was singing.

Remarkable concert
The Shanmukhananda Hall concert by Madurai Somu was remarkable for Somu’s ability to surprise the audience and give them something memorable. He sang the raga Kambodi, and, after essaying it in a brilliant fashion capturing all the nuances of the raga in the upper octaves region with effortless reach and flourish, Madurai Somu stopped and smilingly asked the violinist to continue. The predominantly Brahmin crowd in the audience were fully pleased with Somu’s rendition of raga Khambodi and were eagerly awaiting the kriti. Will he sing “Evarimata” or “Kana Kan Kodi Vendum”? They were speculating. Once the violinist finished playing, Somu smiled once again expansively as if reminiscing on some private, fun-laden anecdote.

Standing ovation
After clearing his throat, Somu broke the suspense with the astonishing words “Aandavane Illaye!” Then he paused. And, he repeated the phrase “Aandavane Illaye” a couple of times. Clearly, the vast majority of the audience, who were Tamilian Brahmins, was aghast at the irreverence which Somu was showing to the religious sentiments of the people, especially Brahmins! There was the expected `hush-hush’ among some elders muttering whether Madurai Somu had lost his marbles to keep on stressing the phrase “aandavne Illahye”. Somu smiled impishly once again and began the song “Aandavane Illaye, Thillai ambala thandavamadum, Natarajanai pola” and there was spontaneous response from the audience. The entire 2000-strong Carnatic music lovers stood up and clapped their appreciation and gave Madurai Somu a standing ovation.

I can never forget this musical soiree because Somu revealed in ample measure his ingenuity in providing a musical fare that will become the talk of the town for years to come. The raga Kambodi and the Tamil kriti “Aandavane Illaye Thillai Ambala thandavamadum Natarajanai pola”were etched and engraved permanently in the annals of the Shanmukhananda Hall and in the hearts of all those Tamilian Brahmins who were astonished at first but whose heart melted in great pride and pleasure at the Tamil poetry and music unveiled by Madurai Somu. This concert became a hall mark for Somu himself who steadily climbed the ladders of popularity among music lovers. It was not long before Somu had become a regular fixture for concerts organized by the many suburban sabhas of sprawling Bombay.

Easy expression of ideas
Over the years, I have heard Madurai Somu in many places. Almost always Somu displayed a penchant for easy expression of ideas and fluency in imaginative singing. Intrinsically, he seemed to be aware of what will give joy to the audience or tickle their fancy and he then went about giving them his whole-hearted musical oeuvre in an uninhibited manner. I recall the rumbustious way he used to present the Darbari Kanada raga kriti “Maduraiyile Arasalum Meenakshi, Maanaga Kaaanchiyile Kaamakshi….Kaasiyile Visaalakshi”. It is more than three decades since I have heard this song. Even now it reverberates in my mind with astonishing clarity, especially the part where Somu used to impart a Hindustani-style flourishing “taan” (brigha?) to the phrase `Kasiyile Visalaakshi’. Truly riveting music! Many musicians have tried to sing like him but not many have succeeded in establishing that unique rapport that he could with the audience.

Surprising the audience
Somu also liked to surprise the audience by singing rare ragas and kritis. I have also heard him sing Charukesi, Gowri Manohari, Sunada Vinodhini, Andholika and Shiva Ranjani. The kriti “Enna kavi paadinalum undan manam irangavillai, innum enna sodanaiyya Muruga,” is one of the most appealing compositions popularized by Somu. He displayed his own brand of “devotional pauses…saying Muruga, Muruga” while singing and endeared himself to the lovers of good quality music. In sum that is the delectable fare that Madurai Somu provided to a legion of his admirers, many of them Brahmins even though he was a non-Brahmin. Somu you will be remembered and loved by many like me. Thanks for enriching our lives with profound music.

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