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Iconic Tamil Pop singer A.E.Manoharan helped bridge the ethnic divide

2018-01-27 00:18:36
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By D.B.S.Jeyaraj

 

“Ithaya Oasai”(Sound of the Heart”) was a drama put on the boards by the students of St. John’s College,Jaffna in 1963/64. The play proved so popular that it was staged to members of the public in Jaffna, Kandy, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Colombo. The chief actor in the play was a handsome curly-haired student in the then Higher School Certificate (HSC)class. He was a hosteller as his family was living in the central highlands.


A remarkable feature of the lead actor in the drama was that he sang in his own voice on stage without lip-synching the songs. The highlight of the drama was a song set to the tune of “Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai” the theme song sung in nasal tones by Mukesh in the Hindi film of the same name ‘Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai’ starring Raj Kapoor and Padmini.


The “Ithaya Oasai” drama song was preceded by the sound of a gunshot followed by a bird’s squeak and sounds of fluttering wings in the background. The lead actor then bursts into song. The opening lines were “Oru Vaanambaadi Veeznthathadaa, Athan Vaalvu Indroadu Mudinthathadaa, En Kangalil Kanneeer Sinthuthadaa”( A skylark has fallen,its life is over from today,tears flow from my eyes). The words referred to the death of a skylark which is known for its mellifluous singing. Even the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was inspired by the skylark to compose an ode to the song bird.

 

 


Death Of a Skylark
The song about the death of a skylark was written,set to the melody of the Shankar-Jaikishan and sung mournfully by the actor himself. With the passage of time,the student actor himself blossomed into a songster in his own right. He became a well-known singer of popular songs over the years. After years and years of providing immense pleasure to his numerous fans, the life of the skylark who sang about a skylark’s death many decades earlier has come to an end. Anthonyppillai Emmanuel Manoharan known to the world as A.E. Manoharan breathed his last on January 23rd 2018. He was 73 years of age. This column is a tribute to the singer hailed as the “Thamizh Poppisaich Chakkaravarthi”(Emperor of Tamil Pop Music)


A.E. Manoharan was a man of wide talents. He was a singer,musician,stage and screen actor and broadcaster but it for his singing - which brought him great honour- that he will be remembered for in the years to come. He was an ebullient singer with a flamboyant appearance. Manoharan made his name as a rocking singer of popular musical numbers mostly in the Baila Music Genre. He was proficient in Tamil, Sinhala and English and could sing in all three languages. In later years he sang in the Hindi, Malayalam,Telugu and Kannada languages too. Manoharan possessed an aptitude for languages and had the knack of extemporaneously rendering the same verses in different languages during performances. He had a magnificent stage presence and could electrify an audience in no time. He sang with the great contemporaries of his time in Sinhala and Tamil music catering to multi-ethnic audiences. A.E. Manoharan in his heyday has sung in concerts,music shows and songfests throughout the Island. He was perhaps the most loved Tamil singer (next to Rukmani Devi) of Sinhala music aficionados in his time.

 

Manoharan was born in 1945 at Bogawantalawa ... His father was a Jaffna Tamil from Eeachamoattai near Paashaiyoor in Jaffna. While teaching in the up country, he fell in love with a highlands lass from the Indian Tamil community and married her. This was frowned upon by his Jaffna relatives...

 


What was most commendable and praiseworthy in many of his songs was his discernible love and affection for Sri Lanka and its people. Blessed are those Sri Lankans who have lived in different parts of the country,travelled widely within its borders and interacted with all people cutting across ethnic and religious barriers during times of peace and tranquillity. Those who have had such broad experiences unsullied by narrow sectarianism know that the Island is truly “God’s own country”.

Manoharan was one such person and it was reflected in his songs. He sang of Lanka and its beauty,of its landscapes, mountains,rivers, people, arts, heritage, places of worship and above all the unity amidst diversity of her people. A.E. Manoharan was a rare artiste who helped in his own,small way to help bridge the ethnic divide. He sang many Sinhala songs such as “Suranganeeta Maalu Genaawaa” and popularised them among world-wide Tamil audiences.

 


Anthonyppillai Emmanuel Manoharan
Anthonypillai Emmanuel Manoharan was born in 1945 at Bogawantalawa in the Central Province of the Island then known as Ceylon. His father was a Jaffna Tamil from Eeachamoattai near Paashaiyoor in Jaffna. While teaching in the up country, he fell in love with a highlands lass from the Indian Tamil community and married her. This was frowned upon by his Jaffna relatives and the man domiciled himself permanently in Bogawantalawa, where he became the Principal of Bogawantalawa Maha Vidyalayam. The family was devoutly Catholic and pillars of the Holy Rosary Church in Bogawantalawa, where Manoharan’s flair for singing was first noted. He was part of the church choir from a very young age. His father played the organ and mother was choir leader. Apparently music and singing were a family virtue.


Manoharan was schooled initially at Bogawantalawa and Talawakelle. Later on he was sent to St. Mary’s College,Nawalapitiya where the great singer C.T. Fernando too had studied earlier. CT with his break -out song “Pin Sindu Wanne” had begun to make waves as a singer. The school was very proud of its old boy and Manoharan was no exception. He too wanted to emulate CT at that impressionable tender age. Later on Manoharan was to acknowledge in interviews that CT Fernando was an inspiration and role model.


After completing his primary education at Nawalapitiya, Manoharan was sent to St. John’s College, Jaffna for his secondary education. He was boarded at the school hostel. He was a popular student known for his playfulness. He made a name for himself as an actor in school dramas and a singer in concerts. A Johnian contemporary of Manoharan remarked in lighter vein “Mano spent more time loitering in the vicinity of Vembady and Chundikuli girls high schools than in the SJC classrooms”. Apparently he was a hit with the fairer sex! A positive outcome of Manoharan’s student stint at St. John’s College was that he re-established good relations with estranged family members of his father.
The peak of his school career at St. Johns was the “Ithaya Oasai”drama referred to earlier. The drama was well-received in Jaffna. Many were impressed by Manoharan’s acting. Among these was a schoolmaster from Jaffna College,Vaddukkoddai called Joseph Devananda. He and a colleague Devan Kulathungam embarked upon a film making venture in 1965. It was shot in 16 mm film. The story and dialogues relating to school students was co-written by both pedagogues referred to as “Dev and Dev” by Jaffna College students. The film was directed by Devananda with Devan Kulathungam as associate director.

 

The real reason for Manoharan rejecting the marriage proposal brought by his father was due to the flowering of a romance. He had fallen in love with his first cousin Lima Theresa the daughter of his mother’s brother. Despite the dire state of his finances he decided to get married to her...

 


Film Maker Joe Dev Anand
As stated earlier Manoharan’s performance in the “Ithaya Oasai”drama had made quite an impression on Devananda. He selected the Johnian to play the lead role of Kumar in the film named “Paasa Nilaa”(Loving Moon). It was the fourth Tamil film to be made in Lanka. The film shot in different locations in Jaffna and at the Peradeniya botanical gardens, Galle Face Green and Dehiwela Zoo was released in 1966. A number “Thendral Thavalum” sung by Manoharan in the film was a hit. Since the film was in 16 mm it was screened at the Jaffna town hall and at school halls. Interestingly enough the live-wire behind “Paasa Nilaa” Joseph Devananda was to move on later from teaching to the cinema field as a film maker. He became famous as the film director Joe Dev Anand who made Sinhala films like Geetha, Sujeewa, Sunethtra, Obai Mamai, Sukiri Kella, Minisun Athara Minisek and the Sri Lankan Tamil film “Rathathin Rathamae”.


Manoharan with his penchant for singing and acting did not focus on his studies as he ought to have done. He completed his HSC with poor grades and did not gain admission to a Sri Lankan university. Thereafter his father sent him to St. Joseph’s College, Trichirappalli (Trichy) where he followed a BA degree course specialising in English literature. Unfortunately the “acting” bug had bitten Manoharan severely after his brief stint as the hero of Paasa Nilaa. He would vanish from Trichy for long periods and go to the state capital Chennai then known as Madras where he tried to get a break as an actor in the Tamil film industry. He failed miserably except for one chance in a film produced by the legendary MMA Chinnappa Devar.


The film was “Maanavan”(student ) and released in 1970. Manoharan had a tiny role as a student in the film which starred Jaishanker, Lakshmi,Muthuraman, Kamal Hassan, “Kutti”Padmini and others. Manoharan was part of the ensemble in a group dance sequence for the song “Visiladichaan kunjugalaa, kunjugalaa” featuring Kamal and Padmini. Manoharan uttered only one line in the film. It was “Mani Thaan Saar”meaning “it was Mani only, sir”. That line by Manoharan became famous among undergrads at St. Joseph’s College who began teasing him by that line thereafter.


A contemporary of Manoharan at Trichy, R.P. Rajanayahem has written about Manoharan’s days at St. Joseph’s in his blog. Incidentally Rajanayahem himself was involved with films and journalism later. Rajanayahem says that Manoharan referred to as “Ceylon Manohar” then was quite popular at St. Joseph’s. Since he had acted in “Paasa Nilaa” he was nicknamed as “Paasa Nilaa” first. After the “Maanavan” film he was teased for his one liner role and dubbed “Mani thaan saar”. Later in a drama staged at college, Manoharan acted as the leader of a gang of robbers and was called “Baas”(Boss) on stage. Manoharan made such a great impact as “Baas” that thereafter his nickname became “Baas”. Manoharan’s undergrad colleagues continued to call him “Baas” in their post-varsity days too.

 


St. Joseph’s College,Trichy
Rajanayahem also says that Manoharan was an avid fan of the doyen of Tamil actors Sivaji Ganesan. Manoharan was averse to MG Ramachandran(MGR) and loved Sivaji. He would sing only songs from films starring Sivaji Ganesan and not MGR. “Ceylon Manohar’s renditions of songs sung by TM Soundararajan and lip-synched by Sivaji were much liked by fellow students. Apart from being a singer of Sivaji film songs, Manoharan was also part of the St. Joseph’s Church choir. He also proved his prowess as an actor by playing the main character Anthony in a Tamil drama called “Gnaana Oli”(Light of Wisdom). The drama originally staged by the drama troupe of actor “Major” Sunderarajan was re-enacted by the students of St. Joseph’s College,Trichy. The same drama was made into a film later and Sivaji Ganesan played “Anthony” in the movie.


During his undergraduate days in Tamil Nadu, Manoharan established contact with the great comedian and singer J.P. Chandrababu, who himself had studied for some years at St. Joseph’s College in Grandpass, Colombo. Chandrababu whose full name was Joseph Panimayathas Rodriguez had at one time been a widely sought after comic actor, who sang his own songs on screen. But from the mid -sixties of the last century ,Chandrababu’s career was on the decline. He could not help Manoharan to get a break in films. Manoharan however was to tell friends later that he had learnt the art of yodelling from Chandrababu. Manoharan also used to sing film songs sung by Chandrababu on stage in those days. His favourite Chandrababu song was “Kanmani Paappaa” from the film “Thattungal Thirakkappadum”directed by Chandrababu himself.


After returning to Lanka, Manoharan became a teacher of English at St. Patrick’s College,Talawakelle briefly. The sojourn with Chandrababu and his disappointment over getting an acting opportunity in Indian Tamil films made Manoharan turn to his first love - singing. His main interest and objective in life was now to make a name as singer. He kept travelling to Colombo and other towns to get a chance to sing on stage. These were no major stage shows but minor ones organized on an amateurish level. Still, Manoharan did not let go of the opportunities to perform on stages, no matter how insignificant the event was. He excelled in singing the songs sung by Chandrababu on screen. He also sang the songs of CT Fernando and Kishore Kumar improvising with substituted Tamil words. Soon he gave up his teaching job to focus more on singing and music.

 


St. Anthony’s Church Feast
Embarking on a musical career was a bold venture. His first earning as a singer was when he sang at the St. Anthony’s Church feast celebrations held in Kochchikade,Colombo. He was paid Rs. 50 and was elated. Subsequently things were not so rosy. There were very few opportunities and very little remuneration Only the love and zest for music and singing provided an impetus for him to keep going. Usually Manoharan would be paid about ten to twenty rupees and bus ticket cost for a stage performance. There were many instances of default in payments after the show was over. On one occasion Manoharan borrowed 15 rupees from his father promising to return it after he got payment for a stage performance. The organizers did not pay him saying ticket sales were poor. A dejected Manoharan borrowed Rs. 15 from his mother and repaid his father.


Prospects of marriage too loomed large on the horizon. Manoharan’s father arranged a marriage for him with a girl from a rich family who could provide an ample dowry. Manoharan refused to marry her and his father was furious. His enraged father swore then that he would not find a bride for him again and that he would not spend a cent for his wedding. The real reason for Manoharan rejecting the marriage proposal brought by his father was due to the flowering of a romance. He had fallen in love with his first cousin Lima Theresa the daughter of his mother’s brother. Despite the dire state of his finances he decided to get married to her.


Since his Father had vowed he would not give a cent for his marriage,the proud son decided not to ask for any financial help from him. Theresa’s family from Upcot estate in Saamimalai too was against the marriage as Manoharan was involved in music and song without having a steady job. Emmanuel Manoharan and Lima Theresa were determined to go ahead despite this opposition. When Manoharan got paid Rs. 130 for a stage show (which was the highest payment he had got for a performance at that time) he decided immediately to plunge into matrimony. He bought a “bale” (cheap second hand clothes of low quality) suit for Rs. 30 at the Nuwara -Eliya bazaar. He took his own gold chain to a jeweller and converted it into a “Thaalikkodi” (wedding chain)with an extra payment.

 


December 27th 1971
At the time of his marriage Manoharan was living in Talawakelle where he wrote accounts for two small businesses. Though he was living then in Talawakelle he got married in the Bogawantalawa Church on December 27th 1971. His father played the organ and mother led the choir at the service. There was a small reception in the church hall where cake and coffee was served. The newly - weds then went “home”to Talawakelle by a CTB bus. A friend bought the bus tickets and also gave two buriyani parcels for dinner. Their honeymoon was in the one-roomed “annexe” in Talawakelle where Manoharan was living then.

 

Manoharan also used to sing film songs sung by Chandrababu on stage in those days. His favourite Chandrababu song was Kanmani Paappaa from the film Thattungal Thirakkappadum...

 


Married life with his new bride was pleasant and joyful for Manoharan in spite of adverse financial circumstances. He was very fond of his wife whose pet name was “Paappaa” meaning “Baby”. He was deliriously happy and even wrote a song “Paappaa En Paappaa” dedicated to her. She was a tower of strength to him in those days. The couple soon moved back to Bogawantalawa and set up home in Siripura. They had two daughters and a son. The daughters were twins and named Kala Mary and Selva Mary.


Meanwhile, the music scene in Sri Lanka was transforming and progressing in new directions. Inspired by the likes of Elvis Presley, Pat Boone,  Cliff Richard, Ricky Nelson and of course the Beatles a new genre of popular music was emerging. Earlier mainly due to the efforts of the legendary Wally Bastiansz, a distinctive Ceylonese/Sri Lankan variety of musical form described as “Baila” had evolved and become very popular. Now a new type of music blending the Baila with Western pop song music had started emerging. Singers like CT Fernando, H.R. Jothipala, Milton Mallawaraachchi and Freddie Silva were becoming household names. 


Soon emerged Clarence Wijewardena - with the moonstones, golden chimes and the super golden chimes -who took the music world by storm. And then of course there were the Jetliners,Spitfires and the indomitable Desmond de Silva. The guitar began replacing the piano accordion.


In neighbouring India, the Tamil music world dominated by film songs had been undergoing a similar trend. Classic musical forms based on Carnatic and Hindustani ragas were being replaced by a new genre of music known as light classical and/or light music. This was a mixture of many different types of music ranging from Rock’n roll to Calypso. Singers too started crooning in softer tones instead of singing lustily in their full-throated voices. At the forefront of this musical renaissance in Tamil film music was the music composer duo comprising M.S. Visvanathan and T.K. Ramamoorthy known as the “Mellisai Maamannargal”(Monarchs of Light Music).

 


Nithi Kanagaratnam
All these trends in the global, Tamil Nadu and Sinhala music worlds began impacting on the Sri Lankan Tamil music world too. Singers began rendering light Tamil film songs, Hindi film songs and Sinhala popular songs at musical events and stage shows. A new generation was moving in search of new musical vistas. But there was a yearning and longing for an authentic, different type of Sri Lankan Tamil music that would reflect the indigenous Tamil culture of Sri Lanka.”Cometh the hour,cometh the man”. There burst upon the music scene a man from Urumpirai in Jaffna called Nithi Kanagaratnam.
Nithi who learnt agricultural science at the Hardy Tech in Amparai and at Allahabad university wrote the words and composed music for a fresh form of upbeat, lively songs relating to everyday life and folklore. He first began singing them at school big matches and student musical events. The turning point however was the famous “Thinakaran” cultural festival held at the Jaffna esplanade in 1968.The “Thinakaran”was the Tamil daily published by Lake house. Encouraged by the Jaffna district police Superintendent R. Sundaralingam, Nithi Kanagaratnam sang three songs at the event.


The first song was “Kallukkottil Pakkam Poagathey, Kaalaip Pidithuk Kenjugiraen”(Don’t go near the Toddy tavern. I clasp your feet and beg of you), the second number was “ Sinna Maamiyae, Un Sinna Mahal Engay”(Aunty,where is your younger daughter?), the third one was “Aiyaiyo! Oorey Kettup Poachu”(Aiyaiyo! the village is becoming bad). The sight and sound of Nithi Kanagaratnam strumming his guitar and singing three lively toe-tapping songs in an earthly manner sent the crowds wild. There was thunderous applause and repeated calls for an encore. Jaffna had witnessed the birth of a new musical genre that came to be called “Tamil Pop”. Journalists Sellathurai of the “Virakesari” and Rajagopal of “Eezha Naadu” wrote extensive reports in their respective newspapers about this phenomenon. History was made by Nithi Kanagaratnam who is now domiciled in Australia. Nithi is widely acknowledged and hailed as the creator of the highly popular “Sinna Maamiyae” song and as the “Thamizh Poppisai Pithaa” (Father of Tamil pop music).

 

Sinhala Pop and Tamil Pop Music
A new kind of popular music and songs known as “pop music” had blossomed and bloomed in the Island nation. More and more songs were written,composed, played and sung by more and more singers and musicians. It was Sinhala pop and Tamil pop but it was also Ceylon and later Sri Lankan pop. Sinhala pop songs were sung to predominantly Tamil audiences and Tamil pop songs to pre-dominantly Sinhala audiences. There were mixed,multi-ethnic audiences where artistes from different ethnicities performed. To those who were in their teens and in their twenties and thirties in those days, the prevailing musical climate was that of heavenly bliss! There were parallel trends in India too with songsters like Usha Iyer (now Usha Uthup) regaling us with numbers like “Bombay Mere Hai”.


A far reaching development of great political significance occurred in 1970 when Sirima Bandaranaike was elected to power with a two-thirds majority as head of the United Front comprising the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP), Lanka Sama Samaja Party(LSSP) and Communist Party (CP). The new Govt enacted and implemented certain policies that angered,saddened and alienated the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. The introduction of standardisation for university admissions. The abolition of the Senate and right of appealing to the Privy Council in the UK, the promulgation of a new Constitution that declared Sri Lanka to be a unitary state and gave foremost place to Buddhism, denial of equality to the Tamil language, blatant discrimination in Govt service appointments and promotions, the prolonged detention of Tamil youths without trial, long periods of emergency rule, postponing of elections to the Kankesanthurai constituency rendered vacant by the principled resignation of respected Tamil leader SJV Chelvanayagam, the trial -at- bar of Appapillai Amirthalingam and three other Tamil MPs were all measures which drove the estranged Tamil people to demand and overwhelmingly endorse a separate Tamil state.

 

SLBC invited Manoharan to its studios and recorded more of his songs. A.E. Manoharan, the failed film actor had re-invented himself as a singer of Tamil pop songs. The popularity of his songs rose rapidly

 


All dark clouds, however have silver linings. In this instance, some acts of omission and commission by the United Front Govt also proved beneficial to segments of the Tamil population. Standardisation affected students of Jaffna but was comparatively advantageous to Tamil students from the Mannar,Vavuniya, Amparai,Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts (there were no Mullaitheevu or Kilinochchi districts then). The import substitution policies of the Govt. helped the Northern farmers who cultivated chillies,onion,potatoes and tobacco. Likewise the restriction of Tamil Films, pulp fiction and popular periodicals imported from India, helped foster indigenous Tamil films,dramas, journals and creative fiction. The Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) with the visionary Susil Moonesinghe at the helm provided much scope for the growth and development of Sri Lankan Tamil arts and culture.

 


Poppisaip Paadalgal Programme
An important manifestation of this enlightened approach at the SLBC was the encouragement and promotion of Sri Lankan Tamil songs. There was a concerted effort to include more and more Sri Lankan Tamil songs with novel, new programs. One such initiative was the weekly programme called “Poppisaip Paadalgal” or “Pop music songs”. It was broadcast for half an hour from 3 pm to 3.30 pm on Saturdays. It was immensely popular and provided a lot of opportunities to promising new singers and musicians.


It was this SLBC program that catapulted A.E. Manoharan to all-Island fame. He saw the growing popularity of Tamil pop songs and realised that the emerging phenomenon was his passport to success. He began writing songs and setting them to music. Manoharan had written a Tamil song based on the well -known children’s fable about the “Kaaham” (crow), “vadai” (spicy doughnut) and “Nari”(fox). The traditional tale is about how a crow stole a vadai from an old woman and was about to eat it when a fox accosted the bird. The fox flattered the crow that its voice was melodious and asked it to sing. The foolish crow opened its beak and the vadai fell. The waiting fox ran off with the vadai.
Manoharan, however had a different version in his song titled “Naan Ilangaik Kaaham” (I am a Lankan crow). In this song the crow is not duped by the fox. Instead of opening its beak immediately when the fox asks it to sing,the crow carefully transfers the vadai to its talons and holds it firm instead of letting it fall. After all it was a “Lankan Crow”.The song has the opening line “Vadai vadaiyena Suttu Vitraal Vaayaadik Kilavi” (A garrulous old woman fried and sold vadais). The catchy chorus imitated the crow’s cawing “Kaa, kaa, kaa, kakakaa, kaa, kaa, kaa).

 


“Emperor of Tamil Pop Music”
There was a musical troupe in Wattala called “Thundersparks” in those days. It was headed by a guitarist called Wilson. In 1971 A.E. Manoharan brought Thundersparks to the SLBC at his own expense and recorded the Lankan crow song . It became a hit overnight. Soon many lips were chanting “Kaa, kaa, kaa, kaa”. “Saivakkadai” (Vegetarian Cafe) waiters were singing “Kaa, kaa” as they served customers with vadai. 


Soon the SLBC invited Manoharan to its studios and recorded more of his songs. A.E. Manoharan, the failed film actor had re-invented himself as a singer of Tamil pop songs. The popularity of his songs rose rapidly. So much so that in 1973 he was crowned in Jaffna by the then Minister of Posts and Telecommunications Chelliah Kumarasuriyar, as the “Thamizh Poppisaich Chakkaravarthy”( Emperor of Tamil pop music). 

D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at 
dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com