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Play it again, Shyam

Music composer Shyam has one regret: he has not worked with lyricist Vayalar Rama Varma.


MUSIC DIRECTOR Shyam has just one regret: not having worked with lyricist Vayalar Rama Varma.

Tall, swarthy and balding, the director, now 66, remembers, "On a drive back home after a late-night session at the studio, Vayalar told me that we should pair up. It was never to be."

A show was held in Thiruvananthapuram recently in honour of the music composer.

For more than a decade from the mid-70s to the late 80s, Shyam had made Malayalam film music his own, composing for nearly 200 films. Working with all major lyricists of the time, Shyam had scored for many hits of Jayan and the early films of Mammootty and Mohanlal.

Like most success stories, Shyam's too had been a grind to the top. Born Samuel Jacob in Chennai, Shyam, whose mother was an organist in the local church, took to music with zeal. He learned from Nataraja master who had groomed the playback singer Rajah.

His fascination for music grew and he dropped out of law college and took to music full-time. " My parents strongly disapproved. But I had to do what I did," he says.

He learnt Western classical on the violin. "I wanted to excel as a violin soloist, but earning a livelihood was paramount and I played for music troupes," he says. "In due course, I moved from the second row to the first in the troupe, then played solo and finally became an assistant to music directors. I've played for M. S. Viswanathan, R. D. Burman, C. Ramchandra, Madan Mohan, Ravi, Salil Chowdhry, T. K. Ramamurthy, Pendiyala, Veda, T. Chalapathi Rao and S. Rajeswara Rao.

Among the Malayalam music directors, I've played for have been Brother Lakshmanan, G. Devarajan, V. Dakshinamoorthy and M. S. Baburaj."

While working for M. S. Viswanathan, the director rechristened Samuel as Shyam.

Says Shyam, "Samuel' was a mouthful for MSV. `Sam' looks ridiculous when written in Tamil. So it has been `Shyam' ever since. The name is convenient and endearing."

While working with Viswanathan, Shyam took to learning the violin, Carnatic style. "When recording for the song, Thangaratham vanthathu... (`Kalaikovil'), composed by MSV, I was diffident as I was more used to playing the western style till then," Shyam recounts.

He later learnt under Lalgudi Jayaraman and cherishes the relationship still. "I consider myself an ardent sishya of his and greet him every Christmas," he says.

Helped by A. R. Rahman's father, R. K. Sekhar, Shyam became an assistant to Salil Chowdury. Music-lovers have at times discerned an affinity between the music of Salil Chowdury and Shyam. "My work may sometimes resemble Salilda's. Even Salilda used to say that we resemble each other in our music and that we could have been brothers in previous birth. Like him, I too love Bengali folk music," Shyam explains.

Talking about the song, Mazha thulli thulli thulli, (`Saritha'), which has a `Salil touch' to it, he says, "I composed that song before I became Salilda's assistant."

Shyam's entry into Malayalam cinema had been accidental. "I knew nothing about Malayalam films, but veteran actress Sheela insisted that I do music for the film, `Manyashri Viswamithran'. I had started out as a composer in Tamil cinema for her film, `Appa Amma'. After `Manyashri Viswamithran', I was paid the advance for `Akkaldaama' and `Kamam Krodham Moham'," he recollects.

He is all fondness for P. Bhaskaran. "In my first film he put me all at ease, gave me so much freedom, and never forced me to change my tunes," he says. "Support from directors I. V. Sasi and Joshi helped me gain a niche in Malayalam cinema," he adds.

Shyam has no favourites among the films he has done in Malayalam. Asked about the film `Thrishna' (1981), with its songs such as Mainaakam and Sruthiyilninnuyarum, he says, "Thrishna' was satisfying. But just as all children are dear to a parent, all my songs are of value to me."

And he values his association with the then young singers, Unni Menon, Krishnachandran and K. G. Marcose. Shyam's song, Thozhuthumadangum Sandhyayumetho, had helped Unni Menon make his mark.

Besides Malayalam, Shyam has composed music for nearly 40 films in Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Gujarati, Bengali and one in English. He has also sung in a Tamil film of the 60s. "It was a dubbed version of the Hindi film, `Haqeeqat'. I had the fortune of singing with Sirkazhi Govindarajan and (K. J.) Jesudas," he says. He has also written music for dance dramas and serials.

Shyam is busy writing a book on music, in Tamil. "It's for the youth - telling them how to study music correctly, using both Carnatic notes and Western notation. It will have an MP3 CD as well," he says. Titled `Yesu Pugazh Paaduvom', it is slated for release this year.

Among the last of the directors to record using full-fledged orchestras, Shyam welcomes the changes that technology and digitisation have brought in. "These changes don't make me uncomfortable," he says.

He has his reservations though. "I fear that the human touch is missing. It could be because devices such as the keyboards and synthesiser are not devised with the needs of our culture and melodies in mind. Also, I believe that nothing should supersede the human voice, which is God's gift," he opines.

Shyam traces his roots to Kerala. "My mother's father hailed from Palakkad, though my father was from North Arcot in Tamil Nadu. A major part of my earnings has been from my work done in Kerala. But the ties are unravelling. I wish that the channels for communication open again," he says.

PRAKASAM K. UNNI

Photo: S. Gopakumar

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