Santhosh Narayanan: The human voice is one of the greatest instruments
Composer Santhosh Narayanan touches upon a variety of topics including his relationship with top filmmakers like Karthik Subbaraj and Pa Ranjith, his global music inspirations, and longterm goals
Santhosh Narayanan continues to be a defining voice, not just in our cinema but also in the indie space. The composer whose music was a key aspect in the recently released Sarpatta Parambarai, speaks here about musical influences, personal goals, and formative years:
Excerpts from a conversation:
I remember that many years ago, after the release of Ranjith’s Madras, you had refused invitations for interviews, firm in your conviction that you would let your work do the talking. I’m glad you have changed your mind about interviews since then. What caused this transformation?
I wanted to change certain things about my life. I have opened up as a person. It helped that I met filmmakers like Manikandan and Mari Selvaraj, who made me realise that it was important for artists like me to speak up. I was originally worried about speaking my mind, but I have grown as a person during these years.
Among your recent releases is Jagame Thanthiram and Sarpatta Parambarai, both films with your regular collaborators, Karthik Subbaraj and Pa Ranjith, respectively. Talk to me about your relationship with these filmmakers.
Karthik is more than a friend; he’s family. We are even planning to build a house together; that’s how close he is to me. As a professional, he convinces me of the utility of my music. He is a skilled extractor of work and lets me express and explore myself as a composer. In Jagame Thanthiram too, you would have noticed that I have explored two very different types of music.
Ranjith and Attakathi (Ranjith’s first film) helped me a lot at a time when I couldn’t even afford my next meal. It was a period when I wasn’t exactly aware of social issues. My financial problems at the time stopped me from looking beyond myself. Composer Pravin Mani gave me a place to stay in. I could afford just one meal a day at the time and would stuff myself up with unlimited meals at the nearest Andhra Mess, so I could last the entire day with that meal. The restaurant owner noticed this and let me take home his chair. That was my first piece of furniture. Pravin, who I think of as my mentor, introduced me to global music and expanded my taste.
As I grew and met people, Ranjith was among my ever-expanding group of connections who have helped me shape my unique ideologies. I have grown stronger in my conviction that the end goal is always togetherness. This sense of oneness is important for me. That’s what I love about films like Pariyerum Perumal and Karnan, which scream for people to get together. Enjoy Enjaami too is about this oneness. I hope that before I die, I succeed in becoming a strong voice that unifies.
I understand that your work as a composer is born out of collaborative efforts with artists like Pradeep Kumar.
Pradeep is the kind of artist to refuse invitations to sing if he finds that he isn’t going to be a strong participant in the process. It isn’t that he needs to create something, but he likes to get involved musically. In Vaanam Paarthen (Kabali), for instance, he played the guitars too. He wrote and sang Vazhi Paathirundhen (Attakathi). When the collaboration goes beyond a point, I’m always careful to give them due credit. These collaborations occur more in my indie work, where it’s almost impossible to separate contributors.
Today, there’s much emphasis on reach through YouTube. In Jagame Thanthiram, for instance, quite a few songs that got released on YouTube didn’t make it to the actual film. Is there a worry to have to cater to this medium, as opposed to focussing only on the film?
The only worry I have had over the last year has been related to Covid (laughs). I think the real challenge with films like Jagame Thanthiram and Sarpatta Parambarai is how these were originally made for the theatre, even though they were later aquired by OTT platforms. The sound mixing for the movie theatre is totally different from what we would do for the television. It isn’t just about the sound; it’s about colour correction, edit pattern, artistic expression… everything changes. As for songs like Nethu (Jagame Thanthiram) that didn’t make it to the film, it’s a creative choice by the filmmaker. I’m just glad that our work made it out through some form.
The objective for my music is to stand the test of time. I choose that over instant success. When I look back at my discography, I don’t want to be embarrassed about what I have done. I feel this way about some old work of mine. My daughter, Dhee, was a fan of Ed Sheeran even before he became famous. Once he became popular, people began digging up all his old music. And this made me realise the importance of every song you do.
Even as you embrace global styles—like the Scottish influences in Jagame Thanthiram’s music—I notice that you usually marry them with some strong regional touches.
Jagame was about two different worlds, and yet, I feel both these worlds had a common emotional point. And yes, I enjoy bringing in our rooted influences into world styles. Jazz legend, Louis Armstrong, is a big hero for me. When he plays the trumpet, it’s like you can hear his voice. Oru nakkal irukkum avar kitta. I think Gana Bala is the closest we have to matching that attitude. That’s why I have enjoyed using his voice. I think our society unreasonably labels and stifles certain type of talent. They tell you that if you are a gana singer, you can’t do world music; that if you’re a carnatic singer, you can’t do cinema. These are unwritten rules we must break. This is why I think Sivakarthikeyan’s rise is so important. It broke all those rules surrounding the evolution of TV personalities. We need to glorify certain ideas to make sure they get their due. I did Parris Jayaraj for this reason—I liked that it allowed me to do focus only on gana for an entire album. These are valuable artforms that must be glorified. It’s important, however, that in the name of paying homage or popularising local styles, we don’t end up appropriating it. I’m careful about this. These are goals I have set for myself.
What other goals have you set for yourself?
I want to make unifying songs. The positive reception to Enjoy Enjaami has motivated me a lot. I also want to make folk music sustainable by creating a revenue model for it. I hope also to instill in people a responsibility to keep the environment clean. I guess these are goals that really appeal to me right now.
There were trance influences in Barotta Master (Jagame Thanthiram). It’s a genre our cinema hasn’t exactly explored earlier.
I think your comment is a compliment to our film industry. It tells me that we have done such a great job exploring so many world styles already. Between MS Viswanathan, Ilaiyaraaja and AR Rahman, there is nothing out there that they haven’t already covered in their music. That said, I do think that it’s okay that we may not have explored certain styles that aren’t really rooted in our region.
You use the human voice almost as an instrument in your music.
That’s because I think voice is among the greatest instruments. I get many of my musical ideas by singing, not necessarily by writing notes. There are very few instruments that have the range of the human voice. It’s a monophonic instrument, but we can create more and more layers and make it polyphonic. In fact, many times, I record the voice as a sample for the instrumentalists, but then we end up convinced that the voice sounds good enough.
I like that in songs like Rakita Rakita, there’s an underlying humour about the music.
(Laughs) We shouldn’t take life too seriously. Confirmed-a saaga porom. In fact, lyricist Vivek based the lines of Rakita Rakita on my personality. I don’t think anyone can separate ‘fun’ from me. Those who really know me, know this side to me. Many who don’t really know me think of me as a quiet, intense personality. However, I believe in taking life lightly, in realising the value of being alive. Every morning, I remind my family that we are all alive and that it’s a gift. This helps us remember that we must make the most of the time we have.