Tenma: The Tamil indie music system is the most casteless
Composer Tenma talks about working with Pa Ranjith for the first time in Natchathiram Nagargiradhu and spills the beans on how the unique soundtrack and album was conceived
Music director Tenma's journey might well be worth making a film on. He turned to music at an early age, joined bands before turning 18, moved abroad to study music, changed his name to a Manga character, helped found The Casteless Collective, made his composer debut, and now, has attracted widespread attention with his wildly original work in Pa Ranjith’s Natchathiram Nagargiradhu.
Here are excerpts from a conversation about the album, the soundscape, and how it was all conceived:
In your debut film produced by Pa. Ranjith, Irandam Ulagaporin Kadaisi Gundu, you spoke about attributing a certain sound for the bomb in the story. Did you do something similar in Natchathiram Nagargiradhu?
We focussed on the galaxy. Sir understood the meditative space we were going for. We tried a few themes that didn't fit in, but when I considered the theatre as the plot, much like the bomb in my first film, things fell in place. But unlike in that film, NN has more layers, like The Raft of the Medusa painting. He understood how different my film work is different from my work for The Casteless Collective. As both of us share an understanding when it comes to politics, I knew what he was going for. But seeing the film as an audience, I think it's a piece of art... an artistic punching bag. I make music like images in my head—it's like synaesthesia. NN was like a puzzle and the music is like pieces that can come together as a whole.
Santhosh Narayanan and Pa Ranjith have long been a successful duo. Did you wonder why you were chosen for this film particularly?
The question wasn't ‘why Tenma’, but it was ‘who Tenma’ (laughs). The rushes and cuts told me the film needed a composer like me. On the surface, the film is about the BTS of a theatre group. How is this any different from The Casteless Collective? I built the collective, so I know what went inside. The group might be different, but the feel is similar. The pressure was on me to deliver.
How did the theatre backdrop influence the music of NN?
Music for theatre and films are completely different. Music for films are patterns that can be repeated. In theatres, only the motifs can be repeated. It's not about an extended melody that can bring a scene together. Film composers have to beautify scenes. As much as I'm conscious politically, I need to think about aesthetics too. I did research which included unlearning the composition of music for films. They were two states of mind that I had to keep in mind, while jumping between theatre and cinema. Theatre music comes from powerful structures that don't have patterns. So, I had to train the dolak and satti players to play it differently. When we recorded it for three days, the engineers, musicians and the studio owner had no clue about what we were doing. They had to watch the film to realise what we have created. Satti-a kuchi vechu vaasikurom na, adhu innoru style of music. Instead of plastic sticks, if we use wooden ones, it will give a third style of music. We took mridangam and tabla patterns and broke them into a dolak pattern. All this makes the music for NN unique.
The film pays tribute to Ilaiyaraaja. How did your music reflect this?
I wanted to imbibe his arrangement qualities from back in the day. The film songs Rene sings in the film are from many decades ago. 'Paruvame' has a violin section, and the idea was inspired by 'Kalam Kalamaga' (Punnagai Mannan). The track, 'Natchathiram Nagargiradhu', is a tribute to his music from Eera Vizhi Kaaviyangal. When the soul of Ilayaraaja is around a film, such arrangements bring a film together.
'Janame' is an intense track while 'Natchathiram Nagargiradhu' is softer and laidback. Is this design a product of the script?
For 'Natchathiram Nagargiradhu', sir gave Arivu and me a free hand. Sir and I decided not to use hip-hop as it wouldn't make sense for this film. 'Janame' is an oppari with gummi undertones and as I like to experiment with folk, I pushed it into naiyandi and thudumbattam. My motive for creating folk composition is to break the disparity in the folk ecosystem that's divided because of caste and religion. More than the script, it's the director giving us such space. 'Janame' was possible only because of Ranjith sir. I have done 'Iruchi' and 'Nilamellam' before in Gundu, but we can go to the extreme to talk about honour killings because of him. Lyricist Umadevi is the real hero of 'Janame'.
What’s the biggest difference between doing indie music and making music for a film?
The money! Films pay you well and give you the space to work with those you always wanted to. That’s how I could work with Benny Dayal. There's no other singer in the country who could have done 'Paruvame'. That’s how I was able to bring in a musician like Dhruv Visvanath. Comparatively, the limitations in indie are many times higher. Film music helps push indie forward. Cinema music is a monster and indie cannot compete with that. I have done 150 indie songs, but only now am I getting recognition. Abroad, indie has several bodies to support artists. Here, the scene is different. Naan evalavo adi vaangirupen. I have had my tooth broken and people have hit me. But I've also enjoyed the life of a rockstar (smiles). There's no guarantee or safety for indie artists here.
Indie music came to the limelight because of The Casteless Collective. If there were a good economical system, I would have stuck to indie music. But now, it feels like they have sent me on a mission to figure out the finances, so the indie system can be built. In the history of independent music, the last five years have been the most successful, consistent, and sustainable period. In the entire country, the Tamil indie music system is the most equal. It's the most casteless.
Favourite Ilaiyaraaja song - 'En Gaanam' from Eera Vizhi Kaaviyangal
Favourite non-Ilaiyaaraja song - 'Vellai Pookal' from Kannathil Muthamitaal
Favourite musician - AR Rahman
Favourite singer - SPB
Favourite lyricist - Umadevi
A genre you wish to explore more - Classical
A director you wish to work with - Thiagarajan Kumararaja
An indie talent that deserves a shoutout - Siennor