Silenced too soon

Silenced too soon

in memorium

Silenced too soon

Popular film playback singer Swarnalatha’s sudden death at a private hospital in Chennai recently, at just 37 years of age, after suffering from a lung infection, rudely pulled the curtains down on a dazzling musical career, when she easily had more peaks to conquer in South Indian cinema and beyond.

Swarnalatha’s singing career in cinema was launched with one of his most moving songs, Chinnachiru Kiliye Kannanamma. “She was an extremely gifted singer and that’s why I gave her a chance with that melody (in 1989 in the Tamil film Neethikku Thandanai),” South India cinema’s legendary music composer M S Viswanathan told Sunday Herald.

MSV as he is widely known, had composed the music for it. Swarnalatha’s very first song in cinema was a big hit and then there was no looking back. “She sang for me first, worked very hard and eventually tasted success, but suddenly went God’s way,” mused MSV in a quivering voice, adding, “may her soul rest in peace.”

Visibly, after the sudden death of the young actor Murali, a second grief within a week shook entire Kollywood, besides a large circle of the music and entertainment industry; for Swarnalatha, including her private albums, has rendered over 6000 songs in her short and sparkling career in at least seven Indian languages including Malayalam, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu and Bengali.

Born into a large family of ten children in 1973 in a small village near Palakkad in Kerala, this quiet little girl showed an amazing propensity for music from the age of three. Committed to music till the very end, she remained a spinster. Her father K C Cherukutty was a good singer and a harmonium player, while her mother Kalyani had been a constant inspiration in her life, said Rajasekhar.

Swarnalatha’s early schooling was in Bhadravati in Karnataka where the family stayed for some time. “We saw she was a naturally gifted singer and to enable her pursue her musical career, we shifted to Chennai in 1987,” recalled a shaken Rajasekhar, as his grief-stricken voice melted into tears. “It’s an irretrievable loss for us,” he sobbed.

When MSV introduced her as a singer to the world, he wasn’t going to go wrong. His intuitive sense in talent-spotting has hardly erred, reminisce Sabesan and Salem Ganesh, two avid music lovers part of MSV’s core crew who helped set up a  website on the legendary Indian composer. With a “distinct style and an unmistakable voice”, Swarnalatha had that “rear  quality to internalise the context and ethos of any lyric and manifest its soul in their rendering,” explained Ganesh, in a telephonic interview. “She was truly any great music composer’s dream-singer,” he felt.

No wonder Swarnalatha could sing with the ease to the demanding and often complex music of Ilyaraja and AR Rahman with equal aplomb. Her voice dynamics spanned an incredible rainbow of themes and moods, says another film industry insider, F Pandian. It was never a monotone for her, as her voice jelled with varying musical tempos. “Sree Raman Seethaikku thaan (Ram is only for Seetha), a stirring melody in the Tamil film Engirintho Vandhaan set to musical score by MSV and his former long-standing partner Ramamurthy, was a rage. Aatama, Therottama in the movie Captain Prabhakaran set to music by Ilayaraja was another top charter, film industry watchers quote.

Winner of several state awards, she topped it all with a National award for the Best Female Playback Singer quite early in her career in 1994 with her moving song, Poorale Ponnuthaayi in the film Karuthamma. Some of her other film songs like Mukkala and Usilampatti Penkutti have been smashing hits, as they resonate a youthful exuberance of our times.

“Swarnalatha was distinct and unique in her own way; her haunting, excellent and flawless voice created an impact on people’s consciousness and at times even gave them an identity they wished to cherish; her death is a great loss,” sums up another noted playback singer, Srilekha Parthasarathi.   

Struggling with a lung infection for over a year, Swarnalatha, herself a harmonium and key-board player, was not active in recent months until she caved in all too suddenly to death. But her voice lives and lingers.

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