Sunday, February 01, 2009

The sound of music


A poverty-stricken childhood and an aborted suicide bid had its impact on the career of music composer Mohan Sitara

Photo: Singer Hariharan (left) with Mohan Sitara

By Shevlin Sebastian

When Mohan Sitara was in his early twenties he was working as an assistant for a well-known music director. Since he was a gifted musician he showed his skills on the harmonium, the violin, the drums and the bongo. “I knew I was good at what I was doing,” says Sitara.

However, the music director, suffering from insecurity, suddenly told Sitara to leave. “He gave no explanation,” says Sitara. “I knew I had not done any wrong.” Sitara went to his room and started crying. He never worked again with the composer.

During this period, he had gone for a performance in Thrissur and met a glamourous-looking singer, Chitra (name changed). She belonged to an affluent family and was drawn to Sitara because of his talent.

But the composer belonged to a poor family in Thrissur. Nevertheless, they fell deeply in love. However, months later, when the news leaked out, the inevitable happened: the family took Chitra away, and he never saw her again.

What followed were three years of devastation for Sitara. “I became like a mad man,” he says. “I would wander from place to place, in a torn shirt and trousers. I grew my hair and beard and started drinking heavily. Soon I ran out of money.”

One rainy night, after a long drinking session Sitara decided to kill himself. He put poison into a glass of whisky.

At 2 a.m., as he was about to put the glass to his lips, there was a knock on the door of his room at Thiruvananthapuram. He was surprised to have a visitor at that hour. Quickly he slid the glass under the bed, and opened the door.

“It was my elder brother Krishnan who had come all the way from Thrissur,” he says.
He told Sitara the engagement of their younger sister, Ramani, had been fixed and the family needed some money.

“I felt alarmed,” says Sitara. “Here I was trying to kill myself and the family was dependent on me to rescue them.” When his brother left, Mohan threw the whisky into the washbasin.

“I understood that, through Krishnan’s knock, God was saying he wanted me to stay alive,” he says. “It was a life-changing moment for me.” Soon, he borrowed the money for the engagement as well as the marriage of Ramani, and ensured that it went through smoothly.

At this moment, Lady Luck smiled on him. T.K. Rajeev Kumar, who was associated with the Navodaya production company, called him. They were looking for a composer for the film, ‘Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare’. Sitara said, “I don’t know how to put the music to a song. I am only good at orchestration.”

But an undaunted Rajeev provided an empty room along with a harmonium to Sitara and said, “Let’s see what you can come up with.” Sitara spent hours in the room, and through trial and error, he came up with a tune, which later became the superhit, ‘Rari Rariram Raro’.

Later, he reached a creative turning point with the song, ‘Unni Va Va Vo’ from the film, ‘Saandhwanam’. “The director, Siby Malayil, wanted me to compose a nostalgic song about a child’s past,” says Sitara.

To get the inspiration, Sitara went into his own past. “Because of extreme poverty, for months on end we had nothing to eat except kappa (tapioca) and black tea,” he says. When he went to school he did not carry any food. “When the other children opened their tiffin boxes the aroma would reach my nose and tears would roll down my face,” he says.

Sitara would rush to the well in the school compound and keep drinking water to satiate his hunger. “I remember that at night I would lie on my mother’s lap, on an empty stomach, and she would sing lullabies to me,” he says. “I used those emotions to compose the song, which became a big hit.”

Through all these years he suffered from an intense loneliness and one day, in 1986, he decided to get married. “But I felt that unlike my previous experience I would marry a girl from a poor family,” he says.

On the day he went to visit the girl’s family at Vadakancherry in Thrissur, it was raining heavily and water was seeping down the walls of the house. “When I saw that I decided I would marry the girl,” he says.

It was a pivotal moment for him. “Because from the time I got married to Baby, my luck turned for the better and the assignments began coming regularly and it has never stopped,” he says, with a smile. Sitara has had hits in many films which include ‘Vasanthiyum Lakshmiyum Pinne Njaanum’, ‘Nammal’, ‘Kootu’, ‘Swapnakoodu’, ‘Kazcha’ and ‘Thanmathra’.

Asked to explain his philosophy of life, he says, “I believe deeply in God. I sit at the harmonium and ask God to give me the tune. Then I wait and He plays the music through me. That’s how the songs are composed.”

For those who might be skeptical about this, this is what director Shekhar Kapoor says of composer A.R. Rahman: “He does not believe that music resides in him. Instead, Rahman says, he sources it from a field of consciousness that exists eternally.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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