When Deva says ‘Jithu Jilladi’ was a “unique experience” for him, he isn’t simply taking recourse in a cliché. He remembers the composer of the song, G. V. Prakash, as a timid boy who sang for him in Aasai . “Director Vasanth asked if we could use the boy who’d sung for ‘Chikku bukku rayile’. We made him sing a small bit in ‘Shockadikuthu Sona’.” And here’s that child now, “all grown up and making me sing”.
Deva says he was also probably the first composer to make Vijay sing. “He sang so many songs for me. I’m sure you remember ‘Coca cola brown-u colour-u da’,” he says, and breaks into a quick rendition of the song. It’s immediately evident why he’s one of the go-to singers for a gaana song: there’s a certain quiver in his voice that lends itself naturally to such music. Perhaps that’s why he’s still relevant as agaana singer—he’s recently sung ‘Tea podu’ for Anjala , and ‘Chellamma’ for Natpadhigaram 79 . The big one, of course, is ‘Jithu Jilladi’, a song he didn’t know would feature in Theri at the time of singing. “Why should a singer need to know? He is just a tool for the composer.”
But Deva is distressed that he is remembered mainly for his gaana songs. “What about ‘Konja naal poru thalaiva’ in Aasai ? What about ‘Ye nilave’ in Mugavari ? What about ‘Kadhalaa’ in Avvai Shanmughi ?” He points an accusatory finger at ‘Kavalai padadhe sagodhara’ in Kadhal Kottai. That was the song, he says, that changed how people perceived him. “Until then, the last song before a climax was always a slow, sad one. I thought we should give the people something faster and more entertaining before the climax.”
He hurls me back to the 90s by singing the opening lines of the song. I’m singing along with him in my head, when he abruptly stops. “But composers today are doing some really great work with gaanasongs.”
“Azhukku moota meenatchi… which song is that?” he asks. “Danga maari,” I offer. “Oh yes, yes. I loved that. I also enjoyed ‘Aaluma doluma’ a lot.” Deva sees differences in how gaana is composed today. “Almost all my gaana songs were based on the Sindhu Bhairavi raaga . But songs these days aren’t so raaga-based.” Lest this be deemed as criticism, Deva points out that there’s nothing wrong with this approach. Naan onnum thappa sollidaliye ? he asks at various times during the conversation.
He believes that today’s composers like Imman and G. V. Prakash approach him because of this trait. “I have no ego. Even during my heyday, I used to call up other composers—everybody from Vidya Sagar to A. R. Rahman— to appreciate their music.”
Deva also busies himself these days with working for the welfare of rural musicians in his capacity as the chairman of the Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram . “Amma has graciously given me this role, and I intend to make her proud.” He also composes devotional songs (“I’ve done 560 albums and 5,600 songs so far”). “If anything, at least I end up hearing the names of gods recited several times. I’m sure that will do me some good.” He believes it is all paying off already, considering that ‘Jithu Jilladi’ seems to have revived him as a singer.
“Most of my fans are usually middle-aged, as I was at my peak when they were all youngsters. But this song seems to have made me popular among the younger generation. I feel the same elation that I did when Vaigasi Poranthachu became such a huge hit.”
This interview was written for The Hindu. I also got Deva to answer the Proust Questionnaire. Check it out here.