In a family of virtuosos, Bhavatharini Raja carved her own unique space

Through her songs, she reminded us of the divinity of Tamil.

WrittenBy:Rajesh Rajamani
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The sudden demise of singer and musician Bhavatharini Raja has shocked the Tamil public. She was only 47 years old, by no means an age for anyone to depart their existence. Bhavatharini was always associated with her youthful and mellifluous voice. How could someone like that, with the magical ability to comfort her listeners, die so early?

And worse, how does one offer solace to a grieving family whose music and songs have offered solace to the entire Tamil population for decades?

Bhavatharini’s father was the legendary musician Isaignani Ilaiyaraaja. Her family was filled with musicians, singers and filmmakers. Her older and younger brothers, Karthik Raja and Yuvan Shankar Raja, are both renowned musicians and singers. Her uncle Gangai Amaran is a popular filmmaker and musician. Her nephew Venkat Prabhu is a leading contemporary filmmaker.

In a family of such achievers and overachievers, it was likely that a less competitive individual would drown. But Bhavatharini – who chose to sing only a limited number of songs and compose for less than a dozen films – still managed to create a unique space for herself. She stood out not only in her family but in the Tamil music industry too.

The beginnings

It was no surprise that Bhavatharini started singing very early as a child. In the late 1980s, Ilaiyaraaja had monopolised Tamil music and his young daughter collaborated with him in films like My Dear Kuttichathan (1984), En Bommukutty Ammavuku (1988), Thendral Sudum (1989) and Anjali (1990).

While she song only small parts of the songs in these films, the song Dhoori Dhoori from Thendral Sudum became a huge rage among children after its release – primarily for the “bum bum bum” and “dumakku dhoori” parts sung by Bhavatharini and her brother Yuvan Shankar Raja.

Later in Raasaiyya (1995), she sang a full-fledged song, Masthana Masthana, composed again by Ilaiyaraaja. By then, AR Rahman had entered the Tamil music scene and turned things upside down. His albums – Thiruda Thiruda (1993), May Madham (1994), Kadhalan (1994) and Bombay (1995) – redefined the sound of Indian music and held the younger generation under his spell. It was a time when Rahman’s songs were so overpowering that it made all the music composers before him seem old and outdated.

But in spite of Rahman’s stronghold, Masthana Masthana was a huge hit, driven by Bhavatharini’s unique voice and peppy style. While critics initially complained about a nasal quality to her voice, the song won the public over. Even those critiquing it couldn’t resist the effortless catchiness of her tones. During that time, the top slot of Superhit Muqabla, a countdown of top songs on TV channel DD Metro, was often reserved for Rahman’s new releases. But Masthana Masthana was so popular it momentarily upstaged even Rahman.

Converting words to images

Following the incredible popularity of her first song, Bhavatharini often collaborated with her father and brothers. Her voice became synonymous with mellifluous melodies. 

But her singing wasn’t generic; it evoked pleasure from how Tamil lyrics were constructed. Listen to the lines of Nadhiyoram Veesum Thenral (the breeze that touches the river) from Alexander (1996) and the listener can immediately visualise the breeze over a river, just through her voice. Or Alps Malai Kaatru (the wind in the Alps) from Thedinen Vanthathu (1997), where one feels the shiver from the cold. And in Thendral Varum Vazhiyai (the path that the breeze takes) from Friends (2001), she brings alive the breeze again. 

Similarly, we understand the turbulence in the heart of a woman in love even before Bhavatharini finishes singing the first line of Thavikkiren Thavikkiren (am suffering in love) from Time (1999).

This is how Bhavatharini could render meaning to any lyric she sang and translate elements of nature or human emotion into visual imagery. Even those who didn’t understand Tamil could see the meaning in her words through her voice. 

French painter and impressionist Claude Monet once said he would like to paint the way a bird sings. Bhavatharini proved that the inverse is true.

Divinity in a voice

The most important of Bhavatharini’s career lay in how Ilaiyaraaja, as a composer, was able to tap into the pure, divine quality of her voice. The first time this happened was in the song Indhu Sangeeta Thirunaalo from Kadhaluku Mariyadhai (1997). 

The song wasn’t essential to the plot but was placed at the opening of the film – a deliberate choice to make Bhavatharini’s soulful singing melt the hearts of viewers. As expected, it left the audience vulnerable and ready for the drama that would soon unfold. 

In Kaadhal Kavithai (1998), the song Alai Meedhu too wasn’t crucial to the story or characters. But it was used to take advantage of Bhavatharini’s voice. Her rendition elicited the intense loneliness of lovers in Sangam poetry, contextualising it with the male protagonist’s life.

Ilaiyaraaja followed this up with Mayil Pola Ponnu Onnu from Bharathi (2000) – a song that would earn Bhavatharini a National Film Award for Best Female Playback Singer. The film was on the life of Tamil poet Mahakavi C Subramania Bharati. His poetry spanned multiple areas, from evoking the spirit of the freedom struggle to enduring a spiritual quest to writing songs for children. But something else that was very close to Bharati’s heart was his love for nature, and this was reflected in his poetry too. 

So, in his song, Ilaiyaraaja chose Bhavatharini’s voice to represent the beauty of nature. When she sang “mayil pola ponnu onnu, kuyil pola pattu onnu” – a girl like the peacock and a song like the koel – a young Bharati was stunned by the beauty of her voice and words.

Ilaiyaraaja continued to use Bhavatharini’s voice in similar ways to represent abstract ideas and emotions. In Oliyile Therivadhu Devadhaya from Azhaghi (2002), her voice captures the throbbing rush of first love and its innocence. And in Kaatril Varum Geethame from Oru Naal Oru Kanavu (2005), she manages to portray the joy and contentment of a happy family.

After her death, poet and DMK MP Kanimozhi Karunanidhi shared a poem of hers that was sung by Bhavatharini. Titled En Ammavin Vaasanai, the poem describes how a girl remembers the smell of her mother. Through her singing, Bhavatharini brings alive the warmth and scent of the listener’s own mother.  

In all these songs, Bhavatharini’s voice was able to capture something that can’t really be put into words. There was a magical quality that could sometimes signify the divine, the otherworldly, nature, even one’s own inner self. 

And it was always a meditative experience.

Making songs fun and wholesome

But Bhavatharini’s voice wasn’t limited to the contemplative or the philosophical. She could seamlessly switch to fun, presenting songs like Thaaliyae Thevaiyillai from Thaamirabarani (2006) that dominated radio and TV music channels for months. 

Interestingly, her peppier songs were often in collaboration with Yuvan Shankar Raja or composers outside her family. With her younger brother, she sang sprightly songs like Nee Naan from Mankatha (2011) and All The Best  from Aravindhan (1997). She collaborated with composer Deva for the playful Thudikindra Kadhal from Nerukku Ner (1997) and with singer Karthik’s debut as a music director for the mischievous Unna Kolla Poren from Aravaan (2012).

Just like her contribution to Dhoori Dhoori as a child, even her minimal presence in songs made them wholesome. In songs like Yaaro Yaar Yaaro from Ullaasam (1997), Oh Baby from Kadhaluku Mariyadhai (1997), Kodi Yethi Vaippom from Pithamagan (2003), Yelelu Thalamuraikkum from Goa (2010) or Penne Penne from Irumbu Kuthirai (2014), she either hummed or sang very small parts, but they were intrinsic to the song’s structure and beauty.

In the hearts of Tamils

Bhavatharini worked as a composer in close to a dozen films. The notable ones were collaboration with actor and filmmaker Revathi for Mitr, My Friend (2022) and Phir Milenge (2004) as an additional composer. 

Through her career, she was mostly credited as Bhavatharini Raja or Bhavatharini Ilaiyaraaja. But while composing for Maayanadhi (2019), she chose to credit herself as Raja Bhavatharini, almost as if to pay tribute to her father and put his name before her own. 

But irrespective of how her name was credited, she will be remembered in the hearts of Tamils for the healing and comfort her voice continues to provide listeners every day. Bhavatharini is testament to the fact that in spite of rendering only a limited number of songs, a singer can etch memories deep in the lives of the public through what those songs mean to them. 

In the world of Tamil vocal music that has been monopolised by Brahmin and other upper castes – who define at what age vocal training should begin, how a singer should prepare, who is eligible to be a guru and who can be a sishya, what is good singing and what is not, which voices can sing what songs and other such useless things – Bhavatharini showed us how the Tamil language can sound pure and divine, like never before.

Also see
article imageIthu oru pon maalai pozhuthu: How I learned about my mother through the music of SPB


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