MS Baburaj – The legendary musician

The very mention of the name brings up a wistful smile in the countenance of most Malayalees. Many hearing it would have something to say if not about the music, about that period when melody was king and quickly drift away into a nostalgic and melancholic mood. Some of us know his music and we all believe in his genius, but how many of you know the person behind the music? You may have seen an odd documentary or tribute, you may have read an article here or there, and a rare enthusiast may have chanced upon a book or two about him.

Well, he was indeed a genius without parallel. Such was the endearing quality of this great musician who gave us so many gems to remember that even the new generation happily pick up his songs without hesitation. Interestingly, even his name, Babu which eventually went on to become Baburaj or fondly as Babukka - a household name in the 70’s, was never a given name, but an adopted name, adopted for survival. A study of his life is also somewhat of a study of the times, of a period when Kerala itself was in the throes of change, culturally, socially and when the films themselves had started to move away from mythical, religious themes to social themes, and the common man and his woes started to appear on the silver screen. The music in those movies were either built up on a heavy Carnatic classical base, or based on Kerala folk music but by and far were also inspirations from Hindi and Tamil films. The trio of G Devarajan, V Dakshinamoorthy and K Raghavan were ruling the roost and it was time for a breath of fresh air. That responsibility of bringing in a renaissance fell on the young shoulders of Baburaj, then just 26 years old. But his trek until that point was one filled with a lot of struggle, sadness and many a day of struggle amid abject poverty.

Let us now head to Calicut to see how the man eventually reached the Kodampakkam film city in Madras.
Calicut in the 1920’s was a place which can at best be called turbulent. The Moplah revolt of 1921 had created deep fissures between communities and the separated factions were struggling to make ends meet in a depressing period where jobs were scarce, where oppression by the British rulers was also fomenting a freedom struggle amongst the masses. The Moplahs in search of an identity, especially when it came to music settled on their own Moplah folk music and also promoted Hindustani music from the North, as they were unable to come to terms with the Carnatic and Kerala folk styles in vogue then. Their social gatherings and weddings were replete with mehfils where food and music went together. In those sessions or in specialty music clubs such as the Everest club near the beach, they, especially the wealthy Moplahs would invite Hindustani singers and musicians. As events would later demonstrate, in tune with the healing in Calicut, this caught on with non-Muslim families as well and it was not uncommon to see such impromptu music sessions even at Hindu functions.

Calicut thus became a favorite landing place for such wandering minstrels from the North and got accepted as a place where nontraditional music was appreciated. By 1950, there were so many music clubs, radio shops, musical instrument shops and many a cinema hall where all types of movies were shown. The restless youth seeking an outlet and many hundreds of enthusiasts would troop to these gatherings as well as the movies. Communism was slowly taking root in the state and there was also a hum amongst the socially and economically downtrodden and eagerness to attend cultural events organized by the party, especially thematic Dramas by KPAC and local troupes. Such events were replete with musical openings to get the people to settle down.

One such Hindustani musician who landed up in Calicut specializing in Ghazals and Quawalis was named Jan Mohammed, hailing from Bengal. He soon became a local favorite and as it happened, he got married to Fatima hailing from Akode near Vazhakkad. Mohammed Sabir (a.k.a Baburaj) was born to them in 1929, but Fatima passed away after childbirth (or a few years later) and pretty soon after, Mohammed moved to neighboring Tellicherry and married Rubiabi while serving at the Arakkal palace functions. We now come to know that Sabir had a brother named Majeed (I am not sure if Baburaj’s brother comes from Fatima or Rubiabi) and that they were inseparable throughout their life, though nobody has any idea what happened to Majeed in later years. Sabir continued his life in Chirakkara and studied there until the age of 8 or so, getting trained in both the harmonium and Hindustani basics by his father every evening between 5PM and 8PM. As opportunities dwindled, Jan Mohammed slunk away to Calcutta one fine day leaving the family in a lurch, and I guess poverty eventually overtook the family. Soon after, we see the boys in and around Calicut, wandering around, with Babu (a name the young Sabir adopted) singing Hindi songs and Bhajans in trains and on the street, accompanied by later day actors like EP Moideen Kutty. After a while, he settled down in Tirur and worked for the Rahman studio, which did lighting and photography for weddings, but continued to sing and play the Harmonium, more so the latter, when an opportunity came by.

As it happened, a benevolent Police constable – PC 353 Kunju Ahmed happened to see the 13-14 year old boy’s street performance near the Police quarters in Calicut. Soon the boy was adopted by this great man and taken home. There their relationship flourished, Babu found a home and a friend as well. That friend was none other than watch repairman Leslie from SM Street, whom we talked about in the past, the person who went on to become the great Kozhikode Abdul Khader. Leslie would sing and Babu would provide accompaniment on the Harmonium. This went on for a while, and then we hear that Babu has disappeared from Calicut. Perhaps it was when Leslie went to Burma and after a period got back to marry Kunjuahmed’s sister. It is said that Babu went to Bengal and many other places in search of his father, but whether he found him or what happened in those nomadic days is not known. Nevertheless, when he got back, he had acquired proficiency in various styles of Hindustani music.

The 50’s in Calicut was a period of resurgence for the party and Khader a member, was greatly respected as a lead singer. All major meetings were opened with strident songs sung by Khader and Machad Vasanthi, with Baburaj providing the accompaniment. I believe he also sang at times. They were in great demand and things were going satisfactorily till he and Vasanthi were approached by a North Indian to do a concert trip (Silver Jubilee show) in Ceylon and North India for a good compensation of 3 lacs. As it transpired, they were royally cheated and got nothing at the end. But that was always Baburaj’s problem, he did not know how to insist or fight for his rightful compensation. It is said that he was cheated by other producers many a time and Baburaj would always forgive and forget, because he simply believed any person who expressed helplessness, right or wrong. Just imagine, a person who never had a bank account in his life and one who never received compensation of even Rs 5,000 per film for his music direction. Well, those were the days when masterpieces were created for a pittance and a time when each song Baburaj created was perhaps mirroring his own life experiences!!

Baburaj is still in Calicut and with Khader, doing mehfils and other local events, but was soon to become a family man, he married another sister of Constable Kunju Ahmed and they had two children, but as his miserable fortune decided, his wife and two children died soon after to sickness. Nevertheless, lady luck had to smile at him sometime, and I guess it was time for that, for one day P Bhaskaran a film director and lyricist, then working with the Calicut AIR came to Ahmed’s house and remarked that he was somewhat stuck with the accompaniment for a song in his upcoming movie Neelekuyil. Baburaj it seems provides the solution and the grateful PB kept it in his mind. It was thus in the mid 50’s that Baburaj started getting opportunities to assist with music direction in films. In 1957 he eventually created music by himself, for the film Minnaminungu. As expected, he had his friends Abdul Khader and Vasanthi doing some of the songs in it and repeated them in later ventures.

The 17 or 18 years which followed, created his legacy. Song after song came off his fleeting fingers rapidly feathering the white and black harmonium keys, film after film established his credentials, and soon he was on the top of popularity charts. He is credited with bringing in the nontraditional Hindustani current to Malayalam music and firmly establishing melody in the minds of the ever critical Malayali. To recreate those scenes, which sadly nobody put to film, is not easy, but if one were to put it in words…
Cut to Sekhar (Swami) lodge Madras.

The film people usually book most of the rooms in the lodge and Baburaj always had his favorite. There he was, dapper as always, freshly ironed cream colored shirt and pants, hair slicked back with brylcreem, do I spot a Rolex on his wrist (perhaps! I would not know the difference, but I cannot discount the possibility), filter cigarette in his fingers, sitting on the floor and the harmonium in front. Do I smell some alcohol in his breath? Yes, I do, through the stiff scent of Eau de cologne he has used in liberal amounts masks it somewhat…but that seems to have not affected the creativity for Babu is enthusiastic, and has a number of ideas today. He seems to be in a rocking mood and like always, he is twisting his lips to a side when he is concentrating. He is now playing furiously, checking a few tunes, the lonely fan whirring overhead and the room full of another 5 or 6 sweaty men and a couple of women. I think they are trying out a song for Janaki to sing, was it Vasantha Panchami Nalil? Can’t remember!! A Vincent is there, P Bhaskaran is there, a few others, then there are Babu’s assistants, there is Muthu, there is RK Sekhar (AR Rahman’s father) and there is Bhairavan babu’s favorite tabla player. It took a good 10 minutes for babu to read the fine poetry, for he is not too good with text. Babu’s eyes are now closed and he comes up with a great tune and as his fingers fly over the keys, the tune wafts out of the bellows, but P Bhaskaran is not happy. Babu is upset, he believes that was a good tune, and many others in the room agree. No problem, he is at it again and after a couple of new tunes, wow! This one is fantastic…everybody agrees. He looks at Majeed his brother and raises his brow – Majeed is his best critic and he nods. A few hours later the tune is perfected and Janaki tests out a few bars in rehearsal, for the recording is tomorrow. Everybody claps and shout out their wah wah’s. Baburaj stands up, raises his collar and proclaims looking at somebody who was originally critical and doubtful – (Athanado Baburaj!! In typical Calicut style) That is Baburaj for you, the greatest!!!! They all split off to Central station Buhari to have a well-deserved Biryani…

Listen to the song today and anybody will agree, a masterpiece of a song created in a hot, humid and sweaty room, jam packed with enthusiastic people. Today nothing remains, except the song and the fan that whirred softly overhead, which mutely witnessed the event….

Many a stalwart remembers him from those hey days, Yesudas insists that nobody could set a Hindustani tune to Malayalam words and phrases like Baburaj. He could do it beautifully, without splitting a word. Jayachandran fondly remembers accompanying Baburaj who would go back every two weeks to Calicut even when he was very busy in Madras, to partake in mehfils and wedding ceremonies, or to help his friend Khader and his functions. In those days he could effortlessly create 5-6 tunes for any song and lay it out for the producers to decide. Such was his mastery in his field, done without computers and memories or slicing and dicing. His harmonium and his fingers did it all a 600 times, for roughly 100 films, not to mention the countless Moplah songs and drama numbers. “Baburaj was a much more versatile composer than he was given credit for. He was a self-taught genius. Sadly, he never got his due. Imagine the man never got even a State award!” says K.P. Udayabhanu who has sung a few unforgettable songs for Baburaj, including ‘Anuraga natakathin…’ in a Hindu interview. Jayachandran adds - It was he who showed me Kozhikode city for the first time. When he auditioned my voice for the first time I couldn't sing as I was literally shivering. He is one of the best music directors of all times, he had a style which was combined of both Hindustani and Mappilapattu."

Time sped by and we see the man slowly sliding off the peak. Hits are lesser in number, his own focus has reduced and he is keen to get back to Calicut than hang around in Madras in misery. Contemporaries say that the proud MSB had an inflated ego, like most artistes and that he would not go looking for opportunities, instead choosing to relax in Swami’s lodge, waiting for them. P Bhaskaran, his godfather has moved on to other music directors. Something is troubling him, as his fingers feel stiffer. The doctors mention some kind of arthritis (or was it the after effect of a stroke?). Baburaj decides in 1975 to slow down and go back to Calicut with his brother Majeed. His pockets are empty, all the money he got has been spent on food, cards and booze in those 15 years, and all he has left is the house in Kallayi where by now he has a second wife and 9 children. The children are Gulnar, Shamshad, Rosina, Sabira, Shamna, Jabbar, Zulfikar, Farhan and Samila. All these years they have been well taken care of, but his brother in law and friend Abdul Khader is not doing well. As you can imagine, Babukka is a lost soul.

To sustain himself and his large family, he has to work and there were no calls coming from Madras. Eventually he decides to get back to his roots and with that firm decision, the dejected man joined the music troupe of VM Kutty as a guest singer. The next two years are spent crisscrossing Malabar for countless mehfils and performances, some good, some terrible, for Baburaj’s mastery over the harmonium is in a decline, his fingers don’t obey him anymore and even a few drinks before each program don’t help anymore. Some of his friends like singer Mehaboob and his greatest supporter Abdul Khader had already left this world. And there was another issue, his face had started to look a little disfigured with arthritis taking its toll, something that affected the once dapper man a lot, but he toiled hard to support his family as a simple harmonium player in those final days.

It is 1978 and Baburaj is feeling a little better, the speech impediment is better, though the fingers are still unyielding, but his mind is full of new ideas. He has just been contacted by director Hariharan to do music for his film Yagaswam and the eager Babukka has even decided to ask Hariharan for a new harmonium in return.

Cut back to Madras – Hariharan is waiting eagerly to meet Babukka, for it had been his life’s desire to get the great man back on track and do his film. At Ashoka hotel, he is looking forward to seeing Baburaj, who according to him was recovering from a stroke, looked haggard, but still had that lovely smile on his face. The composition started, Muthu was there to help, and Baburaj asked Muthu to handle the keyboard, not touching it himself, for his fingers are still unyielding. Hariharan insisted that Babukka play the harmonium, but the scene becomes pathetic when baburaj could not and found the going difficult, nevertheless, the song is completed.

Not much later, Baburaj suffers his fatal stroke at Madras. He is hospitalized in the general hospital which does not have too many facilities. The film fraternity rushes to his side, and MGR personally intervenes to get an advanced X-ray machine to the hospital for diagnosis. But 4 or 6 days later he is lost to this world, just 59 years old, on Oct 7th, 1978.

Did his family carry on the legacy? One of them took to playing the tabala, his son Zulfikar. His granddaughter (Daughter Sabira – Sabutti’s daughter) Nimisha Salim is a budding singer and in the news these days. But the airwaves continue to play those timeless melodies from Baburaj, and of recent we have come across recordings in his own voice which testify that he was a good singer himself. The grateful singers who sang for him, such as Yesudas with 118, Janaki with 117 songs and so on outlived him and are doing well. Many of them and friends like Devarajan still provide monetary assistance to the family and mention him in their memoirs.

For many of his contemporaries, in the mehfil and Moplah song circuit, only one image remains - As the chicken and fish biryani or ghee rice and curry were consumed, as bottles were opened in various dark corners beneath the shamiana, as others puffed away or chewed various forms of tobacco, and as others gossiped or quarreled, their minds were quickly put to flight, to a musical paradise, taken there by the fingers on a harmonium keyboard and a heavy voice laced with sadness, that of Babukka…

Strange, sometimes, I think back and wonder, for I used to be in Calicut in the 74-79 period. We frequented the same areas, near the P&T office, wheat house, park, SM Street, stadium and so on, would we have ever crossed each other? Who knows? I would not even have known him then. These are people you wished you had met and known, simple down to earth people with a soul.  

Others also remember the maestro Babukka of Calicut, like the many who frequented the Calicut music clubs, people like Babu of Calicut harmonium works who maintained MSB’s harmoniums, the many singers who were newcomers introduced by Babukka and who are great today, there is Hydrose Koya who mentions the tidbit about Babukka visiting the Republic hotel to listen to music over the expensive Murphy valve radio. PK Ajitkumar in Hindu sums it all up rightly - Baburaj introduced to Malayalam cinema the delicate charm of Hindustani music. No composer, either before or after, has given Malayalam cinema such refined ghazals. His melodies were silken; as gentle as a breeze.

As I end, let me record my gratitude and indebtedness to Mustafa Deshamangalam who painstakingly interviewed many of MSB’s friends and colleagues to create a nice compendium of interviews and established a biographical base for singer musician Baburaj. Another source I used and wish to thank is Ravi Menon who has written so many eminently readable books on music and musicians. I also thank the owners of the photos I used to make the attached collage, photos provided in Googleimages. I was hoping to get Bicha Baburaj’s memoirs, but it is still not at hand and I will made additions or corrections if any after I read it.

Some of his great songs
Akale akale neelakasam – what an endearing tune that is, with the voices of Yesudas and Janaki soaring and sinking, one after another, with such perfection that it is an unparalleled melody. Thane thirnjum maranjum... My wife who simply loves (she sings it beautifully too) the song, and I, are in total agreement that the Baburaj version is better than Janaki amma’s film version, and that the version sung by Roopa in Amrita TV Superstar global is the all-time best.….Anuraga ganam pole – What a superb song it is, a personal favorite of Jayachandran who sang it.. Kandam bechoru kottane – A lovely song sung by Mehaboob, and I had written about it earlier. Only Mehaboob could sing such songs though he was capable of much more. But his was another story (seehere for details) He was right there with Baburaj from the first film and was a regular, while there was another who always remembered him, Machad Vasanthi.

So many others jump to my mind……each better than the other…… Ponnaram chollathe, Pranasakhi, Oru kochu swapnathin, Talirtta kinakkal, Ekanthathayude apara theeram, Thamasamenthe varuvan, Vasantha Panchami naalil, Eaaran uduthum kondu, Innale mayangumbol, Suruma ezhuthiya mizhikale, Pottatha ponnin kinavu, Anjana kannezhuthi.

But perhaps the most poignant one is – Anuraga nadakathin andhyamam rangam kandu…..

Regarding his inspirations from the Hindi film world – SeeAnuradha Warrier’s much discussed article