Research findings have established clearly that folk music preceded traditional, classical music in Tamil Nadu. Cave men and tribal men made sounds that developed into a language. These people gave simple tunes without any rules, but a sense of music was apparent even then.
In the early 1900s, there was no cinema as there is now. Performers travelled from village to village telling stories . Songs were interwoven in the stories. The appreciative audience offered these performers whatever they could. This was the beginning of symphony.
During the era of silent movies as recounted by our present CM Dr.M.Karunanidhi, a great lover of arts, musicians used to sit in front of the screen and sing, render music and dialogues at appropriate places to keep the audience enthralled.
Sri Shankaradas Swamigal, a magan was the individual, to the best of my knowledge who gave a fillip to integration of music, verse and dialogues in a drama. Great creations such as Meenakshi Kalyanam, Yesu can be attributed to this Mahan. He included songs in appropriate places. 'Kayatha Kanagathe' is a prime example. He established the Bala Nataka Sabha, where only children were involved in enacting all the roles. Then came Sakthi and Vaira Nataka Sabhas.
Nawab RajaManickam was a note-worthy person of these days who enacted plays using grand props and settings. Sakthi Nataka Sabha has gifted to the world of Tamil Cinema such greats as Shivaji Ganesan, V.K.Ramaswamy. The troupe used to consist of about 60 members and it was important for each artiste to be thorough with the dialogues and songs of all characters for each actor was made to play a different role each day. Vaira Nataka Sabha has contributed greats like M.G.R and Nambiar.
In the early stages of talkies, people who sought to act in movies had to be endowed with good looks, good voice and capacity to sing. Kittappa, Bhagavathar, P.U.Chinnappa, all great singers and actors of yesteryears were persons endowed with such gifts. As these actors act and sing, the orchestra had to move along with the actor and this recording was done in single track. The records were created with the whole group doing a special recording of the same song all over again in the studios. Saraswati Stores of A.V.Meyappa Chettiar was a renowned company that released records of film songs. Gramophones were owned only by the very rich, who preferred carnatic trend in film music also and hence the songs of those days were based entirely on carnatic music.
We owe a great deal to the Britishers for introducing technology into cinema. Ellis.R.Duncan is one person I can single out, whose assistants after learning the tricks of the trade from him branched out to make their own movies. Drama, thus developed into cinema and in its wake came studios, recording with mike etc. The concept of dubbing was not known in those days. For a song to be perfected the entire troupe would work for months, paid on a monthly basis.
If you look at the chronology of singers, Kittappa was followed be T.R.Mahalingam, who was followed by T.M.Soundarajan, Seergazhi Govindarajan, all persons who could sing in very high pitches.
G.Ramanathan brought a fresh air to cine music. But folk songs were not appreciated in those days. Along with Papanasam Sivan who was a great composer he gave a variety of songs. There was no need do to go to a Kutchery. The Tamil film songs were strongly based on Carnatic music tradition.
P.U.Chinnappa was followed by Chidambaram Jayaraman, Tiruchi Loganathan. Ghantasala was followed by P.B.Srinivas, S.P.B , Mano etc., K.J.Yesudoss is a singer who emerged with a different voice. Sivaji Ganesan, the recipient of Dada Saheb Palke award, could sing eloquently, but did not do so in movies giving way to the playback singers. Though T.M.S. claims that he used to change his voice to suit Sivaji and M.G.R., but his voice definitely suits Sivaji best and it is my personal view that he has not really changed his voice much.
The domination of actors and singers from the Telugu field existed for a time. In order to sing for Telugu actors such as Nageswara Rao, N.T.RamaRao, Adi NarayanaRao, P.G.Lingappa, Chalapathi Rao etc. several singers such as Ghantasala, P.B. Srinivas were introduced in Tamil. Other singers from Telugu field are S.Janaki, P.Susheela. Music obviously has no language barriers.
All the veterans of the early days had paved and smoothed the road for us in the present days. The trials faced by Viswanathan Ramamurthy, G.Ramanathan, S.V.Venkatraman are not faced by the present day musicians. Illayaraja's way was smoothed by his peers and in his turn he has shown the way for the next generation.
M.S.Viswanathan started his career as a chorus singer in K.V.Mahadevan's troupe and then became a great music director. He changed the history of Tamil cine music by giving lighter, melodious songs appreciated by all. Sudarsanam and Devarajan Masters were also great music directors of the day.
Hindi music was popular then, and several songs were based on Hindi music tunes. M.S.Viswanathan- Ramamurthy were great for they took the essence from other music but managed to deliver their own creations and hence their music is able to stand for long. Chandrababu with his interest in western music also got them to make songs for him mostly based on western style.
Shankar - Ganesh have directed music in several films. V.Kumar was a music director who was brought into film music by K.Balachander from his drama days. Kunnakudi, Deva , A.R.Rehaman are people who entered the film music line from other related fields such as devotional music, jingles, etc.
A.R.Rehaman is an extrememly talented youngster and some of the music rendered by him, can only be done by someone who has a wonderful understanding of music and the medium.