26th March 1953 – 18th August 2011
Another maestro passes on to the Other Side, someone who, paraphrasing Beethoven, “made us realise Music to be a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosphy and the electrical soil in which the spirit lived, thought and invented.” Johnson Master, to me, was the first music director who gave us the joi-de-vivre of Western musical sensibilities in his brilliantly structured sonic sets of melody. I still remember standing rooted on the spot the first time I listened to Rajahamsamey from Bharathan‘s Chamayam, wafting through the speakers of our neighborhood Men’s Salon, and I kept saying “Oh my God!” over and over again. I had goose pimples all over as I stood there and listened to it, thinking about the music director who could compose a melody like that on guitar – neither before or since have a I heard a melody so perfectly nuanced, simple and melting, and never before has any song from the scores have I listened from Malayalam cinema sounded so beautiful like that. Johnson Master, to me, was the original Magic Fingers of Malayalam Cinema. His foundations in four-part harmony hymnals and chorales from his early years, I believe has exerted a strong influence and sensibility to the compositions he did with Western improvisations – I can never make my feet keep still when I listen to Aakashagopuram from Kalikkalam. The Bass run sounds like one off a rock staple. The same is the case as you listen to Aakashamaakey from Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal (1986),or for that matter, Mangalaya Yaamam from Isabella. The percussion grows on you.
Aakashagopuram from Kalikkalam (1990)
For someone who has never had any formal classical training in music in the pure orthodox sense, you literally had to pick your jaws off the floor listening to Devi from Njaan Gandharvan. It is said that Johnson Master threw up his hands when Padmarajan wanted the composition based on Hindustani Classical elements, saying he never learned Hindustani classical. Padmarajan chuckled and replied. “But then, you never learned Carnatic too !” And “Devi” was the result .
Devi from Njan Gandharavan (1991)
I also believe he was the one who gave the culture of musical narratives in cinema. Both his National Awards ( Ponthan Mada in 1993, Sukrutham in 1994) were a recognition of his brilliant ability to elevate your senses by a background tapestry, at times with just a single instrument that could either melt you to taffy or make the hair at the nape of your neck stand up in abject terror. Can anyone forget the singular Edaykka beating time to Nagavalli’s transformation in Manichithrathaazhu ?
Pay close attention to the background score from 0:39.
Looking back, Johnson Master had some significiant ‘associations’, with directors, lyricists and singers that gave us some of the best melodies in Malayalam cinema playback. To me, it goes like this, broadly :
- Sathyan Anthikkad
- Kaithapram Damodaran Namboothiri
- ONV Kurup
- K Jayakumar
Please note, the above is just my way of looking at his body of work and hence, my personal opinion. Also, this is just a tiny part from the sonic tapestry he left us as his legacy. I can go on and on and intend to write in more about him soon. Music is said to be the language of the angels and I’m sure Johnson Master must have already started on his celestial strings on the Other Side, rustling up scores that are equally divine.
Rajahamsamey, from Chamayam.