T.M. Soundarajan


A most versatile playback singer (1922-2013)

T.M. Soundararajan, popularly known as TMS, was an Indian Carnatic musician, playback singer in Tamil cinema, and actor from 1946-2013.

Born in Madurai in a poor Sourashtrian Brahmin family, at age seven he began by studying Carnatic music from Chinnakonda Sarangapani Bhagavathar, and later, from Arayakkudi Rajamani Iyengar.

Married, and badly needing the income, he started accepting small concerts from the age of 23, and sang in the voice of the then-famous classical singer and actor M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar (MKT). His first major Carnatic musical concert was at SathGuru Samajam, Madurai, in 1945, with violinist C. R. Mani and mridangist S. S. Vijaya Ratnam.

He emulated MKT for voice modulations; K. B. Sundarambal for perfect pronunciation; M. S. Subbulakshmi for bringing emotion to the voice, and Madurai Mani Iyer for the easy flow of song. The adulation he received encouraged him to try his hand at film music.

The uncrowned king of playback singing of Tamil film industry spanning over six and half decades, TMS recorded film songs in 11 languages, including Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Hindi, and Malayalam. His repertoire included over 10,138 songs from 3,162 films, including devotional, semi-classical, carnatic, classical, and light music songs. 

The trademark vibhuthi on his forehead with vermilion at the centre was always intact. The only singer in the Tamil film industry who could pronounce the Tamil words with perfection, he abhorred remix as retrograde, but enslaved all by his entrancing voice and singing. He created emotional dramas through his eloquently emotive singing style. An expert in bringing out the bhavam in a song, be it any mood such as comedy, pathos, love, angst, anger, and pining, or philosophical; nava rasas came to him naturally. Versatile, he modulated his voice to suit the stars perfectly; a listener could identify the star in the film through his songs even without watching the movie!

Initially rejected by music composers and recording technicians, it was S.M. Subbaiah Naidu who in 1946, gave TMS an opportunity to sing five songs in the style of M.K.T for a film by P.V. Narasimha Bharathi, Krishna Vijayam, released in 1950. In 1954, A. Maruthakasi recommended TMS to sing in Aruna Pictures’s Thookku Thookki. When Sivaji Ganesan doubted the suitability of the voice of C.S. Jayarmanan, his normal playback, TMS offered to sing three songs free. Studying the voice of Sivaji he sang Sundari Soundari and Eraatha Malaithanile, closely imitating him. Koondukkili, the only film where MGR and Sivaji acted together, was under production, and TMS who originally was slated to only sing in a chorus, was given a full solo, Konjum Kalian Pennai under K.V. Mahadevan’s composition for Sivaji Ganesan. MGR heard it and wanted TMS to become his permanent playback singer. In 1955 Sivaji too insisted on TMS who then ended up the playback mainly for the superstars MGR and Sivaji.

He worked in all, with 74 music directors ranging from S.M. Subbaiah Naidu to A.R. Rahman, but most of his hit songs were composed by music directors M.S. Viswanathan, K.V. Mahadevan, and the Vishwanathan-Ramamoorthy duo. Though TMS-Ilaiyaraja duo had given hit songs like Andhapurathil Oru Maharani, etc., their relation was fraught with misunderstandings and differences. Ilaiyaraja’s arrival signaled the end of the TMS era.

Though a singer basically, he felt an actor was always there inside him, which manifested itself through the roles he did in Tamil films, such as Pattinathar, Arunagirinathar, Kallum Kaniyagum and Kaviraja Kalamegam. Among the many awards and honours included the Padma Shri in 2003. The Government of India released a memorial stamp for 10 legendary singers of India, including TMS.

TMS lived in Chennai for many years in practical oblivion. In June 2003, it was reported that he attempted suicide by drinking acid due to acute mental depression, though his family said it was accidental.

He passed away on 25 May 2013 at his residence in Mandaveli, Chennai, due to illness, aged 91 years. He is survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter.


A.RADHAKRISHNAN is a Pune based freelance journalist, short story writer and poet, who loves to make friends and share humour.