If I had to pick out the one tune I heard most often growing up, it was the Hanuman Chalisa (sang often to tune, and not unusually mirror-breaking when my parents sang it together). I never really made much of an effort to learn it as a kid, but did pick it up later on in life. Over the last twenty something years, I’ve heard it sung and chanted in various forms and versions, but nothing beats the version I heard growing up, or rather, the version I was supposed to hear growing up, (loosely, very loosely) based on MS Subbalakshmi’s rendition (click for a 30 second preview from Last FM).
M.S. Subbalakshmi, the renowned singer (and actor), is probably best known for her famous early morning alarm clock number that abruptly signals the end of the adolescent Tam-Bram wet-dream each morning: the Venkateswara Suprabatham. If you come from a slightly more religious family, you’d easily win the $400 Jeopardy round with “Bhaja Govindam”, which at some point most Tam Brams have encountered. Her rendition of Vishnu Sahasranamam has helped many a pot-smoking Mylapore-dwelling Tam Bram hit the sweet spot, and for the super advanced exponent of MS, Aigiri Nandini is a cult classic.
What is particularly noteworthy about MS is that she represents the rare white flag in the long-standing Iyer-Iyengar blowout. Irrespective of whether a Tam Bram eats puliyanchadham or wears their ashes horizontally (or wears ashes for that matter), chances are that they spent the majority of their childhood on the verge of making out with the supermodel. On the verge, but never actually managing to seal the deal, for just as it’s about to happen, the movie reel in their head is rudely interrupted with, “uttishtothishta govinda, uttishtagarudadhvaja“.
To me, however, it’s her rendition of the Hanuman Chalisa that comes out top. It is (in my humble opinion), even accounting for the wrath of any (or every) half-decent Hindi speaker in the world, her best work. She may not pronounce those hard Hindi consonants very well, and Tulasi Das may well turn over in his grave every time someone plays back her matadero style butchery of his lyrical masterpiece, but no one can argue that her sense of melody and rhythym transforms a poem that reads rather awkwardly into a beautiful song about the legend of Hanuman.
Incidentally, rumour (or Wikipedia for us modern folk) has it that old TD wrote the verses in prison, while serving as victim #2382913 of Aurangzeb, that famous Mughal Emperor and world class exponent of fratricide and patricide. More here.