Raghunath Panigrahi, the renowned musician from Odisha who died on August 25, will be remembered for revolutionizing the music for Odissi dance and rendering the 12 th.century Sanskrit poem Gita Govinda in the format of classical music. But the maestro’s genius was sparked not in Odisha, but in distant Chennai in the late 1950s.
It was in the recording studios of Prasad and Vauhini at Kodambakkam in Chennai that Panigrahi got a break as a singer on par with the then greats like Ghantasala and P.B.Srinivas. And it was at Kalakshetra in Adyar, that he met his Odissi and Bharatanatyam dancer wife, Sanjukta Misra, with whom he was to team up in the 1960s to take Odissi dance and music to unprecedented heights.
Thus, it was a short stint of less than five years in Chennai which proved to be the game changer for this 21 year old youth from the backward south Odisha district of Koraput.
Lovers of old Tamil film music still remember Panigrahi’s song Naan Thedum Podhu and Kan Kaanum Minnaldhaano in the 1959 Sivaji Ganesan-Pandari Bai starrer Aval Yaar.
“The film sank without a trace, but Panigrahi’s songs are now seeing a revival thanks to Youtube. Even today, his songs shimmer in the memory of music lovers,” Vamaman, the author Thirai Isai Alaigal, a four-volume work on the history of Tamil film music, told Express.
Indeed, Youtube watchers gush over Panigrahi’s singing.
“Wow! What a sexy voice,” comments young Anjali Kumar on hearing Kan Kaanum Minnaldhano. “Whenever I hear this song, my mind’s chariot takes me to the place where I heard it for the first time,” writes Raja Mohammad nostalgically.
“He may not have sung many songs in South Indian films but his one song is equivalent to hundreds,” writes Vembar Manivannan.
Panigrahi’s soothing voice was ideally suited for romantic songs. The slight Hindustani touch which he gave to his songs only added to their appeal to the South Indian ear.
He was a one film wonder in Tamil, but he sang four or five songs for Telugu films. In the 1956 award winning L.V.Prasad production Ilavelpu,starring A.Nageswarara Rao and Anjali Devi, he sang a solo Yenadu Kanaledu Ee Vinta Sundarini. With P.Suseela and P.Leela he sangChallani Raja O Chandamama. In the 1959 Telugu musical hit, Jayabheri, he sang Maadi Saradadevi Mandirame with Ghantasala and P.B.Srinivas, and also played a role.
“Panigrahi had good rapport with fine music directors of those days like Pandyala Nageswara Rao, S.Rajeswara Rao and Susarla Dakshinamurti, the music directors of Jayabheri, Aval Yaar and Ilavelpu respectively, and would have gone far had he stayed on in Chennai,” Vamanan said.
But Panigrahi’s stint in Madras was cut short by his marriage to Sanjukta Misra in 1960.
“His present day fans rue about a brilliant career that might have been had he stayed on,” Vamanan said.
But destiny had different plans for Panigrahi. After years of struggle and incessant travel across India, the Raghunath-Sanjukta Panigrahi duo made Odissi dance and music nationally acceptable as a classical art form on par with Bharatanatyam. This was before the advent of Indrani Rahman and Sonal Mansingh who took it across India’s borders. The Panigrahis were to come back to Chennai later to perform at the very fastidious Music Academy. Individually, Raghunath Panigrahi became an exponent of Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda, which got him a Padma Shri in 2010.