Perched on a chair opposite Sharavathi hostel, Mr. Etheeswaran is not just another security guard. You would not have guessed that the man, with his stark pencil moustache and slicked back hair – a mainstay of Indian cinema in the ‘70s – was also a guitarist, well-known in the yesteryear Tamil cinema circuit.
How did it all start?
Born and brought up in Chennai, I was initially attracted to the guitar on seeing a senior guitarist in the film industry play effortlessly on the dais during a local ceremony. Since that moment, my urge to learn and play the guitar grew into a raging passion. My perseverance has paid off beyond my expectations. I am a self-taught guitarist, and I am grateful for the guidance provided by a Western music instructor based, at that time, in Ooty. I have to confess that I would rave about the popular music bands of my time and intently learn and reproduce their guitar riffs and interludes, back in the day.
How were the initial years?
I started out as a guitarist on Doordarshan, playing in some of the national television channel’s light music and season special programmes. I began my career in the Tamil cinema industry as a guitarist for the legendary playback singer, T M Soundararajan. While I accompanied TMS on all his musical tours abroad, I also played the guitar in music director G K Venkatesh’s compositions for South Indian films. If one is well-versed with the music scene in the Tamil industry, they would know that popular music composer and singer Ilaiyaraja is said to have started out in G K Venkatesh’s troupe as a backup singer.
I have also played for stalwarts such as S P Balasubramanyam, P Susheela and P B Srinivas. I have also played at weddings, parties, and get-togethers in and around the state. He fondly recalls the time he conducted an orchestra for a special music performance. Among the several musicians that I have played for, T M Soundararajan is my favourite. While TMS was a demanding musician, he used to encouraged accompanying artists to explore and be creative. It was generally a challenging experience playing for TMS, owing to which, on several occasions, I had sent a substitute in my place for a few musical tours. Invariably, the substitute would be chided by TMS, a perfectionist sans parallel. TMS would be appreciative of artists who followed him, as he traversed octaves, raagas and styles with flair. I have sung the chorus portions for a few popular songs. He breaks into a popular song sung by TMS to explain his point, also demonstrating his vocal abilities.
What do you have to say about your life as a musician?
Alcohol is like coffee in the music industry. One is offered alcohol on entering a gathering, not tea or coffee. Two others and I never drank, even when everyone around us did. TMS had once tried persuading me into a drink. I asked TMS to take one so that I could follow suit. TMS who was staying off alcohol after years of drinking had smiled and given up. Drinks were given for free abroad. But I would play my guitar, eat and shop instead. I immensely enjoyed wandering and shopping in Paris.
I have also tried my hand at the tabla and the keyboard. I am fond of TMS’s scores and G.K. Venkatesh’s melodies. I recall an incident where young Dhina had erred in writing down notes while recording. I had diffused the situation and prevented Dhina from getting fired – something that Dhina would never forget. I am no longer in touch with Dhina, who is now a film and TV series composer. Back in the day, I used to help out young musicians – most of them used to be impoverished. They would be lying down and when I entered, they would stand up. I would get them tea, much to their joy. Now they are all well off, while I am a little… Anyway, during an event held for Diwali, a cracker burst, damaging my right eye.
How did this shift in your career happen?
After spending 20-25 years in the South Indian film industry as a guitarist, I finally decided to quit. All the strumming had taken a toll on my fingers. He shows us some of the scabs that remain to this day as a reminder of the good ol’ days. It was then, on the invitation and recommendation of Mr. Soosai Raj, an officer at the Insti Administration, that I secured a job as a security guard about a year ago (at the time of this interview – which was another year ago). The job here is a better use of my time, when compared to sitting idle at home.
How has working in IIT been?
Time-pass. There is not much else to it. I regularly work the B shift – from 2 pm to 10 pm. I arrive at 12 noon for the roll-call at 1.30 pm, spend time talking to others and fulfill what is expected of the job. I find the students very friendly. They ask me whether I have eaten, give me fruits and listen with curiosity to my guitar tales. I am courteous to the other guards, but never get very involved. I do not use bad words. Neither do I drink or smoke.
How do you find the music scene in insti?
It makes me happy to see students of this campus learn to play the guitar. When I see a student with a guitar, I often stop them and ask to try it out. When I start playing a chord, students are often taken aback at my prowess. I enjoyed an interaction with a foreign exchange student from Paris, a place where I have been to as a part of TMS’ musical tours abroad. London, Kuwait, Dubai, Switzerland are some of the places that I have been to, along with TMS’ music troupe.
My parents had let me pursue my dream. When Doordarshan wanted to send me on tours, I went. I travelled to different places and played the guitar. And that is all I had wanted. I now live with my wife, eldest daughter and grandson. My son and youngest daughter have also settled down in Chennai with their respective families. None of my children are into music. I had been advised to train my son, but I am not one to impose my choices and lifestyle on my children.
Note: This article was written over a year ago. Mr. Etheeswaran is no longer a security guard at Sharavathi hostel