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The Tamil film industry, affectionately known as Kollywood, has long been the stronghold of Tamil music. From K.V. Mahadevan, G. Ramanathan and S.M. Subbiah Naidu in the 1950s to MS Viswanathan in the 1960s and 1970s, Kollywood has produced legendary composers who set new standards in each era.
A.R. Rahman, with his Oscars for the Hollywood film Slumdog Millionaire, and Ilaiyaraaja, with his music performed by world-renowned symphony orchestras, placed Tamil music and musicians on the global stage. While Ilaiyaraaja dominated the 1980s and 1990s, A.R. Rahman took the industry by storm with his fusion of digital music and melodious tunes. By the turn of the century, indie music, or independent music, had gradually gained momentum, undergoing a significant transformation particularly in the last decade.
With the rise of digital music production and YouTube, new and young composers are pushing boundaries. They are experimenting with different genres and making bold statements with their music, reflecting the preferences of the younger generation of music lovers. Let's groove to the music of five up-and-coming Indie composers who are redefining the Tamil music scene.
Soothing, soulful and intimate are the words that come to mind when you listen to the musical playlist of the 35-year-old. His music is like a perfect cup of coffee on a rainy day, with its rich aroma and taste, striking a perfect balance between contemporary and folk music.
Born Raghavendra Raja Rao, to renowned mridhangam artist Srimushnam V. Raja Rao and Padma, the daughter of renowned Tamil novelist Sandilyan, Sean was deeply influenced by blues and jazz music, which is evident throughout his musical journey.
The desire to step out of his father’s shadow made him decide to use a pseudonym. Sean had mentioned in an interview with The Hindu once that he had chosen a name that rhymed with the shortened version of his maternal grandfather’s name (Sandilyan) ‘Shaun’. Roldan was picked up from a random Google search! This new name gave him the much-needed musical freedom from any comparison or expectation.
This was how he started his band, Sean Roldan & Friends, and began creating a name for himself before making his debut as a film composer in the comedy film Vaayai Moodi Pesavum (Speak with Your Mouths Closed), starring Dulquer Salmaan and Nazriya Nazim.
His compositions for the Tamil movie Power Pandi, especially Venpani Malare (Fair Flower) and Paarthen (I Saw), propelled this indie musician to become a household name in the Tamil film industry. Sean has captivated listeners with lustrous melodies like Kadhal Kanave (Love Dream) in Mundasupatti (Turban Village) and Kodi Aruvi (Thousand Waterfalls) from Mehandi Circus (Henna Circus). He has also lent his raspy yet surprisingly soothing voice to many songs (evoking similarities to Ilayaraja) and collaborated with popular composers such as Anirudh and D. Imman.
Thala Kothum Ilangathu (The Wind that Weaves the Hair) was another of Sean’s compositions for Jai Bhim (Victory to Bhim), a movie starring Kollywood superstar Surya, and based on a real life story about a legal battle of a less privileged woman. The song perfectly captured the movie's melancholic and inspirational vibes.
Listen to more of Sean Roldan’s songs here.
Catch Sean Roldan at the Esplanade Concert Hall on 25 Nov 2023 in Sean Roldan Live Featuring Sathyaprakash & Kalyani Nair.
Just when you think you've heard all the memorable melodies in the Tamil film industry, 37-year-old Justin Prabhakaran hits you with some mesmerising numbers that stay etched in your memory.
Justin's songs have a light and happy feel while also evoking strong emotions, as seen in his work for the Telugu movie Dear Comrade, showcasing his versatility. Oscar winner MM Keeravani (for the song Nattu Nattu from RRR) was all praise for this musician after listening to his Telugu composition in this movie.
Justin's Thangame (Dear) for web series Pava Kadhaigal (Stories of Sin), demonstrates his ability to weave the right nuances to tell a story through his music.
Growing up, he was introduced to music through church where he learned to play the keyboard. Later on, he also mastered the guitar and started composing his own songs for his university's cultural events. He went on to study sound engineering at the famed M.G.R. Film & TV Institute in Chennai.
Justin began his musical career by working with music composer Harris Jayaraj on the highly acclaimed action thriller movie Thuppakki (Gun), before going on to compose music for more than 55 short films and notable full-length features in Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, and Hindi. His training in church music and as a sound engineer shaped and honed his songwriting skills.
Listen to more of Justin Prabhakaran's compositions here.
Pradeep Kumar is rapidly making his mark as a versatile music composer who has found his niche. Trained in Carnatic music by his mother Lalitha Vijayakumar, a trained exponent of the form, Pradeep initially pursued engineering before switching to sound engineering.
That was where he formed a connection with composer Santosh Narayanan who was also pursuing audio engineering in Trichy. Following Santosh’s transition into movies, Pradeep played regularly as his guitarist and eventually made his debut as a playback singer (a professional singer who records songs to be mimed in films by actors) in Santosh Narayanan's musical Attakathi. Pradeep, with his training in Carnatic music and soothing voice, went on to scale greater heights vocally.
The 36-year-old’s training in Carnatic singing allowed him to showcase intricate nuances and variations with ease in his songs. His technical skills also allowed Pradeep to distinguish his compositions, showcasing his range.
Pradeep’s debut as a music composer came in the Telugu movie Maine Pyar Kiya. Following that he gained recognition in the Tamil film industry with the movie Meyadha Maan (The Deer that Doesn't Graze), where he composed a couple of songs, while Santosh Narayanan handled the others.
His compositions in Sillukaruppatti (Dry Ginger Palm Candy) including Agam Thaanai (Within), and Enna Nan Seiven (What Do I Do) in Meyadha Maan, touched the hearts of music lovers, setting him on a path to success.
Listen to Pradeep Kumar's compositions on Spotify.
Leon James has been making waves in the Tamil music industry since his first single. His original song Vaaya En Veera (Come my Warrior), released on YouTube, caught the attention of actor Raghava Lawrence, who found it catchy, refreshing and with potential for some cool dance moves.
Lawrence not only used the song in his movie Kanchana 2 but also had Leon compose the popular and infectious folk number Sandi Muni for the same film. Leon's involvement in this hugely popular horror flick and with dancer-turned-actor-and-director Lawrence brought him instant fame.
Having studied piano since the age of three, he took immense interest in producing music as his father Noel James was also a pianist who had played together with A R Rahman. Noel became his son's manager and chief publicity officer.
A jazz enthusiast himself, Leon, 31, along with Anirudh, was part of a Carnatic fusion band called Zinx and worked as a keyboardist with many renowned musicians.
The romantic song Kathaippoma (Shall We Talk) in the romantic comedy Oh My Kadavule (Oh My God) showcased his ability to tug at listeners’ heartstrings.
His fusion of Indian classical with contemporary music has earned him opportunities to work with notable movies and singers. His indie song Ezhunthu Vaa, crooned by Andrea Jeremiah, was composed to inspire women to stand tall and succeed, serving as a promotional music video for Vanessa sanitary napkins.
Listen to more of Leon James' compositions on Spotify.
Vaisagh, a 27-year-old singer, lyricist and music composer, brings a fresh and youthful vibe to his music. His hit single, Kaaka Kadhai (Crow Story), has garnered almost 18 million views (anything beyond 1 million views is considered a success for a Tamil movie song) on YouTube since its release in 2022. Composed, written and sung by him, the song was accompanied by an energetic music video which danced into the hearts of many youths.
Kollywood is famous for its heartwarming melodies and feet-tapping folk beats but comedy is something we don’t see often in its movie songs, let alone in Tamil indie music. Vaisagh’s musical comedy Ethuvum Kidaikkalenna (If You Did Not Get Anything), with almost 34 million views on YouTube, saw him venture into this rare and challenging genre, showcasing his creativity and proving that he was no one-hit wonder. Sandy Master, a well-liked dancer and choreographer, mimed the song and danced in the music video along with up-and-coming TikTok comedian GP Muthu.
Vaisagh gained instant recognition and fame when he penned the lyrics for the catchy Chilla Chilla (Relax Relax) in the Ajith Kumar-fronted film Thunivu (Bravery). He is steadily finding his place in the indie music scene, and it won't be long before he secures his first full Tamil film project.
Listen to a playlist with Vaisagh's songs on Spotify.