Before the monster hit Nakku Mukka hit airwaves, before she achieved the holy grail of film playback in 2004, folk singer Chinna Ponnu and her husband would travel for concerts in rural Tamil Nadu by bicycle, bullock cart, bus and on foot. On standing-room-only overnight buses, they would sling a towel over the rod running along the roof, tie the ends around their wrists, and try to get some rest before the next town—the next concert.
It’s been a long journey from there to Coke Studio @MTV, in which Chinna Ponnu jammed with Sufi-folk and Bollywood singer Kailash Kher last month. Vethalai (betel leaf in Tamil), the song that thrust Chinna Ponnu into the limelight, narrated the story of an overprotective husband who forbids his wife from crossing the doorstep or chewing betel leaves that could stain her lips an attractive red.
The vivacious Chinna Ponnu belting out notes to the beats of her husband’s thavil—a barrel-shaped south Indian drum—hardly resembled that demure wife. On the fuzzy-red MTV set, between a guitarist sporting sunglasses and Kher in his blue jeans, Chinna Ponnu comfortably owned her space, her chunky gold jewellery, zari-worked sari and dazzling smile catching the lights, her arms naturally tracing a curious semblance of a hip hop move. There was no trace of nervousness. That may have been because the 38-year-old singer, who has spent most of her career on the rural folk and temple music circuit, had no idea about Coke Studio or Kher.
Loud and clear: Chinna Ponnu in her element. RS Kumar/Mint
The singer, whose name translates to “little girl” in Tamil, has a hearty laugh that offers a peek into her power vocals. Chinna Ponnu has sung 50 songs in films, mostly Tamil, and has been singing on stage since she was 10. She met her percussionist husband Selva Kumar on the folk music circuit when she was 14, and he 16. Their names tattooed in Tamil on each other’s forearms, her husband sometimes clutching her handbag on their studio visits, the couple made common cause to promote Chinna Ponnu’s career. She finally got her big break when she sang a wedding ballad in the 2004 Rajinikanth-starrer Chandramukhi, a film that went on to become a superhit. “I never dreamed of catching a glimpse of even Rajini sir’s toenails,” Chinna Ponnu laughs, pointing to a photo line-up with the south Indian superstar at her rented flat in Saligramam in south Chennai. It’s not far from the recording studios of Kodambakkam, where Chennai’s film fraternity lives and which lends the K to Kollywood.
But the song that transported her voice beyond the borders of Tamil Nadu is the street-dance Nakku Mukka, which topped the music charts in 2008. That song set off a chain of events which landed her in Coke Studio. It got her a gig with Chennai-based composer Sanjeev Thomas—a Web-only track, Indian Jadoo, which Coke Studio’s music director Leslie Lewis later heard.
Both Kher, with whom Lewis paired Chinna Ponnu, and Lewis himself commented on the Tamil singer’s instinctive rather than cerebral approach to her craft. Lewis also observed that Chinna Ponnu refused to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the stage, the language barrier, and Kher’s fame.
Both Kumar and Chinna Ponnu remain fatalistic about the fervour generated by their Coke Studio gig. They are aware that the euphoria can spin into a crazy work schedule that could hurt them—as it did in 2008 when their car was hit by a bus one night when they were on their way from Chennai to Thanjavur—and keep them away for days and weeks from their 14-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter. The children have been under the care of Kumar’s relatives in Thanjavur, 300km south-west of Chennai, since they were little. The couple is based in Chennai, where Chinna Ponnu has studio recordings. She travels to four or five concert engagements a month all over Tamil Nadu, each of which could take her away from Chennai for up to three days. But she tries her best to squeeze in a day trip to Thanjavur every week to see her children, she says.
“It is tough to stay away from them at this age when they need guidance,” Kumar says as they prepare to rush back from Chennai to his hometown for another folk performance. “Films and fusion shows may happen but we’ve travelled across continents as temple folk artistes. That will continue to be our bread and butter.”