Singer Yesudas deserves India’s top civilian honour

Singer KJ Yesudas, above, who turned 80 on Jan 10, deserves India’s highest civilian honour ‘Bharat Ratna’ for his lifetime contribution to music.

For more than 58 years, this modern day Orpheus or ‘ganadharva’ (a nature spirit in Hindu mythology having superb musical skills) had been enchanting mortals and gods with his songs and hymns.

Generations of people who had watched his live performances or listened to his recorded songs must have felt how classical Indian music and even light music can evoke moods, wake up emotions, heal wounds within and uplift the soul.

Despite winning several accolades, the singer believes he is just a grain of sand on a beach where waves of music keep advancing and receding endlessly.

Maybe, this perception and utmost devotion to music and God helped him to remain supreme as a classical musician and playback singer even at 80.

Yesudas contributed to Indian music by raising playback singing to a new level and by popularising classical music among youth and children over generations.

In a subtle way, he gave classical touches to his film and light songs to engender in young minds a sense of India’s musical traditions and values. His semi-classical film songs in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali and Malayalam languages served as doors for those inspired to step into the world of classical music.

To draw youth and children to classical music, he gave some light touches to the compositions when he sang them. His voice, diction and effortless rendition also appealed to them.

To train them and promote music in society, Yesudas also set up Tharanganisari School of Music in 1975.

So far, he has sung more than 80,000 songs in various Indian and foreign languages. Most of them were hits. Millions still hum those tunes although the lyrics may be in a language strange to them. Radio stations across the country broadcast hundreds of his songs every day in the Listeners’ Choice and other programmes.

What draws people to these songs is the singer’s divinely gifted voice and the myriad emotions it reflects. His voice can soar high like a crane and dive deep like a penguin.                   

Besides the haunting voice, his style of singing is equally important. People who have watched him perform on stage are amazed by the effortless way he sings any intricate classical composition. Like a zephyr, it gently stirs emotions in them. If gods sing, they sing like him.

The singer’s appearance and discipline on the stage and sense of humour also deserve mention.

From the early 1960s, whenever Yesudas appeared on stage to perform with the orchestra, he used to wear white trousers or ‘dhothi’ (long loincloth) and shirt. Even his shoes and watch strap were white. He has strictly followed this dress code till date.

While singing, he stands still. He expects the audience to silently listen and applaud.

Many music lovers want him to make some gestures and movements and encourage them to dance to his tunes. Yesudas never allows this.

In the past, he had admonished some members of the film fraternity for making gestures during song recordings. Such behaviour and distractions are anathema to the singer for whom music is like a prayer.

However, whenever Yesudas travels abroad and performs classical music before expatriates and foreign dignitaries who are not conversant with classical music, he never gets upset if they do not appreciate his rendition.

Usually after completing a couple of songs, he will tell them: “Friends, while we sing to entertain you, the rendition often leaves us breathless. So when we finish a song, please clap. That will encourage us to perform better.”

The audience will readily applaud.

In India, his classical concerts are well appreciated indoors. On rare occasions, trouble starts when tens of thousands of people gather to hear him outdoor and some inebriated music lovers start booing, demanding light songs from him.

On one such occasion, the singer said: “Friends, hope I didn’t land in an abode of jackals. I was told by the organisers of this concert to sing classical songs. Once I finish those numbers, I’ll entertain you with some devotional and semi-classical songs.”

The audience lustily clapped as they were waiting for this assurance from their favourite singer.

Wedded to music

Many feel Yesudas is able to preserve his golden voice at 80 because of his deep devotion to the Hindu Goddess of Music Saraswathi and the strict discipline he maintains in his personal life. Close friends jokingly say he married Music before he met Prabha, his wife of 50 years.

The celibate Hindu god, Aiyyappa, sitting in penance stance atop Sabarimala temple, goes to sleep every night only after Yesudas’ hymn ‘Harivarasanam’ is played. The golden doors of the sanctum sanctorum are shut after the song. This is a rare blessing for any singer, particularly for an argent Ayyappa devotee like Yesudas.

On his 80th birthday, he visited the temple of Mookambika Devi, the goddess of power, in Kolur in Karnataka with his family to seek Her blessings. Over the past several years, he had been visiting this temple on his birthdays and singing before the deity.

The singer’s deeply religious outlook is rooted in India’s classical music which springs from the Vedic culture and ‘bhathi’ (Sanskrit: ‘devotion’).
Since Yesudas was born in southern India, he followed the Carnatic classical music tradition and studied the works of great masters such as the 18th century composer Tyagaraja, a devotee of Lord Rama, and the 15th century composer Purandara Dasa, a devotee of Lord Krishna.

The classical language Sanskrit was part of the curriculum in the two music academies he studied and it helped him to sing with perfect diction in various Indian languages.

Trials and tribulations

Born in Fort Kochi to an ordinary Latin Catholic family in 1940, Yesudas studied classical Indian music which most members of his community must have then thought as a crazy idea.

He was even snubbed by some of his classmates at RLV College of Music and Fine Arts in Thripunithura located not far from Kochi. They could not stomach the idea of a Christian youth studying Carnatic music which normally attracts students from the Hindu community.

Yesudas did not bother about their taunts and followed the advice of his father K Augustine Joseph, a noted actor and singer, to focus on music.

He got his Diploma in Music from RLV with first class and later took his Masters in Music from Swathithirunal Music Academy in Thiruvananthapuram standing first in the college.

After graduation in music, he wanted to become a playback singer. Most films in southern Indian languages were produced in Chennai those days and the Malayalam film industry was in its infancy.

To begin with, Yesudas decided to give a voice test in the state-run All India Radio (AIR) hoping to become an ‘AIR artiste’ and earn some money to help his family. But he was shocked when the then director of the radio station told him he failed in the voice test. That only strengthened his resolve to make a name for himself as a singer.

His father took him to Chennai and introduced him to Malayalam poet P Bhaskaran who had already become a big name in Malayalam film industry by co-directing Neelakuyil (The Blue Cuckoo) which won the National Film Award in the 1950s.

Joseph returned to Kochi after Bhaskaran assured him he would find an opening for his son. Yesudas stayed at Bhaskaran’s home and after a long wait made his singing debut in Kalpadukal in 1961with a prayer song written by the 19th century social reformer Sri Narayana Guru and composed by MB Sreenivasan.

The brief prayer song highlighting a model society where people live in harmony without any differences on the basis of caste or creed, hardly made a mark. However, the veteran sound engineer Kodishwara Rao who recorded the song was impressed. Rao told Yesudas that one day he will make a mark as a singer and have a long career. Rao’s prediction came true.

A singer is born

The songs Kunnuneer Muthumai (With a pearly tear) in the Malayalam film ‘Niyakanyaka’(1963), Thamasamenthe (Why this delay?) in ‘Bhargavi Nilayam’ (1964) and Alliyambal (Blue Lotus) in ‘Rosie’ (1965) established him as a great singer.

Some of his best songs in Malayalam were recorded between 1965 and 1970.

They include Karayunno Puzha (Is the River Crying?) in ‘Murappennu’, Ennale Mayagumbol (While Napping Yesterday) in ‘Anweshichu Kandethiyilla’, Swarna Chamaram (Golden fan) in ‘Yakshi’, Kattadichu (The Wind Blew) in ‘Thulabharam’, Manjubhashini (Soft-spoken) in ‘Kodungallooramma’, Pranasaghi (Life-partner), Annu Ninte Nunakkuzhi (Your Dimple Those Days), and Oru Pushppam (One Flower) in ‘Pareekha’, Ayilram Padasarangal (A Thousand Anklets) and Kayaamboo (Blue mistflower) in ‘Nadhi’, Nee Madhu Pakaru (You Rain Nectar) in ‘Moodal Manju’, Ambalapparambile (Inside the Temple Courtyard), Kothumbuvallam (Small Boat) and Neelakkadambin Poovo (Isn’t it the Bluebells?) in ‘Ningalenne Communistakki’, Sangamam (Confluence) in ‘Triveni’, Maya Jalaka (Magical Window) in ‘Vivahita’, Mangalam Kunnile Maanpedayo (The Doe of Mangalam Hill) in ‘Othenante Makan’, Paaduvan Moham (An urge to sing) in ‘Chitramela’ and Thaananilathe Neerodu (Water Runs Only in Low-lying Ground) in ‘Padichakallan’.

Yesudas partly owes his phenomenal success as a singer to the time he entered the Malayalam film industry and the people he had the opportunity to work with.

Composers of the 1960s and early 70s like G Devarajan, MS Baburaj, KV Job, V Dakshinamoorthy, K Raghavan, Pukazhenthi, BA Chidambaranath, MK Arjunan, Salil Chowdhury and Usha Khanna were great masters. Those who penned the lyrics for their tunes such as P Bhaskaran, Vayalar Rama Varma, ONV Kurup and Sreekumaran Thampi were remarkable poets.

Yesudas’ flawless sweet voice and its immense range, his sound classical base, quick grasp of situations, imagination, innovation, and ability to bring emotions into his songs in a natural way inspired these composers and lyricists to create music that people of the tiny state of Kerala had never heard before.

They immediately fell in love with Yesudas’ mesmerising voice. He became their ‘Ganagandharva’.   It is no exaggeration that the history of Malayalam light music is Yesudas.

National singer

His rise as a national singer began in the 1960s after making debut in Tamil and Telugu films in 1964 with the philosophical song Neeyum Bommai Naanum Bommai in ‘Bommai’ and the melodic number O Nindu  Chandamama in ‘Bangaru Thimmaraju’ respectively.

The Tamil hits Daivam Thantha Veede in ‘Aval Oru Thodarkatha’ and Vizhiye Kathai Ezhuthe in ‘Urimai Kural’ and the Telugu hit Akasa Desana in ‘Megha Sandesham’ established him as the top singer in South Indian film music.

As a classical musician, his talents were recognised quite early by masters like Chemabi Vaidyanatha Iyer and Balamurali Krishna. The young singer was proudly presented at classical music festivals in southern India.

Yesudas-Salil Chowdhury team produced some great hits in Bengali movies like Path Harabo Bole Ami in ‘Pratigya’, Naam Shakuntala Taar with Sabita Chowdhury in ‘Srikanter Will’, Aar Bujhite Parina in ‘Devika’ and Nahi Surjo Nahi Jyoti in ‘Vivekananda’.

Yesudas sang his first Hindi song in 1971 for the film ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kissan’ which was never released. The break came in 1976 with the lilting number Janeman Janeman in ‘Chhoti Si Baat’. Salil Chaudhury, who composed several Malayalam hits including Kadalinakkare Ponore for ‘Chemeen’ in 1965, scored the music for ‘Chhoti Si Baat’. Janeman became a hit even on Europe’s dance floors.

Salil Chowdhury’s album ‘Anand Mahal’ released in 1977 featuring the Yesudas song Ni Sa Ga Ma Pa was a great hit. The film under the same name was completed but never released.     

The release of the Hindi film ‘Chitchor’ in 1976 established Yesudas as a great singer at the national level. All songs in ‘Chitchor’ became hits and the duet with Hemlata, Jaab Deep Jale Jaana, fetched him the national award for the best singer.

Ravindra Jain, who composed the music for ‘Chitchor’, fell in love with his voice and style of singing and the two produced many more hits in Hindi and Malayalam.

Among Yesudas’ memorable songs in Hindi are Koi Gata Me Soo Jaata (Film ‘Alaap’: Music Jaidev), Madhubhan Khusboo (‘Sajan Bina Suhagan’: Music Usha Khanna), Ka Karoon Sajni (‘Swami’: Music Rajesh Roshan), Maa Na Ho Tum (‘Toote Khilone’: Music Bappi Lahiri), Kahan Se Aaye Badra (‘Chashme Buddoor’: Music Raj Kamal), Zid Na Karo Ab To Ruko (‘Lahu Ke Do Rang’: Music Bhappi Lahiri) and Surmayee Ankhiyon Mein (‘Sadma’: Music Ilaiyaraja).

The classical numbers for ‘Tansen’ sung by Yesudas and composed by Ravindra Jain would have been a landmark in the history of Hindi film music had the film been released. The highly classical numbers of ‘Tansen’ like Shaadajne Paaya, Khali Khali Badli, and Akhiyon Se Piya are available on YouTube.

After Yesudas completed the 12-minute song recording of Shaadajne Paaya, Ravindra Jain, who was born blind, cried and embraced him and said that if God ever gives him sight, he wants to see Yesudas first.

For Yesudas, this was the greatest tribute from the gifted composer who passed away in 2015.

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