K.J. Yesudas

Celestial singer

Print edition : December 16, 2011


Performing at the Tyagaraja Aradhana at Thiruvaiyaru near Tanjavur in January 2011.-M. SRINATH Photo: M. SRINATH

WITH MUSIC DIRECTOR G. Devarajan at a function in Thiruvananthapuram. The majority of Devarajan songs were sung by Yesudas.-C. RATHEESH KUMAR Photo: C. RATHEESH KUMAR




In a remarkable career spanning 50 years, K.J. Yesudas has endeared himself to all music lovers with his sensuous and soulful singing. (Published in the issue dated December 16, 2011.)

AS the sun dipped towards the government buildings and the rain clouds gathered, the brimming (Central) stadium began to grow increasingly restless. Familiar film melodies blared out over cone-shaped speakers. The bright red chairs, in vanity rows up front, had been sold out weeks ahead for obscene rates; the rest of the crowd had settled for varying degrees of discomfort at other parts of the stadium. It was the Big Day for all of them in Kerala's capital city, poor and rich, and they had been waiting for it for weeks and for hours that day. Finally, a car drove up to the stage and the swarm settled back. At last, they could hear him live, the man whose songs had been playing over the speakers all afternoon. It was, however, a shorter, stockier man who walked upstage. He had only a few staccato sentences to share: Namasthe. I am Jayachandran (playback singer). Yesudas is elsewhere. In a city hotel. He will not be performing today. The organisers have not kept their part of the bargain.' They should have stopped with that. Instead, they threw in the fuel: Jayachandran will sing one or two songs for you, for having kept you waiting for so long.' The damage could be ascertained only the next day. Speakers were pulled down, chairs broken, the venue vandalised. The crowd scattered. Old-world rowdies took over. No one seemed to know the organisers by sight. They must have left in a hurry.

The above account, recreated from memory, is of a holiday evening turning sour over Yesudas in Thiruvananthapuram in the mid-1970s, barely over a decade after he had started singing for films.

Now, as he celebrates his 50 years as a playback singer, music lovers still cannot stop fighting over Kattassery Joseph Yesudas, on why they allow his immortal songs to touch their souls.

From the day he entered a Chennai studio on November 14, 1961, for the live recording of an unlikely debut song for a Malayalam film - a poem by Kerala's social reformer-saint Sree Narayana Guru, about a society shorn of caste and religious hatred - Yesudas seemed destined to surprise himself and his audiences.

In a television interview later, Santha P. Nair, who paired with Yesudas in his first duet for the same film, Kaalpaadukal, recalled the launch of his sensational singing career somewhat like this: A dark, gaunt young man with well-oiled black hair, the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up above the elbows. He was singing into the mike, his eyes laced with anxiety.

It was a bleak start to an illustrious career. But throughout his later years, Yesudas has claimed it as providence and rendered Narayana Guru's signature philosophy, One Caste, One Religion, One God for Man', in various forms at hundreds of venues and public meetings.

To the young man from a poor Catholic family from Fort Kochi in Kerala, the son of Augustine Joseph, a well-known singer and actor, providence it must have been when Raman Nambiath, the producer of the film that subsequently flopped at the theatres, insisted that the boy who stood at the doors of Bharani Studio with pleading eyes be given that one chance to make it - to record live despite running a high fever on that very day.

Otherwise, why should a friend, a stage singer, recommend Yesudas to Nambiath and the music director, M.B. Sreenivasan, at all, instead of trying a chance for himself in the film? Or why should another friend offer him Rs.16, his fare to Chennai and his first recording, which he could not afford otherwise then? In later years, Yesudas, a regular visitor and performer at several churches and Hindu shrines, including the Ayyapa temple in Sabarimala and the Mookambika temple in Kollur, would invoke that universal God and assert that every song that he rendered or every providential turn in his career was all predestined.

It did not take long for his effortless voice to become the lodestone for music lovers, especially in Kerala. In a career spanning five decades, Yesudas went on to record over 50,000 songs in as many as 17 languages, including Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Bengali, Gujarati, Odiya, Marathi, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tulu, Malay, Russian, Arabic, Latin and English. He won the National Award for the Best Male Playback Singer seven times, a record yet to be broken, and over 30 State awards from the governments in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. In 1992, the Sangeet Natak Akademi awarded him its highest recognition. In 2002, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India. The Swathi Sangeetha Puraskaram, the highest honour for musicians instituted by the Kerala government, was awarded to him in 2011.

Perhaps, Yesudas was an inevitability. The enduring quality of his voice and the ageless melodies he sang for films became a rage, appealing to the old and the young alike, a fixture on radio and loudspeakers, and after the 1980s, on cassettes, CDs, DVDs and the Internet. The golden years of Yesudas, the first three decades of his career, was also a period when film music almost exclusively constituted what was popular music in India as a whole. Kerala, especially, then became a place where parents and children enjoyed listening to that one singer above everyone else, and his languid, caressing voice was regularly replayed at homes and hotels, at weddings and political meetings, during a siesta or when staying awake at night.

Yesudas' iconic voice defies definition and sets him apart from a great array of talent that came before and after him. He had also acquired from his father a quaint flair for articulation, for drenching Malayalam words with meaning and delivering them skilfully without squeezing them of their lyrical quality or contextual sense. But there was something more that set him apart - a subliminal quality that transcended the ordinary and hung like a tiara, as it were, on his songs. Listeners could barely discern its nature in their momentary bliss, as they savoured the melodies of their celestial singer.

His early songs invariably contained the essence of Kerala, its heartbeats, its political, social and religious ethos, its philosophical, reformist, political trends, its multireligious symbolisms. In this respect, Yesudas is unique in the world of Indian film music - the credit for his everlasting songs, therefore, essentially not of his own but also of those accomplished poets, lyricists, music composers and others who worked behind them.

The ferment that was Kerala then found an echo in the evocative film songs written by great lyricists such as Vayalar Rama Varma, P. Bhaskaran, O.N.V. Kurup and Sreekumaran Thampi, and composed by prominent artists like M.B. Sreenivasan, Dakshinamoorthy, M.S. Baburaj and G. Devarajan. Their works had the simplicity of folk songs, sweetness of Carnatic ragas, an earthy beauty of the Malayalam language, and a certain knack to make Malayalam lyrics dance to the tunes of Carnatic music, as the renowned poet O.N.V. Kurup described it in the preface to Devageethikal, a collection of film songs for which the music was composed by G. Devarajan.

In a more recent book, Athisayaraagam, published on the 50th year of Yesudas as a singer, author Ravi Menon, a music researcher, says that Yesudas' career as a playback singer blossomed really with the songs he rendered under the direction of Devarajan. The majority of Devarajan songs - from about 200 films, for which he had composed music between 1975 and 1996 - were sung by Yesudas. Devarajan is quoted in the book as saying: Many of you think that Yesudas got the opportunity to sing a lot of my songs because his voice matched that of [actor] Prem Nazeer [on screen]. That is wrong. Only some people can sing certain songs. But Yesudas could tame most of the songs.... It was Yesudas who provided the sweetness, majesty, depth and spread for 85 per cent of all the male voice songs, including those for Tamil films, which I had composed.

Social context

It was a necessity of the times, perhaps, or a quirk of fate, that the aesthetically rewarding lyrics and music also conveyed a sense of the social milieu, even as they remained, artistically, of very high quality, being rooted in the best of poetic and musical traditions of the south. Thus, a whole mix of social contexts came to be expressed and popularised through a talented and accomplished singer, especially in the first three decades of his career - an advantage that no other playback singer perhaps ever got in India.

A scrutiny of the Malayalam film songs of the two decades from 1960 onwards would explain the special context that helped Yesudas stand apart. And, how he burnished his image by rendering with equal ease songs that (continue to) spark religious and revolutionary fervour, express the yearning for a lost love or an equal God, talk about philosophy or the idealism of the workers' movement, or merely reflect the hilarity or misfortunes of everyday life, or the violence, hatred, vengeance and carnality in films.

People were captivated by the way he sang them - the lyrics that imbibed the beauty and simplicity of the Malayalam language - with the felicity of a classical musician, and with a certain clarity and vibrancy that transformed them instantly into what can only be termed 'divine music'. It was the poet the late G. Sankara Kurup, who first described Yesudas as Gandharva Gaayakan (celestial singer).

It struck a chord. His songs appealed to audiences of all ages, and millions of people, especially his fellow Malayalees, constantly sought in them an expression of their own passions, sentiments, miseries and aspirations. Thus to the connoisseurs of his music, Yesudas was the perfect foil to questions such as, Do film songs have a life of their own? and Do songs make films popular or is it the other way around?

Yesudas' popularity as a playback singer has submerged, to a large extent, another inimitable facet of the artist from public attention. While many Carnatic musicians had tried their luck in film music, Yesudas was a trailblazer in using his popularity in playback singing to force his way into what was then an exclusive, caste-dominated and tradition-bound world of classical singers.

Providence again played its part for Yesudas in this, in the form of his guru of later years, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, a legend and a pioneer in breaking traditions that had enslaved the south Indian classical music world. It is uncertain if, without such affectionate patronage, Yesudas would have ever emerged in a big way into the intimidating world of Carnatic music given the initial smirks and snide remarks about a non-Brahmin playback singer ever making it in the hallowed world of traditional musicians.

It proved to be a blow for the traditionalists when the immensely successful playback singer began to revitalise their cloistered universe, drawing large crowds into the previously restricted venues of Carnatic music kutcheris. The acceptance and popularity that Carnatic music gained among the common people - take the example of Vaataapi Ganapatim, as rendered by Yesudas - subsequently also led to this genre of songs becoming fashionable in films.

Classical music thus got a popular champion and the experience stood him in good stead when he ventured to sing in various other Indian languages. By 1972, after he started playback singing for actor-politician M.G. Ramachandran (from Ulakam Sutrum Vaaliban onwards), Yesudas rose to fame in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, singing for several well-known composers, including M.S. Viswanathan, Ilayaraja, A.R. Rahman and Vidyasagar.

Ironically, though Yesudas became the first singer from Kerala to ever make it big at the national level through Hindi films, comparable success, as he had down south, eluded him in spite of a wonderful legacy of hit singles and duets such as Ni Sa Ga Ma Pa Ni.', 'Jab deep jale aana' , 'Gori tera gav bada', 'Sid naa karo', 'Ka karo sajni', 'Chand jaise', 'Oh goriya re', 'Tu jo mere sur me' and 'Koyii gaata, Me so jaata'.

Yesudas sang for several Hindi music composers, including Ravindra Jain, Bappi Lahiri, Usha Khanna, Raj Kamal and Salil Chaudhuri. But he also had bitter experiences with some others. After an inspiring burst of hit songs in Chit Chor (1976) under Ravindra Jain (one of which got him the National Award), big banner film and music directors tended to ignore Yesudas, and his songs failed to be featured in movies with the superstars of the Hindi screen.

For various reasons, therefore, Yesudas' gifted voice and undeniable musical talent failed to distract silent critics who continued to draw attention instead to his accent and delivery, the very factors that were an advantage for him in Malayalam and other south Indian languages. There were persistent rumours of hostile cliques ruling the Hindi film world, and though it remains an annoying detail for his zealous fans, being a Hindi film sensation was perhaps an improbable destiny for Yesudas.

Film lyrics are essentially evocative, and Yesudas always laid stress on understanding their meaning in order to give his songs their soul. Language, perhaps, was one of the barriers for him in Bollywood. But Yesudas had a lot of other things going for him down south and, as he has often explained, he could not afford to spend much time in Mumbai.

For instance, even in the late 1960s, a number of his film songs had become mega-hit anthems to millions of pilgrims from all over India trekking to the hill shrine of Sabarimala or visiting the Guruvayoor temple in central Kerala. Yesudas and his relationship, respectively, with the two places of Hindu worship - one which allowed entry to members of all religions and hence to Yesudas as well, and the other which denied admission to non-Hindus, including the singer - had much symbolic value in his home State that set great store by its secular traditions.

While Yesudas was a welcome visitor at Sabarimala, with his innumerable songs (including a 'divine lullaby' from a 1970s film Harivarasanam...' played officially at the sanctum sanctorum as the doors close for the night) merging well with the temple's codes and rituals, he was not allowed to enter the Guruvayoor temple even though his songs were on the lips of every other devotee thronging the prominent Krishna shrine. One particular film song by Yesudas, Guruvayoorambalanadayil, has a poignant message and each time it is replayed, reminds one of the yearning of a spurned devotee for a wholesome darshan of the presiding deity one day.

There are equally stirring devotional songs by Yesudas invoking Jesus, Allah, and several Hindu deities. He renders them with as much dedication as he seemed to have had when he sang those inspiring revolutionary film songs for the Left movement in Kerala in the 1960s and the 1970s. One can still hear them at every nook and corner, summoning a new generation of workers: Viplavam jayikkatte (or long live the revolution); Sakhakkale munnottu (forward! comrades!); Oro tulli chorayil ninnu (from each drop of blood'); Sarvarajya thozhilalikale (workers of the world!'); and Inquilab! Sindhabad!

How time flies. Only yesterday, or so it seems, that dark, gaunt young man with well-oiled black hair was at a Chennai studio, launching a career, nervously reproducing Sree Narayana Guru's philosophy by default, instead of the lines of a duet that had since faded from public memory. But that event has proved prophetic and, after 50 years and over 50,000 songs later, it is not hard to explain the permanent strand of secular spirituality still lacing Yesudas' songs - for him, music is God.

That is why beyond their artistic, aesthetic or commercial value, his songs retain a special place in the minds of people as icons of a unifying, progressive and pluralistic society.

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