“God’s Own Gift” From “God’s Own Country”
By Ambrish Sundaram
October 14, 1961…. Bharani Studio…. Chennai (then Madras)…. Music composer M.B.Sreenivasan (MBS) was recording a shloka in the voice of a dark, gaunt 21 year old young man with well-oiled black hair, the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up above the elbows. The movie in question was “Kaalppadukal” in Malayalam.
“Jaathi Bhedam Matha Dwesham”, sang the young man, with perfect diction and in a crystal clear voice, albeit a little nervously, that had been honed under the watchful guidance of gurus in Carnatic classical music. The words were penned by noted spiritual leader and social reformer Sri. Narayana Guru, who had revolutionized Kerala with his efforts to uproot the evils plaguing society. It is said that the song was recorded in one take, with everyone in the studio mesmerised by the brilliant delivery of the young man. What made it even more appreciable was the fact that he was running a high fever that day.
At the end of the recording, composer Sreenivasan turned to sound engineer Koteeswara Rao for his feedback. The latter famously remarked (in Tamizh/Tamil), “Paththu Varusham Mudinju Paarkalaam” (We will see in ten years). His comment alluded to his belief that he foresaw a long and strong future for the young man in the world of music. And boy was he proven more than right!!!! Prophetic words indeed!!! It is over 51 years since that historic recording. And that voice continues to mesmerize music lovers across the globe to this day.
The journey had begun a few months back with a train ride from Cochin Harbor Terminus at Willingdon Island. The young man, with hardly a penny in his pocket, had nourished dreams of making it big as a singer in the competitive world of movie music. A friendly taxi driver, Mathai, dropped the young man off at the railway station and gave him 16 Rupees – which was all the money he had (Long live Mathai sir!!!). The train ticket to Madras was 11 Rupees. With just 5 Rupees in his pocket, the young man landed in Madras. For the next 5 months, he faced several trials and tribulations, as he knocked in vain on the doors of several music composers seeking a chance to lend his vocals to a song. Finally MBS offered him the opportunity, probably not knowing then that he was creating history.
Born into a Catholic Christian family, on January 10, 1940, to Augustine Joseph (who was a classical singer and a stage actor) and Alicekutty, the young man had been initiated into the world of classical music by his father. He was just nine when he gave his first public performance with his father. More concerts followed and soon he was recognized as a local talent, winning small prizes in school and at the state level. He further honed his vocal abilities in the R.L.V. Music Academy in Tripunithura. He still reverently talks about ‘Padma Madam’, the teacher at the Tripunithura Academy who fed him and gave him Sanskrit lessons to improve his pronunciation. From thereon, he went to attend the Sri Swati Tirunal Music College in Trivandrum where he was under the guidance of Sri. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, a Carnatic music stalwart. Seeing the near penurious condition of the young man, Sri. Srinivasa Iyer allowed the young man to use his car shed as his lodging. The young aspiring singer gritted his teeth and endured, surviving several days, just drinking potable water from the public taps in Trivandrum. For a short period thereafter, he trained under Sri. Vechur Hari Hara Subramania Iyer and then received advanced training from Sri. Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, another giant in the Carnatic classical arena. Chembai moulded him into a fine artiste with wide repertoire.
Armed with the shiksha imparted by his gurus and with confidence in his own abilities, the young man embarked on his musical journey. Ironically, he was rejected by All India Radio, Trivandrum and by several music composers. Nevertheless, with courage and fortitude, he bore through the pain of rejection. He joined Kalabhavan in Ernakulam, an organization that encouraged upcoming artistes by organizing stage performances. Luck finally appeared in the form of lyricist Nambiath, who introduced him to K S Antony, director of Kaalpaadukal, who in turn, introduced him to music director M B Sreenivasan. In addition to “Jaathi Bheda Matha Dwesham”, he also sang a duet, “Attention Penne Attention”, with noted Malayalam singer Shantha P Nair, for the same movie.
From that time on, success beckoned him with open arms. He became a sought after singer in Malayalam cinema. His success in Malayalam cinema was further fueled in the 1970s as he became the playback voice for superstar Prem Nazir.
Songs such as “Alliyambal”(Rosy), “Aadyathe Kanmani” (Bhagyajathakam), “Panchara Palu Muttai”(Bharya), “Dayaparanaya Karthave” (Bharya), “Kannuneer Muthumai” (Nityakanyaka), “Ayalathe Sundari” (Moodupadam), “Madhurapatinezhu Kari”( Ammaye Kanan),’ “Idayakanyake” and “Asthamudikayalile” (Manavatti),’ etc. are counted among his early hits in Malayalam.
In the 1960s and 1970s, his collaboration with noted composers such as G.Devarajan, M. S. Baburaj, M.K. Arjunan, V. Dakshinamoorthy, and Salil Chowdhury yielded several hits. Here’s a sample of his numbers that are cherished by Malayalam music aficionados to this date:
o Thamasamente varuvaan – Bhargavi Nilayam (1964)
o Nadhikalil – Anaarkali (1966)
o Innale Mayangumbol – Anveshichu Kandethiyilla (1967)
o Akkareyanente Tamasam – Karthika (1968)
o Pranasaki – Pareeksha (1969)
o Orupushpam – Pareeksha (1969)
o Swapnangale Ningal – Kavyamela (1965)
o Kakkathamburatti – Inapravukal (1965)
o Hrudaya Sarassile – Paadunna Puzha (1968)
o Ponveyil – Nirthasala (1972)
o Ashtamudi – Manavatty (1964)
o Manikya Veena – Kattu Pookkal (1965)
o Kattadichu – Thulabharam (1968)
o Thanga Bhasma – Koottukudumbam (1969)
o Aayiram Padasaram – Nadi (1969)
o Sangamam – Triveni (1970)
o Omalale Kandu- Sindhoora Cheppu (1971)
o Manushyan – Achanum Bappayum (1972)
o Indravallari – Gandharava Kshetram (1972)
o Padmatheerthame – Gayathri (1973)
o Neela Ponmane – Nellu (1974)
o Kalakalam – Ee Ganam Marakkumo (1978)
o Madaprave Vaa – Madhanotsavam (1978)
o Shyama Meghame – Samayamayilla Polum (1978)
In the 1980s, he continued to scale greater heights in Malayalam cinema, delivering several hits under the baton of composers such as Raveendran, M. G. Radhakrishnan, Jerry Amaldev and Johnson, including songs such as Ezhuswarangalum (“Chiriyo Chiri”), “Pramadavanam Veendum” (“His Highness Abdulllah”) and Devanganagal Kayyozhinja Tharakam (“Njan Gandharvan”).
In his book, Athisayaraagam, author Ravi Menon, a music researcher, says that the man’s 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 him. Devarajan is quoted in the book as saying: “Many of you think that he got the opportunity to sing a lot of my songs because his voice matched that of Prem Nazir. That is wrong. Only some people can sing certain songs. But he could tame most of the songs…. It was he 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.”
His fame as a singer in Malayalam fetched him his first recording for the Tamil/Tamizh movie “Bommai”, where he sang “Neeyum Bommai Naanum Bommai”, under the baton of veteran musician (veena vidwan), producer, director, actor S.Balachander. Interestingly though, “Konjum Kumari” was the first Tamil/Tamizh that was released with a song featuring his voice – “Aasai Vandha Pinne”, a duet with with B.Vasantha.
Success in Tamil/Tamizh filmdom took a while coming, but when it did, he went on to provide the playback voice for several leading stars such as M.G.Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Rajinikanth, Kamalahasan and Sivakumar. The song “VizhiyE Kadhai Ezhudhu” composed by M. S. Viswanathan (MSV), for the M.G.Ramchandran hit “Urimai Kural”(1974) was among his early successful songs in Tamil. Other songs such as “Deivam Thandha VeeDu Veedhi Irukku” (“AvaL Oru Thodarkadhai” – 1974), “Adhisaya Raagam” (Aboorva Raagangal – 1975), “Malare Kurinji Malare” (“Dr. Siva” – 1975), “Kaanchi Pattuduththi” (“Vayasu Ponnu” – 1978) and “Thirumaalin Thirumaarbil Sreedevi Mugame” (“Thrishoolam” – 1979) were among his notable output with MSV.
The mid 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, saw the ascendancy of maestro composer Ilaiyaraja in Tamil/Tamizh cinema. Under his baton, he delivered several hits, including numbers such as “Adi Kaana Karunkuyile” (“Poonthotta Kavalkaran”), “Amma Endrazhaikkaadha” (“Mannan”), “Annan Enna Thambi Enna”(“Dharma Durai”), “Enthan Nenjil Neengatha” (Kalaignan”), “Idhu Iravaa Pagalaa (“Neela Malargal”), “Kalyana Then Nila” (“Mounam Sammadham”), “Kanne Kalaimaane” (“Moondram Pirai”), “Kasthuri Maane Kalyana Thene” (“Pudhumai Penn”), “Pazhamudhir Cholai” (“Varusham 16”), “Maha Ganapathim” (“Sindhu Bhairavi”), “Poove Sempoove” (“Solla ThuDikidhu Manasu”), “Raja Raja Sozhan Naan” (“Rettai Vaal Kuruvi”), “Thendral Vandhu Yennai Thodum” (“Thendrale Ennai ThoDu”), “Thoongaadha VizhigaL RenDu” (“Agni Natchathiram”) and “VeLLai Puraa Ondru” (“Pudhu Kavidhai”).
He also has sung under the direction of other noted composers such as Shankar-Ganesh, K.V.Mahadevan, A.R.Rahman, S.A. Rajkumar, L. Vaidyanathan, Deva, Gangai Amaran and Vidyasagar.
He made his mark in Telegu/Telugu cinema too, delivering popular numbers such as “Devude Icchadu Veedhi Okati” (“Anthuleni Katha” – 1976), “Chukkalle Thochave Ennelle Kachave” (“Nireekshana – 1981), “Navarasa Suma Malika”, “Sigaloo Avi Viruloo”, “Aakasa Desana” (“Meghasandesham” – 1983), “Telavarademo Swamy” (“Srutilayalu – 1987), “Tulasi Dalamulache Santhoshamuga Poojinthu”, “Manava Seva Drohama Kala Seva Kadanna”, “Lalitha Priyakamalam” (“Rudraveena” – 1988), “Muddabanthi Navvulo”, “Kondalalo Nelakonna”, “Nagumomu” (“Alludu Gaaru” – 1991) and “Muddutho Onamaalu” (“Major Chandrakanth” – 1992).
In Kannada, he worked with major composers, such as Hamsalekha, V.Manohar, Upendrakumar and Gurukiran and delivered hits such as “Anuragadalil Gandharva Gana“ (“Gandharva”), ”Hoovina Lokha Nammadu” (“Kempu Gulabi”), “Gouria Roopa Ninamma” (“Madura Preethi”), “Kele Kele Bharatha Mathe” (“Abhimanyu”), “Nagumoo Mohana” (“Rayaroo Bandaru Maavana Manege”), “Nammoora Yuvarani” (“Ramachari”) and “Ee Yavvana Madhura” (“Ramarajyadhalli Raksharu”).
His entry into Hindi cinema was not very auspicious. He first recorded “Dilrubaa Kyaa Huaa” for the movie “Jai Jawan Jai Kisaan”, but the movie did not see the light of the day. Soon after, his collaboration with Salil Chowdhury, led him to “Chhotee See Baat”, for which he recorded the peppy “Jaaneman Jaaneman Tere Do Nayan”, a duet with Asha Bhosle. The composer also recorded the beautiful “Ni Sa Ga Ma Pa Ni”, for the movie “Anand Mahal”, in his voice.
His work, voice quality, talent and ability caught the attention of noted composer, Ravindra Jain, and together, the duo came up with several superhit songs as “Gori Teraa Gaaon BaDaa Pyaaraa”, “Tu Jo Mere Sur Mein” and “Jab Deep Jale Aanaa”(“Chitchor”), “Sunayana Aa In Nazaaron Ko Tum Dekho” (“Sunayana”) and “O Goriaa Re” (“Naiyya”). It is said that Ravindra Jain, was so fascinated with his singing that he stated that the singer’s face was the first he wanted to see if he ever gained his vision. He is also said to have described the singer’s voice as the “Voice Of India”.
When discussing the singer’s collaboration with Ravindra Jain, one particular song merits special attention. Rajshree Films embarked on filming a movie called “Tansen”. Ravindra Jain was picked to compose the music for the movie and he recorded the awesome “Shadaj Ne Paayaa” in the singer’s voice, which remains the latter’s favorite song in Hindi. It is said that the recording went on continuously for several hours and the singer and composer did not partake food or water till their work was complete. Unfortunately this movie went unreleased, but the song that runs for over 12 minutes, remains very popular among music aficionados.
The success of Rajshree’s “Saawan Ko Aane Do” can be attributed to some lovely music. The singer, who had a lion’s share of the male voice songs in the movie, came up trumps and delivered perennial favorites “Tujhe Dekhkar Jagwaale Par”, “Teri Tasveer Ko”, “Chaand Jaise Mukhde Pe”, “Jaanam Jaanam”, “Bole To Baansuri Kahin”, “Kajre Ki Baati” (a duet with Sulakshana Pandit) and “Tere Bin Sonna More Man Ka Mandir”. Of course, credit must be given to composer Rajkamal for coming up with such lovely numbers.
Another album that saw the singer gather a lot of plaudits was “Aalaap”, where Jaidev composed the music. “Koi Gaataa Mein So Jaataa”, “Chaand Akelaa Jaaye Sakhi Ree”, “Zindagi Ko Sanwaarnaa Hoga”, “Nai Ri Lagan” and “Mata Saraswati Sharada” saw him give playback to superstar Amitabh Bachchan. While the movie failed to set the box-office registers ringing, the songs came to be appreciated.
The singer’s rendition of “Zid Na Karo” (“Lahu Ke Do Rang” – Bhappi Lahiri), “Maanaa Ho Tum” (“Toote Khilone” – Bhappi Lahiri), “Kaa Karoon Sajani” (“Swami” – Rajesh Roshan), “Madhuban Khushboo Detaa Hai” (“Saajan Bin Suhaagan” – Usha Khanna), “Kahaan Se Aaye Badraa”, “Kaalee GhoDee Dwaar KhaDee” (“Chashm-E-Buddoor” – Rajkamal), “Tum Itnee Sundar Ho” (“Anand Ashram – Shyamal Bose), “Mohabbat BaDe Kaam Kee Cheez Hai”, “Aapkee Mehkee Huee” and “Jaa Ree Behenaa” (“Trishool” – Khaiyyam) established his position as a noted singer in Hindi cinema.
His pairing with female playback singer Hemlata was a very popular one and together the two of them went on to deliver many hit songs, some of which have been listed above.
Despite all this, it is interesting that his overall output in Hindi cinema, is limited, when compared to other well-known male singers. While one can speculate on the reasons for this, it is unfortunate that he did not get to sing much more in Hindi cinema.
The young man, who had once been rejected by All India Radio, went on to deliver hits in several languages including Bengali / Bangla, Gujarati, Oriya, Marathi, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tulu, Malay, Russian, Arabic, Latin and English during a career spanning five decades.
Every music director that has worked with him, has acknowledged the quality of his music, ability to learn compositions fast and talent to render songs without losing the emotions they sought to reflect. “He is unparalleled when it comes to the rendition of classical numbers,” says Ravindra Jain. Adds Ilayaraja, the legendary Tamil composer: “I would rate him as second to Mohammed Rafi only, in sheer versatility.” Interestingly enough, Mohammad Rafi is the singer’s idol, and he has always acknowledged it publicly.
In 2006 he established a record of sorts by singing and recording 16 songs, all in a single day, in four languages, for the movie “Malikapurathu Amman”, produced in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. The movie’s music director Sivaji Raja says: “He is really a gift to Indian music. See, even now he can sing in all the sthayis – from baritone, to madhyam and to thara sthayi with ease. And his pronunciation and bhava are just superb.”
Even as his career as a playback singer flourished in the Indian movie industry, he never forgot his roots as a classical singer. His classical concerts continued to draw huge crowds. Purists had expressed doubts about his ability to carry off both classical and film music, but he proved them wrong. Demonstrating his reverence for the classical form of music, he once said : ”Carnatic music is like a ‘sagaram’. Musicians can only drink drops from it.”
He went on to record several non-film albums too, including the following:
• Gurusmarana – A Carnatic classical music album, in which he sang with his guru Chembai Vaidyanatha Bagavathar
• Raaga Series – Raagam Thodi – A Carnatic classical music album
• Krishna Nee Begane Baaro – A recording of live performance in the presence of His Holiness Sri Sri Sri Vishveshatheertha Swamiji of Pejavara Sri Krishna Math, Udupi in early 2002
• “Thiruvona Kaineettam” and “Ponnona Tharangini” – Two separate musical albums of Malayalam songs related to the Onam festival
• Hymns from the Rig-Veda – An album consisting of 1028 Hymns in 10 Mandalas from the Rig Veda
• Vasantha Geethangal – An album of songs related to the spring season
• Sitaron Mein Tu Hai – An album of Hindi songs
In 1980 he established Tharangini Studio in Trivandrum, Kerala. In 1992 the office and studio were moved to Chennai, Tamil Nadu and the company was incorporated in the US in 1998. Tharangini Studio and Tharangini Records became a recording center in Kerala, which, for the first time, brought out audio cassettes of Malayalam film songs in stereo. The record company also had a voice-mixing studio in Studio27, Chennai. The studio continues to produce and present his film and Indian classical music concerts throughout the world.
To date, he has recorded several thousand songs. For his contributions to and through music, he has received several awards and recognitions. The following, is a small subset of those awards (in no particular order):
• Padma Bhushan, 2002
• Padma Shri, 1975
• Honorary Doctorate by Annamalai University, Tamil Nadu in 1989
• Honorary Doctorate by Kerala University, Kerala in 2003
• Honorary Doctorate by Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala in 2009
• Asthana Gayakan (Official Singer) by Government of Kerala
• Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1992
• Geetanjali Award by the ex-president of India Neelam Sanjiva Reddy
• Sur Singar Sansad Award in 1976
• Kalaimamani Award by Government of Tamil Nadu
• The Annual Lata Mangeshkar Award by Government of Madhya Pradesh in 1992
• Senate member in the International Parliament for Safety and Peace, an organization incorporated in the United States
• An Honorary award for Outstanding Achievements in Music and Peace by UNESCO in 1999
• Nominated to head the Sangeetha Nataka Academy of Kerala in 1970 – youngest person ever to occupy the office
• 7 time winner of National Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer
o 1993, Film Name: Sopanam, Language: Malayalam, Song: All Songs
o 1991, Film Name: Bharatham, Language: Malayalam, Song: Rama Kadha Gaana Layam
o 1987, Film Name: Unnikale Oru Kadha Parayam, Language: Malayalam, Song: Unnikale Oru Kadha Parayam
o 1982, Film Name: Meghasandesam, Language: Telugu, Song: Aakasa Desana Aashada Masaana
o 1976, Film Name: Chitchor, Language: Hindi, Song: Gori Teraa Gaaon Badaa
o 1973, Film Name: Gaayathri, Language: Malayalam, Song: Padmatheerthame Unaru
o 1972, Film Name: Achanum Bappayum, Language: Malayalam, Song: Manushyan Mathangale
• 24 Kerala State Film Awards for Best Male Playback Singer
• Kerala State Award – J. C. Daniel Award – Lifetime Achievement Award for Outstanding contributions to Malayalam Cinema
• 4 Andhra Pradesh State Film Awards (Nandi Awards) for Best Male Playback Singer
• 5 Tamil Nadu State Film Awards for Best Male Playback Singer
• 3 Karnataka State Film Awards For Best Male Playback Singer
• 1 West Bengal State Film Award for the Best Male Playback Singer
• 3 Filmfare Awards (South) for Best Male Playback Singer
• Filmfare Award For Lifetime Achievement in 2003
• Filmfare Award for Best Male Playback Singer (Hindi) for the song “Dil Ke TukDe TukDe Karke” in the movie “Dada”
His career as a singer notwithstanding, he has also appeared on the silver screen as:
• Tansen in the 1965 Malayalam movie “Anarkali”
• A merchant in the 1966 Malayalam movie “Kayamkulam Kochunni”
• A singer in the 1973 Malayalam movie “Achaani”
• A singer in the 1977 Malayalam movie “Nirakudam”
• Himself in the 2002 Malayalam movie “Nandanam”
• Himself in the 2005 Malayalam movie “Boy Friend“
Apart from singing, he has also composed music for Malayalam movies like “Azhakulla Celina”, ‘Theekkanal”, “Udayam Kizhakku Thanne”, “Sanchari” and “Poocha Sanyasi”.
He has also been making inroads into the field of literature, having written a couple of poems, including “Anweshanam” (search), in Malayalam.
For a man who started his playback career singing Narayana Guru’s “Jaathi Bheda Matha Dwesham”, he lives and practices the principles of equality and secularism. He has rendered several Hindu, Christian and Muslim devotional and spiritual songs. A great devotee of Sri Ayyappan, he makes it a point to visit Sabarimala whenever he is in India during the ”Makaravilakku” season. His rendition of “Harivarasanam” is played to this day at the closing time of the Ayyappan Temple in Sabarimala. He is also known to visit the Mookambika Temple in Kollur, Karnataka, every year on his birthday, and sing in praise of the deity.
It is said that the state of Kerala is “God’s Own Country”. From that beautiful land, we have “God’s Own Gift To The World Of Music”.
Ladies and gentlemen, presenting to you, the one and only, the “Gaanagandharvan”, Kattaserry Joseph Yesudas, (K.J. Yesudas or Yesudas, as he is popularly known)…. Dasettan to his friends and admirers….
“I have lived a life that is full,
I’ve travelled each and every highway,
But more, much more than this,
I did it my way….” – written by Paul Anka and sung by Frank Sinatra
In Humble Dedication To Sri. K.J.Yesudas – who has paved his own way into the hearts of millions of music lovers
Note: All the information in this article has been obtained from different sources on the internet. I have tried to ensure the veracity of the information as much as possible. Nevertheless, I apologize for any inaccuracies that may have inadvertently crept in to this article.