S. Janaki - Song of Emotions

The month of June bathed by monsoon.....rain-drenched days and nights.....school reopening season.......Middle School students like us used to gather for chatter during interval after wearying lessons in the cold classrooms. All types of unconnected issues befitting our preteen enthusiasm were discussed. Our pet aversions towards teachers....Sex-related tid-bits....discussions on Malayalam films and screen heroes....everything was on the table along with one serious issue....the film songs we heard on the radio previous night... In our mountain village, it was customary for us to curl up every night under blankets listening to the radio program ‘Ranjini’ – a cocktail of film songs – even as rain drummed its own rhythm on the roofs, in the freezing cold of the monsoon season. In those days, most of the children were aware of the names of important composers. They had some very definite opinions on the songs and the singers.

One such chatter-time discussion is evergreen in my mind to this day. It was a hotly contested verbal calisthenics on the female singers of that era. “I do not like S. Janaki’s voice at all. At times her screeching voice feels like drilling into the ears”, said one friend. Repartee was prompt: “Cast away your antique radio. My ears have no problem with her voice.” Another friend opined, “I like the voice of P Susheela alone. Her voice is clear and sweet.” An ‘expert’ immediately refuted it, “Her pronunciation is not correct. She sings ‘purrydevanam’ in place of ‘paridevanam’. In her singing ‘oru’ becomes ‘orru’ and ‘varu’ becomes ‘varru’.”

“Vani Jayaram stands for good pronunciation” was another sarcastic interjection. It must be said that Vani Jayaram stood first on miss-pronouncing Malayalam. “I do not like anybody. B.Vasantha is my favourite singer.” “Hello! Who is that? I have only heard of chicken Vasantha.” (It is the name of virus that affects fowls.) And there follows a wide variety of opinions. Madhuri, L.R.Easwari, P.Leela....everyone had a place there.

My thoughts too were on track. Who was I to name as the only name that liked foremost among women singers? S. Janaki was the number one singer in Malayalam films those days. Her Malayalam pronunciation was perfect. Fact was that I really loved P. Susheela’s voice the most. But I was not too sure of her singing style. Among popular composers, while Devarajan Master favoured P.Susheela, Baburaj and Salil Chowdhury favoured S.Janaki.

Somewhere on the way, I feel, compositions of Baburaj and Salil Chowdhury steadily led me to S.Janaki. More importantly, I felt a deep emotional undercurrent while listening to S.Janaki’s singing. She never sounded like a playback singer. Her songs resonated as though the heroin herself had sung them. I was able to confirm to myself that S. Janaki alone was the number one singer capable of entire range of expressions among South Indian female playback singers only after my listening and understanding of music expanded to film songs in many languages and of different genres.

S.Janaki supposed to have sung over 15,000 songs in 15 languages over a period of 40 years. She has sung in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi, Sinhalese, Bengali, Oriya, English, Sanskrit, Konkani, Tulu, Sowrashtra, Badaga and German languages. She has sung for five generations of female protagonists. She has sung in five languages for actress Sridevi alone!

What is the attraction in S.Janaki’s singing? It could be said without doubt that P.Susheela and Jikki were singers with better voice than her. There is none equal to P.Susheela in her sweetly musical flight through a range of notes. In any octave or emotion P.Susheela’s voice sounds sweet. But it needs to be noted that they have always reflected P.Susheela’s voice. They were not able to grow the innate emotions of the songs.

On the other hand S.Janaki’s song most naturally expresses the sound and emotions of the protagonist who lips the song in the film. The emotional content of the lines of the song and the tune in which it is set is brought out with an effortless depth, shorn of artificial drama. If we take any song of Janaki that had stayed in our heart and analyse along these lines, this point can be better realized. We would have loved the song for its natural emotional content.

A shy love is expressed with a subdued emotion in the song, “Poojaikku Vandha Malarey Vaa”. “Vasantha Kaala Kolangal” reveals a heart-rending yearning. “Unnidathil Yennai Koduthen” brings out a deep unrequited desire. In the song “Ninaithal Podhuma?” in Meenda Swargam her voice hits the unusual highs to express the pangs of separation. But her song “Naan Aadinaal” in the film Manippayal is a glamorous dance number taking us to the height of sensuality. There is this number “Chinna Kannan Azhaikkiraan” in the film Kavikkuyil sung by Balamurali Krishna and S.Janaki separately. Discerning listeners will note the emotional richness of Janaki’s rendering in this song which the other could not match.

S.Janaki entered the Malayalam film music industry in 1957 under the baton of composer S N Chamy for the film Minnuvadhellam Ponnalla singing the solo ‘Irul Moodugayo’. Afterwards, composers of those days like K.Raghavan and Dakshinamurthy gave her some stray opportunities now and then. M.B.Srinivasan was the one composer in her early days who brought her to the forefront by making her sing many numbers in a film. She learned to speak Malayalam after putting in hard and intensive efforts and made her pronunciation the most precise and nuanced among female playback singers. In her later days, S.Janaki was able to brilliantly parlay into her Malayalam songs the pronunciation differences in local dialects and differing nuances of various expressions of different regions and communities.

Dakshinamurthy brought P.Susheela into Malayalam film world in 1960. In the next two years, supported by all composers including Baburaj, P.Susheela occupied the pole position in film songs in Kerala. In his first 8 films Baburaj did not offer a single song to S.Janaki. The first song that Baburaj offered to S.Janaki was ‘Thaliritta Kinaakkal’ in the film Moodupadam made in 1963. Success of this song, considered as one of the greatest compositions of Baburaj to this day, impressed Baburaj and the Malayalam filmdom about the potential of S.Janaki.

S.Janaki was not given the opportunity to sing in Salil Chowdhury’s first three films either. But the grand success of the numbers ‘Saarike En Saarike’ and ‘Mazhavil Kodi Kaavadi’ in the 1973 film Swapnam made her the favourite singer of Salilda. It may be noted that it was S.Janaki who sang most of the intricate compositions of Salilda in Malayalam. And some of her most memorable numbers in Malayalam has Salilda’s music.

Janaki’s song count in Malayalam runs to thousands. Many hundreds of her hit songs are heard avidly even today as listeners’ choice every day. Some of the countless numbers that come flooding into my mind include ‘Unarunaroo’(AmmayeKaanaan), ‘Anjanakkannezhudhi’(Thachcholli Odhaynan), ‘Oru Kochchu Swapnathin’(Tharavattamma), ‘Vaasantha Panchami Naallil’(Bharghavi Nilayam), ‘Unaroo Vegham Nee’ and ‘Maanasa Manivenuvil’ (Moodal Manju), ‘Thamara Kumbilallo’(Anveshichchu Kandethiyilla), ‘Chirikkumpol’(Kadal), ‘Suryakanthi’(Kaatu Thulasi), ‘Aa Nimishathindre’(Chandra Kaantham), ‘Swapnaadanam’(Thulavarsham) and ‘Sandhye’(Madanotsavam). She ruled the roost in Malayalam singing with many songs till 1995.

‘Nee Aasha’ sung for the film M.L.A. and recorded on 5th April on 1957, was Janaki’s first Telugu film song. It was a duet she sang with Ghantasala under the baton of Pendyala Nageswara Rao. It is remembered even today as an unforgettable and evergreen Telugu film song. The song from the film Muripinche Muvvalu, ‘Nee Leela Paadedha Deva’ (the song ‘Singaara Velanay Deva’ in Tamil) and the song ‘Neeli Meghalalo’ from the film Bhavamarathallu were the songs that earned Janaki fame and standing in Telugu films. From then on till very recently Janaki ranked among top Telugu film singers. ‘Naynoka Poola Mogga’, ‘Pagalay Vennala’ and ‘Yethivilo Virisina Paarijaathamo’ are, from the date of their release to date, songs that spread sweetness. Among Janaki’s hundreds of Telugu hit songs, M.S.Viswanathan’s ‘Kallallo Unnadhetho’ (‘Kannile Enna Undu’ in Tamil), ‘Padaha Rellaku Neelo Naalo’ (Marocharithra) and ‘Andhamaina Anubhavam’ (Andhamaina Anubhavam) are attention grabbers.

Janaki has sung many thousands of songs in Kannada too. ‘Banallu Neenay’, ‘Hoovinda Hoovigay’, ‘Kangalu Thumbiralu’, ‘Ninna Savinenapay’, ‘Hosa Baallu’, ‘Yuga Yugadhi Kaledharoo’, ‘Yaava Janmadha Maitra’, ‘Nagu Yendhidhay’, ‘Puttaa Puttaa’, ‘Bharadhe Nenu Ninna’and ‘Hoovondhu Bekku’ are some of the immortal songs through which she continues to hold sway in Kannada film music.

Janaki has sung maximum number of Hindi songs too. S.Janaki will automatically get to sing a few songs whenever a South Indian composer scored the music for Hindi films. Janaki is regarded as the one singer who brilliantly parlayed the pronunciations typical to the languages whether Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu or Kannada. In Hindi too, her pronunciation was exact. Composers of Hindi films like Laxmikant Pyarelal, Salil Chowdhury, Ravindra Jain, Bappi Lahiri and Anand Milind gave her many hit songs.

Duets she sang with Kishore Kumar ‘Bol Baby Bol, Rock and Roll’(Meri Jung), ‘Chalke Saas Ke Naina’(Dil Ka Shadhi Dil), ‘Bandh Lo Ghungroo’(Pathar Ki Insaan), ‘Ghori Ka Saajan’(Aakhri Raasta), duets with Manna Dey like ‘Itna Maana Thoo Mera’(Aashiq CID), ‘Govindham Baja Gopalam’(Jan Johny Janardhan), ‘Don’t Say No’(Ghayal), duet with Bhappi Lahiri ‘Yaar Bina Chain Kahan Re’(Saheb) and ‘Radha Pyaar De Pyaar De’(Insaaf ka Aawaaz) sung in the company of Kishore Kumar were some of her outstanding hit songs in Hindi.

Janaki, who recently celebrated the Golden Jubilee of her career in music, was born on April 23 of 1938 in a small village Ballepatla near Repalle of Guntur District in Andhra. Having learnt music from the age of 3 till 10, she shifted base to Chennai on the advice of Dr. Chandrashekhar, her maternal uncle who was the inspiration behind her music. On his recommendation, she started her career in music with A.V.M. Studio.

One fine April day of 1957, Janaki sang under the baton of T.Chalapati Rao for the film ‘Vidhiyin Vilaiyattu’ which did not see the light of release. But she attained instant stardom in 1958 with the song ‘Singara Velane Deva’ in Konjum Salangai composed by legendary S.M. Subbaiah Naidu. She had sung the song to the accompaniment of Nadhaswaram of the famous Karukurichi Arunachalam and such is the magic of the song that it reverberates eternally in Tamilnadu. It is said that S.M.Subbiah Naidu searched relentlessly for a voice that will blend with the fine notes of nadhaswaram without being overwhelmed by it, before he finally found S.Janaki. After winning the highest accolades from South Indian music critics for this gem of a performance, she followed up by repeating this equally felicitously in many languages to the accompaniments of such greats as Ustad Bismillah Khan(Shehnai), M.Gopalakrishnan(violin), Hariprasad Chourasia(Flute) and Namagiripettai Krishnan(nadhaswaram).

As it happened in Kannada and Malayalam, Janaki’s career in music did not take off after the first resounding success in Tamil too. Even after many big hit songs, she had to be contend with mere occasional offer of songs. She was called only sporadically by Viswanathan-Ramamurthy. But when ever they called her, rare gems formed. ‘Thookam Un Kanngalai Thazhuvattumay’(Alayamani), ‘Jal Jal Jal Yenum Salangaiyoli’ and ‘Malaiyum Iravum’(Paasam), ‘Poomagal Meni’(Gnayirum Thingalum), ‘Vennmeghamey Venn Meghamey’ and ‘Azhaikkindren’(Aayiram Jenmangal), ‘Radhaikketra Kannano’(Sumaithangi), ‘Ulagam Ulagam(Ulagam Sutrum Vaaliban), ‘Paadaatha Paattellaam’(Veerathirumagan), ‘Chithiramey Solladi’(Vennira Aadai), ‘Sippy Irukkudhu Muthum Irukkudhu’(Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu), ‘Sollathan Ninaikkiren’(Sollathan Ninaikkiren), ‘Ippadiyorr Thaalaattu’ and ‘Kaatrukkenna Veli’(Avargal), ‘Kannilay Enna Undu’(Avall Oru Thodarkathai), ‘Malarey Kurinji Malarey’(Dr.Shiva), ‘Azhagukkum Malarukkum’(Nenjam Marappathillai), ‘Kanniley Neer Edhukku’ and ‘Ponnenben Siru Poovenben’(Policekkaran Magal) and ‘Mambazhathu Vandu(Sumaithangi) are some of the songs that dominates my mind. These are the songs in which she has displayed an unparalleled range of emotions.

It is said S.Janaki is the only singer who was able to express the total throw of Ilayaraja’s imagination in his scores. And theirs must rank as most musically successful association. Under Raja’s baton Janaki has been able to immaculately render, apart from her unfailing rural accent, the melting lilt and voluptuousness of rural women. Raja’s first songs ‘Annakkilliye Unnai Thedudhe’ and ‘Machchana Paartheengala’ from Annakkilli were such classics. They formed the watershed in Tamil film industry. Till recently Janaki’s voice, with umpteen such hit numbers, has been synonymous with folk song metaphor. From ‘Raasaave Unnai Nambi’(Mudal Mariyaadhai) to the National Award-winning number ‘Inji Iduppazhaga’ (Thevar Magan) there is much to cite.

Among Janaki’s number there are many memorable songs that combine the subtleties of traditional music with the emotions of film songs. The list runs from ‘Katril Endhan Geetham’(Jhonny), ‘Azhagiya Kanney’(Udhirippookkall), ‘Paadum Nilavey’ and ‘Theney Then Paandi Meeney’(Udhayageetham), ‘Putham Pudhu Kalai’(Alaigal Oyvadhillai), ‘Nadham En Jeevaney’(Kaadhal Oviyam), ‘Kannan Vandhu Paadukiraan’(Rettaivaal Kuruvi), ‘Sundari Neeyum Sundaran Gnanum(Michael Madhana Kamarajan), ‘Sendoora Poovey’(16 Vayadhinilay), ‘Malargaliley Aaraadhanai’(Karumbuvil), ‘Kannmaniyey Kaadhal Yenbathu’(Aarilirundhu Arupadhuvarai), ‘Ponvaanam Panneer Thoovudhu’(Indru Nee Nallai Naan), ‘Mounamaana Neram(Salangai Oli), ‘Thendral Vandhu Theendum Podhu’(Avathaaram), ‘Meendum Meendum Vaa’(Vikram), ‘Doorathil Naan Kanda(Nizhalgal) and so on. Even songs with complicated tunes like ‘Sangathil Paadatha Kavithai’(Autoraja) have been rendered by her effortlessly. A song that could have easily degenerated into farce by the slightest waywardness was sung without any dent in emotional communication by her.

S.Janaki’s role in immaculate rendering of the fine western tunes brought to Tamil music by Ilayaraja, without compromising on the beauty and naturalness of Tamil expression, has been a signal one that contributed to its grand success. One can list in this genre many songs like ‘Paadavaa Unn Paadalai’(Naan Paadum Paadal), ‘Oru Poongaavanam’(Agni Natchathiram), ‘Idhu Oru Nilakkaalam’(Tik Tik Tik), ‘Iravu Nilavu’(Anjali), ‘Kannmani Anbodu’(Guna), ‘Anbey Vaa Arugiley’(Killippechu Ketka Vaa), ‘Oho Megham Vandadho’(Mouna Raagam) and ‘Paruvamey Pudhiya Paadal Paadu’(Nenjathai Killathey).

S.Janaki has brilliantly rendered songs displaying her unique talent for other music directors’ films as well. ‘Chinnanchiriya Vanna Paravai’(Kungumam), ‘Paartha Kanngal Nangu’(Ullasappayanam), ‘Ponnolirum’(Vaani Raani) and ‘Azhagukku Marupeyar’(Annamitta Kai) are evergreen numbers sung under K.V. Mahadevan’s baton. She has sung equally great songs for G.K. Venkatesh as well. But the stand out number of all times is ‘Then Sindhuthe Vaanam’ in Ponnukku Thanga Manasu.

She has been just as prolific with hit numbers for the new generation music composers. Some of the memorable numbers she had rendered for A.R. Rahman are ‘Ottagathai Kattikko’(Gentleman), ‘Katthazha Kaattuvazhi’(Kizhakku Seemaiyile), ‘Mudhalvaney’(Mudhalvan), ‘Nenjinilay’(Uyirey), ‘Maargazhi Thingal’(Sangamam) and ‘Kaadhal Kaditham’(Jodi).

Right from 1956 when she received the second prize from President of India in the All India Radio’s Music Contest, S.Janaki was continuously winning prizes and awards. She won the National Award for Best Playback Singer four times. She won the National Award in 1976 for the song ‘Sendoora Poovay’(16 Vayadhinilay) and in 1980 for the Malayalam song ‘Ettumanoor Ambalathil’(Oppol). In 1984 she won it for the Telugu song ‘Vennallo Godhari’(Sithara). This is the Telugu version of the Tamil song ‘Dhoorathil Naan Kanda’ from the film Nizhalgal. In 1992 the song ‘Inji Iduppazhaga’(Thevar Magan) fetched her National Award. She has won Andhra Government Award ten times, Tamilnadu Government Award seven times and the Kerala Government Award fourteen times. But a kind of painful surprise is that she won no state award for Kannada songs, notwithstanding her big repertoire of hundreds of absolutely brilliant super hit songs in that language!

S.Janaki had the unique skill of shifting the base of her voice to different scales perfectly without a false note or a dent in her emotional expression. She has sung with equal felicity in child’s voice and the voice of old lady. Janaki’s songs in aged voice like ‘Poda Poda Pokke’(Udhiri Pookkall) are well known. Her songs in child’s voice are popular even today in all the languages. She has credibly carried off singing in the voices of small children, teen-age girls and even male voice. This is something no other singer can even contemplate doing. In some of her songs her musical calisthenics have created unique emotional effects. One can cite the instance of Malayalam song ‘Nadha Nee Varum’ from the film Chaamaram. The song appears to have been sung through a breath distressed by emotions. Listening to the song ‘Mounamaana Neram’ from Salangai Oli you will experience the intimacy of a song sung for an audience of one. She has sung in the male voice of a slum dweller in the song ‘Maamaa Peru Maari’ in the film Nenjathai Killathey. There is no limitation in the genre of Janaki’s songs – Songs dripping with sadness, tender light music songs, Love songs, traditional songs, dance numbers, ghazals, cabaret songs and sexy songs, she sings them all with equal aplomb.

S.Janaki has declared that she does not pursue any regimen of continuing exercises after she started singing. She merely continues to maintain the discipline of avoiding cool drinks and ice-cream. Janaki is a singer who loves traversing high notes. Her famous songs are, most of the time, ones that negotiate complicated high notes, touching them frequently. But watching her sing, you will not find any strain of singing, no body movements nor any tics of strain on the face. The face betrays nothing, not even signs of singing. The notes just stream out of her in natural train!

She is a great fan of Mohammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar. She mentions working in Hyderabad with Lata for the recording of a song as a most unforgettable experience in her life. She mentions Lata embracing her on first meeting with excitement. Janaki has performed thousands of stage shows and composed music for the Telugu movie Mouna Porattam in 1988. She has penned lyrics in Telugu and Tamil.
I have shed silent tears in my childhood passed in a small hilly hamlet listening to her songs like ‘Sandhye Kanneer Idhendhey Sandhyey’ and ‘Swapnaadanam Njaan Thudarunnu’. By 1989, at the age of twenty, I had matured enough in my capacity to appreciate music to write and publish a fan’s note of appreciation on her singing. I now write on her again, 20 years later, with a finer appreciation and an expanded horizon of my music world, with clearer evaluation justifying the same appreciative conclusion. I find nothing equal in South Indian film music to the waves of emotion that rise from her songs to sweep away the blues.

I am indeed proud that I have met many times in person this great singer who has mesmerized millions of fan spanning three generations. I have worked with her on a few songs and she has sung a few of my songs. I find the feeling heady. That young boy from a hilly hamlet has touched the star in the sky of his childhood.