When I Listen to Yesudas - Nothing But Melancholy

“Yesudas was in love with a very beautiful plump girl. A terrible man tried to rape her. Then Yesudas unsheathed his sword and in a swinging sword fight he killed him. You should watch that sword ‘flight’! What a ‘flight’! No one can beat Yesudas when he is with a sword”. Thankan was strikingly narrating the story of the first cinema that he watched. He was a sixteen years old boy doing odd jobs in our village. He had never attended a school. I was about 10 years old then and Thankan granted me an unhindered account of the village gossips and tidbits on sex. We were wandering around, catching the small fish in the paddy fields and plucking fruits in the wooded hills.

I used to be pleased about his interesting tidbits and stories but his narration of the film story on Yesudas totally disappointed me. Yesudas doing sword fight in films? Not a chance! But Thankan was absolutely certain that it was Yesudas because he sang all the songs in the film in the same voice that we hear Yesudas sing on the Radio. Thankan had mistaken Malayalam Cinema’s most handsome hero Prem Nazir to be Yesudas. And there is no point in blaming him. Yesudas’ voice matched Prem Nazir’s to a surprising degree. What else other than Yesudas’ voice can be the voice of the most handsome man on this earth?

Like many generations of Malayalees, my childhood too was filled with the songs of Yesudas. His was the male voice of most of the Malayalam film songs and devotional songs that filled the air waves of those days. From my early days as a listener of music, I was an ardent devotee of the voice of Yesudas and his singing style. We could not imagine a world that does not resound with the voice of Yesudas. Millions of Malayalees cannot even think of songs without the voice of Yesudas. They call Yesudas ‘the Gift of God’ in the same vein as they call Kerala ‘God’s own country’.

In the early 1950s Malayalam cinema songs were mostly rendered by the voices of the likes of Mehboob, Kozhikkode Abdul Khader and K.S. George. Then came Kamukara Purushothaman and K.P. Udayabanu as playback singers and they lasted many years. But none of them could become the Superstar singer. Then entered Telugu playback singers and their domination of Malayalam film industry started. A.M. Rajah, who entered Malayalam film industry as a playback singer in 1953, was accorded the recognition of being Malayalam films’ first star singer. P.B. Srinivas, who came later, also won a big recognition. But all this lasted only till Yesudas arrived on the scene. The reign of Yesudas which started in the early sixties lasted well over forty years. Now well past his seventy, nobody has arrived yet to fill Yesudas’ place.

Towards the end of 1940s, just as Malayalam film industry had begun to sprout, there was a singer- actor called Kattassery Augustin Joseph in Fort Cochin. He was an attractive drama personality who sang and acted in dramas with great panache. He had lived with a dream of becoming a star in the film world as an actor- singer. Though he came by a few chances now and then in films of the early fifties, he could not achieve anything worthwhile in the industry. And before he knew it the age of actor singers came to an end. He lived an impoverished life with his five children. His first son, Kattassery Joseph Yesudas, born in 1940, later became famous as K.J. Yesudas.

Augustin Joseph, who recognized his son’s unique singing talent when he was barely five years old, imparted the early lessons of music to him. He provided him training in music in the hope that his son will reach the heights he could never touch. Yesudas did not disappoint him. At his school, district level and state level, wherever a music competition was held, he was selected as the best singer. But he was nagged by ridicule that he was subjected to as a Christian who was trying to learn Carnatic music.

Yesudas grew up amidst dire poverty. In his later day recollections, he has disclosed that he was expelled from music schools as he was unable to pay the fees. In spite of all that he learnt his music lessons well passing his tests with record marks and multiple promotions. For higher studies he joined the Swathi Thirunal Music College in Thiruvananthapuram. It is said that he was the favourite student of famous teachers in this college like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar. But he left this college because of his father’s inability to provide for the expenses of his education. Since he did not have a place to stay in Thiruvananthapuram, according to Yesudas’ own later accounts, he had used the garage of Semmangudi for months as his sleeping quarters.

Yesudas is on record about roaming miles in Chennai scouting for opportunities on a diet of tap water and about being rejected by many composers on grounds of lack of talent. Trivandrum station of All India Radio had rejected his voice as not being broadcast-worthy. At last one glorious day in 1962 Director K.S. Antony gave him an opportunity to sing 4 lines of a sloka in his film Kaalpaadugal. K.P. Udayabhanu was the main playback singer of that film for which composer M.B. Srinivasan had scored the music. Noticing the mind-gripping voice of Yesudas M.B.Srinivasan made him sing a duet in the same film. Voice of Yesudas at once became the talk of film circles. That same year he was swamped with offers to sing in 7 more films! Augustin Joseph passed away in 1964 after seeing his son set well on the road to success.

Even though Yesudas sang more or less in all the Indian languages, after Malayalam it was in Tamil that he became a star singer. But acceptance in Tamil did not come as easily as in Malayalam. He got his first chance to sing in Tamil in 1963 in the film Bommai in which ‘Veenai’ S. Balachander had taken charge of both direction as well as composing music. The song he sang was ‘Neeyum Bommai Naanum Bommai’. He had to wait a whole year to get his next chance. He sang the duet ‘Enna Paarvai Unthan Paarvai’ with P. Suseela in the film Kadhalikka Neramillai in 1964. Another ten years passed without anything outstanding to show in Tamil. Yet this was the most creative singing phase of Yesudas in Malayalam.

In 1973, he sang the song ‘Thanga Thoniyile’ for MGR-starrer Ulagam Sutrum Vaaliban. But it was ‘Vizhiye Kathaiyezhudu’ number he sung for MGR in Urimaikkural in 1974 that became the first Tamil song of Yesudas to gain wide popularity. Thereafter, he sang all the songs of MGR’s next film Pallaandu Vaazhga (1975). Superhit songs like ‘Poivaa Nadhialaiye’, ‘Anbukku Naan Adimai’, and ‘Ondre Kulamendru Paaduvom’ were in this film. Yesudas also sang songs like ‘Ennai Vittaal Yarumillai’ for Naalai Namadhe (1975) and ‘Indha Patchai Kilikkoru’ for Needhikku Thalai Vanangu (1976) for MGR. He also sang many superhit songs for Sivaji Ganesan starrers. ‘Malare Kurinji Malare’ for Dr. Shiva and ‘Gangai Yamunai Ingudhan Sangamam’ for Imayam are good examples. But above all, his number ‘Deivam Thandha Veedu Veedhiyirukku’ for Aval Oru Thodarkathai made him a very popular singer in Tamil.

Ilayaraja continued to give him many chances that brought laurels to both of them. Many Ilayaraja compositions in the voice of Yesudas like ‘Poove Chempoove’, ‘Aaraariro Paadiyadharo’, ‘Raja Raja Chozhan Naan’, ‘Thendral Vandhu Ennai Thodum’, ‘Kanne Kalaimaane’, Poonkatru Pudhidhanathu’ and ‘Vellaippura Ondru’ became very popular. Yesudas has won the Best Playback Singer award of Government of Tamilnadu eight times. Yesudas has a long list of quality songs like ‘Athisaya Raagam’ (Apoorva Ragangal), ‘Chenthazham Poovil’ (Mullum Malarum), ‘Kalyana Thenila’ (Mounam Sammadham) and ‘Unnidam Mayangukiren’ (Then Sindhuthey Vaanam) which were widely appreciated.

Yesudas became a widely applauded singer in Telugu also. With many Telugu hit film songs to his credit, he has won the Best Playback Singer award of Government of Andhra Pradesh six times. He won the National Award for Best Playback Singer for the song sung by him for the Telugu film Meghasandhesham. He has won the Best Playback Singer award of the Government of Karnataka five times with a string of chart-buster songs in Kannada films in the late seventies and eighties. His song ‘Jo Jo Laali’ for the film Chinna Ninna Muddaaduve (1977) under Salil Chowdhury’s baton has been Kannada’s most famous and ever loved lullaby.

It was Salil Chowdhury who took Yesudas to Hindi films. The song ‘Ni Sa Ga Ma Pa Ni’, a Salilda composition for the film Anand Mahal (1977) was Yesudas’ first Hindi song. The song ‘Jan e Mann’ from the film Chhoti Si Baath, scored by Salilda, was his first Hindi song that became popular. Afterwards, composer Ravindra Jain created a fan following for Yesudas by giving him many hit songs. Songs like ‘Jab Deep Jale Aana’ and ‘Tu Jo Mere Sur Mein’ from Chit Chor released in 1976 were truly unforgettable numbers. Jaidev composed some marvelous numbers with Yesudas rendering them. Even Bhappi Lahiri composed some soft romantic numbers in the voice of Yesudas like ‘Zid Na Karo’ and ‘Maana Ho Tum’.

Salilda took Yesudas to Bengali as well. He gave him some fine songs there including Kamal Hasan starrer film ‘Kobitha’. Yesudas even won the Best Playback singer award of Government of West Bengal. Over forty thousand songs of Yesudas have been recorded in the last 48 years. He has won National Award for the Best Playback singer seven times and has been awarded with National honours like Padma Shri and then Padma Bhushan. He has won 34 State Government awards including 16 awards of Government of Kerala.

After becoming a Super Star in film songs as well as devotionals, Yesudas was also able to establish himself as a Carnatic concert singer. He gave many Carnatic concerts all over the world and his concerts continue to be held everywhere. His fans consider Yesudas a pioneer who has made efforts to popularize Carnatic music. Many devotees consider his devotionals as a very moving experience. Most of his fans consider him an evergreen singer with a mellifluous voice that defies age and time.

There is no doubt that Yesudas is among the best male voices to have risen in the starry firmament of Indian film music. Nobody doubts that achievements of Yesudas in the film music are great. But, as many Malayalees believe, is he the best singer in the world? It has not been easy for me, who has grown up with songs of Yesudas as an inseparable background to my life, to stand apart objectively and assess his songs and style of singing. But whenever I have done that I have only come to uneasy conclusions.

The songs of Yesudas dipped in pathos have almost become a culture of Kerala. You can even say that through his songs Yesudas grew the history of sad emotions in Kerala. The tinge of sadness in love, its pain, the pangs of separation, the failure in love and the consequent heart-breaks come out so wonderfully well in his songs in the way his rendering style emotes them. But all his songs have a strand of sorrow running through them. Probably the struggles, the disappointments and the sorrows of his childhood hold his songs in a permanent grip of sadness.

We can feel this innate sadness colouring even his songs meant to express joy and happiness or celebratory moods. Thus his singing style transforms songs meant to express happiness into songs with sad undertones. As examples one should carefully listen to songs like ‘Raja Raja Chozhan Naan’ (Rettaivaal Kuruvi) and ‘Un Paarvaiyil Oraayiram’ (Amman Koil Kizhakkaale). Even peppy folk numbers like ‘Adi Kaana Karunkuyile’ (Poonthotta Kavalkkaran) and ‘Vachchukkava Onna Mattum’ (Nallavanukku Nallavan) can be mentioned in this context. One can very definitely detect a strand of sad undertone running through these songs that are supposed to express happiness and celebration. It is said that saddest songs are the sweetest. But when film songs meant to express varying and diverse human emotions are all rendered in sad tones, is that not by itself a sad thing?

In the Tamil Film music world, at all times of its different eras, the tendency had been for one composer to dominate the industry. But the golden age of Malayalam film music was a period when many great composers had held the stage with distinction simultaneously. It is an irony that their diverse compositions were all mostly rendered by Yesudas. This meant that the many faces of creativity in the compositions were lost in the sadly uniform rendering.

The dominance that the voice of Yesudas had along with the mass adulation that he had from his fans cast a spell on the Malayalam film music that his was the only style of rendering that was the best. The majesty of his voice and the regal sadness of his rendering style became the yardstick by which all songs and singers were measured. This was the reason why not many singers were able to enter Malayalam film music and those who entered were not given the recognition that was their due. Malayalam film music fans were reduced to listening to more of Yesudas even from all the later entrants. Young singers did not attempt anything other than xeroxing Yesudas and failing. The songs with emotions other than that of sadness and pain became alien to Malayalam songs.

Songs of his early years, particularly those composed by the likes of Baburaj and Salilda, had soulfully modulated ups and downs of expressions of music. But gradually these finely nuanced dips and rises vanished from his songs. With passage of time his songs were reduced to a mere good voice that projected every note at the same level. The lilt in the rendering was gone. Notes that had to resonate up and down the volume scale appeared to stay rooted to a monotone and constricted.

Devarajan, a highly popular composer, was particular that every note of his composition had to resonate equally and there were other composers too who thought along similar lines. It may be that the requirements of such composers resulted in the deep throat rendering with equal projection of every note that drowned out all possible modulations. This form of rendering became his style with a vengeance once Yesudas started to pay extraordinary attention to Carnatic music concerts. Maybe he chose a wrong example to follow in Carnatic music rendition.

The real patrons and connoisseurs of Carnatic music never took to him. An ardent fan of Carnatic music R Ramakrishnan had this to say on Yesudas’ style of Carnatic music: “Yesudas has a great voice, but mere voice is not music. A good voice is like a good handwriting. But a person with good handwriting is not necessarily a person with facile expression in the language. The language has its own grammar and rules and its own modalities of expression. Literature is not something to be evaluated by primary school students. In exactly the same manner, classical music and the rendering style are things that can only be evaluated by persons with the knowledge and a deep understanding of classical music. People who do not know much about Carnatic music will alone call Yesudas ‘A great concert musician’.”

Yesudas himself was not appeared very confident of his rendering of Carnatic music style. He had even announced: “If you cannot accept my music as Carnatic Sangeetham you are free to call it ‘Bharatiya Sangeetham’.” Moreover, the exercise to make Carnatic Music popular is needless. Classical music can never really be a popular form of music. Nor need it be so.

Pronunciation of words was another problem with Yesudas. He consistently made mistakes in his pronunciation of words from languages other than Malayalam. It was this weakness that prevented Yesudas from achieving in Hindi what he achieved in South Indian languages. His fans will claim that his pronunciation in Malayalam is perfect and peerless. But we hear ‘Sneham’ as ‘Snegam’ and ‘Brahmam’ as ‘Bramham’ in his songs.

In 2004 Yesudas raised much controversy by asking the new generation singers to pay royalty for singing his songs on stage. The controversy started when Unni Menon disclosed that Vinod Yesudas, son of Yesudas, was insistent that: “If songs of Yesudas are to be sung in Music Events, then royalty has to be paid for it.” Singer Madhu Balakrishnan also said that he was refused permission to sing a Yesudas song in the program of a Malayalam TV channel. This controversy generated intense disquiet among Yesudas fans. This was the first time that Yesudas suffered damage to his reputation. Later Yesudas withdrew his announcement on royalty. At one point of time Yesudas had even tried to make Malayalam Film music his monopoly trade. He started his music company Tharangini Records and refused to sing for films or music albums that did not assign audio rights to Tharangini Records.

It has been a long time since Yesudas’ voice became, in terms of musicality, a pale shadow of his much vaunted earlier voice. For a decade or so we have heard little of note from him by way of well rendered songs. Even his sad songs have become loud reverberations. Yesudas had once made an open request. “Lata Mangeshkar’s voice has lost its sweetness of yore. She should now desist from singing.” But alas, he has not desisted from singing even after his voice had long past its prime!

Even his positions on god and religion in connection to music appear unsure. In his interviews, regardless of the question he is asked, he has a tendency to drag his answer into a dialogue on god and religion. Even while talking about a subject that has nothing to do with god or religion, he ends up with the formulation that he seriously believes in, “Whatever happens, it has been pre-ordained by God”. In that case why is he still fighting to gain entry into the temple at Guruvayur? Is not the high caste domination that denies him temple entry at Guruvayur
‘pre-ordained’ as well by the 'Jagadheeswaran' he always talks about?

I will always remain a fan of all the wonderful songs of Yesudas. But then, just as we re-appraise the literature that held our interest and affected us once, just as we subject a film that we loved once to a more critical review, listening with discernment and with emotional detachment the music and songs that we once enjoyed is essential to make better our artistic sensibilities and humane sensitivities.