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Guddi and the baddies

Vani Jairam, who staked a claim to India's No 1 playback position with the hit Bole re papi hara, talks about movies, gods, mean minds, and why Ilaiyaraja calls her a computer

The studio hands glare at me, a stranger in their domain, but I saunter in as nonchalantly as possible. I peep round the corner for the console room. Vijayabhaskar, music director of over 560 films, has invited me to a voice-mixing session with Vani Jairam. The film was first called Mahachaitra; it has now been renamed Neela. The songs are already recorded with a dummy voice, and she has flown in from Chennai for a day's work.

I look for Vijayabhaskar. But round that particular corner is a face familiar from photographs: Vani Jairam. She now sings mostly for southern films, and bhajan and religious music albums. She also presents live concerts. The Hindi film industry has almost forgotten her, although her landmark song for Guddi -- Bole re paphihara -- is still popular on the radio.

Suchitra with Vani Jairam at Aravind Studio, Bangalore Vani catches my eye and I withdraw with an apologetic smile. She smiles too as though she might know me.

I hastily head towards another door and find Vijayabhaskar. The recordist is playing back a deep voice: I gather it's the heroine, now old, reminiscing about her younger days. The lines with the wobbly old voice lead into a younger, sprightly voice: Vani's. Vijayabhaskar nods in appreciation. She is done in one take.

This is what being a pro means, I tell myself. You grasp what the composer wants and your voice is so well-trained that it delivers. In addition, you interpret the song's emotions through inflexions that are your own. Later on I find that she has recorded four songs between 10.30 a.m. and 1.00 p.m. Quick work!

Vani comes into the console room and wants to listen to the whole song, not just the young voice she has just recorded. "Can you play the voice with the entire orchestra, please?" she asks Nagaraj, the young recordist. She is keen to know how her voice sounds with all the violin and oboe counter melodies. I wonder who the older voice is. Vijayabhaskar, who always has time for questions, replies, "Vaniji, who else?"

I am amazed at her range -- who would have imagined that she could handle the low notes with such ease? Why then do we hear only her thinner tones? Is the male voice-dictated pitch in film songs at fault? Or does Vani prefer that pitch when a sruti or two lower would bring more warmth and colour into her rendering? Must ask her sometime.

Lunch break is the time for lengthy introductions, but Vani does not want to "chat" with a journalist, as she has type-cast me, between takes. Perhaps in the evening, she suggests. I'm not free. A play Ram and I have translated (from Tamil to Kannada), published by Katha (a Delhi-based publishing house specialising in translated titles), is being released, and I have to be there.

As we walk to the terrace where lunch is being served, Vani hums the Kannada songs she has sung -- Rangena halliyage (from Puttanna Kanagal's Bili Hendthi), Priyatama (which she recorded with Rajkumar for Kaviratna Kalidasa), Devamandiradalli (for the Vishnuvardhan starrer Jimmigallu)...

Vani sings in most Indian languages. She sang for a recording with Kumar Gandharva, "a true genius", some 30 years ago. In her experience, quick grasp and a good memory are the two qualities that make a good playback singer. Qualities that never fail to win her the admiration of composers. Pandit Ravi Shankar, who recorded his Mira bhajans in her voice, calls her a tape recorder, and Ilaiyaraja calls her a computer. She quotes Swami Chinmayananda, who used to play on the word 'heart' and say it cannot exist without 'art'. Meanness, she says, has no place in music.

So did she face any discrimination in the Hindi film industry? She became the rage after her song in Guddi, and people said she would reign in Mumbai, but soon she returned to the south. Ah, now comes the real part of your interview, she says, with the canniness of a veteran who has answered the question in countless interviews. "You're right. Let me say it was very, very difficult," she replies, hinting that she'd rather not go into the details.

Gods and godmen of all hues inspire awe in Vani. She feels she is fortunate to have sung in so many religious albums. Just last week she sang in Jodhpur, where the royal family hosted a Mira festival, and the press said the great Krishna devotee had been reborn in Vani's voice.

After lunch, we return to the studio where Vijayabhaskar has already settled into his chair. The discussion about gods continues. Vani doesn't keep a picture of god Rama at home because his family life took so many tragic turns. Thyagaraja worshipped him, and look at all the suffering he had to go through, she muses.

She is ready for the next song, though Nagabharana, the film's director, is not. The film is inspired by the lives of Neelagaras, minstrels who sing the epic saga of Manteswamy, a folk deity worshipped in the southern districts of Karnataka. It's a vigorous number, with deep drums and high-pitched flutes. She hears the dummy voice and writes her notations beside the lyrics, which she has jotted down in Hindi. A black pen for the words and a red one for the swaras.

I take leave and she invites me home. I promise myself a longer "chat" with her, and leave as she gets ready for her take.

S Suchitra Lata
Met Vani Jairam on 25 January 2001.

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