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Kerala's 'gana gandharvan'

The history of Malayalam cinema is inextricably linked with the career of K J Yesudas. An ardent admirer, who hopes to be serenaded by him some day, profiles her 30,000-song idol

Ask the average Malayali about his prized possessions and, apart from his beloved tharavad and his coconut palms, he's bound to include the voice of Kattasseri Joseph Yesudas also.

Such is the impact of his voice and person on Kerala's collective consciousness that everyone has his or her favourite Yesudas song which is associated with something intensely personal, be it an old love, a new passion or a moving experience. When he turned 60, organisations across the length and breadth of Kerala showered his adulation oh him. Swaralaya of Thiruvananthapuram has insituted three awards in his name.

Today, Yesudas can take just pride about his place in Malayalam cinema's history. However, pride is something that is totally absent in him. Humility is the hallmark of this soft-spoken man. It is as if he is still awed by the way the gods have been kind to him.

They were not always so. Yesudas, who was born to drama actor Augustin Joseph Bhagavathar, grew up in poverty. Augustin Joseph was immensely talented, but stage roles and bit roles in films were not enough to feed the family. Though plagued by poor health and adverse circumstances, the actor-singer was far-sighted enough to put his son through a solid grounding in classical music. He also instilled in the boy values like vinayam and gurubhakti. Even today, Yesudas's loyalty and gratitude towards his teachers is unquestionable. For him, his guru is his god.

Yesudas was just nine when he gave his first public performance with his father. More concerts followed and soon he was recognised as a local talent, winning small prizes in school and at the state level. He continued his classical training under various gurus and after passing his SSLC exam, joined the RLV Music Academy at Tripunithura. All this while, life was tough. He, like his father, faced deep prejudices. "What does a Christian have to do with Karnatak music?" a professor of music sneered when the young man was hard-pressed to pay the five-rupee fee. But, such insensitivity was offset by others who went out of their way to help the diffident youngster. Yesudas still talks about 'Padma Madam', the teacher at the Tripunithura Academy who fed the hungry boy with food and Sanskrit lessons, the latter to improve his pronunciation while rendering kritis. "I have two mothers right now," he said in an interview, "Padma Madam and my guru Chembai Vaidynatha Bhagavathar's daughter."

He later joined the Swati Tirunal Academy at Thiruvananthapuram whose principal then was Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. The veteran musician recognised the young man's potential and gave him all encouragement.

Friend's help

And now one must mention Mathai, his senior in school who shares his passion for football and who later became a taxi driver. There has been much speculation of what Malayalam songs would have sounded like had Mathai not given Yesudas the Rs 16 to go to Madras for his maiden studio recording. (The year was 1961, when the centre of southern cinema was Madras.) There was no money at home and Yesudas's friends were equally emptyhanded. It was then that Mathai, out of his earnings from driving the Landmaster, funded the train ticket. To this day, Yesudas reminds his three sons that this is one debt that can never be repaid in full. Mathai, of course, never spoke about it and it was Yesudas who told the world later.

The first song he recorded as a playback singer, under the baton of M B Srinivasan, is a four-line verse of Narayana Guru for the film Kalpadukal. It was an auspicious beginning in more ways than one. Today, Yesudas carries forward, in his own way, Narayana Guru's struggle against casteism and communalism. He is as devout a Latin Catholic as he is a Hindu and Muslim. His songs and bhajans are popular with all communities.

Gochi (left), who became  Yesudas's guardian in Madras Madras days

The initial days in Madras were tough and Yesudas has described how his lunch would often be water from the local municipal tap. In due course, he got offers to sing in other films like Palat Koman, Bharya and Nityakanyaka. This was the period when another friendship was forged, with Gopalakrishnan aka Gochi. Gochi, a partner in a dairy farm, remembers Augustin Joseph telling him to look after the young man who was hesitantly finding a toehold in filmdom. This friendship also, like the other, is undemanding and enduring. The honour of witnessing Yesudas's rise from close quarters goes to Gochi.

Augustin Joseph died soon thereafter after a surgery at a Madras hospital. The hospital wouldn't release the body until the bill, amounting to Rs 800, was cleared. Yesudas spent some agonising hours until lyricist P Bhaskaran saved the day. It was another day when his mother passed away. The bill came to Rs 40,000 and the now hugely successful singer was told, "Sir, first you see to the funeral rites. The bill can wait."

It was in Madras that Yesudas met one of the biggest influences of his life -- vocalist Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, who soon accepted him as his shishya. The formidably talented Karnatak singer honed Yesudas's music. There were other gurus too later, like Pallavi Narayana Iyer who was like a father to him. To each, Yesudas owes his gratitude.

Meanwhile, his career was soaring as was his charisma. He even appeared in a couple of films and a play about a Robin Hood-like bandit, Kayamkulam Kochunni. In the latter, he played a surma seller who sings the cosmetic's virtue. He couldn't act for nuts but the jolly number is still quite popular.

There were lyricists like Vayalar, Srikumaran Thampi, O N V Kurup, Bichu Tirumala, Kaithapram and Yusuf Ali Kachery who wrote poetry, and musicians like Devarajan, Dakshinamurthy, Baburaj and Johnson, who were uncompromising in their standards. Never had Malayalam film songs sounded better.

Radio hits

The radio was a comforting friend for Malayalis and Yesudas gave expression to their joys, loves, yearning, anguish and spirituality. Songs like Naada brahmathin sagarangal (from Kattukurangu), Devi Sridevi thedivarunnu (Kavyamela), Mayajala vathil turakkum (Vivahita), Ambalapuzhavela kandu (Kakkathampuratti), Ashtamudi kayalile (Manavatti), Maanikyaveenayumayi (Kattupookkal), Sangamam (Triveni), Ushase (Padasaram), Laksharchana kandu (Ayalathe Sundari), Alliyambal (Rosy), Tamasamende varuvaan (Bhargavi Nilayam, (reputed to be his personal favourite) and thousands of others are immortal.

All these songs explore every facet of the Malayali's life, providing a rich imagery of the pastoral, modern, philosophical, romantic, the erotic. There is Malayali angst too. Quite a few of the movies were forgettable, but there were those like Chemmeen (music by Salil Chowdhury) and Adimakal where the story and songs complemented each other, earning everyone concerned a place in Malayalam cinema's history, Yesudas included.

He already had a big fan following when he married one of them, Prabha, in 1970. Folklore has it that her class-conscious family initially demurred, but gave in when his friends in the industry prevailed upon them. The couple has three boys.

Moving to the US

Yesudas is uncomfortable with female adulation. He once confessed that it unsettles him, especially when it is aggressive. (At 60, he is still quite good-looking.) He described in an interview how, when he was walking with his son, who was then 14, he was mobbed by fans who callously pushed aside the boy. He then decided to protect his family from the ugly side of celebrityhood. Today, his sons are serious music students in the US while he shuttles between the two countries.

He has now cut short his playback singing and prefers Karnatak music performances. Purists still turn up their noses at the latter. I remember my mother walking out of one of his early performances saying that he sounded too filmi.

In his years in the film industry he has tried to avoid singing obscene songs. He wasn't always successful, for I remember one particularly execrable number extolling an undergarment. He often gave suggestions for tasteful picturisation of his songs. Today he says he concentrates on the mood and the situation before recording because the scene described to him miraculously undergoes a metamorphosis when it hits the cinemas.

It is unfortunate that the Hindi industry refused to open up for him, even though the songs he sang for movies like Rajnigandha, Chit Chor and Aalap were superhits. Sure, his accent, despite all those Urdu lessons, was hilarious. But the quality of the voice immediately struck a chord in listeners and musicians alike. He subsequently worked with music directors like Hemant Kumar, Jaidev, Rajkamal, Usha Khanna, Shyamal Mitra, Sonik Omi and Bappi Lahiri. In fact, Ravidra Jain, a taskmaster if ever there was one, sought him out for the movie Tansen. Yesudas described a marathon recording session where he learnt a 12-minute song in five days for the movie. At the end of it all, both the singer and the music director fell ill due to exhaustion. Sadly, neither the movie nor the song, Shadjane payal, was released. Today, Yesudas sings it during his live concerts.

Yesudas derives artistic, emotional and spiritual satisfaction from classical music. "While some ragas and kritis frustrate me with their elusiveness, there are moments, and some words in a composition, that transport me to another plane, overwhelming me so much that I cannot continue for a while. The pleasure I get then is indescribable."

Sugandhi Ravindranathan

Some high notes

Yesudas is usually respectful and tactful when he speaks. In fact, it's a pleasure to hear him speak in Malayalam: his pronunciation is impeccable. But he did put his foot in his mouth when he declared a couple of years back that Lata Mangeshkar should stop singing. He tried to do some damage control when the predictable uproar followed. "What I said was that she should now sing classical music as befits her age," he said. "I grew up listening to her songs on my neighbour's radio."

Spurned by AIR

It was not just Amitabh Bachchan's voice that All India Radio spurned. Yesudas also was a victim of AIR's babudom. As a student of the Swati Tirunal Music Academy, Yesudas was auditioned by the Thiruvananthapuram Akashvani. The verdict came soon enough: that the young man's voice was unfit for broadcast! To think that this very same voice made money for AIR when it started its commercial broadcast is delicious irony.

When he was studying in Thiruvananthapuram, his father applied for a grant from the Sangeeta Nataka Academy. He did not get a reply. Years later the very same institution made Yesudas its chairman.

All-religion man

Yesudas is a believer: he sings about all gods Much is said of Yesudas's secularism. He celebrates his birthday, January 10, at the Mookambika temple in Kollur. He also undertakes the pilgrimage to the Sabarimala temple regularly. In fact, his bhajans on the deity Ayyappa resound all over during the pilgrimage season. His rendering of Harivarasanam is perfection personified, full of calmness and bhakti. While there are those who attribute it to expediency, there are others who insist that it is the result of his upbringing. His father, Augustin Joseph, was a drama artiste whose career demanded a sound knowledge of Hindu mythology. Yesudas has said how, as a child holding his father's hand, Augustin Joseph would ask him pay his obeisance every time they walked past a shrine.

He has faced barbs from both orthodox Christians and Hindus. His church initially was reluctant to baptise his children but relented when the matter became public. Orthodox Hindus resent his entry into temples. In fact, the biggest of them all, the Guruvayur Krishna temple, still keeps him out though he has conveyed his grief about it through a couple of songs.

Every March 31, he organises a concert and feast at the St Joseph's church in Fort Kochi, something he has been doing for decades.

His rendering of Salathullah salamullah in the Karnatic style is popular with Muslims as are his Moplah songs. When Talassery was convulsed with riots recently, Yesudas, along with poet-activist Sugathakumari and others, turned up to appeal for peace and harmony. He strongly believes that an artiste should have a social conscience. Which is why he agreed to go along with Sugathakumari.

Playback for many

Yesudas has sung for scores of actors ranging from practically all male leads in Malayalam cinema, the major players in Tamil cinema like MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Kamalahasan, Rajnikanth, Prabhu and for Hindi actors Amitabh Bachchan, Amol Palekar, Arun Govil and so on. In Kannada too he has sung hundreds of songs. He has sung in perhaps practically all Indian languages as well as in Arabic and Russian.

Beard story

Yesudas was once clean-shaven. The beard appeared some time in the '70s. Initially his fans did not like it. In fact, once when he was watching a football match, some of them demanded why he was growing a beard. "Because I have no money to shave." In true Malayali spirit, the fans passed around the hat in the gallery and the collection was handed over to him with the instruction that he had to stop at the barber's on his way home.

But the beard stayed. And, like his white attire, it has become his trademark.


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