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Thursday, February 08, 2001

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Life devoted to music

THE PORTRAITS of Saint Tyagaraja, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer share space in the tiny but artistically decorated room. An old gramophone record and beautiful wood carvings accentuate the effect. Amidst this music- filled ambience is another painting that sits pretty on the wall.

The mood is perfect to meet the man in that painting, the singer with a golden voice that has regaled audiences for over 40 years... Kattassery Joseph Yesudas better known as K. J. Yesudas or Dasettan to his friends and admirers. Dressed in his trademark sparkling white dhoti and kurta, the veteran is ready to answer a volley of questions on his life, his single-minded devotion to music and the blossoming singing career of son Vijay.

You begin by asking him about his first Indipop album, "Sitaron Mein Tu Hi". "The people in Mumbai always wanted me to sing for them. But somehow I never found the time till "Sitaron..." happened. I agreed, but made a request... the numbers must be of the kind that I normally sing... soft and simple. I must add that I liked the numbers." The ten melodies that blend pop and folk, were recorded in three days.

But isn't the line of demarcation between Hindi film songs and Indipop numbers very thin? "Nowadays, everything is connected with film music, even ghazals. We don't listen to the kind of ghazals that Bade Ghulam Ali or Begum Akhtar sang," says the 60- year-old singer whose personal favourites include golden oldies of Rafi and Talat Mahmood.

He bemoans the fall in standard of lyrics. "May be it is written with the public in mind, to make it easier for them! Of course, nobody can be blamed for it. It is just that tastes are changing."

The going was initially tough for the Kochi-born artiste. But sheer hard work and perseverance saw him blossom into a singer and today, after 40 years, he is one of the most revered and admired singers.

Yesudas, who began music training under his father Augustine Joseph, has also learnt from Carnatic greats like Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. "Guru Kataksham (guru's blessings) is very important, specially when you perform".

"Carnatic music is like a 'sagaram'. Musicians can only drink drops from it," he comments. "But somehow I feel today, there is a lack of interest in acquiring more knowledge. Most of them are satisfied with the little they have learnt. They are not willing to explore and experiment. Also everything is simplified for the sake of the audience."

Yesudas opines that there are many beautiful Carnatic ragas, which are not presented on concert stage these days. "I get complete satisfaction just learning Carnatic music. I am grateful to God for giving me whatever I've got today," he says as he brings his hands together in a gesture of gratitude.

For Yesudas, switching from over classical to film music or vice versa it no problem at all. "It is not very difficult. After a strenuous Carnatic concert, just a day's rest and I am ready to sing any style. But, during my cutcheri time, I do not do any recordings," says the versatile singer, who does sadhana every day.

There is enough written about his tryst with celluloid, which began in Malayalam cinema in 1961. The slow "Naanum bommai, neeyum bommai" from S. Balachander's "Bommai" saw Yesudas claim a place in the field of Tamil playback singing. Salil Chowdhary was responsible for his foray into Hindi cinema but it was with Ravindra Jain's music for "Chit Chor" that brought Yesudas to national limelight. He has over 40,000 songs to his credit, in Hindi and all South Indian languages.

On son Vijay's career (he was recently heard in "Friends"), the father has this to say. "One thing is for sure. He has a lot of advantages. He does not have to struggle for anything like I did. But he has to utilise everything he's got in the right way." He admits candidly, "I do not teach him as sometimes I tend to lose my temper. So one of my friends is training him in classical music." Vijay is currently working for his graduation in Western Music. Yesudas strongly advocates the need for a sound foundation in music. "Even Michael Jackson learnt the basics properly before trying out different things."

Yesudas has a lot of dreams. One of his plans is reproduce the kritis sung by legends, in their distinct styles. "Music has to be heard not read. One learns faster when one hears a note. I want to record the kritis, say in the style of GNB, so that the next generation has an idea about these great vocalists' styles and can refer to them." His other dream is to build a music school.

Today, Yesudas divides his time between his homes in Florida, U.S.A., and Chennai, overseeing the running of Tharangini, his company. "Actually, when I travel, I catch up on my reading". And what kinds of books interest him? "Oh! Anything on music. Kirtanas, pallavis, talas and ragas. After all, music is my life!"


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