Yesteryear playback singer Lathika takes a walk down memory lane. Nita Sathyendran

Her voice held sway over the music charts in the late 1980's-early 1990's. And that too at the time when Malayalam classics of the likes of ‘Kathodu Kathoram,' ‘Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvettam,' ‘Chilambu' and ‘Ithiri Poove Chuvanna Poove,' born out of the genius of Bharathan, captured the hearts of generations. Little wonder then that the songs from these films attained a special place on the evergreen favourites list as did the singers who rendered the songs. Lathika, whose rather brief but superb repertoire includes all time favourites such as ‘Kathodu Kathoram…' and ‘Daivadoothar Padi…'(‘Kathodu Kathoram'), ‘Melle melle…' (‘Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvettam'), and ‘Tharum Thalirum…' (‘Chilambu'), is a star among them.

Career break

Although Lathika (or Lathika teacher as she is fondly called nowadays courtesy of her being a lecturer in music at the Swati Tirunal College of Music, Thiruvananthapuram), had earlier sung playback for a number of songs and was a star on the ganamela circuit in and around Kollam and Tamil Nadu, it wasn't until she was introduced to Bharathan that she began to be noticed in the music industry.

“It was Ravindran Master who introduced me to Bharathan ettan. I sang the song ‘Varnangal Gandhangal...' in his ‘Chamaram' (1980), for which Ravindran Master composed this one song [the others were composed by M.G. Radhakrishnan]. It is the song that is played on the radio in the film. Then for the music production of ‘Ithiri Poove Chuvanna Poove' (1984) they needed a female artiste to hum a pallavi. In those days S. Janaki amma was the regining melody queen and such a senior artiste couldn't be brought in only to hum a few lines. That's when Ravindran Master suggested my name. I was called for an audition and Bharathan ettan liked my voice so much that he gave me the song ‘Pon Pularoli…' to sing,” says Lathika. Sure enough from that time onwards Bharathan ensured that Lathika got to sing in almost all his films, where she gave us unforgettable numbers such as ‘Dum Dum Dum Dhundhubinatham…' (Vasiali) and ‘Hridayaraga…' (‘Amaram'), to name a few. Her last song for him was ‘Othiri Othiri Mohangal…' in ‘Venkalam.'

Working with Bharathan

Perhaps that is why she is oft referred to by the moniker ‘Bharathan's favourite' – something that makes that the demure singer beam with pride. “Bharathan ettan was like a big brother to me – a godfather even. I was very close to him and Lalitha chechi [KPAC Lalitha]. Working with Bharathan ettan was an incredible experience, much like watching a master craftsman at work. He is a genius not only because he understood all the nuances of cinema but also because he had genuine appreciation for the art form. He was also a total music buff. The fact that he decided that I was good enough to sing in his films is in itself a huge compliment,” recalls the Kollam-based Lathika, who has sung playback for over 300 Malayalam and Tamil films. She debuted at the age of 16 with the song ‘Pushpathalpathin…' composed by Kannur Rajan for I.V. Sasi's ‘Abhinandam' (1976). She sang the duet with K.J. Yesudas, who, she says, has always been her mentor.

Over the years Lathika also has had the “good fortune” to sing in the debut films of some of the most famous composers in Malayalam including Ravindran Master (‘Choola'), Ouseppachan (‘Kathodu Kathoram') and S.P. Venkatesh (‘Rajavinte Makan').

A coveted repertoire the singer has, but by some quirk of fate other singers are often given credit for some of her best renditions. For instance, K.S. Chitra is often credited for the songs in ‘Kathodu Kathoram,' ‘Pulare Poonthoniyil…' (‘Amaram') and ‘Sayam Sandhya' (‘Eagle'). “Perhaps it is because I never actively pursued a career in playback singing or craved popularity,” muses Lathika with a smile.

“I was never the ambitious kind. All I wanted to do was sing. That my songs are still popular is more than enough for me,” adds the singer who now prefers to nurture the next generation. And what about a comeback to playback singing? “If they call, I will sing. Right now I am happy where I am.”

Cult classics

‘Kathothu Kathoram…' (‘Kathodu Kathoram')

‘Melle melle…' (‘Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvettam')

‘Oru Nimisham…' (‘Sarvakalashala')

‘Pon Pulalori…' (‘Ithiri Poove Chuvanna Poove')

‘Padam Njan…' (‘Rajavinte Makan')

‘Tharum Thalirum…' (Chilambu')

‘Dhum dhum…' (‘Vaisali')

‘Pulare Poonthonilyil…' (Amaram)