Veteran playback singer Uthaman remains on the sidelines of the Malayalam music industry but his songs continue to keep his voice alive.
In a world of opportunism and shifting allegiances, Uthaman is an anachronism. A singer who sang for a series of films between 1964 and 1967, Uthaman simply faded away from the scene, although most of his songs remain popular.
“There were only a few from the industry like the late V. Dakshinamurthy who kept in touch. In fact, there was a function to celebrate some landmark in Malayalam film music where I heard it was announced that Uthaman was dead,” says the 82-year-old singer.
N. Purushotama Pai’s (Uthaman was the name he adopted when he began singing) short tryst with playback singing was more for ‘pleasure’ than a profession. “After I had sung a couple of film songs, the officials of HMV recording company met me. They had a problem about my name. They were not in favour of using Pai and ruled out Purushotaman as Kamukara Purushotaman was popular then. That was when some smart fellow suggested Uthaman, a part of the name, and it stuck,” remembers the singer who now stays with his wife, Seetha, and son Suresh, in his native town, Ernakulam.
Uthaman’s life story reads like a film script. Deeply principled, he never bargained with his beliefs. This made life tough at times but, as he says, he “never liked to lose.”
The battle began right from the time Uthaman dreamed of a career in medicine. After completing his school, he managed to get admission to the medical college in Calcutta but Fate willed otherwise. “In those days the erstwhile Cochin State had a seat in the Calcutta medical college. My father, who worked in the Treasury, got this seat for me. During that time the Noakhali riots broke out. My father did not want me to travel to Calcutta in the midst of the turmoil. I lost that chance. Later, after my Intermediate, I got the first chance card for admission in the State but that too slipped away.”
Immediately after graduation, Uthaman joined the National Bank of India (later Grindlays Bank). “I walked into the bank office and met the chief, an Englishman, who, if I remember right, was Mr. Walker. My interest in basketball and athletics gave me an edge. I returned home with the job.”
This phase in Uthaman’s life proved to be creatively fruitful and turbulent. During a get-together at a friend’s place Uthaman sang along with many others. T. E. Bhaskaran, brother of the noted film producer T. E. Vasudevan, was part of the audience. He insisted that Uthaman go to Chennai and meet his brother.
M. S. Baburaj was music director for Vasudevan’s next film, Kuttikupayam. Uthaman was given a voice test at the insistence of Vasudevan. “I used to stay with Vasu Sir whenever I went to Chennai. I heard Baburaj tell him that he did not want newcomers to sing for this film. Very politely Vasu Sir told him that he would then look for another music director. And I got my first song.”
Kuttikupayam was a huge hit and Uthaman’s debut song, ‘Virunnu varum virunnu varum…’, a duet with P. Leela, was a hit. Another duet, also with Leela, ‘Pottichirikkuvaan…’, was also noticed. “I remember Baburaj and R. K. Sekhar, who did the orchestration for the songs, coming home on their way to Kozhikode for the 100th day celebrations of the film. We went for the function together. I must be the only singer to sing for two lead actors, Prem Nazir and Madhu, in the very first film. I did try to change my tenor and style to suit both these actors.”
With no formal training or family tradition, Uthaman became the first Konkani to sing in Malayalam films. He shot to fame with the song ‘Ishwarane thedi thedi…’ in the blockbuster Kavyamela. Though he went on to sing in a few more films he is identified with this song.
His banking career suffered a jolt when he was suspended for his union activities. As national vice-president of the union, he was in the forefront of the agitation in 1980. The employees struck work against mechanisation and the strike lasted for a record 93 days. When the strike ended, Uthaman was suspended. He protested against this action in a unique manner.
“I set up a ‘Protest Stall,’ a mobile coffee shop that I wheeled to temple festivals and wherever people gathered. Along with selling coffee and snacks at a reasonable price I also registered my protest against the bank’s action.”
When the strike was on, Uthaman organised a stage programme in aid of the bank staff. “I billed this as my first and last stage performance. It was held at a packed Kerala Fine Arts Hall. And I distributed the money raised among the bank staff.”
Although the tribunal set up to enquire into the case found that Uthaman was not guilty of negligence in work and orders issued for his reinstatement, Uthaman decided not to join. He took up various other jobs such as managing an old age home at the instruction of Swami Sudheendra Thirtha, selling audio cassettes and running theatres.
“The theatres I had in Chendamangalam, North Parur, Cherai, Manjummel and Vayalar needed to be professionally managed. I did all the publicity by myself, even travelling on a bicycle with a microphone announcing and singing songs from the films. I even introduced gift schemes to bring in people.”
His stint in Malayalam film music was short and sweet. Yet today Uthaman remains unrecognised, unsung. “My greatest award has been my family. Seetha fell in love with my music, which resulted in marriage. One of my daughters Sushama has sung in the film Guruvayur Mahatmyam, a few albums and for All India Radio. My son Suresh is a champion arm-wrestler, Subhash, a noted scientist, Sushitha, a homeo doctor, and my youngest son Sudheesh works in Dubai.”
Why did he not sing later? “You see I had announced that the programme at Fine Arts Hall would be my first and last. I could not go back on my word, my principles,” Uthaman signs off.
‘Virunnu varum…’ (P. Leela) Kuttikupayam
‘Swargathil pokumbol (A.P. Komala) Bharthavu
‘Ishwarane thedi thedi…’ Kavyamela
‘Thottupoyi thottu poyi…’ (chorus) Sthanarthi Saramma
‘Allenkilumee college pennungal…’ Archana
‘Allalulla pulayike…’ Kottayam Kolacase
‘Irathedi piriyum…’ Cochin Express
‘Pottichirikkuvaan…’ (P. Leela-Gomathi) Kuttikupayam
‘Kollaam kollaam…’ (M.S.Baburaj) Bharthavu
‘Naadam shunyathayinkil…’ Kavyamela