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Updated: June 23, 2013 03:57 IST

Rare ‘aural’ stars of Indian films

Karthik Subramanian
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“Aural stars” is what Amanda Weidman, an American anthropologist, calls the popular playback singers stars of yesteryear Indian films.

More specifically, her research on the female playback stars of Tamil film industry – including P.Susheela, S.Janaki and L.R.Eswari – hopes to shine light on what she calls “ an unique form of female celebrity” that never existed in the West or for that matter does exist even in the Tamil film industry now. “They were rare because they could appear in the public and be a star without being conventionally attractive; and they could command a great deal of effect without showing any themselves,” she adds

Ms. Weidman sees female playback singing as a cultural phenomenon and not just a technological process, where the voices are stereotyped by society to sound in a certain way and represent certain social norms. This associated the high pitched and open, non-falsetto timbre of singers like Susheela was associated with the “good women” on screen – often the lead characters or heroines – while the “peculiar” and “husky” voice of Eswari was often used for vamps and negative characters.

In the 1940s when singing stars gave way to the playback system, there was a stiff opposition among critics to the “iraval kural” (borrowed voices) being thrust upon the audiences. Since the 1950s, singers began to get a semblance of respect when there were credits devoted to “pinanni isai” (background music) and a list of “padagargal” (singers) started showing up.

Ms.Weidman notes that singers borrowed prestige from classical vocal traditions, they adhered to a particular notion of vocal authenticity that involved cultivating a recognisable and consistent voice, and made sure that through stage performances, their ‘real life’ persona was that of a respectable woman.

The iconic image she sums up: “A woman standing immobile before the microphone, eyes fixed on the music stand or her book of lyrics, using one hand to keep the end of her saree carefully draped over her right shoulder.”

The first generation of female playback singers in Tamil cinema were U. R. Jeevarattinam (who transitioned from an actor to a playback singer), G.Krishnaveni (‘Jikki’) and P.Leela.

The mid-1950s saw the emergence of the first big playback singing star in Susheela, whose high pitch and non-falsetto voice was recognised as being “as sweet as the nectar.” Her voice, however, had to be consistent, no matter which heroine she was lending the voice for unlike the male singers such as T.M.Soundararajan, who used to modulate their voice depending on the actor. The emergence of Janaki in the late 1950s saw the emergence of a new aural star. Her voice, Ms.Weidman describes, was an exquisitely controlled falsetto, even higher than Susheela’s, with tremendous versatility.

Eswari, Mr.Wiedman notes, was the exception to all rules. Through her vocal quality, performance style and details on her personal life, Eswari pushed the limits of female respectability.

She was also known for her penchant to sing with “effects” such as sighing, crying, or laughing.

Today, one sees only leading actors occasionally singing their songs.

(Ms.Weidman can be contacted by email at aweidman@brynmawr.edu)

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