Vani Jairam’s entry into the Tamil film world as a playback singer in the 1970s happened when it was dominated by singers such as P. Susheela, S. Janaki and L.R. Eswari. Gifted with a unique voice and strong grounding in Carnatic and Hindustani classical music, she claimed her place that was retained for another three decades singing for heroines from K.R. Vijaya to Revathi. She worked with music directors S.M. Subbaiah Naidu, M.S. Viswanathan (MSV), K.V. Mahadevan, Sankar-Ganesh, Ilayaraja and A.R. Rahman.
If Malligai En Mannan Mayangum song in the film, Dheerkasumangali captured the boundless love and affection of a housewife to her husband of that period in the music of MSV, Kavithai Kelungal Karuvil Piranthathu Ragam in Punnagai Mannan continues to remain one of the most vibrant numbers scored by Ilayaraja.
“M.S. Viswanathan himself told me that I should have come to the Tamil film world 25 years ago. It was a pleasure working with him and he also enjoyed working with me. What great gnanam [wisdom] you have, he would say. I am saying it now and do not think that I am boasting about myself,” Vani Jairam had said in an interaction with the fans of Viswanathan.
She grew up in a house filled with music. Her mother was a trained singer and two sisters gave performances in the name of Vellore Sisters. She studied at Lady Sivaswami Iyer School, in Chennai, and later in Queen Mary’s College. She also worked at the State Bank of India in Hyderabad before becoming a full-time playback singer.
“It was strange that Vani, a Tamil by birth, rendered her first song for the Hindi film Guddi by Bengali director Rishikesh Mukherjee in the music of Vasant Desai, a Maharastrian,” said historian of Tamil film music Vamanan in his book Thirai Isai Alaigal. The song was Bol Re Papihara. But it is said she could not survive the politics of the Hindi film industry and found ‘Kodambakkam’ comfortable and convenient.
Her first Tamil song, Pon Mayamana Kalam Varumentru Poovizhi Kaatatume, was recorded by S.M. Subbaiah Naidu for the film Thayum Seyum.
But it was Mallaigai En Mannan Mayangum song that echoed in every nook and corner of Tamil Nadu. It is said that K.R. Vijaya, the heroine of the film, was keen that Vani Jairam should render the song.
“There was a new crop of talent including K.J. Yesudas, S.P. Balasubramaniam and Jayachandran and MSV needed a female voice to pair with them. Vani Jairam perfectly suited the slot,” said Mr. Vamanan.
Even as she excelled in duets, she was able to get some of the best solo songs from almost all music directors. In Ezhu Swarangalukkl Ethanai Paadal in K. Balachandar’s Apoorva Ragangal, a treatise on day-to-day philosophy, she scaled new heights. Songs such as Amutha Tamizhil Ezhuthum Kavithai in Dwijavanti raga duet in Madurayai Meeta Sundara Pandian, the last film of MGR, Naadam Enum Kovilile in the Kamal Haasan-starrer Manmathaleelai and the abhogi raga song rendered along with P. Jayachandran in Vaidegi Kathirunthal again proved her ability to handle pure-Carnatic raga based songs. Her sweet and lilting voice in these numbers lifted human moods.
When MGR launched the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the theme song Vaasal engum Rettai Illai Kolamidungal (draw the two leaves kolam at every doorstep) rendered by Vani Jairam, became the anthem for the party.
“Her voice had a classical touch and sounded like a perfectly tuned tambura. While her voice has clarity, she as a singer had perfect control over her voice, a skill that cannot be found in all singers. She embellished her songs with what we call sangathis in classical music,” said nagaswaram player Enjikudi M. Mariappan.
Mallaigai Mullai Poopanthal song in the Sivaji Ganesan-starrer Anbe Aruyire celebrated the mood of a newly-wed woman. She effortlessly touched the higher octaves in the song Pongum Kadalosai in the MGR-starrer Meenava Nanban. Few songs are able to contain within them the magic a woman feels for the person she is in love with, as Engiruntho Oru Kural Vanthathu in the film Avan Than Manithan. The late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, who played the lead role, had captured the essence of the lines “Mangaiyidam Oru Anal Vanthathu Athu Entha Mannan Thantha Analo.” These songs, indeed, marked the golden period of Tamil film songs.
She won the national award for the Sadasiva Brahmendra’s keerthana Manasa Sancharare featured in the film Sankarabharanam for which the music was scored by K.V. Mahadevan.
In the 1980s, she sang for both MSV and Ilayaraja. Her duet Bharathi Kannamma with SPB in Ninaithale Inikkum to amazing beats of the tabla is a class apart. Ennullil Engo Engum Geetham set to Madhuvanthi raga by Ilayaraja in Rosappoo Ravikkaikari is the voice of a love-torn woman.
Vani Jairam’s voice and her songs, indeed coincided with the golden period of Tamil film songs, but also contributed in good measure to making the era ‘golden’.