Music, her life

Playback singer B Vasantha   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

For most singers the first half of their career involves extending their repertoire, and the next half, trimming it to suit their ageing voice. B Vasantha, who turned 75 this month, is different. She still sings soulfully.

Like many of her songs, which have been wrongly attributed to her more celebrated contemporaries in the media and other records, her birthday has also been wrongly posted as March 20. “It is actually March 29. Every year my fans and others call and wish me on March 20. I keep quiet as I don’t want to disappoint them. After all the whole ‘vasantha kaalam’ is my birthday, isn’t it?” says Vasantha.

And while Vasantha has sung many memorable songs in Telugu and Tamil, Malayalam remains special to her. This gifted singer who enriched the Malayalam film industry with 166 songs, in a career spanning almost 25 years, has, however, never been given her due. For years she remained forgotten till she made a stunning presence at a music event held as part of the Golden Jubilee of Malayalam film music in Thiruvananthapuram, in 1994.

“I was pleasantly surprised when Devarajan Master, Arjunan Master and AT Ummer came to my house in Chennai one day. It must have been nearly 15 years since I had spoken to Devarajan Master, who had given me some of my best songs in Malayalam. They had come to invite me to sing in this programme, which I gladly accepted.”

On the first day of the three-day programme, Vasantha’s flawless rendering of ‘Thekkumkoor adiyathi…’ from the film Aswamedham was the highpoint. Set to a minimal background score, Vasantha transported the audience to a primitive world of tharavads, sacred groves, snakes, snake charmers and superstitions. The next day, she sang the immortal duet ‘Yavana sundari…’ from the movie Pearl View with KJ Yesudas. With just two instruments as back-up, the song completely depended on her voice.

“‘Thekkumkoor adiyathi…’ was my first song for Devarajan Master. When I reached the studio in the morning, there was nobody there. Then two musicians walked in. I had sung in that studio earlier, backed by a 100-piece orchestra and then in that huge hall, sat two musicians. When Master taught me the song, I realised that it was going to be a challenge. There was no margin for error. I had to be spot on in sruthi, tala, emotion and pronunciation. The recording was ‘okayed’ in the very first take and when I turned to the console, I found that Master had already left. Initially, I thought I must have bungled but the recording assistant told me that it was ‘first class.’ I was disappointed that Master had not waited to congratulate me. But I went on to realise that he was like that and the only way to know if he approved of your singing was when he gave you another song, which he did,” says Vasantha.

Vasantha, who hails from Machilipatanam, Andhra Pradesh, made her playback debut in the film Vagdaanam (1961) for Pendyala Nageswara Rao. “For the audition, I sang one of my favourite Lata Mangeshkar songs. Although I was trained in Carnatic music and in light music, I considered Lataji as my ‘manasa guru.’”

Nageswara Rao was impressed by Vasantha’s singing, especially her ability to reproduce the details in the song, but, in her own style. Vasantha began singing in Telugu and soon offers from the Tamil film industry followed. Her first Tamil song was a duet in the film Konchum Kumari with Yesudas, who was also singing his first Tamil duet. This pair went on to sing some of the best duets in Malayalam. Vasantha sang for stalwarts such as MS Viswanathan and KV Mahadevan before she made her entry into Malayalam films. “Pukazhenthi (Velappan Nair) was assistant music director to Mahadevan sir. When Pukazhenthi got an opportunity to compose for a Malayalam film, he invited me to sing. That’s how I entered the Malayalam industry.” She sang one song in the film Muthalali (1965), ‘Ponnara muthalali…’ along with S Janaki and Soolamangalam Rajalakshmi.

From then on, till 1988, Vasantha breathed life into nearly 4,000 songs in seven languages. She also composed music for several albums and for a Kannada and Tamil film in which S Janaki, PB Sreenivas, SP Balasubramanyam and others sang. She also has the unique honour of having sung for almost all the leading music directors of the time.

“In Malayalam I must have sung for more than 20 music directors. So many hit songs…,” says Vasantha as she begins singing the first lines of ‘Melemanathe nilipulayikku….’ (Kootukudumbam). When Vasantha speaks there is a pronounced Telugu twang. She mixes it up with snatches of Tamil and Malayalam. But when she sings, reading from the lyrics written in Telugu, her Malayalam is near flawless. How does that happen?

“I really don’t know. Those days you had to learn, rehearse and record a song as quickly as possible. No one had the time to explain the meaning of the lyrics. I used to watch the music director closely as he sang, picked up the parts that needed stress, noticed the rhythm in which he was singing and internalised it. Devarajan Master and Yesudas would often wait for me to make a mistake in pronunciation but were not able to find many,” says Vasantha, with a laugh.

Apart from the duets she has sung in Malayalam, Vasantha’s amazing skill in humming tunes has also been used effectively by composers.

MS Viswanathan used Vasantha’s humming to stunning effect in the duet ‘Pottu vaitha mugamo…’. from the film Sumathi En Sundari, while Devarajan did it in ‘Chandranudikkunna dikkil…’ (Othenante Makan), MS Baburaj in ‘Nadikalil sundari Yamuna…’(Anarkali) and MK Arjunan in ‘Sukhamoru bindu…’ (Ithu Manushyano?).

Despite giving a string of hits, somewhere down the line, Vasantha was abandoned. “I think it happened when Devarajan Master told me that he would not be able to give me songs, as there was a singer who was well-versed in Malayalam. The coming of P Madhuri hit my chances. But I don’t understand why other music directors chose not to call me.”

Vasantha, however, continued to do what she loved most, singing. She took every chance that came her way and turned it into a golden hit. She was conferred the Kalaimamani Award and Ugadi Award instituted by the Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh governments respectively. The singer is disappointed that Kerala has not recognised her.

“I have won many awards instituted by institutions and fans, but the Kerala government, despite my having sung in many of the programmes organised under the auspices of the State, has never given me an official State honour. Somewhere, this hurts though I realise how much the people in Kerala love my songs.”

There are many who have told Vasantha that she did not know how to ‘market’ her talent. Looking back, she feels that this is true. “But then singing was not my first priority. I’m a homemaker, a mother to three children who are now settled in life. I never ran after offers. I know many singers who have achieved fame and popularity but have also lost out in life. I’m thankful to everything I have been able to achieve.”

Vasantha and her husband, Sudhakar, still travel a lot and she still sings at programmes, especially across Kerala.

“My daughter, who is constantly flying from one city to the other, advised me to take it easy. I asked her about her hectic schedule. She told me that it was because she loved her work. And so, I told her that singing was my work and that nothing gives me more joy than seeing the audiences enjoying with me.”

For Vasantha, singing is life itself.

Vasantha’s best

‘Pavananaam aattidaya…’ - Anweshichu Kandethiyilla

‘Varthinkal kanivekkum…’ - Vidyarthi

‘Bhoomidevi pushpiniyayi…’ -Thulabharam

‘Noothaganathin yamunatheerathil…’ - Aalmaram

‘Ashokavanathile Seethamma…’ - Kallichellamma

‘Kudamullapoovinum…’ - Jwala

‘Yavanasundari…’ - Pearl View

‘Kizhakemalayile venninilavoru…’- Lora Nee Evide

‘Karpooradeepathin kaanthiyil…’ - Divya Darshanam

‘Neervanjikal poothu…’ - Mamankam

‘Madanavicharam…’ - Manasa Vaacha Karmana

‘Kanyakamathave…’ - Madatharuvi

‘Melemanathe nilipulayikku…’ - Kootukudumbam

‘Kannil meenaadum periyar…’ - Neelaponmaan

‘Chanchalitha…’ - Dharmakshetre Kurukshetre

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2021 11:24:20 PM |

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