KJ Yesudas: A name that spells melody

KJ Yesudas   | Photo Credit: M Karunakaran

KJ Yesudas’ voice has seeped into the collective conscious of the Malayali, infusing melody into every emotion and mood. For nearly 60 years, he has been regaling music buffs with his mesmerising music, a voice that is every Malayali’s pride. Not a day passes in Kerala without one getting to listen to him somewhere.

Yesudas, Dasettan to his admirers, spanning generations, has worked with the pioneers of the film music industry and the new-gen music directors with equal felicity.

He has witnessed the digitalisation of the music industry and the rise and fall of trends and fads. But that voice has never faltered.

Whether it be in expressing his concern over an issue or an appeal, his is the voice that the Malayali listens to.

As the musician turns 80 today, he continues to insist that he is still a learner, a student eager to drink from the fountain of music.

Friday Review talks to music directors, young and old, who have worked with the legend, using his voice to create some memorable gems that have stood the test of time.

MK Arjunan

MK Arjunan   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

MK Arjunan

I have always said that no singer can match what a composer has in mind. If there is one singer who, very often, came close to the original creation and, at times, even enhanced it, it is Yesu. No other singer can sing with such bhava, such laya. And his pronunciation is perfect. In the case of other singers there is only one style in which they can be slotted. In Yesu’s case, he can be moulded into any form. The essence of his voice will stay as a diamond even if you chip off the sides.

Those days we spent a lot of time at rehearsals and Yesu used to, very diligently, listen to the music director, his instructions and suggestions and then sing. If he had doubts, he would clear it straight away and then sing the version to be recorded. The magic happened at the recording. I cannot pick one song of mine that Yesu hasn’t chiselled to perfection. He has done complete justice to all my songs. But I still ruminate about listening to his voice singing ‘Chambakathaikal pootha manathe…’ and ‘Paadatha veenayum paadum…’, it was divine. I pray for his health and hope that Yesu will continue to sing for many more years.

Jerry Amaldev

Jerry Amaldev   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Jerry Amaldev

Yesudas has a unique voice. When you talk to him, it sounds like a regular voice. But when his voice comes out of a microphone, in a studio, a huge transformation takes place. That voice then paints and creates indelible experiences.

We were born in the same area in West Kochi. I’m elder to him by eight months. My father was a vaidyar (Ayurveda physician) and I have heard that he helped cure Yesudas of a kind of eczema when he was a young boy. That’s all I knew about him then, we had never met.

The first time I met Yesudas was in New York City, sometime in 1978. I had heard a lot about him by then. We got talking and soon recorded eight songs in his voice for a LP record titled ‘Atma Ki Awaz’. The next year, when I came back home and did my first film, Mamatha, Yesudas sang two songs. When I heard his voice through the speakers inside the studio, I was thunderstruck, it was so distinctive.

Since then Yesudas has sung in almost all the films for which I composed. When I made a comeback of sorts after nearly 20 years in Action Hero Biju, the first name that came to my mind was that of Yesudas. He is proven material and his voice is universally accepted. And he did justice to that duet like he did to all my songs. For the duet, ‘Pookkal panineer pookkal’, the orchestra was pre-recorded but Yesudas and Vani Jairam recorded together like in the olden days. I thought Yesudas would suggest that Vani Jairam sing and record first but like a true professional, he understood that a duet must be sung together. He is an all-time favourite of mine.

Perumbavoor G Ravindranath

Perumbavoor G Ravindranath   | Photo Credit: KK Najeeb

Perumbavoor G Ravindranath

There hasn’t been anybody like Dasettan and I don’t know whether there can be anyone like him in the future. I first met him during my stint as a teacher at his music school in the capital city in 1975. He used to come in between to take classes in voice modulation and voice control.

I worked in two albums of his recording label, Tharangini, after which I did my first film song with him, ‘Megham poothu thudangi’ (Thoovanathumbikal). The tracks ‘Kannin nin meyyil’ (Innale) and ‘Perariyathoru nombarathe’ (Sneham) also are special.

Here is someone who taught us how to pronounce Malayalam words correctly in the most beautiful way. He could bring out the sweetness of each word. He is a model for all singers. That quality applies to classical music as well. He could bring out the lyrical beauty of each kriti with his rendition and musicality.

He has never stopped learning. His dedication is praiseworthy. He knew what is expected of a particular track, because of his in-depth knowledge about Carnatic music, kritis and nuances of each raga.

I just had to give him a brief of the situation before recording the song and the output has always been what I wanted. In the song, ‘Megham poothu...’ I told him that he had to bring in a feel of the ocean in the first line and he was spot on. As for ‘Perariyathoru nombarathe’, I was not even with him when it was recorded. He sang it in a studio in the US. I had given him the brief that there should be romance but a little pain as well.

However great a composition is, it is important that the song is rendered beautifully. Then that song becomes complete and that has always happened with Dasettan. That's because he found the Divine in music.


Ouseppachan   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat


I remember those long, hot, sweaty hours inside the Madras [Chennai] studios, playing the violin for so many recordings. In the sweltering summer heat, some of us would take off our shirts as the ‘takes’ went on and on. There was a sense of relief when it was announced that Dasettan was recording. He was like a whiff of cool breeze — someone who came in, rehearsed and completed the recording in one take. He could do this only because he used to rehearse the song on his own, rigorous practice.

For me, who grew up listening and singing Dasettan’s songs, I used to dream of making songs and imagine how Dasettan would sing it. This dream came true. I cannot forget listening to him sing ‘Nee en sarga soundaryame…’, for Kathodu Kathoram, my first independent work.

Composers opted for Dasettan’s voice for various reasons. His voice had the magic to take a song beyond the words and music; there is a soul in his singing; he is so flexible that any genre, any range sits lightly on him; he can enhance the original composition like no other singer and most significantly he has that God-given gift of being able to impart the right amount, the right dose of emotion to the song.

Fact file
  • KJ Yesudas was born on January 10, 1940 in Fort Kochi as son of actor-singer Augustine Joseph and Elizabeth.
  • He has won the Kerala State Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer a record 23 times. Yesudas has requested the State government not to consider him for future awards to ensure that the younger singers also get a chance.
  • He has won the Padma Shri (1977), Padma Bhushan (2002) and Padma Vibhushan (2017).
  • Producer Raman Nambiyath introduced Yesudas as playback singer in the film Kaalpaadukal on November 14, 1961.
  • He made his début as music director in the film Azhakulla Seleena (1973).
  • Yesudas established a music company Tharangini in 1980.
  • He is the only singer to be honoured with the Asthana Gayakan title by the Kerala State.

I’m not sure if Dasettan is a complete technoid. But I do know that he understands the potential of the gadgets used in recording studios today. I remember him asking me to ‘punch in/out’ during those early days of multi-track recordings. If he is not updating his knowhow today, I guess it is because he has focused on other things, like, say, Carnatic music. Dasettan is perhaps the only singer in the world who sings classical and films songs with such ease, such felicity.

I usually sing the tracks for my songs. When Dasettan sang for the film Unnikale Oru Katha Parayam, the title song, the director and producer in the studio kept staring at me. They knew, like I did, that Dasettan was singing it a tad differently from the original. But like my friend Johnson always used to say, when you finally listened to it, you would start humming what Dasettan had rendered, forgetting what we had created. That was the magic. And that song went on to win the National award for him. If Dasettan has achieved all this success, it is not just because of his God-given talent but also because of his hard work.


Vidyadharan   | Photo Credit: H Vibhu


Dasettan’s voice can paint what our eyes cannot see. He was fortunate to be ‘trained’ by the great composers of Malayalam film music like G Devarajan.

I think I’m blessed to have worked with such a great singer. I owe so much to him because he made my songs immortal. I believe that it is Dasettan’s firm founding in classical music that has helped him retain the quality and texture of his voice even when he is 80 years old.

When Dasettan sings you cannot but listen. Whatever he sings, be it a comic song or one with a strong folk flavour, he does full justice to it. No other singer can do that. Whether it is the high or low octaves, Dasettan sings with such purity, such clarity. It sounds so easy but when you try singing it, you’ll know the difference. Unlike other singers I have felt that Dasettan has no limitations and he is ready to adapt. For the film Veena Poovu, Dasettan sang the evergreen hit ‘Nashta Swargangale Ningalenikkoru…’ and for ‘Kanni maasathile…’ he changed his voice to suit the pulluvan paattu style (indigenous folk song). Even today there are many who do not believe that this song has been sung by Dasettan. He has done that so well. Singers will come and go but even at 80 Dasettan still remains right there, at the zenith.


Sharreth   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement


Dasettan and his voice have been part of my growing up years. So imagine my happiness when I realise that he has sung 80 % of my compositions. Although I have never made a song keeping his voice in mind, once I finish a particular composition I would end up deciding to hear it in his voice. We have had tiffs and arguments — he still scolds me — but I don’t feel bad about it.

The music scene has changed over the years with new composers, new sounds, technology gaining an upper hand and what not. But Dasettan has stood out amidst all this. His brilliance is unmatched and there has been no other singer with such a beautiful tonal quality in voice. That’s what has kept him in good stead for so many decades. I had goosebumps when he first sang for me, ‘Sallaapam kavithayaay...’ from Kshanakkathu. As for ‘Sreeragamo...’ (Pavithram), he took it to a totally different level from what I had envisaged.

I admire him for his discipline, both in his personal and professional life. He keeps a list of his Carnatic recitals, with the date, venue and the kritis he sang. Apparently he doesn’t want to repeat himself. As for his technical know-how, he is updated about everything and uses gadgets as and when needed.

It’s overwhelming to realise that I have done background score for Syamaragam, the last work of the legendary V Dakshinamoorthy, which has the voices of Dasettan’s father, Augustine Joseph, Dasettan, Vijay Yesudas and Vijay’s daughter Ameya.

M Jayachandran

M Jayachandran   | Photo Credit: K Ragesh

M Jayachandran

Das sir is one of the main reasons why I became a singer and composer. I grew up on his songs, many of which have become life-long companions, constants in my life. I still listen to them every day. His voice and music are akin to the life-giving blood in me. It must the same for each Malayali.

He is a composer’s delight. There was always a family relationship with Das sir and I was always ‘Mon’ to him. So, even when I went to him for my first work with him as a music director, it was not just a relationship between a music composer and a singer. He has always been supportive and encouraging.

Prior to each recording, I clarify my doubts with him, ask him many questions and he patiently answers each of my questions. There is an element of mentoring in every recording. Usually, when Das sir is to sing a composition of mine, I sing the track myself and so Das sir knows what I want to be conveyed as soon as he listens to it. One of his biggest strengths is that no matter who the composer is or what genre the song is, he has an uncanny ability to sense what are the signature notes of that composer and tune into the heartbeat of that composition. That is why he is so versatile. Whether it be Ravindra Jain, Salil da, Baburaj, MS Viswanath, Ilayaraja or Devarajan Master, no matter to what age he belongs to, Das sir is easily able to meld into their composition.

His presence is a source of joy for any music lover, especially any Malayali. His songs are expressions of our faith, of romance, of pathos and more. The minute we hear ‘Oru neram enkilam kannathe vayya ente, Guruvayoorappa nin divya roopam...’ , we are transported to Guruvayoor. That is Yesudas.

Pandit Ramesh Narayan (right)

Pandit Ramesh Narayan (right)   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Pandit Ramesh Narayan

He is incomparable. In the case of Dasettan, it is his willingness to learn that has humbled me. Even for one note or sangati, he writes the notation of that particular note, discusses that with me, learns it and then renders the song. It is for ‘Adithya kiranangal’, a song in Gunji Kanada, a rare raga, that he won the Kerala State film award for best playback singer (male) in 2015. Even while learning, he told me to sing it for him. Which singer of his stature will take so much of an effort?

From 10 am to 5 pm, we were recording this song. One note was going up and then going down. He wrote down the notation, perfected it and then sang the number. He could have easily sung it the way he wanted to and left. I would not have had a problem. But therein lies in his greatness. He told me ‘Narayanan’s song must be sung the way he has envisaged it. If I don’t do justice to it, my muse will question me’. I don’t think there is any singer in India who can read a composer’s mind like Dasettan. He is the greatest in India. There is no one who has sung so many varieties of songs in so many languages.

I consider myself blessed because Dasettan latest National Award was for a song I had composed, ‘Poi Maranja Kaalam’ for the film Viswasapoorvam Mansoor.

The recording was supposed to take place just after he had been conferred the Padma Vibhushan. Talking to mediapersons soon after that had strained his voice and so he candidly told me that he would do the song after his voice recovered. However, since we had decided the date, he drove two hours to the studio and sang a few notes. As soon as he finished, he told me ‘Narayana, it is best to do this recording afterwards’. I concurred. This was a lesson to me. His honesty and complete dedication to music and his quest for perfection. I consider myself lucky to be a musician at a time when we have someone like Dasettan in our midst, as role model and musician par excellence.

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 19, 2021 11:44:23 AM |

Next Story