Singer KS Chithra interview: ‘Music helped me come out of troubled times’

Singer KS Chithra, whose latest track is ‘Veera Raja Veera’ in ‘Ponniyin Selvan 2’, on her musical journey, working with AR Rahman and Ilaiyaraaja, music therapy and more

Updated - April 14, 2023 12:19 pm IST

Published - April 12, 2023 09:48 am IST

Singer KS Chithra at her Chennai residence

Singer KS Chithra at her Chennai residence | Photo Credit: Johan Sathyadas

“I heard you humming something....”

We are setting up equipment at singer KS Chithra’s residence, aptly named ‘Shruti’, at Chennai’s Saligramam, and the singer — a Padma Shri recipient and six-time National Film Award-winning musician — has just walked in. “Why don’t you sing,” she asks, almost pleadingly.

I freeze.

Armed with just memories of learning Carnatic music many decades ago, I muster the courage to break into one of her songs — ‘Malargal Ketten’ from O Kadhal Kanmani (2015). I lose steam when I encounter a difficult line. She breaks into a grin — the sort that says, ‘It’s okay — and later, performs that line with ridiculous ease, gently scaling higher notes like they were familiar territory, before breaking into a huge smile — the kind reserved for a task well accomplished.

Watch | In conversation with singer KS Chithra

That large-hearted smile and peals of laughter have been associated with Chithra since childhood. “If someone looks at me, I usually smile. It’s part of my personality. My mother often scolded me for smiling at even strangers.”

Singer KS Chithra

Singer KS Chithra | Photo Credit: Johan Sathyadas

Tamil film music lovers are smiling too; they have just listened to Chithra in the trending ‘Veera Raja Veera’ track in Mani Ratnam’s upcoming Ponniyin Selvan 2 (PS2 Tamil). A composition based on a Dargavani tradition drupad, this song is written by Ilango Krishnan and also features singers Shankar Mahadevan and Harini. “When I get a call from AR Rahman’s studio, it is mostly, ‘Amma, can you come today?” In my earlier days, whenever I used to get such calls, I’d have a cold, unfortunately! But, he’d say, ‘Cold iruka? Come today itself. You will sound different.’ He always wants me to sound different; different from how other composers use me.”

She is pleased with how the song has come out. “It was a long song and it took almost six hours to complete it as it had many layers,” she says.

Varied experiences

Chithra hails from Kerala but is well known for her work in multiple languages, and she has her many co-singers to thank for that. Late singer SP Balasubrahmanyam played a big role in her dishing out Telugu hits, for instance. “Tamil was easy to pick up as I grew up in Trivandrum, which is not too far away from the Tamil Nadu border. Also, I had a lot of help from the lyricists and composers in Chennai. Telugu, on the other hand, was a challenge; I didn’t know the language at all. SPB used to guide me a lot then. Try to sing this word with a smile because it goes with its meaning, he would say at times. Keeravani sir was also a huge help. Janaki amma has also guided me a lot; due to my reticent nature, I would shy away from certain expressions on stage, but she gave me direction to conquer that.”

One of Chithra’s first songs was for Ilaiyaraaja, and her latest track is with AR Rahman. “They are both big pillars of Indian music. Singing for Raja sir is like writing an exam; I am usually very tense while recording with him. With Rahman, who is much younger, there’s a lot of freedom...but even then, I get tense!”

Chithra’s songs have been a lullaby for many parents, and have also been a companion for many listeners during trying times. Does she believe in the healing power of music? “My teacher (Dr Omanakutty ) had researched on music therapy and has spoken about how music helps people a lot, especially children with autism and other mental deficiencies.”

It has also helped Chithra personally, especially in the harrowing phase ensuing the death of her eight-year-old daughter Nandana, who drowned in a swimming pool in Dubai in 2011. “After that incident, I didn’t listen to music at all. Then, my relatives pushed me to listen to music to calm me down, and after a few months, I started singing again. That helped a lot. Even today, when people ask me how I came out of that phase, I tell them: ‘The wound will always be raw, but you can come out of it only if you immerse yourself in some activity that you are interested in.’”

Giving back

With over four decades of experience and more than 25,000 songs, Chithra is now in the phase of her life where she looks to give back to the industry that gave her much joy. Apart from being a regular at talent hunts on TV, she is also faculty head at the Mumbai-based Artium Academy, a music-tech platform that hopes to highlight music education. “During lockdown, I was teaching about 15 children through a web portal but then I had to stop once recordings and concerts came my way. My current role as faculty head entails me to guide the teachers who impart music education to students.”

Watch | KS Chithra sings some of her memorable film numbers
Songs in order: ‘Padariye Padippariye’ from Sindhu Bhairavi/‘Ovvaru Pookalume’ from Autograph/‘Malargal Kaetten’ from OK Kanmani

The most important aspect is how students are trained to become performers rather than just singers, adds Chithra. “When I’m on stage, I still get butterflies in my stomach. Whatever we sing is out there for immediate consumption... .and these days, everyone starts shooting on their phones! Performing in front of a packed audience is very different from singing inside a studio.”

In her tryst with singers less than half her age and experience, Chithra gets exposed to the direction music is headed in the future. “There are several talented musicians but I won’t say that they will all get film opportunities. It is the era of independent music, where they can experiment with any style. Everything is changing, and I am enjoying all that.”

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