Vani Jairam breezed into the hearts of her Tamil fans with the unforgettable song, ‘Malligai en mannan...’ from the film Dheerga Sumangali in 1972, her magical voice captivating audiences and music directors alike. Soon her voice was the secret behind many chartbusters and Vani Jairam reigned in the South Indian film industry for more than four decades. She went on to sing more than 20,000 songs in over 1,000 films in at least 18 languages.
The evergreen hit ‘Yezhu swarangalukkul’ from ‘ Apoorva Raagangal ,’ fetched Vani her first National award. She went on to receive two more for Shankarabharanam and Swathi Kiranam.
Her latest recognition is the M.S. Subbulakshmi Award from the Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram for the year 2020. Vani says she is elated to receive the honour, especially since the award is named after a legend she has always admired.
Her vocal range, ability to sing a wide repertoire of songs — from heavy classical to folk and romantic numbers, her ability to grasp and reproduce tunes instantaneously, her perfect diction and attention to detail are some of the factors behind her successful playback career.
The veteran singer says that she has had an exceptional memory since childhood and the skill to reproduce what she hears. “I would easily pick up songs that were taught to my sisters during their music lessons under Cuddalore Sreenivas Iyengar. I learnt Dikshitar kritis from him when I was five, and at eight I started singing in AIR,” she says.
Pt. Ravi Shankar chose Vani Jairam when he scored music for Gulzar’s Meera, and all 14 songs were rehearsed and recorded in a week’s time. Vani got the Filmfare award for this film. “Interestingly, my songs for both Meera and Sankarabharanam were in contention for the National Award in the same year and it was for the latter that I won it,” she says.
Recalling the early days of recordings, Vani says, “We used to interact with all the musicians in the orchestra. I could absorb the nuances of their playing, the improvisations made by the music directors and, of course, my co-singers. Today, it has become very sophisticated, but it also makes the process more impersonal with voice and instrumental tracks being recorded individually.”
Vani’s husband Jairam gave up his job to support her dream, enabling her to pursue her training in Hindustani music from Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan. Khan saab introduced her to Vasant Desai, who launched her voice in the film Guddi and the rest is history.
Jairam also started a music recording company, creating some cherished albums. For instance, Vani’s collaboration with Pt. Birju Maharaj and her rendition of Jayadeva’s Gita Govindam set to music by Prafulla Kar where Kelucharan Mahopatra accompanied her on the pakhawaj. In parallel, Vani also began to do full-length devotional concerts, which soon became popular and she has travelled all over the country and abroad with these shows.
The little girl sitting in front of the radio listening to Binaca Geet Mala on Radio Ceylon, reproducing the songs she heard, would tell her mother — “One day they will play my songs here.” Her dream became reality when ‘ Bole Re Pappihara’ stayed in Binaca Geet Mala for 16 weeks. The song in raag Miyan Malhar continues to breeze into our ears with an air of freshness even today, in the 50th year of Guddi’s release.
The author is a Chennai-based