In 1997, I remember listening into a conversation between some teachers at my school, who happened to be at the recording of the song ‘Piya to manat naahin’ from the Kannada film, Gangavva Gangamayi . A fairly difficult song, composed by the renowned Vijay Bhaskar in Hindustani bandish style, it had several improvisational elements. Vani Jairam sang it flawlessly in a single take. The experience had stunned my teachers, who would stand in the corridors discussing her voice, range, diction and rendition.
This is the 50th year of Vani Jairam’s journey as a playback singer. She debuted with the grand Miya ki Malhar composition, ‘Bole re papi hara’, from the Hindi film Guddi (1971). The composition and her singing remain fresh to this day. In fact, at 76, her voice is just as beautiful, seemingly untouched by time.
There is something very pleasing about Vani Jairam, and it is not her music alone. It is also her grace and fine manners that shine through her persona. She has the rare honour of singing in over 18 Indian languages, and speaks all four Southern languages well. An avid reader, she has a remarkable memory. During interviews, she never falters with names of movies, producers, composers, dates or times. During a programme in Malaysia, where she shared the stage with the legendary composer M.S. Viswanathan to discuss his music, MSV was surprised that she remembered his songs more than he could.
At the same event, an articulate Vani explained MSV’s creative process in a manner only few singers can. Like a musicologist, she demonstrated the movement of swaras, shifts in raga perspective, and other nuances in his music. You can see the veteran music director stop playing the harmonium and listen to her with rapt attention. According to me, the only other south Indian playback singer who could sing, analyse, interpret like this — with equal clarity and joy — was S.P. Balasubrahmanyam.
Initiation into classical
Unlike most South Indian playback singers, Vani’s career didn’t begin in the South. She was a good student of music, an ardent listener of All India Radio, a huge fan of ‘Binaca Geetmala’, and a bank employee, who sought a transfer from Hyderabad to Bombay to join her husband after marriage. Recognising her musical talent, her husband took her to his guru, Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan. “Lessons would begin at 10 a.m. every morning and end at 6 p.m. In a day, I gave 18 hours to music,” she once said. Composer Vasant Desai was her guru’s friend and he came to listen to this “south Indian girl with a beautiful voice”. He made her sing three songs in Guddi and with that she became a household name across India.
Soon after, Pt. Kumar Gandharva agreed to sing with her, and the evergreen Marathi song ‘Runanubandhacha’ was recorded. By 1973, she began singing in all southern films, becoming one of the busiest musicians. Her solid training in classical music, her ability to absorb the finer points — MSV used to call her blotting paper — made her a sought-after singer. Though she had a good start in Bombay, the politics-riddled world of Hindi film music didn’t give her an opportunity to build upon it. As Vani herself once said in an interview: “My story was no different from that of Suman Kalyanpur or Shamshad Begum and many others.”
Vani rendered different kinds of songs under different composers. Here are some songs that prove her versatility. ‘Kelviyin nayagane’ from the Tamil film Apoorva Ragangal (M.S. Viswanathan) is a fine rendition in Darbari Kanada. The song shifts its rhythm pattern, is set to a higher pitch, and Vani handles its complexities with natural flair. Similarly, ‘Ezhu swarangalukkul’ from the same film is a ragamalika set to Pantuvarali, Ranjani, Sindhubhairavi and Kamboji. Another challenging composition, but Vani, who later came to be known as the music directors’ choice for difficult songs, delivers it with ease. When she sings ‘Manasa sancharare’ for the Telugu film Sankarabharanam , also set in the Carnatic idiom, she gives it a completely different feel. She foregrounds the spiritual and heightens the experience of the lyrics.
Her transformation in ‘Nitham nitham’ for the Tamil film Mullum Malarum is amazing. Known for her classical renditions, she gets the rural diction, the folk tune perfectly. ‘Kavidhai Kelungal’ from the Tamil film Punnagai Mannan is yet another stunning song. While the song itself is a modern one, Ilaiyaraja layers his background score with ideas of music as it is expressed through various art forms, and Vani captures that essence in her singing. Yet another beauty is ‘Ennulil engo’ ( Rosappoo Ravikaikari ), a reflective, romantic song. The highs and lows of emotions she paints through her wistful rendering make you want to stay on loop. In ‘Yeno moha’, the Kannada song which she sings with Dr. Rajkumar, composed by Satyam for the film Keralida Samha , she is at her sensuous best. She outdoes herself each time she sings from a different genre. Another mesmerising Kannada number is ‘Savi nenapugalu beku’ ( Aparichita ), composed by L. Vaidyanathan. ‘Manathe marikurumbe’, a lullaby from the Malayalam film Puli Murugan , is another noteworthy transmutation.
Vani is perhaps among the few musicians from the South who has had a wide exposure to other forms of music. Before her career in films took off, she was a bhajan singer, sharing stage with stalwarts like Hari Om Sharan and Purushottam Das Jalota. She has travelled across the world performing bhajan concerts. She has also sung ghazals, nazms and bhavgeets. Her training in Bombay gave her music an eclectic perspective. In fact, when Gulzar made the film Meera in 1979, she sang all its songs under the direction of Pt. Ravi Shankar.
One senses a palpable joy each time she speaks about music. In most of her interviews, the one thing she can’t stop is singing, like a passionate student and with no airs of a star. I recall an interview with Ameen Sayani, in which he names a few colours and requests her to come up with matching songs. What follows is an aural treat. Her versatility, ability to reinvent, and simplicity make her one of India’s finest. However, as Kiranmayi Indraganti observes in her book, Her Majestic Voice: South Indian Female Playback Singers and Stardom , very little has been written about women playback singers in India and whatever has been written is centred around Lata Mangeshkar. Focus has to be redirected to the work and lives of these extraordinary artistes who have not found their way into the academic and ‘official’ histories of Indian cinema.
The Bengaluru-based journalist writes on art and culture.