Vani Jairam cannot stop singing. Mention the first line and she will invariably break into song, then move into another, her eyes closed, the lyrics in place, her voice still fresh, versatile. The conversation with her is constantly interspersed with snatches of her songs.
‘Chitravarna pushpajalam…’, Vani sings, stops, as if remembering something and says, “This was my second song in Malayalam after the popular ‘Sourayoodhathil vidarnnoru…’( Swapnam ). See, I can go on and on. I can’t stop singing, it’s my life,” says Vani. She was born to sing and that’s what she has been doing for the past 44 years.
She continues to sing, snatches from her popular film numbers, in that rounded rich tone, with a flowing musicality that seeps through in each phrase, defying her age.
How does she manage to remember these songs? And Vani lets you into the secret. “Singing in stage programmes is the secret. I never let go an opportunity to sing at stage shows, something I did even during the peak of my career. So many young singers and aspiring musicians have accompanied me in those shows, many of them making a mark in the world of music... Jolly Abraham, Cochin Ibrahim, Ousephchan, Johnson, and Kalabhavan Mani, now a popular actor, was also part of the orchestra in many of my programmes.”
The stage has been Vani’s strength. Even before her sensational ‘Bole re papi haraa…’, the song that really elevated Guddi , Vani was much in demand for her thumris, ghazals and light Hindustani classical programmes. This was something that Vani had picked up after she shifted to Mumbai following her marriage to Jairam. “Jairam ji introduced me to Ustad Abdul Rahman Khan. He asked me to sing, closed his eyes, and listened intently. I was elated when he told me that he would teach me. He used to come to our apartment and classes would begin at 10 a.m., extending late into the evening. With this being the daily schedule I was asked by my guru to resign my bank job, which I did.”
Vani sang for the first time before the Mumbai audience in 1969. These concerts also opened the doors to playback singing, something she wanted to do right from the time she was a child. “Vasant Desai ji gave me a chance to sing in a Marathi play for which songs were recorded professionally. I sang a lot of Marathi songs composed by him.”
In 1971, Hrishikesh Mukherji was getting ready for Guddi . Vasant Desai was the music director. They decided to go for new singers and Vani was Desai’s first choice. There were three songs for Vani in this film, ‘Bole re papi haraa’, ‘Hum ko man ki sakthi dena’ and a Meera bhajan, ‘Hari bin kaise jeeyu’. The film was released and the songs became a huge hit.
There was no stopping Vani after this. She sang with some of the top music directors and singers like Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar, Mukesh and Mahendra Kapoor. And when Naushad chose her for Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah , Vani was bracketed among the leading female voices of the nation.
Vani began singing in the South Indian languages in 1973. And in the next few years Vani became one of the busiest singers in the South and also recorded numerous songs for some of the greatest composers in Bollywood.
Vani’s indefatigable quest for perfection was seen in the musical element in her distinctive voice and matchless diction in any language she sings in. All her songs, right from her debut in both Malayalam and Tamil, stood out, most of them were hits. Vani’s career did suffer a break sometime after 1994, except for that occasional song. But this hiatus ended, or it seems so, both in Tamil and Malayalam. Vani gave Malayalam superb hits with the duet ‘Olanjali kuruvi…’ (with P. Jayachandran) from the film 1983 and a popular ‘Olichupoyi…’ from the film Iniyum Ethra Dooram (both solo and duet with G. Venugopal). And in Tamil, she sang the scintillating ‘Narayana…’ for Ramesh Vinayakam in Ramanujan and Thiruppugazh for A.R. Rahman in Kaaviya Thalaivan .
“When they don’t hear me in films people think that I have quit the scene. I have been dizzyingly busy with live stage shows, other recordings, and television programmes. Thank God my voice, pitch and all are still in intact. For my stage shows I sing the songs in the original scale. And I have always tried to give my best. Every song is important for me. Maybe that’s why I still get to sing some beautiful numbers for some of the talented young composers,” And Vani hums the first few lines of ‘Olanjali…’.
Vani must have sung more than 10,000 songs for over 650 films but there are four films that merit special mention. The first was Apoorva Ragangal . Vani had just wowed listeners with her first Tamil hit, the beautiful ‘Malligaey en manna mayangum…’when she got the very complex ‘Ezhu swarangalkullil….’ in Apoorva Ragangal . This song won for Vani her first National Award for Best Playback Singer.
Sankarabharanam , the iconic Telugu musical that led to the revival of Indian classical music in a big way, saw Vani render five classical gems. The songs hit the country like a storm and won for Vani the National award once again.
Gulzar’s Meera gave Vani the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with Pandit Ravi Shankar. She breathed life into traditional Meera bhajans that went on to fetch her clutch of awards. Many consider Swathi Kiranam (Telugu) as director K. Vishwanath’s best film. The songs, all of them set to classical ragas, stood out through Vani’s soulful rendering.
These songs fetched her, quite befittingly, the third National award.
Vani is special because she can sing in a well-poised, sympathetic voice, without effort, with an ability to relate imagination to her voice and to sing with imagination.
Gems from Malayalam
‘Sourayoodhathil vidarnnoru…’ ( Swapnam )
‘Ente kaiyil poothiri…’ ( Sammanam )
‘Dhoom dhana dhoom dhana…’ ( Thomasleeha )
‘Thiruvonapulari than…’ ( Thiruvonam )
‘Nadan pattile maina…’ ( Ragam )
‘Padmatheertha karayil…’ ( Babumon )
‘Thedi thedi njan alanju…’ ( Sindhu )
‘Aashadamaasam…’ ( Yudhabhoomi )
‘Triprayarappa Sree rama... ( Ormakal Marikkumo )
‘Theyyathom theyathom thalapoli…’ ( Panchami )
‘Nayaka palaka…’ ( Lakshmi Vijayam )
‘Mullamala choodi vanna…’ ( Ayiram Janmangal )
‘Seemantharekhayil…’ ( Ashirvadam )
‘Sapthaswarangal aadum…’ ( Sankhupushpam )
‘Etho janma kalpanayil…’ ( Palangal )