Music

Yesudas' broad musical canvas

Karnataka : Bengaluru : 10/04/2016 : Carnatic singer K J Yesudas performing a concert at the 78th Sree Ramanavami National Music festival, by Sree Ramaseba Mandali, at Old Fort High School ground, Chamrajpet, in Bengaluru on Sunday 10 April 2016. Photo : Sudhakara Jain.   | Photo Credit: Sudhakara Jain

Waiting in the long winding queue at the Guruvayur temple isn’t easy on the legs, and when they start to ache, my mind tunes into – ‘Guruvayoor ambala nadayil.’ The song in the voice of K.J. Yesudas holds out the assurance that one will certainly have the darshan of Gopakumara. Ironically, however, Guruvayur is a temple Yesudas is not allowed into, because he is a Christian.

Yesudas’s songs, whether devotional or from films, steal their way into your heart. Compared to his ‘Ayiram padasarangal kilungi,’ even the best acting effort to convey a sense of devastation would seem cumbrous.

What is the magic that made ‘Koondalile nei tadavi’ a beautiful blend of pathos and joy? Divest the song of its setting, and you find that it still has emotional intensity.

‘Annu ninte nunakkuzhi’ is an enchanting, teasing, romantic number that can make any woman imagine that she looks attractive. ‘Aruvimagal alai osai’ in gentle Saranga, where the beauty of Tamil is celebrated through romantic lines, fills one’s heart with a sense of exultation.

What is the common thread that runs through these songs? Beautiful lyrics? Certainly. Appealing music? Definitely. Pleasing voice? Undoubtedly. But there is something that goes beyond all this, and that is bhavam, something Yesudas stresses in the Malayalam song ‘Andolanam,’ which has shades of Kedaragowla. “Niruthi niruthi paadanum. Ennale bhavam varum”, he says. (Sing at a slow pace. Only then you will get the bhavam right.)

However, in Yesudas’s case, whether it is a lullaby sung in hushed tones such as ‘Iravu paadagan oruvan vandaan,’ or a peppy song such as ‘Kanni rasi en rasi,’ he always gets the bhavam right.

Yesudas says that without his father’s encouragement, he could have achieved nothing. “Father was a stage actor, who used to sing classical songs, in anju kattai with alapana and niraval, in Malayalam plays. Generally, in Keralite Christian families, parents insist on a college education for the children. But my father, who had not studied classical music under a guru, wanted me to be a singer, and to learn from a guru, which was what I wanted too.

“Before leaving for a play, father would pray to S.G. Kittappa, who he considered his manasika guru. I was bowled over by Kittappa’s ‘Evarani.’” Does Yesudas have any manasika gurus too? “Yes. Rafi, for instance.”

After initial lessons from his father, Yesudas studied at the Radha Lakshmi Vilasam school of music, in Tripunithura, where Sanskrit was a compulsory subject.

How did his association with Chembai happen? “It was totally unexpected. I attribute it to destiny.” Yesudas’s friend Appu Nair asked Yesudas to give a classical concert at Shanmukhananda Sabha, Bombay. At that time, Yesudas was busy in films, and had not given a classical concert for more than three years. So he was hesitant, and when Appu Nair said that Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar would preside, he became nervous. To put Yesudas at ease, T.V. Goplakrishnan took him to meet Chembai, whose warmth helped Yesudas regain his confidence.

After the Bombay concert, Chembai would often drop in at Yesudas’s house, with prasadam from the Guruvayur temple. Later a joint recital of Chembai and Yesudas followed. Before the concert, Chembai told the audience that they must not ask for film songs, and that towards the end of the concert, Yesudas would oblige them with a few.

Again it was destiny that led to Yesudas learning pallavis. One night, when returning home after a recording, Yesudas found a gentleman reclining on his sofa. “He introduced himself to me as Narasimhacharya, and said, ‘I heard a radio broadcast of your recent Calicut concert. I liked your Thodi very much and I want to teach you pallavis,’” Yesudas was speechless. “Pallavi Narasimhacharya would cycle all the way from Tambaram to Abhiramapuram to teach me, refusing my offer to send a car to pick him up.”

Later, Narasimhacharya moved into Yesudas’s house. Yesudas’s wife Prabha says, “Narasimhacharya would talk to my husband for hours about concerts he had listened to. To me it seemed like a father telling his son stories.” Even when Yesudas moved to the U.S., the old teacher continued to stay in Yesudas’s house. By then Narasimhacharya had lost the capacity to walk, and Yesudas appointed a full time attendant to look after him.

Every year, Yesudas would come down to Cochin for the death anniversary of yet another teacher of his —Kuthiathodu Sivaraman Nair. But one year, for some reason, Yesudas felt uneasy during his annual Cochin visit. Cutting short his stay, he came down to Madras, only to find that Narasimhacharya had just breathed his last. Yesudas sent for Narasimhacharya’s sons, so that they could perform the last rites. The next morning, he went to their house, to have a last look at his dear teacher. The purohit said that Narasimhacharya had wanted Yesudas to be the first to put the last grains of rice in his mouth. “I was moved. We must have had poorva janma bandham (connection in our previous birth).” How have purists received his classical concerts? “I just believe in good music that appeals to people. I brush aside criticism. When I sing ‘Sri Gananatham’ (Kanakangi), some people say it is not Tyagaraja’s kriti. I want to ask, ‘How do we know?’ For that matter, we sing ‘Jnanamosagarada’ in Poorvikalyani, although it is said to have been composed in Shatvidamargani. It took me four years to learn Kanakangi perfectly. I used a Rolan digital piano, to check if I got the swaras right.”

Yesudas says he has some ideas about teaching music that others may not agree with, for example, a student must be taught ‘Jangaradhwani’ to help him grasp the nuances of Bhairavi. On his religious beliefs, Yesudas says, “I believe in God, and don’t think I have either the capacity or the right to restrict him to one name. When I was making my entry into the film industry, people suggested that I change my name. My father said that if my progress depended on that, then, I should shun such progress. My father had a broad outlook where religion was concerned. He too had visited Sabarimala.”

Yesudas says that tears come unbidden when he sings about Krishna, and when he sang a lyric on Moses, penned by a Hindu, with music by Sam Joseph, he was overcome with emotion so much so that the recording had to be rescheduled. “I go to three places to get my batteries recharged — Tiruvaiyaru, Kollur Mookambika temple and St. Joseph’s chapel in Cochin, where my father used to sing sarva samaya kritis, like those of Vedanayakam Pillai. I spend every birthday at the Mookambika temple. I sing at the Tyagaraja aradhana. My granddaughter’s anna prasanam was at Aranmula Krishna temple,” says Yesudas, whose religious beliefs span as broad a canvas as his singing.

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