What made the singer-musician and his compositions special? On his birth centenary on December 4, here’s revisiting Ghantasala’s life and works
Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao, popularly known as Ghantasala, was a singer par excellence and a music composer of eminence. Born on December 4, 1922, he was the eldest son of Rattamma and Soorayya of Choutapalli village (now in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh). Soorayya was the priest at the local Anjaneya temple and was keenly interested in music. He was not only a well-known mridangam player but also a singer and guru of Tarangams. During his performances, young Venkateswara used to dance, earning him the epithet ‘Baala Bharata’. Soorayya, who died when Venkateswara was 11 years old, often advised his son to do Nadopasana. The son followed it earnestly.
As a youngster, Ghantasaala was keen to act on the stage, but his primary interest was in music. Having decided to enrol in the music college at Vijayanagaram, he met violin maestro Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu, who was then principal of the college. As it was summer vacation, Naidu arranged for Ghantasaala’s stay at the college. There, Ghantasaala was wrongly blamed for some petty crime and had to leave the college. He met Patrayani Seetharama Sastry, the vocal music professor who allowed Ghantasaala to stay at his house. He also started to train Ghantasaala in vocal music. Ghantasaala sought meals as madhukaram — obtained by begging at a few houses — with a sling bag, as was the practice those days. (He never forgot the affection of the women who fed him at Vijayanagaram). Later, when it was proved that he was falsely implicated in the crime, he was allowed to join the college where he got his diploma in music in June, 1942.
He returned to Choutapalli and started to act in a few stage plays. Like most Indian youth of the period, he was drawn into the freedom struggle and actively participated in the Quit India movement as he felt that the call of the Motherland was more important than his own life and family. He was incarcerated for six months at the Allipur jail in Bellary where he endeared himself to the other inmates and jail authorities with his music and behaviour.
Ghantasaala continued with his stage plays. His marriage in 1944, with his cousin Savitri, at Pedapulivarru brought him into contact with Samudraala Rraaghavaachaaryulu, the well-known Telugu film writer. On Samudraala’s advice Ghantasaala came to Madras. The rest is history.
In Madras, Ghantasaala took shelter at the Panagal Park in T.Nagar to try his luck in films. Initially, he acted in small roles in films like Chittoor Nagaiah’s Thyagayya. He also got opportunities to sing chorus songs in films. He tried his luck at singing for gramophone records, only to be told that his voice was not suitable for the microphone! He ultimately created records through his gramophone recordings. Back then, the Madras station of All India Radio encouraged him to sing classical music and light music.
The big break came when ace film director B.N.Reddy and his hero- cum- music director Chittoor Naagaiah offered Ghantasaala an opportunity to sing with Bhanumathi for the Telugu film Svargaseema (1945). From then onwards, Ghantasaala established himself as a very successful playback singer. Ghantasaala’s unique style of singing set high standards for the expressive presentation of Telugu verses and lyrics. He remarked once, that to be a successful playback singer, the singer must possess the heart of a poet and the ability to ‘voice-act’ besides having a sound sense of music. He once told singer S.Janaki — in her formative days — “When we are recording a song we should feel that we are alone and those around us do not exist, so that we can give our best to suit the mood and need of the song without any inhibitions”.
He became the singing voice of the top Telugu cinema heroes and in Tamil and Kannada tooPathala Bhairavi, Malleeswari, Mayabazar, Devadas, Jayabheri, Mahakavi Kalidas, Jagadekaveeruni Katha, Sri Krishnarjuna Yuddham, Mooga Manasulu, Gundamma Katha, Sri Krishnaavathaaram and Nirdoshi were among the many films for which Ghantasaala rendered evergreen songs. He was the preferre choice for songs like ‘ ‘Bharatha naattukkupperumai alitthidum’ (in the 1955 Tamil movie Kanavane Kann Kanda Deivam 1955).
Ghantasaala’s private songs have acquired classical status. His songs on Sri Venkateswara, his rendering of ‘Pushpa vilapam’ and almost all of his gramophone records continue to attract music lovers. His rendering of the Bhagavad Gita with meaning, released posthumously is still synonymous with his name.
Ghantasaala’s sojourn as an independent film music director started in 1949 and he continued to compose music for films till his demise. His compositions for films like Pathala Bhairavi, Chiranjeevulu, Mayabazar,Gundamma Katha, Lavakusa, Pandava Vanavasam, Rahasyam and others are evergreen. The ‘Girija kalyanam’ yakshagaanam piece from Rahasyam’ is an example of his infinite variety. He once said that he was greatly influenced by saint composer Thyagaraja giving utmost importance to the mood and content of every lyric he was composing music for.
He produced three films Paropakaaram (1953), Sontha Ooru (1956) and Bhaktha Raghunath (1956) which failed at the box-office and led him into a debt trap
Humble to the core
Ghantasaala led a very simple life. He would wear a dhoti with a kurta or a shirt and got his first trousers and coat stitched for an overseas tour. While trying them on, he mistook the back side to be the front one and worried that the pants had no buttons!
While singing, he used to cover his right ear with his hand. He would quip that he had no hearing difficulty and the act gives him an assessment of his voice and its reach. Once when he had a problem with his ears, he refused to record songs saying that he has to satisfy himself about the quality of his voice. He resumed singing only after he was satisfied with his ear functioning!
In his free time, he would relax at the Marina beach with his family . He wanted to train his children in music and start the ‘Ghantasaala orchestra’ with them. One very emotional experience for the family was when he recorded his compositions on Sri Satya Sai Baba, with his two sons and three daughters in the chorus. . He had his eldest son Vijayakumar trained in vocal music and piano and was happy when he recorded Vijayakumar’s maiden song composition.
Fondly addressed as ‘Ghantasaala mashtaaru, the legend had a friendly attitude and tookspecial care of his co-singers when they came to sing his compositions. When he wanted to record a song with S.P.Balasubrahmanyam, he went to the house of a music director to get SPB’s address.
His advice for young aspirants: be humble and try to be original rather than imitating established seniors. Also have a sound academic base along with artistic pursuits.
Recognition and legacy
He was honoured with ‘Padma Sri’ in 1970. He undertook his only overseas musical tour in 1971 visiting the then West Germany, United Kingdom, USA and Canada. Once, he was running a fever and was gasping before a concert. Yet when he sat on the stage and started singing, he sounded quite normal and at his best. Once the concert got over, he started gasping again!
He had frequent health issues. It was his trust in medicines given by a quack, that resulted in his untimely demise on February 11, 1974 when he was just 52. His successor in film music, S.P.Balasubrahmanyam got a statue of Ghantasaala erected at Hyderabad in 1993, to be followed by over 40 statues set up by Ghantasaala’s fans across the Telugu states. No other singer seems to enjoy such veneration.
Many aspiring singers adopted Ghantasaala’s style of singing, some even imitating his mannerisms while singing. Biopics on the legend have also been attempted. Now, 48 years after his demise, Ghantasaala continues to live through his music.
The writer is the author of Mana Ghantasala, a biography of the legend in Telugu.
To pay tributes to the music icon, Kala Pradarshini, the dance school of senior Bharatanatyam dancer Parvati Ravi Ghantasala, organises an array of special programmes including the presentation of Kala Paradarshini Ghantasala Puraskar to artistes from the field of performing arts each year. This time, being his Centenary year, a special line-up will be presented on December 4, at The Music Academy, from 4 p.m. M. Venkaiah Naidu, former Vice President of India, and G. Kishan Reddy, Minister of Culture, Tourism and DoNer, Government of India, will be the chief guests. P.K. Sekar Babu, Minister of Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Government of Tamil Nadu, Mano Thangaraj, Minister of Information Technology and Digital Services, Government of Tamil Nadu, and Sandhya Purecha, chairperson, Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi, will be the guests of honour.
Organised by Parvati Ravi Ghantasala, the evening begins with Padmanabhan’s nagaswaram (4 p.m.). A special Acapella featuring 100 students, trained by Sudha Raja’s Sargam Choir at 4.30 p.m. will be followed by a dance tribute by 100 artistes from different classical dance forms (5 p.m.). The evening also includes the presentation of the Puraskar awards to seven artistes including Sudha Rani Raghupathy, L.R. Easwari, A. Kanyakumari, and Thota Tharani; and the global launch of the Bhagavad Gita through Natya series at 7.45 p.m.