During the launch of the book, “Vasant Desai – Composer Par Excellence”, the singer Vani Jairam said: “He was Bhagwan to me.” The immortal relationship of Vasant Desai and Vani Jairam began with the timeless Marathi song “Runanubhandacha” in 1969, giving Vani a huge entry into the world of Marathi music. Soon, she became a household name in the entire country when Vasant Desai made her sing “Bole Re Papihara” for Guddi . Vani Jairam, who regards him as her mentor and guide, travelled all over Maharashtra teaching Marathi songs to school children. “If there was no Vasant Desai, there would be no Vani Jairam,” Vani had said that evening in a poignant tribute. “He told me to work hard, sing well, earn a lot of money, pay my taxes and sleep well at night.”
Vani’s journey is a fascinating one. She was born in Vellore in Tamil Nadu, and was the fifth among nine children. Her mother Padmavathi was a trained Carnatic classical musician which she taught all her children. Vani, a serious student of Carnatic music, trained under Ranga Ramunaja Iyengar, Cuddalore Srinivasa Iyengar, T.R. Balasubramanian and R.S. Mani. “Radio was a very big part of our childhood. Hindi film songs enchanted me and forever I was tuned to Radio Ceylon to listen to Binaca Geethmala. I have heard all those golden songs innumerable times, so much so that I knew the complete orchestration of each of them,” remembers the singer who was in Bangalore for a concert recently. Vani recalls how while she learnt Carnatic music, she dreamt of being in the Hindi music world, much to her mother’s chagrin. Much later in her life, when she became a star singer, O.P. Nayyar was surprised that she could reel off all the old compositions with interludes! “That was how much I loved these songs. It was indeed the most fortunate thing of my life that I was to be a part of that world.”
After marriage, Vani Jairam moved to Mumbai. Her husband took her to a Hindustani teacher, Ustad Abdul Rahman Khan. After hearing Vani sing he agreed to teach her. “I am not sure if there can be another teacher like him. He used to come to our apartment and classes would begin at 10 a.m. everyday. It would go on till late evening. The lessons were so rigorous that after a few days, he told me to give up my State Bank of India job, and I did.” In the year 1969, Vani was to give her first performance in Mumbai. “My guru had told Vasant Desai about me. He listened to my performance that day and asked me to come over to the studios.” Vasant Desai was recording a Marathi album with Kumar Gandharva and wanted Vani to sing with him. But Kumar Gandharva, being the maestro he was, had till then refused to sing with any other female musician. That day, after listening to Vani, he said: “ Achcha… , Dada recording kab hain ?” What they sang together – “Runanubandacha” – has gone into the list of evergreen Marathi numbers. Wasn’t the young Vani nervous to sing with the mighty Kumar Gandharva? “I was far too innocent for such thoughts. Desai saab asked me to plan a short alaap, and I did. My mind was full of the song, so I rehearsed it well and sang,” she recalls.
In 1971, Vasant Desai composed music for Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Guddi . He made Vani sing three songs in the film, and the success of “Bole Re Papi Hara” was astounding. This gave her a firm footing in the Hindi film industry and she not only sang for all the top composers but also with all the top singers. After this, even South India woke up to Vani’s silken voice and she became one of the most sought after singers across languages. Her faultless pronunciation of a language brought several opportunities to her -- Hindi, Urdu, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malyalam, Bhojpuri, Bengali and Oriya, she sang in all of them. “I am a keen observer of language, and love poetry. That perhaps helps,” she says by way of explanation.
It was also the period of single voice domination in Mumbai filmdom, and going got tough in a couple of years. Luckily for Vani, offers came thick and fast from top notch South Indian composers and soon she shifted base to Chennai. She sang over 8000 songs and in about 14 languages.
In the Kannada film industry too, Vani’s voice and rendering was much admired. G.K. Venkatesh, Rajan Nagendra, and especially Vijayabhaskar, made her sing several songs in their films. “Each of these composers were very special. Vijaybhaskar was a thorough gentleman and gave me plenty of freedom to work on the tune. But Rajan Nagendra insisted that I follow even the minutest detail. G.K. Venkatesh was a fine mind. Observe his compositions and you will realise how much care he took to balance the instruments,” says Vani, going into the details of each of these composers.
With a voice that has stood the test of time, Vani continues to be busy with her music. A picture of grace, Vani Jairam believes that humility and simplicity is the mark of greatness. She recalls all the legendary people she has met in her illustrious career and says nothing has moved her more than modesty and spiritual strength.