With malice towards none

On Song: K.P. Udayabhanu’s life continues to be in tune with music.

On Song: K.P. Udayabhanu’s life continues to be in tune with music.  


Achievement Veteran playback singer and music director K.P. Udayabhanu has been honoured with the Padma Shri.

Malayalam film music entered a new phase in the Sixties. This was the time when Malayalam music broke free of the shackles of borrowed tunes, establishing an identity of its own.

K.P. Udayabhanu, with his heavy, haunting voice dominated this era. He continued to reign supreme till he made way for younger voices. Unlike most singers who glow in the limelight for a while and then simply fade away Udayabhanu’s tryst with music continues to this day. He still continues to sing and compose. He started a foundation to train, propagate music, organise choral groups and shows. The Padma Shri is recognition for a lifetime dedicated to music.

“I’m really happy. Along with my career as playback singer and music director, I also did a lot for national integration by popularising patriotic songs. This might have been one reason for this recognition,” feels Udayabhanu.

A self-made musician, Udayabhanu’s career was not a bed of roses. Initiated into classical music by one of his uncles, Udayabhanu’s only formal training was at the Tyagaraja Sangeeta Vidyalaya and a couple of years of rather informal study with the maverick genius M.D. Ramanathan.

“MDR was my brother-in-law’s (Chandrabhanu Varma) classmate at Victoria College, Palakkad. They were very good friends too. When MDR joined Kalakshetra, I used to frequent his place, learning from him. It was a unique experience, for his music and his style were so different from what one usually comes across.”

When Udayabhanu applied for a national scholarship he needed someone to recommend his name. “I went to MDR and asked him if I could use his name. He told me bluntly that it would be better if I did not do so as the expert panel would not approve of someone who was his student. And quite rightly so… I did not get through the interview. The candidate who got it was recommended by Semmangudi,” recalls Udayabhanu.

This association with MDR ended when Udayabhanu joined All India Radio. “Looking back I feel that was a huge setback. The little time I spent with the maestro did so much good to my music. My life, my career would have taken a different route if it had been possible to pursue this training. But then that’s what life is all about.”

He was not content to stick to the routine, run-of-the-mill work. During one of his breaks in his contract service with AIR, he took up the job of a music teacher in Lawerence School, Ooty. “I joined the school hoping to do something new. But I quit after a year. All this time I nursed dreams of singing and composing in films.”

Entry into films

Udayabhanu’s association with AIR paved the way for his entry into films. Music director K. Raghavan, his colleague there, offered him a chance to sing in the 1958 film ‘Nair Pidicha Pulival.’ “Raghavan Master was solely responsible for that chance. He had the guts to experiment with a new voice. More than that, when the producer insisted on having A.M. Raja to sing the songs, Raghavan Master threatened to quit the project if I was not given the songs promised. Not all music directors had this courage as it would have surely affected their own careers.”

M.S. Baburaj, for instance, buckled under the pressure of the producer after he had rehearsed two songs with Udayabhanu and even travelled together to Chennai for the recording. “Babu was a good friend. He wanted me to sing two songs for the film ‘Umma.’ When we reached Madras [Chennai] and got ready for the recording, Kunchacko, producer of the film, told us that A. M. Raja had already been promised those songs. Babu could not do anything. I ended up teaching the songs to Raja,” reveals Udayabhanu.

Baburaj made amends by making Udayabhanu sing five songs in his film ‘Laila Majnu,’ which rocketed the singer to fame. He went on to dominate Malayalam film music till the late 60s before quietly slipping into other creative pursuits. He sang in one Tamil film ‘Manithan Maaravillai,’ which did not do well. But the song ‘Kanmaniye un idaya veenayin…’ went to become a big hit.

Udayabhanu’s contribution extends beyond playback singing. He has composed and directed numerous musicals for AIR, albums and a few films. He made his film debut with the memorable ‘Kilichilachu…’ from the film ‘Samasya’ and went on to compose music for three other films, the songs of which were noted but the films never got out of the cans. He won the National Award for Music for Santosh Sivan’s documentaries ‘Myth of the Tree’ and ‘Serpent Mother, forged a combination of 150 drums for a programme called ‘Drums of India,’ which was performed at the Republic Day parade in 1986, represented the country at the Asia-Pacific music contest in Singapore, organised choral groups and composed numerous patriotic songs.

Perhaps Udayabhanu’s signal contribution has been organising the music group called ‘Old is Gold.’ He got together singers of yore, most of them long forgotten, and forged them into one of the leading music groups. Knowing Udayabhanu, he is sure to keep all his musical dreams alive. The K. P. Udayabhanu Foundation that has begun functioning is the latest in a long list of his activities. Udayabhanu sings not just with his voice, but with all his moral convictions, with his life.

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