If S. Ramesan Nair had been less ambitious, devotional music in Malayalam would have been a little less rich. It was Ramesan’s ambition to become a lyricist – he did, a rather successful one at that – that made P.K. Kesavan Namboothiri a composer of unmatched devotional songs. Kesavan Namboothiri died at a private hospital in Thrissur at the age of 84, leaving behind some of Malayalam’s finest and most popular devotional songs.
Temples across Kerala have been playing his songs, like Vadakkumnathanu suprabhatham…, Vighneswara janma nalikeram, Ambadi thannilorunni, Mookambike…, Neelamegham… and Koodum pinikale… for the last four decades. This correspondent could remember listening to those songs, in P. Jayachandran’s voice, wafting through the air from the public address system of the temple at a village in Kozhikode district called Thiruvallur, as one got off at the bus-stop near the temple pond in the evenings and walked towards the ancestral home.
Debut album in 1981
Those songs are from his debut album, Pushpanjali, released in 1981. No devotional album has created as much frenzy or impacted as many people, among whom were actor Sivaji Ganesan and author Lalithambika Antharjanam.
His next album was Vanamala, which contained an exquisitely crafted and soulful devotional song – Guruvayurappante pavizhadharam muthum... It would not be fair to reduce it to a devotional song, though. It is a masterpiece in light music, that could boast perfection in lyrics, tune and rendering, right from the soothing opening notes on flute. It was sung by K.J. Yesudas, who had insisted on Kesavan Namboothiri doing an album for Tharangini, the singer’s own music label.
When one interviewed Kesavan Namboothiri for The Hindu several years ago, he had spoken about how hard Yesudas worked on the song to make it perfect. That song, as well as other songs in the album such as Anda Kadahangal Kayampookkal, Guruvayoororu Mathura and Guruvayurekadasi, were all written by Ramesan Nair, who was his colleague at the Thrissur AIR station.
“He desperately wanted to be a lyricist and had been requesting me for years to make Jayachandran, a close friend of mine, to sing songs written by him,” Kesavan Namboothiri had said. “I finally relented.” And Malayalam devotional music became more melodious.
But hardly anyone knew the man who composed those incredibly popular songs. Even in this era of countless channels on social media, Kesavan Namboothiri largely remained unsung.