Book Chat: On the Most Famous Malayali in the World

Biju Parameswaran, a much traveled literary and movie enthusiast writes:

There can only be one answer to the question ‘Who is the most well-known Malayali in the world?’ and that is Kattaserri Joseph  Yesudas.  Born in Fort Kochi in 1940 to singer Augustine Joseph and Alicekutty,  Yesudas, who is Dasettan to millions of Malayalis, has been singing in films for fifty years now, a longevity paralleled only by two of the Mangeskhar sisters of Mumbai.  He is a phenomenon that takes in both classical and light singing and in all Indian languages save Assamese, Kashmiri & Konkani in addition to international languages like English, Arabic & Latin. Mahakavi G. Shankara Kurup was the first to call him “Gaana Gandharvan” (Celestial Singer). Reams of articles have been written about this much decorated artist (apart from the Padma Bhushan and honorary doctorates, he has bagged countless state, national and filmfare awards for playback singing) but not many books.  The journalist Suresh Menon had written a typically delightful essay on the singer which is included in Anita Nair’s anthology of writings on Kerala, Where the Rain Is Born.  The book under review, Athisayaragam comes from an authority on Indian cinema music, a true movie music historian, Ravi Menon. His earlier works include Soja Rajakumari, Engane Naam Marrakkum, Meri Awaz Suno, Hridaya Geethangal, Mozhikallil Sangeethamaay and Nakshatra Deepangal. As he writes in the introduction, Yesudas to Malayalis is a habit, just like brushing teeth and changing clothes in the morning, a habit that is never to be plucked away from life.

The book is not a chronological trace of the genius from birth to now but rather an examination of the evolution of the man in association with his musical sojourners. The barely 200 page book is embellished with a delectable spread of 30 pages of photographs. The icing on the cake is a listing of all of Dasettan’s songs based on category (love, grief, nature, description, humor, philosophy, classical/ semi-classical, devotional, chant and poetic).  In the first ever Kerala State School Youth Festival in 1958, Yesudas emerged winner in classical song. The prize for percussion instrument was bagged by a mridangam playing kid who went on to become the number two of Malayalam singing – Paliath Jayachandran! A photo of the two in concert in the said event is included. Another marvel is Dasettan’s discovery of the talent of a frock-wearing nine year old kid called Sujatha. She rose to prominence as a playback singer and is still going steady even as her own daughter Sweta has matured as a singer herself. Sujatha and Yesudas appeared together in 2000 stages, a record. Yesudas appeared in a few movies including considerable parts like the suruma seller in Kayamkulam Kochunni. His first recorded song was “Jaathi Bhedam Matha Dvesham” in KaalpadukalSree Narayana Guru’s lines were set to music by M.B. Sreenivasan. Recently, while appearing as the chief guest in the grand finale of the popular contest Star Singer on Asianet TV channel, he was seen singing it with the same passion as would a new entrant to the field of music. His dedication to his art is legendary, as also the professionalism. He once refused to sing a song that was first recorded by Jayachandran and then taken off him and offered to Das.

Yesudas is married to Prabha and they have three sons Vinod, Vijay (a popular singer today) and Vishal.  He founded the recording studio Tharangini in Vellayambalam, Thiruvananthapuram. The city which he enriched with countless concerts, is close to his heart as seen by his championing the cause of Vizhinjam port in recent years.

He has two brothers Moni & Justin and a sister Jayamma. Some of our greatest composers like Devarajan, Dakshinamurthy, Baburaj, Arjunan, MSV, MBS, Raghavan, Salil Chowdhury & Ravindran have exploited the seemingly flawless and infinite talent of this singer to create sparkling gems out of lyrics penned by frontline poets like Vayalar, ONV, P. Bhaskaran, Yusufali Kechery & Sreekumaran Thampi. The seventies saw Yesudas rising in popularity in Hindi thanks to a string of hits for movies by masters like Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. The blind composer Ravindra Jain gave him his Jab Deep Jale Aanamasterpiece in Chitchor. Who can forget Kannai Kalaimanein the Tamizh Moondram Pirai for Illayaraja? It is futile to try extolling the greatness of those immortal songs. The book is a welcome addition to the corpus of literature on Indian cinema (more than classical concerts it is the playback singing for which the commoner Malayali will remember Dasettan).

This is a treasure trove of trivia too.

Some of the popular Yesudas hits are from movies that never saw the light of the day. IAS man K Jayakumar’s  maiden creation ‘Kudajadriyil Kudikollum Maheswariis from Neelakadamb which got shelved.  Others include ‘Padarenu Thedi Alanju’, ‘Swapnangallokkeyum Pankuveykaam’ and ‘Hridayam Devalayam’.

Nellikode Bhaskaran was the actor who had the unique privilege of giving life on screen to the first songs of both Yesudas and Jayachandran (for the latter in Kunjali Marackar, 1965).

Yesudas sang two songs for an Adoor Gopalakrishnan film (!) that never came out. This was in the 60’s and prior to Swayamavaram. This information is courtesy Prabha Yesudas, not a bad singer herself.

Evergreen hits like Devi Nin Chiriyil’, ‘Ila Kozhiyum Sisirathil’, ‘Ella Dukhavum Enikk Tharoo’ and ‘Ninne Punaraan Neettiya Kaikalil’ were written by obscure writers some of them one-film wonders and who died unsung and in penury. Who has heard of Vellanad Narayanan and Kunjumoitheen Kutty?

Dasettan himself composed the music for numbers like ‘Rasoole Nin Kanavaale’ (film Sanchari).

His directorial attempt never came to fruition and the leading girl of that aborted venture was one who later came to be ‘discovered’ by Balachandra Menon, a dusky beauty name of Karthika.

While Yesudas sang for many people including himself, only one singer had the credit of singing for Yesudas and this was Dr. Balamuralikrishna for Anarkali where he played Tansen.

Two regulars of earlier Yesudas orchestras were Paul who played the thabala and harmonist Jose. They are respectively the father & uncle of today’s director/actor/producer Lal.

Any discussion on Yesudas is not complete without a mention of Ayyappan, the Hindu deity he has immensely worshipped in song and otherwise. Harivarasanam’ is perhaps the most famous of the songs to the lord of Sabarimala. It appeared in Swami Ayyappan in 1975.

Many people consider themselves lucky to be living in the same period as this legend. Last year he released a book called “My Life and Thoughts”. While welcoming this present memoir of Ravi Menon’s, we look forward to bigger and meatier biographies on the great Dasettan.

Biju Parameswaran  (bijupost@yahoo.com)

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