Article Hindi Malayalam

KJ Yesudas, the singer with the golden voice – Birthday special

Yesudas, who turned 78 on 10 January, may have done limited work in Hindi cinema, but that was enough to win him legions of fans.

R Mahadevan

Kattassery Joseph Yesudas is the last word in film music as far as his home state of Kerala is concerned. That is hardly surprising, considering that Yesudas has defined and redefined Malayalam film, devotional and light music for over half a century.

The singer, who turned 78 today (10 January), is still going strong; in fact, he seems to have overcome a period of relative weakness, the natural effects of age.

Yesudas's work in Malayalam is so broad in its sweep and range, and of such consistent quality over decades, that he appears almost godlike. Hence also the self-explanatory appellation ‘Gaana Gandharvan’. Even today, there are those who would rather have Yesudas at half-throttle than anybody else at the top of their form!

Yesudas had had nearly two decades in South Indian films before he came to Hindi cinema in the mid-1970s. It matters little what his first song was and what he has sung over the years; the top-of-the-mind recall continues to be 'Gori Tera Gaon' from Chitchor (1976), though his earlier song in Chhoti Si Baat (1975) remains memorable.

It is quite remarkable that 'Gori Tera Gaon' has continued to be a favourite for nearly four decades. It is also remarkable that Yesudas has stayed in the popular imagination this long on the back of hardly a handful of recallable songs in Hindi.

It is Yesudas’s golden voice which is what captivates people immediately. This tends to often make people miss the other aspects of his musicianship that contribute to making him a living great — the finely honed aesthetics of his singing, his perfect pitch, and his ability to handle notes and modulations in the best manner.

Yesudas’s overall expertise in getting a song right in its various respects also makes people overlook the one part of his singing that could be pointed out as relatively undesirable — his intonation of languages other than Malayalam. But again, his firm control of aesthetics, and particularly his ability and willingness to stay within the creative confines of the music director, give his songs a wholesomeness and fit-to-context that makes language and intonation tertiary issues.

Though 'Gori Tera Gaon' remains his most iconic song in Hindi, Yesudas's best film was, probably, Sawan Ko Aane Do (1979), in which he sang all the songs except the title song. Even today, the tunes, the lyrics and Yesudas’s voice seem to come together so well that it is difficult to imagine another voice in his stead. His 'Chand Jaise Mukhde Pe' and 'Teri Tasveer' are romantic expressions of different kinds but totally apt in their final result.

Another song that remains a favourite is 'Kaa Karoon Sajani' from Swami (1977) with its sighing moments. Or take 'Kahaan Se Aaye Badara' (with Haimanti Shukla) from Chashme Buddoor (1981), a song of delicate feelings sensitively presented.

There is also 'Surmayi Ankhiyon Mein' from Sadma (1983), which remains a perennial favourite. Of course, in the case of this song, people who also know the original movie and its songs in Tamil are likely to prefer the Tamil version.

Bappi Lahiri has talked of Yesudas’s ability to perfectly portray the feelings in the song as the music director visualized it. Incidentally, Lahiri, known more for the cheesiness in his music and his upbeat tunes, had Yesudas sing one of his most beautiful and evocative melodies, 'Dheere Dheere Subah Hui', from the film Haisiyat (1984).

It was Ravindra Jain who used Yesudas the most and also exploited his melodic range the best. It is perfectly understandable if indeed, as the story goes, the visually impaired composer, who must have imagined Yesudas through his voice, wanted the singer to be the first person he saw if he happened to regain his sight.

But it wasn’t as if Yesudas was restricted to his patented melodies in Hindi films. There has been a good percentage of peppy numbers, most memorably 'Jaaneman Jaaneman' with Asha Bhosle for Chhoti Si Baat (1975).

Yesudas was active in Hindi films during the time of a crop of new singers such as Sulakshana Pandit and resurgent veterans like Suman Kalyanpur, with both of whom he has sung duets.

Interestingly, Yesudas’s career in Hindi movies is littered with unreleased recordings and unreleased films. The song that Yesudas recorded first in Hindi, for the movie Jai Jawan Jai Kisan (1971), was never released. Nor was arguably the grandest of his film songs in any language. In fact, the movie itself, Tansen, wasn’t released.

The song, 'Shadaj Ne Paaya', is a magnum opus in its conception, running for over 13 minutes and involving modulation on the major scale (raga Bilawal) through all the notes, producing different ragas as the base note shifts through the octave. Yesudas apparently insisted on singing it in one go, and the complexity of the song meant dozens of takes spread over four days.

If an Amol Palekar movie provided Yesudas’s first big hit in Hindi, another Amol Palekar movie, Daayaraa (1996), provided the Yesudas voice of the 1990s. And it is fitting that this movie was Yesudas’s last bit of memorable presence in Hindi cinema.

Nostalgia is probably baked into the Indian psyche. Though Yesudas hasn’t done any work of import in Hindi films in the past couple of decades, people treasure their meagre recordings from the 1970s and 1980s, and continue to intermittently sigh that he has not been used to anywhere near best effect in Hindi. Vast numbers would agree with them, to say nothing of a certain Bappi Lahiri.

R Mahadevan is a journalist and music aficionado. He was with WorldSpace Satellite Radio and now runs the online music service RadioWeb (