Vani Jayaram: A Voice For Poignancy And, Yes, Passion

Vani Jayaram: A Voice For Poignancy And, Yes, Passion

by K Balakumar - Feb 5, 2023 10:13 AM +05:30 IST
Vani Jayaram: A Voice For Poignancy And, Yes, PassionVani Jayaram
  • Vani Jayaram has passed away just a few days after the Padma Bhushan was announced for her.

    But to take a metaphorical bow after hitting a high note is the signature of all good singers.

It is morbidly uncanny that within 48 hours of director K Viswanath passing away, singer Vani Jayaram, who got two National awards through the director's movies (Sankarbharanam and Swathi Kiranam in Telugu), has died. As it happens, Vani Jayaram's other high points in her stellar film singing career came in the films of K Balachander and Hrishikesh Mukherjee, whom we had spookily mentioned in our obit piece of Viswanath.

Her first ever National award came for the now iconic numbers Ezhu Swarangalukkul and Kelviyin Nayangane in that memorable Tamil movie Apoorva Ragangal directed by K Balachander. Of course, she arrived into film singing with a major splash through the sensational songs of the Hindi film Guddi which was helmed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

Of course, Vani and morbid co-occurrence doesn't stop there. Vani recorded her first ever song in films (for Guddi) at a studio in Mumbai on 22 December, 1970 under the baton of the legendary music director Vasant Desai. And the great man passed away on the very same December 22 five years later.

But make no mistake about it, there was nothing coincidental about Vani Jayaram. For, Vani, born into a traditional musical family in Tamil Nadu, took to it with ease and poise.

It is said that she could identify most of the Carnatic ragas even when she was just three. And by the time she reached her teens, Vani was already giving full-fledged Carnatic concerts. But she couldn't make it big as a Carnatic classical singer. It was not because she did not have the requisite talent or skill, it was perhaps due to the texture of her voice.

Patiala gharana and sensual style

"It was cloyingly sweet and did not have the musical ghatram for Carnatic rendition," was what one old-time critic told me long ago. Now, ghatram could be loosely translated as (heavy) body. Of course, this is open to debate, but Vani's strong classical training and her ability to travel through difficult musical phrases with rare felicity meant she was also going to make a mark in film singing which called for all the flair of classical singing without the need to be heavy.

In fact, the natural lilt in her voice was what made Vasant Desai pick her for Guddi which was about a school girl's obsession for an actor (Dharmendra). The three songs she debuted with in that film --- Hari Bin Kaise Jeeun, Humko Man Ki Shakti Dena and Bole Re Papihara to this day remain fresh and popular.

But by this time, Vani had also fortified her talent by taking up Hindustani classical music training under Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan in Mumbai where she had moved post her wedding in the 1960s.

Now, the Ustad belonged to the Patiala gharana that demands a delicate and sensual style, clear diction and smart ghamakams from its adherents. These lessons learnt quite early stood in good stead Vani all through her film career where her songs will always be remembered for her pitch precision, adroit musical phrases and clarity in enunciation.

But despite the early and extraordinary break in Hindi films, Vani could not make much headway in Bollywood. There are many fevered stories still doing the rounds about how she was prevented by the established cabal (read: Mangeshkar sisters) from gaining a major foothold in the Hindi film industry. But truth be told, these are just urban canards with not much basis. (In any case, she would come back in Hindi in the early 80s to prove a point through that music tour de force Meera under the baton of the legend Pandit Ravishankar for 12 spectacular songs).  

Vani at home in South

But with new directors in the south looking for fresh and young voices, Vani’s voice was always going to find favour among the music directors there.

Biggies in the South in the first half of the 70s K V Mahadevan, M S Viswanathan, Vijaya Bhaskar, G K Venkatesh, Dakshinamoorthy, Devarajan, and many more instantly found in Vani a singer who could deliver in typical dulcet tone their various tunes. Many of them fitted on a classical raga helped Vani to quickly establish herself in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada.

See for instance this Kannada song, Bhaavavemba Hoovu Arali in the film Upasane. Set to tune by Vijay Bhaskar, you can see how Vani effortlessly moves across the Hindolam ragam notes.

Also, quite early, Vani also became the go-to singer for stage songs (songs where the heroine is singing on a stage in the film) and function songs. Beyond the most popular ones like Ezhu Swarangalukul, Kelviyin Nayagane and Vanakkam Pala Murai, listen to this Malayalam number, Sourayoodhathil Vidarnnoru. This beauty from Salil Chowdhary was Vani’s first song in Malayalam. But look at the self-assurance in delivery even as her voice glides softly across the sweet Malayalam lines. 

This Telugu song Poojalu Cheya Poolu Techanu for the music directors Rajan-Nagendra for the film Pooja also showed that Vani could hold her own against her remarkable contemporaries S Janaki and P Susheela. For, this Telugu number is a reprise of the Kannada original by the same music directors. But it was sung by Janaki. Now, which of the renditions you prefer may hinge on your own musical likings and sensibilities, but the fact is Vani could match her highly rated rival note-to-note.

And if need be, Vani could also deliver classicism in typical filmi fervour. 

This solid Sriranjani (Natham Enum Kovilile) in Manmadha Leelai is a typical case in point.   

Through the first half of the 70s Vani’s songs were heard across all the four southern Indian film industries, and she was indeed a name to reckon with. But alongside there was some criticism that there was sameness to her singing and that she lacked the remarkable range of Susheela or the peerless expressive singing of Janaki. It is a charge that is not totally devoid of merit, and Vani, despite her diligence and earnestness, could not shrug this off till the end.

Vani’s voice and Raaja’s genius

But the arrival of Ilaiyaraaja as a genius musical force in the second half of the 70s helped Vani to find what I call her niche — the song in which the heroine is pining for her man in love, loneliness, and in some rare times in lust.

On the face of it, this is not the kind of song that you will readily associate with Vani at all. But Ilaiyaraaja had the remarkable musical insight to fit her singing into that unexpected mould.

One of her earliest songs for him in the film Azhage Unnai Aarathikkiren truly showcased her ability to convey longing pathos through her voice. This singing mien is, in a sense, the quintessence of Vani.

The song Naane Naane Naana now belongs to the pantheon of best. But listen to the lines ‘piraiyil valarvadhum piragu theivadhum orae nilavu uravil kalappadhum pirivil thavippadhum orae manadhu’; the natural wistfulness in her voice fits the mood of the song so elegantly.

Or give your ears to this not so well-known song from Doorathu Pachai (Vizhiye Sugama) and hear how Vani’s slim-texture voice fits the mood of a (temporary) breakup between lovers.

Or in a standard love duet where the mood of impending loneliness and longing has to be hinted, Ilaiyaraaja brilliantly fused her voice -  Ore Naal Unai in Ilamai Oonjal Aadukirathu (This song’s tune is a copybook on how to make song that fits the tone and tenor of the film). Ilaiyaraaja even had the quirky idea to try her voice in the sensual Aayiram Thamarai Mottukale’s Telugu version.

Ilaiyaraaja used her voice for the single heroine’s myriad feelings in a variety of films. Slightly upbeat (Indraikku Yen Indha Anandame), aggressive and animated (Kavithai Kelungal), a seduction attempt but with a classical touch (Manmadha Ragangale). 

But the one song in the genre that has to be among the best ever delivered by Vani has to be Ennunil Edho Ragam. If you close your eyes and conjure up Vani’s voice, it will most likely be in the way she sounds in this song. Soft and sweet, and where even the hint of passion comes with a patina of poignancy.

The skill of Ilaiyaraaja is such that he used the same singer for a similar-sounding raga (Dharmavathi/Madhuvanthi) in an altogether different way to whip up an almost opposite mood (Andela Ravali). So it also proves that with a talented music director Vani could be pushed beyond the constraints of her voice and its modulation. (By the way, even when A R Rahman used her voice, he went for the Ilaiyaraaja style book (Edhu Sugam Sugam)) .

In all, she is believed to have sung anywhere between 7,000 to 10,000 songs (these things are difficult to ascertain for a career that lasted so long). You can find exhaustive playlists across the internet on Vani Jayaram, and listening to them you will understand that she was indeed one of the best who managed to hold her own against many remarkable talents.

It is a tad sad that she has passed away just a few days after the Padma Bhushan was announced for her. But to take a metaphorical bow after hitting a high note is the signature of all good singers.

Vani managed to retain the singer’s timing even in her death.

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