K J Yesudas: A Pan-Indian Phenomenon Much Before The Usage Was Coined

K Balakumar

Jan 10, 2024, 12:05 PM | Updated Jan 11, 2024, 03:14 PM IST

Padma Vibhushan awardee K J Yesudas
Padma Vibhushan awardee K J Yesudas
  • The legendary singer completes 84 years, of which 60 have been in films and concerts.
  • Back in the 1980s, the Carnatic music doyen, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, was on a plane that was waiting to take off to Madras. But the flight was being delayed.

    An Indian Airline service missing its scheduled departure time was not exactly new then. But the thing is the flight was delayed because one passenger had still not boarded it. There were a couple of politicians and, of course, the veteran singer was already inside the plane.

    So who was the person for whom Indian Airlines held up its operations? Well, it turned out to be the singer K J Yesudas.

    As it happened, the government-owned air service waited not because Yesudas was a well-known singer. In that year, he was apparently the one who had taken the most number of flights in the country. Yesudas, in that period, was practically singing in every Indian language that had a half-decent film industry.   

    Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who had tutored Yesudas briefly in the 60s, was happy to see that his protege had grown to such a stature that national flight operations were being rescheduled for his sake. 

    The news itself may not have come out in the open if the venerable Semmangudi mama had not spoken about it at one of the Sabhas where he had been called to speak.

    The singer was genuinely happy to see his disciple being so popular and in high demand. That kind of prolificity is impossible to even think of these days. 

    Indeed, the 80s were the peak of Yesudas' long career which began in the very late 50s. He started off in Kerala's famed gana mela circuit (light music troupe) before getting a small break in 1961 under the baton of that proficient M B Sreenivasan. Nobody would have then known that he would go on to smash every possible statistical record in Indian film music history.

    It is not clear as to how many songs he has sung in his stellar career. The numbers being bandied about are anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000. But nothing less than 40,000 is what most people agree, which in itself is a remarkable number. 

    The sweep and spread of Yesudas's career is astounding. He has sung in Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Tulu, Hindi, Odia, Gujarathi, Bengali, Marathi and also Arabic, English, Latin, and Russian. The man has won the National Award for best male playback singer an improbable eight times.

    The man, who was conferred the Padma Shri in 1975, the Padma Bhushan in 2002, and the Padma Vibhushan in 2017, has also won various state awards for the best singer a record 43 times. 

    And there have been many days in his storied career that he recorded four to five film songs at studios and turned up at sabhas the same evening for his classical Carnatic music concert. And no singer in the history of Indian films has dominated one language as Yesudas did Malayalam, in the 70s and the 80s.

    There were practically no films without featuring at least one song of his in that period in Malayalam. He was probably the only singer whose name was a drawing card for films in that era.

    Just consider this. The film Panneer Pushpangal (1981), which was a huge success in Tamil, was dubbed both in Telugu and Malayalam as Madhura Geetham and Panineer Pookkal.

    The songs of the original were a rage and they were also dubbed, and, as it happened, the Simmendramadhyamam raga based beauty Ananda Ragamamong Ilaiyaraaja's iconic works — had P Susheela singing in the Telugu version (In Tamil, it was the unheralded Uma Ramanan). But in Malayalam, they actually went the whole hog and made it a male song, with Yesudas crooning the melodic Tharunya Moham.

    A Singer Suffused In Bhakti

    A male singer reprising a female singer's song in a dubbed movie is practically unheard of. But it shows how much Yesudas was popular in that period in Malayalam and how his songs were the USPs of many movies.

    Of course, there's nothing new to be said of his voice or singing, especially from that vintage. All that can be said or written about his 'celestial voice' has already been done. And his bhakthi-bhava is the touchstone in devotional singing. When he breaks a Rama or Krishna song, you can practically feel the divinity in his rendition.

    Of course, he is 'the voice' of Ayyappan songs. His Harivarasanam enjoys as much cult status as M S Subbulakshmi's suprabhatam. That he, a Christian by birth, could elevate the spiritual emotion of song of any faith shows his own inner conviction and devotion that lie beyond the pale of religions. 

    As said, these are well-known pieces of info from his long and illustrious career.

    But what is often overlooked is the fact that Yesudas helped spawn the genre of semi-classical singing, where film music and Carnatic concerts borrowed from each other seamlessly. No other singer in the history of Indian music has enjoyed being at the top of classical singing, as well as film music as Yesudas had. 

    In fact, a case can surely be made that Carnatic music, which did not enjoy that much mainstream popularity then, as it does now, managed to hold sway among the general public due to the presence of Yesudas, who ruled both the worlds convincingly and seamlessly.

    Anecdotally, I can speak for myself and some of my close friends. In our early impressionable age, we did not have too much liking for Carnatic music. Its appeal and beauty was lost on us as we could not wrap our heads around its esoteric traditions and mostly gruff singing.

    But the dulcet-voiced Yesudas made us persist with Carnatic music, and in the fullness of time, we began to understand and appreciate the riches of Carnatic music.

    When we heard a Karaharapriya of this sort, we understood its majesty and magic. Those swarams were bullets from a machine gun, full of power and potency. And this remarkable Thirupugazh collection made us understand what bhakti sangeetham was all about.

    Like this, Yesudas opened doors of many riches for us. In that sense, we owe a debt of gratitude to this peerless singer. 

    With Yesudas Evolved The Semi-Classical Genre

    Carnatic music puritans did not think or accept him as a full-fledged classical performer. They were of the opinion that Yesudas brought in a cine music aesthetic to the classical stage and that diluted its essential purity.

    It is a charge that is not exactly without basis. He regularly sang some of his popular numbers from films like Athisaya RagamChand AkelaJab Deep Jale on classical concert platforms.

    If you were a little conservative in your approach, this would have certainly triggered some consternation. But it can be argued that Yesudas's approach helped widen the base and appeal of Carnatic music and gave it a more inclusive and agreeable image.

    Today, more people are learning and performing Carnatic music than it looked possible in the 80s. And Yesudas is certainly one of the many reasons for this renaissance of sorts.

    When Bollywood and South Indian films got going, the early talkies era music was filled with talent from the classical field. This trend continued till around the 1950s, when filmdom itself started throwing up its own skilled performers and musical artists.

    By the 60s, the classical influence almost petered out in Hindi film songs. But South Indian film music continued to have classical contours, thanks in the main to the talents like Yesudas.

    Yesudas had such a solid classical framework to his singing that even Hindi composers sought him out in the 70s whenever there was a need for a heavy number.

    In fact, Yesudas's first ever recorded Hindi song, the famed Ni Sa Ga Ma Pa Ni is steeped in classical ethos. Unfortunately the film, Anand Mahal, never saw the light of the day, but the song and the album is, mercifully, emerged, and has a fan base of its own. 

    It is said that the composer Salil Chowdhury tried to get the song recorded with two other singers. But both of them did not measure up to the heights that the song needed, and Salil went to Yesudas, who provided on a sweet platter what the composer had in mind.

    Listen to it, you will immediately understand how felicitously the great man switched to Hindustani style, even though it was not his primary training.

    It underscores Yesudas's basic belief: He always felt that if your training and understanding is good, the style of singing is never a problem.  

    The talented Salil himself was a huge fan of Yesudas that he used his voice across languages, aside from Malayalam (where the two first joined forces in 1965 for the legendary Chemmeen). In fact, when Salil reprised his Chemmeen tune in Bengali for the film Srikanter Will, the singer he went to was inevitably Yesudas.

    But it was not just Salil, anyone in Bollywood who wanted songs with classical heft, the go-to guy was Yesudas. Such was the  power and hold of his voice in that golden period of 70s and 80s. 

    He was the first pan-Indian singer, much before the usage came into vogue. Listen to this Thumri, under the baton of Rajesh Roshan in the film Swami (1977). The song Kya Karoon is an iconic one in the Hindustani circuit, having been popularised by legends like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Barkat Ali Khan, Bismillah Khan (shehnai), and Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty. 

    The original was in a different rag, but in this Hindustani Kirwani, Yesudas shows that he is no slouch to those stalwarts. He oozes sweetness and the way the sangathis are quintessentially from the North Indian school of singing. 

    When Basu Chatterjee made the movie Apne Paraye (1980) steeped in Bengali ethos, the music director Bappi Lahiri knew it had to be Yesudas to deliver that quaint feel and classical fervour.

    Listen to this beauty Shayam Rang Ranga Re as Yesudas warbles his way to glory even in a style that he is not quite used to.

    Yesudas Sang A Song That Rafi Couldn’t 

    With Bappi Lahiri, Yesudas had a kind of purple patch that no one expected from the duo. They gave many remarkable hits like Mana Ho Tum (Toote Khilone,1978), Zid Na Karo, and the rousing classical song Anga Sangame in the Bengali film Maharudra.    

    Then with Ravindra Jain, Yesudas conjured up magic like never before. Of course, the Chitchor (1976) was a hall-of-famer to beat all hall-of-famers and fetched him his third National Award. But the duo's tour de force has to be the song Shadjane Paya, a rare ragamalika in Hindustani.

    Featuring ragas Kaafi, Bilawal, Bhairavi, Yaman Kalyan, Khammaj, Aasawari, Bahaar, Sohini, Darbari, Megh, it was to feature in the film Tansen that never made it to the theatres.

    Anyway, this challenging song was reportedly refused by Mohammed Rafi. Yesudas just waltzes through the song with panache.

    In Odia too, when there was a film with classical overtones, Devjani (1980), Yesudas was at hand to do a splendid job in this song Ni Ga Ma Pa Pa (a duet with Vani Jayaram) under the music of Prafulla Kar.

    Yesudas And Raaja, A Match Made In Carnatic Heaven

    Closer home, it is said that the no-nonsense Ilaiyaraaja always rated highly of Yesudas, so much so that the latter was the only singer whom he wouldn't berate if he made a slight change in the song.

    Raaja wouldn't accept this from any other singer, but with Yesudas he made the exception because he respected his musical nous. Raaja, whose partnership with S P Balasubramaniam was even more legendary, had no hesitation to go straight to Yesudas for most of his classical style songs and softer numbers.

    Ilaiyaraaja's carnatic music gambits like Sindhu Bhairavi, Mogamul, Rudraveena (Telugu) are filled with Yesudas to the brim. In general films too, if the situation demanded a Carnatic song, Raaja threw the challenge to Yesudas. Take this Hindolam-based charming number Sridevi En Vazhvil in the film Ilamai Kolam (1980).

    The alapanai itself would confirm that it was a song meant for Yesudas alone. The languid way his voice traverses the octaves is what genius singing is all about.

    And then there is the impossible grandeur of Vedham Nee in the film Kovil Puraa (1981). Set to Gowlai, a raga that had not been handled in Tamil films before, the song needed a voice that could match the rousing exhilaration of the musical structure that Raaja had come up with.

    Yesudas matches Raaja's genius and what we have is a masterpiece for the ages. The complex sangathis in the song come with a precision that is almost impossible in art. The last part is just bravura singing.

    Again, it is  tempting to think that it is only the presence of a singer like Yesudas that Raaja could go for full glory with such a song.

    One charge that is often laid at Yesudas’s door is that he has little variations. It is a claim whose shallowness can be exposed with an example from Unnal Mudiyum Thambi (1988), the Tamil reprise of Rudraveena (1988).

    In that emotionally-charged sequence, when the Kamal and Gemini Ganesan characters break into an impromptu Carnatic riff, the voice for the young man and his dad were both Yesudas. 

    Listen to the bit in pristine Karaharapriya, you will understand what variety and nuance that he possessed. With a brilliant nagaswaram in accompaniment, the scene is both a musical and cinematic peach. 

    Not just Raaja, even MSV, when he had the memorable ragamalika Athisay Ragam in Apoorva Ragangal (1975), it was Yesudas who did the honours.

    Or for that matter, Raveendran when he composed those classical-tinged songs in His Highness Abdullah, Bharatham or many such movies, he knew he could fall back on the ability of Yesudas to deliver the goods. (KJY songs in Malayalam is an ocean and would need a full-fledged book to do some justice).  

    When the Kannada musical legend Vijay Bhaskar got the film Malaya Marutha (1986), he had no second thoughts in pulling in the services of Yesudas, as the film was suffused with Carnatic spirit.

    Even a relative newcomer Vidyasagar, whose emergence was a bit past Yesudas's peak, had a movie with classical lattice — the 2004 Telugu film Swarabhishekam — his inevitable choice for the climactic emotional Carnatic number was the veterans Yesudas and SPB.

    The song Anujudai Lakshmanudu is also a spirited tribute to the camaraderie and bonding that the two great singers shared in real life.

    Yesudas's voice had kind of cracked due to old age in the last twenty years or so. But till then, it was the gold standard in singing. That every aspiring singer in Kerala wanted to emulate him, but nobody could, is the greatest testimony to the fact that there cannot be anyone like him ever.

    As he turns 85, we can only thank him for the countless songs in literally every conceivable genre that he has given for us to savour in our lifetime. But along with those songs, he also deserves plaudits for keeping a grand tradition of classical music alive.

    In that sense, he is a singer extraordinaire and a true torch-bearer. 

    Lord Ram Songs In The Voice Of K J Yesudas   

    To go with the flavour of the occasion, here's a quick and small playlist of K J Yesudas songs on Lord Rama. There are many Thyagarajar krithis on Lord Ram that Yesudas had done justice to. Linking them all would be an impossible task.

    So we will quickly come up with a simple collation right off of our head now.

    We start off with Mayamalavagowlai. The most famous Thulasi Dhalamulache from Rudra Veena in Telugu. Very few people can hold a song without any accompaniment. Yesudas had a voice that required no background embellishment.

    From Malayalam film Dhwani, a Sanskrit song, Janaki Jaane.

    A weighty Thyagarajar krithi Teliyaleru Rama Bhakthi Margamu in the wighty voice of KJY. (Pay attention at the 2.35 min mark, bhakthi sangeetham at its best).

    Ksheera Sagara Sayana, a song that KJY made his own. The place where he goes Taraka Rama would make believers out of atheists. It featured in the Malayalam film Sopanam, though the version linked to is from a concert in the 80s.

    Yesudas's voice is needed to showcase the devotion of Hanuman for Lord Rama. Many will have tears in their eyes when listening to this song Rama Rama from the Malayalam film Bhaktha Hanuman. Happiness? Bhakthi? Sadness? Can't say what.

    Ending with an inevitable. Ilaiyaraja and KJY. Indeed Rama Naamam Oru Vedame  (Sri Raghavendra).

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