It’s been nearly four decades since G Venugopal embarked on a journey to please the art enthusiasts with his mellifluous voice and his signature style in rendition. Having completed 35 years in the industry, he has come a long way. According to him, keeping his mind calm is his mantra and he credits learning this art through experience.
For him, reading books and listening to songs drives him. Here, the three times Kerala Sate Award winning playback singer discusses literature and his experiences in the literary world besides that of music. Excerpts:
You have been singing on stage for nearly four decades, starting as a student and then continuing as a celebrated singer. Do you think that the concept of stage has changed all these years?
Well the way I sing hasn’t changed all these years. But yes, time has brought many changes in the way singers execute their performance on any platform. There is so much of din and dash, which is the result of an inevitable change. Nevertheless, I cannot embrace such aspects in my performance as I really feel that it would steal the essence of the individuality of my singing.
What is your opinion on the contemporary independent music scenario that is growing in Kerala?
It is good that it is happening. It does open new perspectives to the audience. To say it from a personal experience, when Kavyageethikal got released, there were vehement criticisms from many who believed that poems come with an inherent rhythm and tone and that it cannot be disturbed. But as a musician there is some freedom I ask for and believe that it should be granted. It is the same freedom that these artistes who create cover songs and medleys seek. Let’s grant them that freedom.
How close do you think is literature and music?
Great literature and great music have the power to influence you and motivate you. These have the powers under which we are subjected to a subliminal seduction and we are completely drawn to it. They involuntarily and invariably assert a chronic impact on us. Isn’t that the similarity between these two?
As someone who has long been associated with the world of literature besides music, how would you define the former?
Anything that has the potency to move us, to make us emotional is literature for me. It can be a well-crafted writing or a beautifully arranged piece of music. In short, anything that is ecstatic is literature for me.
Do you owe to a person in particular for having ushered you in to the world of letters?
Yes. Vinayan, my cousin. It is through him that I got introduced to so much of contemporary literature. Indeed, many eminent professors who had proved themselves as great writers like Hrudayakumari teacher, Vishnu Narayan Namboothiri sir, Ayyappa Panicker sir, and G.Kumara Pillai sir used to frequent my home and that association has also piqued my interest in literature.
Was it the same interest that made you a post-graduate in English Literature?
Well, MA in Literature was the effect of a sheer escapism that shrouded me during the second year of degree in Bsc Zoology. I so badly wanted to leave the monotonous laboratory sessions and indulge myself with more music. Undeniably, that decision turned out to be really fruitful and in spite of getting a good score for the course, I should admit that I didn’t read as much as I was singing during those two years of MA. But yes, Masters in Journalism was a really productive academic period for me.
Where do you place the relevance of literature when it comes to the case of music?
I think it is with the advent of light music that we started giving more relevance to the literature of a song. While Carnatic Classical music was more raga based and discussed bhakti in its variant forms, there was a dire need for a form of music that would deal with the thoughts and emotions of laymen. And I believe that light music, to a large extent, could appease this immediate need. In case of Malayalam film music, great writers like Vayalar Rama Varma, ONV Kurup, P. Bhaskaran et al played incredible roles in popularizing the value of lyrical quality. Given the fact that these writers along with eminent musicians like Devarajan Master and Baburaj Master were formerly associated with dramas which were the band-wagons of communism and hence the voice common people, vouches this fact. Thus, we have a golden period here in Malayalam, both in terms of lyrical quality and music. To say it, parallel trends were there in other languages as well. Indeed, the forms of Hindustani music like Tappa, Thumri and Gazal have had a huge impact on the development of the various aspects of light music and Hindi film music in particular.
Could you share your experience working with the following lyricist?
I know him since my childhood as he was my mother’s colleague. I still remember how I went to him with a heavy heart when I realized that the song which should have been my first as a playback singer wasn’t there in that movie. He is a great poet and I’m really fortunate to have started my career with stalwarts like him.
Another great writer. He gets a sense of the totality of the music and the situation for which it is composed. I feel blessed that I could work with Thampi sir in the initial phase of my career itself.
I would say that he is the first lyricist in Malayalam who took the trend of writing lyrics to the tune to the pedestal of ultimate perfection. Though I haven’t sung many of his songs, the ones that I have are gems.
He is a great human being and a wonderful writer. Our first song together was a light music that was composed for Akashavani and then came a multitude of beautiful songs for various movies. My relationship with him runs beyond a professional one.
P K Gopi :
That bond can also be traced back to Akashavani. He has penned some of the famous light music that I sang when he was a much sought after lyricist. He wrote Thaane Poovitta Moham that fetched me my second state award.
The speed with which he used to write was amazing. He would come, write lines for 5 songs at a stretch and yet these songs brim with poetic imagery. He was such a real human being who didn’t know how to pretend emotions.
He is a close friend of mine. Indeed, I had the privilege to sing his first song for the movie Achammakuttyyude Achayan.
I would say he is the ONV among the contemporary writers. He seems to be someone who focuses more on quality than quantity. Such a fine writer he is.
How did Kavyageethikal happen?
There was a transient phase in my career when the artiste in me was sort of withdrawn from the mainstream music when I had this realization that I should stir myself if my voice is to be heard again. I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason and so did my venture into the world of poems.
So my friend Suresh at Bahrain was planning to produce a teleserial and he chose Kadamanitta’s Shanta for that project and asked me to do it. I needed a contemporary music director who has a taste for it and thus I zeroed in on M.Jayachandran, then a budding music director. In fact, that project opened new horizons before me and that night I decided that I’m going to do more of this kind. And thus happened Kavyageethikal Vol 1, which after an initial phase of inertness went on to become a run-a-away success and fetched me an unprecedented reception. I should say that I still draw benefits from that work. It was followed by Kavyageethikal Vol 2 and now Kavyageethikal Vol 3 is in its pre-production phase.
Could you pick your favourite poems from these collections?
Every poem is dear to me. Still, Sabhalamee Yatra by N.N. Kakkad was a challenging poem to compose with its underlying tension and tumult. Hence, it was overwhelming when it was well-received. Poems like Sandarshanam by Chullikad and Sugathakumari teacher’s Krishna Nee Enne Ariyilla are special for many reasons.
How did radio, the only infotainment media that existed when you were young, nurture the artiste in you?
Radio was such a great embodiment for us. It used to make us dream and used to colour those dreams. We used to listen to a song so much that the lyrics and the emotion conveyed would find a direct channel to our hearts and would find a permanent place there. I think that’s something lost when television started replacing radio, because in the former everything is just fleeting. Through television one “sees” a song and hence finds it difficult to remember the lyrics and to get the emotion. I strongly believe that if I had been born 10 years later, things would have been completely different and I probably wouldn’t have been an artiste that I am today.
Could you draw a comparison between your association with AIR as a singer and as an officer there?
I would definitely prefer my early days as a contract singer with AIR to my phase as an Officer. I worked for nearly 14 years there and should admit that I lost some of my creative years to the tight schedule of AIR.
What about your association with Doordarshan?
I got the best of everything then. I was blessed to get associated with Doordarshanan right from its initial days. As a matter of fact, the visual media beginning with Doordarshan transformed all the playback singers to “playfront” singers. Thus, people started recognizing us, started praising us and critizing us. And I am one of the many who got privileged from these innovations and changes.
How do you associate yourself with the virtual media?
I am largely benefitted from the different platforms on virtual space. It all started with Orkut and some of my well-wishers like Girish Gopinath and Bindu Anil took it to Facebook and built it so strong. Now I own a space for quick interaction and I’m offered new songs through the same platform many of which I have to turn down due to the schedule. I am grateful for all these changes.