Bitter memories still haunt me even as I try to forget: KS Chithra opens up as she turns a year older

Veteran vocalist KS Chithra is one of the few playback singers whose songs we seldom get bored of. Even if one listens to her countless songs a million times, they would still feel fresh. She has cast a spell on not just Keralites, but music lovers globally with her sweet sound and beautiful smile. From the enchanting melodies to joyful and peppy numbers and captivating lullabies, Chithra has sung them all. Interestingly, an average Malayali cannot pass a day without listening to a song sung by her. Chithra who recently celebrated her 58th birthday speaks to Manorama Online about some of her special memories over her long career.

You have just turned 58; how contended are you looking back?

I have experienced both happiness and sorrow in equal measure. Even when I am going through a difficult time, I would have something joyful happening simultaneously. When I look back, the sad times come to the mind instantly. But God has blessed me with His immense grace too. I would be disrespecting the grace of God if I say that I have mostly experienced sadness in life. Leading me to the world of music itself is a great blessing. There are hundreds of singers who can sing better than me but are not known. I am grateful to God for all the success. If I keep talking only about the sad phases, despite being showered with incredible blessings, that would be like showing contempt to God. Even though I have experienced lots of sadness and grief, I would like to talk about the joyful instances.

Do you celebrate birthdays? What are your favorite birthday memories?

We were not used to celebrating birthdays even during my childhood. As both my parents were working, we hardly got any time for such celebrations. Both of them would be tired when they reach home. Besides, they often came late too. So, we barely got time to celebrate birthdays or cut cakes. On our birthdays, our mother would take us to the temple and offer special prayer. She would even cook payasam (dessert) at home. These were the only celebration. It was only later that we began celebrating everyone’s birthdays with a cake. I have only celebrated my daughter’s birthday. I haven’t, until now, bought a cake for myself on my birthday. But, someone would always gift me cakes, with love. So, I cut the cake for the sake of their happiness.

Chithra with sister Beena

All of us know that music is your life. But, have you ever felt an affinity to any other profession?

I never imagined that I would become a playback singer. Meanwhile, I had always thought that I would become a teacher. I chose music as my main subject with an intention to become a teacher. I was determined to earn a job and had planned to secure a job as a music teacher in a college or school. Teaching is something that I enjoy very much. Most of my classmates too have turned to teaching. Moreover, both my parents were teachers. They had brought us up instilling discipline. We grew up watching their best habits and ways. All these have influenced me greatly. That must be the reason why I had wished to become a teacher. But, circumstances led me to the field of playback singing.

Have you faced any struggle during your initial days? Was it a time of severe competition?

To be honest, I haven’t faced any stiff competition. I am not someone who had planned to become a playback singer. It was fate that brought me into this field. A riddle song was my first recording which was done at a studio in Thiruvananthapuram. My second song was composed by MG Radhakrishnan. Dasettan (legendary singer Yesudas) heard that song and invited me to sing at his concerts. So, doors kept opening unexpectedly in front of me. Raveendran master gave me an opportunity to sing as I had sung alongside Yesudas. Many opportunities like this kept coming my way. As my parents were working, they didn’t have the time to look for opportunities for me. However, my father made sure that I didn’t miss the opportunities that I got. He used to accompany me even when he was not in good health. He came with me for recordings, even when he was ill, by taking pain killers.

Chithra with composer Jeery Amaldev

Your humility and calmness is renowned. How can a singer who enjoys immense popularity maintain such impeccable character traits?

One would lose their humility if they begin to think that that they have become someone important. It would then descend to stupidity. I imbibed lots of good qualities from my parents. My father used to say that if we show even an ounce of arrogance or gloat over our achievements, then it would be the beginning of one’s downfall. I believe that all of us remain students. We still have lots of things to learn. There were times when Dasettan had to sing directly in the movies. The technology wasn’t advanced enough for you to edit or repeat the lines if you make a mistake. Times have changed a lot from that. So, what is there for us take pride in? Today, songs are being recorded after multiple editing and retakes when legendary singers used to nail it in a single take. There is no room for pride or vanity here. It is important that we realize our flaws. I believe that one who is aware about his own faults could never be arrogant. It is us who should evaluate ourselves. Dasettan too says this all the time. No one is perfect; one should be able to realize their flaws and try to rectify them.

You have once said that you still have stage fright. What is the reason for that, especially since you are a noted singer who has performed on countless stages?

It is true that I get scared when I have to perform on stage. I think every singer has stage fright, no matter how experienced they are. Each stage or venue is unique. I am worried whether my sound would go wrong or how the audience would react. However, I would feel relaxed if I sing a few songs amazingly in the beginning of the program. I doubt whether there are singers who haven’t experienced stage fright at least once in their lives. Those who perform with me know about my stage fear. I drink lots of water before the program begins, to relax. Composer Sharath always jokes about my stage fear.

Singers Chithra and Yesudas (Then and Now)

Did music help you come out of the grief of the unexpected tragedy that happened in your life?

I cannot say that I have come out of it. In fact, I keep fleeing from those memories. I am still haunted by them. But, I try not to think about it by concentrating on my job. I can only keep them aside as I can never be liberated from that grief. They won’t leave me until I breathe my last. I believe that the prayer of lots of people is with me. It must be because of the grace of those prayers that opportunities came my way even after that tragedy and I was able to sing again. I shudder to think how I would have survived those times if I didn’t have any programs or recordings. God has blessed me abundantly during those difficult times too. I am always thankful to Lord Almighty for that. Lots of mothers who suffer the same grief share their stories with me. They often ask me how I have managed to come out of the pain. I haven’t come out; instead I try to forget everything by getting busy in something. There is no other way than that. My heart fills with pain and my eyes tears up if I am sitting alone, even for a minute. That grief (over daughter's death) is something that is unforgettable.

Do you find time to get together with your family or go on trips?

I don’t get much time to spend with my family. I don’t usually roam around and enjoy the sights at the places where I visit as part of shows or programs. My world is often between the venue and the hotel where I stay. Besides, you have lots of other responsibilities when you are on a concert tour. You cannot just enjoy and have a great time. I have to take care of my throat and voice. I shouldn’t have any problem that could jeopardize the next show. I don’t usually go anywhere as I have to be careful about all these. Once, I visited Thailand with my family. We often visit temples together. Recently, we enjoyed a one-day trip at Thiruvananthapuram itself. Everyone had a good time, having hearty conversations and enjoying delicious food. Other than these short trips, I haven’t been to too many places with my family. Lately, my husband has been expressing interest to visit foreign countries. We too haven’t gone on many trips as I dedicate most of my time for work. I do not like sitting idle.

Chithra and husband Vijay Shankar

Have you had any bitter experiences in the music industry?

Most of the songs that I had sung in Hindi haven’t come out. But, I wouldn’t call it bitter experiences. Maybe there are pronunciation problems in the way I sang them. Similarly, each recording company has their own favorite or preferred singers. Those companies would purchase songs only if these singers have rendered the songs. That must be the reason why my songs were either avoided or sung again by other singers. I, however, have no complaints about it as I understand the circumstances too. I believe that what is meant for me would surely come to me. God has given me ample chances to sing, in fact more than what I had imagined. So, I am not sad that some other singer has sung  songs that came my way at first.

Do you feel isolated from Malayalam when you sing in other languages? Or, do you concur to the observation that music has no language?

It is important to learn the language that you sing in. I used to hear Tamil from a young age itself. However, I didn’t know how to speak. When I went to sing in Tamil, there were pronunciation issues. My father always said that I shouldn’t sing without knowing the meaning or the language. Moreover, I was always interested in learning new languages. I wish to know more about the language in which I sing. When I began singing in other languages, it was SPB sir  (legendary playback singer Balasubrahmanyam) who taught me the basics of Telugu language. Meanwhile, singer Latika taught me Tamil. I would read the film posters and notices in Tamil and Telugu whenever I travelled to different places for recording. Once, lyricist Vairamuthu sir gave me the cassettes of S Janaki so that I would learn Tamil pronunciation well. He asked me to sing the songs in those cassettes, record them and send them back. By that time I had become really busy in the industry. However, I recorded the songs and send them to him. Along with the cassettes, I wrote a letter in Tamil requesting him to correct the mistakes, if there’s any. He was very happy when he received the cassettes and the letter. SPB sir would correct the pronunciations on the spot itself while singing Telugu songs. That is how I learned other languages. I could pronounce words better as I was determined to learn the languages. I think it has really helped me.

Malayali singers often complain that the remuneration here is lesser compared to other industries?

It is true that other industries offer amazing payment. However, you cannot say that the remuneration is too low in Malayalam. Compared to Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu or other south Indian industries have big-budget movies. In Malayalam, movies are made on low budget too. That must be the reason why there is a gap in wages between industries.

Your adoration for Lord Krishna is quite famous. Is this the first time that you haven’t visited a temple for such a long duration?

I don't regularly visit temple. I mostly pray and observe fasts at home. However, I make sure to visit a temple whenever I get time. Sometimes, there is an uncontrollable urge to visit temple. Then, I would surely find time to go. I regularly offer special prayers at home. I have arranged a small pooja (worship) space that I carry with me whenever I am travelling. There are fasts and special offerings that I have been observing religiously for years. I make sure than I observe these, without any failure, no matter how busy I am.

How did you spend this unexpected  (lockdown) ‘holiday’ that you got due to the Covid pandemic? What do you think about the future of music industry in the current situation?

I was busy with travels and shows until the pandemic created havoc. Hardly an hour was all I got to sleep between my busy schedules and frequent tours. That was when the first phase of the lockdown was announced. Like everyone else, I too spent my lockdown days at home. I watched lots of movies and played video games in the first few days. However, I began to get bored after two weeks. I started feeling depressed as I didn’t have anything else to do. I communicated with the kids in our WhattsApp group and sang songs with them. All the families members came together to compose and sing songs online. A video on it was released. Everyone in my family have strong links to music though they are not singers. Working with them gave me immense satisfaction.

Even the lifestyle of the people has changed significantly owing to the pandemic. Everyone became extra-conscious about personal hygiene. I hope that we survive the pandemic soon and everything goes back to normal. It would be great if people could at least come out of their houses and enjoy the public places just as before.  Daily wage-earners are the ones who are battered by the pandemic. I pray to God that we get over these difficult times soon and everyone has a peaceful life filled with happiness. It is with that hope that I spend each moment of my life. 

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