The 80s and early 90s were cruel to young regular Malayali men with ambitions of becoming a singer. Having dealt with the devastating event of our life – change in our voice that accompanied puberty – we found out that the men’s world was indeed intimidating. The main reason was a voice that could easily traverse three octaves. Also, the voice was booming and extraordinarily nimble and sweet.
Our brand-new voice, bereft of any sweetness, could hardly manage an octave or maximum one and a half octaves. Many wannabe singers gave up. Some of us valiantly continued with our music lessons and tried our best to sound like the Man with the golden voice: Yesudas. But we would learn that they were futile exercises.
Nobody told us that it was okay to sound like the way we sounded, and no 20-year-old would ever sound like a 50-year-old man dealing with music every day for the last three decades. Legends of companies refusing to sign music deals without the presence of the boundless voice in cassettes and the presence of nepotistic gatekeepers that barred the entry of outsiders to the music world forced many in our generation to abandon their singing aspirations and pursue regular careers. Sure, some bravehearts continued with stage shows and music lessons, but without any hopes of making it big.
Did we consider Yesudas our enemy? Well, Freudians might be able to answer that question. Looking back, it is surprising that most of us didn’t even grudge him for anything that we had to go through or his monopolistic hold over the Malayalam playback industry. Long before the word `frenemy’ was coined, we hero-worshipped our supposed enemy.
Many of us might have given up music and started pursuing corporate jobs, but we never forgot the man and the voice. Every friendly gathering in various cities and towns would always drift towards him: a new or old song sung by him, how effortlessly he managed a complicated passage, how he sounded so sweet in lower or upper register… the discussions could claim the whole night, or until a fellow roommate pretended he was very sleepy.
Later, many of us would try to solve the mystery of Yesudas or the hold he had over every singing voice in Kerala. Of course, he was the right man at the right place. When he entered the playback scene, Malayali listeners were already in love with Hindi movie music and silky voice of Mohammad Rafi and others. And Malayalam needed a voice that could do just to film or light music.
But the secret behind the longevity of Yesudas as a playback singer and his growth as a singer was his single-minded focus. He didn’t get stuck and started mimicking himself at any point in his career. The limitations his voice had in the 50s disappeared in the 60s. Everyone thought he peaked in the 70s. Then they gasped for air when his big, seemingly limitless voice delivered one hit after the other caressing lower and higher notes with equal ease.
It would be misleading to focus just on the voice, the vehicle for a singer. Yesudas’ mastery over the light music almost complete in the first decade of his career. However, he would continue to push the boundaries light music and semi-classical music with the help of friendly music directors through his career. This was possible only because of his commitment to Carnatic music.
Purists might dismiss his Carnatic music, but he alone is responsible in popularising some important Carnatic kritis among lay listeners. At one point, every Malayali knew at least three Carnatic kritis: Vatapi, thaye yasoda, pavana guru. All credits to the 'gana gandharvan', as some people love to describe him.
And the experience of listening to him live when he is in real form is indescribable. It was nothing short of mass hypnosis the way he had a stadium full of people in pin drop silence in the first thirty minutes of his film music concert. Long before Television popularised improvisations or sangatis, he would effortlessly improvise many phrases in songs. Funny it might sound now, listeners used to frown on it those days. The original tune was considered sacred – any attempt to deviate from it was sacrilege. Many sincere listeners in those days were perturbed by this tendency of Yesudas and they would complain that Yesudas can’t sing a song well live.
And the experience of listening to Yesudas’s Carnatic music, his first love, was something else. His voice came out in its full glory in those nights, the clarity of words and pitch-perfect notes in medium tempo nudged many casual listeners to start listening to classical music seriously.
Yes, as I said earlier, our generation can go on about this man and his voice for the whole night (or rest of the day).
(The author is a Bharatanatyam exponent who dabbles with music. The opinions expressed are personal)