‘Still at the shores of vast musical sea’; Yesudas basks in the glory of 84

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At 84, it’s not about a thousand full moons but the 72 Melakarta ragas and their umpteen subordinate musical notes that still matter the most to Yesudas- the ‘Ganagandharvan’ of the Malayalam music world. Having dedicated his whole life to music, he understands it well — that the effort has fetched him only a handful of that vast sea. All his life, he has been a student of music and in front of this endless pursuit, even time stands up in respect.

Although Malayalis have been listening to his voice without a break on a daily basis, it’s been four years since he made a public appearance. Spending his life in the US since the pandemic outbreak, he has avoided travelling to Kerala at the insistance of his family members. His life, however, continues unchanged, and remains immersed in music as ever. At his home in Dallas, Yesudas is leading a peaceful life with his wife Prabha, and continues to learn music. Through the official YouTube channel of Tharangini, he still keeps releasing new songs at regular intervals.

On the occasion of his 84th birthday, the celestial singer is offering some insights into his life in his exclusive interview with ‘Malayala Manorama’.

It’s so hard to believe the voice that people have been listening to regularly for over six decades now has turned 84. At this point, how do you evaluate your life?

Even I’m wondering how I could achieve all these. I can only say it is the blessings bestowed upon me by the gods and my masters. I was lucky enough to become a tool to execute it. I’m still doing my best to maintain the skill and the voice that God has lent me. My only worry is that I could only earn a fraction of music even after pursuing it until this age. Hence, I’m still learning music, and it is this pursuit that drives me ahead.

People who have made it a habit to follow your classical music and stage performances too are growing desperate. When do you plan to visit your home state?

Covid has upended all our routines. Before that, my first task was to schedule the music programmes when I receive a New Year diary. The Kacheri season starts with the Margazhi music festival of Chennai in December. Covid, however, brought a halt to the schedule that I followed for half a century. Covid still continues to be a threat for me to visit Kerala. People in my close circles have advised against flying continuously for 15 to 20 hours. But we are still hopeful of making a return and awaiting that moment.

How was your life during the Covid period?

Well, I spent most of my time learning music. I started travelling to other parts of America only after the outbreak started subsiding, and then I performed a few Kacheris. We’re living with our younger son, Vishal, and his wife. They became parents of a baby girl last year. We are now busy in her world.

Yesudas says he feels fully satisfied while singing classical songs. Photo | Manorama


I’m regularly in touch with my close friends like Cherthala Krishnankutty over the phone. Learning new Keerthanams (Carnatic music) is yet another joy in my life. There are umpteen number of keerthanas that I still have not listened to. Only the lines, which are mostly in Telugu, and the musical notes are available in books. I keep learning these songs and record them on my phone.

The Keerthanam that I’m learning now is ‘Kamalaptha Kulachandra’, composed by Thyagaraja Swamikal in a raga called ‘Vrindavana Saranga’. I learned the Keerthanam ‘Sreegananatham Bhajatmyakam’ in a similar fashion. It took me four years to learn the song, composed in the raga called Kanakangi and I perform it on most stages now. I feel fully satisfied when I am rendering classical music. I love the Kacheris the most.

 

You sang under an array of legendary composers and songwriters at a time when music held a lot of significance in movies. Hasn’t that helped your career?

It was, indeed, a blessing. I owe a lot to all of them. However, one can’t say, only the old times are the best. Though the number of songs has come down, there are good compositions even today. Songs are created always in tune with the prevailing trends, though it is a fact that only the best music outlives its age. Advancement in technology has also contributed to the change. In the olden days, we had to sing the entire song with the ochestra in case we committed even one mistake. I remember singing upto 11 songs a day. I would learn the songs while running from one studio to another. But with the recording process splitting into different tracks, the singers and the orchestra troupes don’t meet each other any more. Nowadays, people sing and record the music at places of their convenience. The skill now lies in mixing. Singing has become easy these days and the output better.

Have you ever felt like singing a song which was sung by another singer?

During my youth, I adored Mohammed Rafi and wished to sing songs similar to those rendered by him. However, after I became busy singing for movies, I never felt such a need, because I received many opportunities to sing all songs of my taste.

Yesudas launched ‘Yesudas Academy’, an online class to help the new generation learn music from anywhere in the world. File photo


Wasn’t it Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar who inspired you to take up classical music seriously?

I was introduced to Chembai Swamy after establishing myself in movies and my marriage. Our meeting was indeed a turning point in my life. I was taken to meet Chembai in Mumbai by mridangam exponent T V Gopalakrishnan; musician twins Jaya-Vijayan who were Swamy’s disciples; and my friends Appu Nair and Unni Nair. When I told Chembai that I wished to accompany him during a classical concert, he immediately agreed. In fact, he made me sit beside him during the recital and not behind him.

Chembai later became my Guru. He gave me lessons while we travelled together in trains and even on railway platforms. He came to hear my concert at Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai and climbed on to the stage after the programme to drape a ‘ponnada’ (ceremonial shawl) around me. That shawl had been presented to Chembai by the Shankaracharya of Sringeri Math. It is the most prized gift in my life.

Chembai also took me to the Guruvayur temple, to sing along with him on his birthday. Even though I belonged to another religion, he probably believed that I wouldn’t face any problem because he was taking me there. But things didn’t work out as he anticipated. However, Chembai did not reveal exactly what had happened because he thought I would feel hurt. Instead, Chembai told me that my presence inside the temple could attract big crowds and we would sing outside the shrine. We went to the nearby Parthasarathy Temple, where a small shed under the peepal tree was the venue of the concert. Chembai pointed at the Parthasarathy Temple and said to me that the deity there too was Guruvayurappan. He also asked me to pray to the deity. But I replied that Chembai was Guruvayurappan to me. I still have Chembai in my mind while singing the Sri Krishna hymn ‘pavanaguru…’

You have sung devotional songs of all religions and are considered to be a symbol of religious harmony. How did you acquire such a belief?

I should thank my parents for this value system. They told me to respect all beliefs. My first ‘kacheri’ (music recital on stage) was at Chullikkal Temple in Fort Kochi when I was 11 or 12 years of age. Many friends of Appachan (father) were in the temple committee. They, along with my Guru Kunjanvelu Asan, had taken the initiative to give me the chance to sing there.

I later developed an affinity towards the Sabarimala Temple as it welcomed all devotees, irrespective of their caste or religion. Much earlier, Appachan had engaged in a 41-day ‘vrutham’ (ritualistic fast) to visit Sabarimala for the shooting of the movie ‘Velakkaran’. I am also fortunate to have been bestowed with the honour of singing the songs which wake the deity in the morning and lull the Lord to sleep at night every day at Sabarimala.

Don’t you have any entertainment other than music?

I played cricket during my young days. But later I became a fan of tennis. Among my reasons for shifting to the US was to enable my eldest son to receive tennis coaching. After reaching the US, I used to go and play with my sons. I still watch grand slam matches regularly on TV and Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic are among my favourite players. Sometime ago, I also loved painting and my favourite subject was Jesus Christ with long hair and beard. Once I also planned to direct a movie and had a story in my mind. But I couldn’t take up the project due to a busy schedule.

Do you have any unfulfilled projects?

Currently, I am engaged in learning classical music in depth from compositions such as ‘Krithimanimala’ and ‘Thyagarajahridayam’. These works are written in Telugu and Tamil. One can realize the beauty of the lines only by understanding their meaning. Singers have been pronouncing many words in these compositions wrongly. For instance, I too used to sing a line as ‘pakkaala nilabaddi…’, while the original pronunciation is ‘pakkala’. I now wish to publish a book with the meaning of such compositions in Malayalam and their correct pronunciation. I have also noted down some points.

A year ago, I launched ‘Yesudas Academy’, an online class to help the new generation learn music from anywhere in the world. Students aged five to 72 years residing in several countries attend the classes. Once every month, I join each batch for some time.

‘Still at the shores of vast musical sea’; Yesudas basks in the glory of 84

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