Melody Maestro: Exploring KJ Yesudas’s Timeless Legacy in Indian Music

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As the living legend KJ Yesudas celebrates his 84th birthday, the love and admiration for his mesmerising vocal talent remains intact.

By Nichola Marie

“My only worry is that I could only learn 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…” said KJ Yesudas, in an interview with ‘Malayala Manorama’ on the occasion of his 84th birthday on 10th January this year. One of the greatest playback singers in the history of Indian cinema, and equally known for his classical and devotional songs, he is adored as the ‘ganagandharvan’ (celestial singer) by millions of admirers across the world. However, the living legend is humility personified. Having dedicated his entire life to music, he nevertheless believes that the effort has fetched him ‘only a handful of that vast sea’!

Birthday Joys

Yesudas was unable to visit and pay tribute at the Kollur Mookambika temple in Karnataka as he customarily does on his birthday, as he is with his family members in the US where he spends most of his time since the Covid-19 outbreak. That didn’t stop the wishes pouring in from politicians, film stars, and innumerable fans for their beloved ‘Dasettan’, as he is fondly called. Describing Yesudas’ music and songs as pure magic, Kerala CM Pinarayi Vijayan pointed out that the eminent singer had played a remarkable role in bringing classical music, once confined to the streets of agraharas (housing colonies of Brahmins) and the courts of scholars, to the common people, and had always made interventions for the creation of a secular society. 

Yesudas, clad in his trademark white kurta, participated virtually in a special event organised in Kochi in which several prominent personalities, including actors, directors and music composers, took part. In the live video, he thanked everyone for their birthday wishes and said people remaining united regardless of caste and creed was for him “sweeter than a birthday cake.”

A Sparkling Career

Over the course of his career, spanning more than six decades, Yesudas has rendered more than 50,000 film songs, Carnatic music bhajans and other devotional songs. He has sung in various Indian languages such as Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, Kannada, Bengali and Odiya, as well as in foreign tongues such as Arabic, English, Latin and even Russian. Nominated to head the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy in 1970, he was the youngest person ever to occupy the post. A recipient of eight National Awards, 25 Kerala State Awards, five State Awards of Tamil Nadu and four of Andhra Pradesh, for his contribution to the arts, he was awarded the Padma Shri in 1975, the Padma Bhushan in 2002, and the Padma Vibhushan in 2017. Among other honours, he became one of the senate members of the International Parliament for Safety and Peace. He was presented with an honorary award by UNESCO for Outstanding Achievements in Music and Peace at the Music for Peace concert in Paris attended by artistes such as Lionel Richie, Ray Charles, Montserrat Caballé, and Zubin Mehta.

Yesudas holds the record for singing 11 songs in different languages in a single day. Some of his popular Hindi songs include ‘Gori Tera Gaon Bada Pyaara’, ‘Jab Deep Jale Aana’, ‘Janeman Janeman Tere Do Nayan’, ‘Chand Jaise Mukhde Pe’, ‘Surmayee Akhiyon Mein’, ‘Aapki Mehki Hui Zulf Ko’, ‘Tu Jo Mere Sur Mein Sur Milale’, ‘Mana Ho Tum Behad Haseen’, and ‘Dil Ke Tukde Tukde Karke’.

His hit songs in the South include ‘Manushyan Mathangale’, ‘Padmatheerthame Unaru’, ‘Aakasa Desaana Aashada Maasaana’, ‘Unnikale Oru Kadha Parayam’, ‘Ramakadha Gaanalayam’, ‘Ksheerasaagara Shayana’, and ‘Poymaranja Kaalam’, among many others. 

The Mesmerising Voice

Yesudas has been celebrated as the ‘one touched by God’, with even renowned composer AR Rahman maintaining Yesudas is “one of my most favourite voices ever in the world.” Gifted with the ability to elevate a song beyond the lyrics and music, his singing is imbued with soul, resonating across music genres, languages and moods. His range and flexibility have enhanced original compositions like possibly no other singer has. Known for his natural ability to impart just the right amount of emotion into any song, the tonality of his voice is considered unmatched. Whether reaching for the high or low octaves, the clarity in his voice remains unchanged. His natural talent, strengthened by years of training, unwavering discipline and constant working on his craft, have culminated in his befitting title of ‘Celestial Singer’. The secret of his longevity as a singer perhaps lies in his willingness to adapt, but not at the cost of authenticity.

The Early Days

He was born KJ Yesudas on January 10, 1940 to mother Alicekutty and father Augustine Joseph in Fort Kochi, in the erstwhile kingdom of Cochin, into a Roman Catholic Latin rite family. His father, a well-known Malayalam classical musician and stage actor, would become his first guru. He started his academic music training at RLV Music Academy, Thrippunithura. Later, he studied at Swathi Thirunal College of Music, Thiruvananthapuram, under the tutelage of the Carnatic music maestro KR Kumaraswamy Iyer and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. However, due to financial constraints, he could not complete his studies. Training briefly under Vechur Harihara Subramania Iyer, he would go on to take advanced training from Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar. 

SP Balasubrahmanyam and KJ Yesudas at Abbas Cultural’s Kalaivizha 2017 – 25 Years of Celebrating Art Event 7th evening

Journey Of Growth

Yesudas began his music career in playback singing with the popular Malayalam song ‘Jathi Bhedam Matha Dwesham’ in 1961. He would consider himself particularly fortunate as the four lines that he had the opportunity to start his musical journey with were penned by Kerala’s renowned saint-poet-social reformer Sree Narayana Guru. The film, titled ‘Kalpadukal’ (1962), was based on social reform during the life and times of Sree Narayana Guru. His first major break came with the hit Malayalam film ‘Bharya’ (1962). He would go on to render hit songs for ‘Udhyogastha’ (1967), as well the Tamil films ‘Konjum Kumari’ (1963) and ‘Bommai’ (1964). Invited by the Soviet Union government to perform at music concerts in various cities in the USSR, he also sang a Russian song over Radio Kazakhstan.

He was part of the popular trio also comprising Salil and Prem Nazir in Malayalam cinema of the time… There was no looking back.

Making his debut in Hindi films, he provided playback for leading actors including Amitabh Bachchan, Amol Palekar and Jeetendra. He rendered compositions of well-known music directors such as Ravindra Jain, Bappi Lahiri, Khayyam, Raj Kamal and Salil Chowdhury.

Spreading Music

During the Indo-Pak war of 1971, Yesudas travelled to every corner of Kerala along with his troupe to collect proceeds for the Prime Minister’s National Defence Fund. 

In 1980, he established the Tharangani Studio at Trivandrum. In 1992, the office and studio were moved to Chennai, Tamil Nadu, and the company was incorporated in the US in 1998. Tharangini Studio and Tharangini Records became a recording centre in Kerala which, for the first time, brought out audio cassettes of Malayalam film songs in stereo. The record company also had a voice mixing studio in Studio27, Chennai. The studio continues to produce and present events of Yesudas both for film and Indian classical music concerts across the world.

In 2001, he sang for the album ‘Ahimsa’ in Sanskrit, Latin and English in a mix of styles including new-age and Carnatic. His music concerts in the Middle East saw him render Arabic songs in the Carnatic style. A cultural ambassador for the country, through his performances abroad he promotes Indian music. Using his singing as a voice against burning issues, in 2009 he began a cross-country musical campaign against terrorism in Thiruvananthapuram, with the motto ‘Music For Peace’ in which he was handed over the torch by Kavita Karkare, wife of slain police officer Hemant Karkare, to mark the launch of the Shanthi Sangeetha Yatra. 

Current Pursuits

Yesudas is presently engrossed in learning classical music in depth from compositions such as Kritimanimalai and Thyagarajahridayam, written in Telugu and Tamil. “One can realise the beauty of the lines only by understanding their meaning,” he says, revealing that he wishes to publish a book with the meaning of these compositions in Malayalam as well as their correct pronunciation.

Once a month, he also joins each batch of the online music class Yesudas Academy, which he had launched a year ago, to help the new generation learn music from anywhere in the world.


Did you know…?

  • After winning the Kerala State Award for best playback singer numerous times, Yesudas had requested that he be ruled out of the competition to give his peers and newcomers a chance of winning the award. However, he continued to win this award several times in the years that followed.
  • On December 9, 1971, Yesudas missed a flight that later crashed on the way to Madurai, killing the four crew members and 17 passengers.
  • The Sabarimala temple officially uses Yesudas’ rendition of ‘Harivarasanam’, a devotional song, which is played daily at the closing of the temple. 
  • In his honour, the prestigious Swaralaya Yesudas Award is presented annually to music artistes in recognition of their outstanding performance. 
  • Married to Prabha in 1970, the couple has three children Vinod (politician), Vijay (playback singer, actor) and Vishal (singer). 

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