Eight national awards, over 80,000 songs recorded in languages ranging from Malayalam, Tamil, and Hindi to Latin and Arabic, and three Padma awards—KJ Yesudas is an inspiration to millions of singers and composers and is undoubtedly one of, if not the greatest, Indian singers of all time.
There is a reason why he is often referred to as the ‘Ganagandharvan’ (Celestial Singer) because that perfection in his singing could have only come down from the heavens.
“I have always said that no singer can match what a composer has in mind. If there is one singer who, very often, came close to the original creation and, at times, even enhanced it, it is Yesu. No other singer can sing with such bhava, such laya. And his pronunciation is perfect. In the case of other singers, there is only one style in which they can be slotted. In Yesu’s case, he can be moulded into any form. The essence of his voice will stay as a diamond even if you chip off the sides,” says MK Arjunan, a Malayalam music composer, speaking to The Hindu.
As he turns 80 today, we look back at a remarkable career in music that touched the souls of millions across regional, vernacular and communal divides.
Born in Kochi to a Latin Catholic Christian family, Yesudas grew up in a household that breathed music. His father, Augustine Joseph, was a well known Malayalam classical musician and stage actor, besides being his first teacher.
Yesudas first made his mark in the Malayalam film industry with the movie Bharya in 1962 but soon transitioned into the Tamil just two years later in the film Bommai.
More than a decade after traversing through the film industries in the South, Yesudas got his big break in Bollywood singing for the 1976 movie Chhoti Si Baat, particularly the hit song Jaaneman Jaaneman.
However, it was the film Chitchor released in the same year, when he left a significant impression on Hindi audiences with evergreen songs like ‘Gori Tera Gaon Bada Pyara,’ ‘Jab Deep Jale’ and ‘Aaj Se Phele Aaj Se.’
Having worked with every film composer and singer worth his/her salt in India over nearly six decades, the sheer diversity in his body of work is genuinely mind-boggling.
While many argue that his most exceptional performances on wax are in Malayalam—’Oru Pushpam Mathramen,’ a romantic ballad from the 1967 film ‘Pareksha,’ or ‘Harimuralaeeravam’ from the 1997 film ‘Aaram Thampuran,’—one can even make the same argument for Tamil as well, particularly songs in which he teamed up with the legendary composer Illaiyaraja.
There is a reason why so many composers have opted for his voice.
As a music aficionado, who may not always understand the meaning behind the lyrics, what stands out is his ability to elevate a song beyond the words and music.
There is an undeniable soul in his singing, which resonates across different music genres, languages and moods. His flexibility, particularly when it comes to range, is out of this world and music composers have often said that he can enhance an original composition like no other singer.
He has the natural ability to impart just the right amount of emotion into any song, and the tonality of his voice is unmatched. Whether he is reaching for high or low octaves, what’s undeniable is the clarity in his voice.
This is not just a product of natural talent, but years of training, discipline, and continuously working on his craft.
A master of Carnatic music, Yesudas is also famous for his devotional songs. Despite being a practising Christian, he has sung songs like Harivarasanam, a devotional song from the 1975 film Swami Ayyapan.
Composed by G Devarajan, the song is recited at the Sabarimala shrine every single day before the gates close.
Yesudas has also proven to be a genuine cultural ambassador for India.
“In 1965, he was invited by the Soviet Union government to perform at music concerts in various cities in the USSR and also sang a Russian song over Radio Kazakhstan. In 2001 he sang for album Ahimsa in Sanskrit, Latin and English and a mix of styles including New-Age and Carnatic]. In his music concerts in the Middle East he sings Arabic songs in the Carnatic style,” says journalist-turned-writer Kiran Ravindran.
But the true mark of any great is longevity. Through the decades, music has changed in a myriad of ways in terms of sound, aesthetic and most importantly, technology.
Yesudas, however, continues to stand out because of his willingness to adapt, but not at the cost of authenticity.
There is a reason why AR Rahman said that Yesudas is “one of my most favourite voices’ ever in the world.” There is a reason why Bappi Lahri refers to his voice as the one “touched by God.”
If you ever listened to him sing, you would understand why.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)