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Heights of melody

K. PRADEEP

P. Unnikrishnan is one of the few Carnatic vocalists who is a popular playback singer too.

PHOTO: H. VIBHU

STRIKING A BALANCE: P. Unnikrishnan feels that it is important to listen to all kinds of music.

P. Unnikrishnan is one of the few classical singers who can boast a successful film music career too. He has managed to maintain that fine balance between two very disparate worlds with enviable ease. But this, Unnikrishnan confesses, has not been easy. There is always the danger of being labelled `too heavy' in film music or `too light' by high-brow Carnatic aficionados.

Carnatic music first

Explains Unnikrishnan: "For me film music came much later in my career. Of course, my inspiration was always Jesudas whose voice introduced me to music. But it was Carnatic music first and will remain so. Carnatic music is extremely demanding and requires regular practice, regular concerts. One or two concerts a month is not enough, a singer must be able to do at least 10 concerts. "The feel is so refreshingly different. This is the best kind of practise and so it must be regular. Playback singing, at least in Tamil where I'm actively involved now, is not very demanding. It is usually simple tunes and I finish a song, in say, two or three hours. But recording a song the day after a concert becomes bit of a strain. Ideally, it is best to give your voice a day's rest." Unnikrishnan was trained in Carnatic music by stalwarts like V.L. Seshadri, S. Ramanathan, T. Brinda, Savitri Satyamurthy, Calcutta Krishnamurthy and P. S. Narayanaswamy.

Unnikrishnan feels that aspiring singers must listen to different styles of music. "Ideally, a singer must listen to a lot of music, to all kinds of music. It has helped me and I'm sure you'll see the difference if you try. Understanding the varied styles is the key to singing and this is extremely important for one who aims at a career in film music.

"Trends have changed in film music down the years. In the past it was classical, then it moved into what we call `melisai,' folk was always there, and now the various shades of Western like Pop and Rap. Even if you are a classically trained singer it becomes imperative that you become open and flexible to these changing trends, different styles."

However, Unnikrishnan, who made a thumping debut in film music with the lilting A.R. Rahman number `Ennavale... .' (`Kadalan'), which also fetched him the National award, feels that playback singing is no longer a viable, dependable profession now.

"To make a mark now is not easy. There are so many voices that people are not bothered who is singing. Nobody is concerned about who the singer is, the song is what matters. Singers have lost their identity. I was fortunate to come in at a time when there was space for young singers to establish themselves."

But Unnikrishnan is still a brand image that sells. "I must be fortunate. Music directors still reserve some songs for me. Like the recent one in the film `Thambi.' It was a raga-based song and Vidyasagar wanted me to sing it. Set in Reetigowla raga, Vidyasagar wanted it to be strictly within the parameters of the raga. Reetigowla is not an ordinary scale raga like Kalyani or Mohanam. Any improvisation, he insisted, must be only within the raga but yet he did not want it be in the typical Carnatic style. During such instances I have felt that film songs can be difficult. When one works for someone like Raja Sir [Illayaraja], who adds a lot of folkish feel to his songs; one needs to understand the concept to render it well."

Not being able to sing more Malayalam songs and giving up serious cricket have been Unnikrishnan's regrets. Though some of his songs in films like `Devaragam,' `Devadaasi,' Mangalyapalak,' and a few albums have topped the charts, he has never been given his due in his mother tongue.

"A lot of people have a misconception that I'm not a Malayali and have doubts about my diction. There are a lot of young singers around and they may find it a problem bringing me down from Chennai for recordings. Recently, I recorded for a Malayalam film. But I don't know what has happened to it. It was supposed to be a duet with Manjari. I would surely love to contribute more to Malayalam music."

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