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‘Sing in your natural voice’

G. JAYAKUMAR

S. Janaki turns 70 on April 23 but her voice retains that quality that has endeared the singer to generations of music lovers.

Photo: N. Sridharan

Evergreen voice: S. Janaki.

A career that has spanned over five decades. A repertoire of over 20,000 songs. Four national awards for the best female playback singer. Thirty-one State Government awards – 14 from Kerala, 10 from Andhra Pradesh and seven from Tamil Nadu. With all this to her credit, it is little wonder that S. Janaki is called the Nightingale of the South.

And, now, even as she turns 70 on April 23, her voice retains the quality that endeared her to millions of listeners.

Eventful journey

Born in Pallapatla, Repalle village, Guntur District of Andhra Pradesh, Janaki is said to have started singing at the age of three. She began learning music from a nadaswaram vidwan Paidiswamy. She moved to Chennai on the advice of her uncle Dr. Chandrashekar and made her debut in the Tamil film ‘Vidhiyin Vilayattu’ in 1957.

‘Vidhiyin Vilayadal,’ however, was not released. ‘Magdalanaattu Mary’ (Tamil) was the first film that had Janaki’s songs. ‘Kunnukku naere minnidum thaarai…,’ a duet with P. B. Sreenivas, is now considered Janaki’s first film song.

The singer hit the limelight with the song ‘Singaravellane Deva’ for the Tamil film ‘Konjum Salangai.’ She virtually competed with the late nadaswaram vidwan Karaikurichi Arunachellam under the music direction of S.M.Subbiah.

Working with legends

Ask her about her memorable experiences and she says: “I consider it my greatest privilege to have been able to associate with so many giants in the field of music. I have worked with Bismillah Khan, Chitti Babu, L.Vaidyanathan, Hariprasad Chaurasia, M.S.Gopalakrishnan ...” she reels out a list.

“There was an interesting incident during a recording with the late Bismillah Khan. The song was for the Kannada film ‘Sanadi Appanna.’ Bismillah Khan listened to my singing on his headphones with rapt attention and kept saying ‘woh woh kya aawaz hai.’ And the music director had to remind him that he was supposed to play the shehnai.”

She also sang compositions by Hariprasad Chaurasia for a couple of Telugu and Malayalam films. She has been accompanied by tavil and nagaswaram artistes Valayapetti and Tiruvizha Jaishankar.

“Yet another unforgettable experience was at the recording of the songs of the film ‘Moodalmanju,’ under the baton of music director Usha Khanna. As I was not well, I wanted the recording to be postponed. However, that was not to be. The recording was in Bombay. Surprisingly, all the three songs proved to be hits – ‘Manasa manivenuvil,’ ‘Mukile,’ and ‘Unaru vegam nee.’”

In addition to South Indian languages, Janaki has rendered songs in Hindi, Bengali, Konkini, Tulu, Baduga, Sanskrit, Sinhalese, English, German and Japanese. How does she go about singing in languages she is not familiar with?

“First I get to know the meaning of the lyrics. Then I write it down in Telugu or Hindi and learn the pronunciation. Then, only after I understand the bhava, do I sing.”

One of Janaki’s rare qualities is her expertise in voice modulation. She simulated the voice of a five-year old for the song ‘Kokkamandi konanirachi’ (‘Chiriyo chiri’ ).

Janaki is all praise for the present generation of singers and says there is nothing wrong in encouraging fusion music.

She, however, has a word of advice for young singers: “Sing in your natural voice. Control your breath even while humming. If you try to imitate someone else, you will not be able to prove your mettle as a singer.”

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