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The melody imperial

His was a voice that had a rare richness of both quality and quantity. Cultured innovatively, it could actuate the entire diapason of melody from the very sedate to the vivacious and with radiant repose. He could felicitously articulate a wide range of pitch (sruthi), traverse over two and half octaves and amazingly with the same vigour emanate an amalgam of nectarine sweetness and silken stentor. Meticulous clarity, an ingenious twist in punctuation, modulation and intoning, coupled with an import of soulful meditation on every syllable, both lyrical and musical, marked his singing. Backed up by the in-depth knoweldge accrued through intense training and hence the skill in the exposition of Carnatic vocal music, his rendering was paradigmatic of an aesthetically evocative offering of the infinite ramifications of human emotions, the `navarasas'.

That was the play-back singer par excellence, Venkateswara Rao, the melody imperial, popularly known by his 'inti peru', Ghantasala.

In fact, he started his career singing only classical music even while he was doing the diploma course at the M.R. Government College of Music and Dance, Vizianagaram. Born in Choutapalli village in Krishna district on December 4, 1922, inheriting the family flair for music, Ghantasala started singing even as a kid. When he was 11 years old, he lost his father Surayya, and on the advice of his mother Rattamma, the lad sold away the gold ring, which he got as a gift for his talent in singing, and joined the music college after undergoing all sorts of ordeals. In spite of the miserable plight he was in because of acute poverty, he came out in flying colours with the diploma. Ghantasala soon started eking out a living by giving concerts at weddings and at Vinayaka, Durga and Sri Rama navaratri festivals. Unable to make both ends meet, he used to act in mythological plays along with some stalwarts of the stage.

Meanwhile, his intense patriotic fervour landed him in jail to serve a term of 18 months of rigorous imprisonment for being active in the Quit-India Movement. After that he got married to Savitri, his maternal niece of Peddapulivarru village where he got in contacat touch with the then famous cine writer, Samudrala Raghavacharya, who persuaded him to go to Madras with him and made him settle there in 1944. Ghantasala was introduced to doyens like Chitoor V. Nagaiah and B.N. Reddy. The actor in him, especially his stage experience, but not his talent in singing fetched him assignments to start with. He did bit roles in 'Sitaramajanmam' produced by Ghantasala Balaramayya, 'Thyagayya' by Nagaiah and the likes and was heard only in chorus songs. He was turned down by the HMV Gramaphone Company as it thought his voice was too loud for the microphone! However, to his great relief, the famous poet, playwright and musician, Balantrapu Rajanikantha Rao, then working with All India Radio, lent all-out encouragement engaging Ghantasala regularly for singing classical music, participating in the musical plays, etc., in the programmes put on air by Madras AIR.

The year 1945 was a turning point in his life as he not only got a break for singing a play-back solo for the hero, Narayana Rao, in 'Swarga seema', directed by B.N. Reddy, but also to be an associate of the great music director, C.R. Subbaraman, by the Bharani studios for its feature film 'Ratnamala'. By 1946, thanks to the efforts of Peketi Sivaram, one of the popular cine commedians, who took charge of HMV, cut a disc, `Chaatupadyam' (evanescent verse) on one side and a light song on the other. With more and more opportunities coming his way to sing play-back - solos, duets and background songs - besides assignments as associate music director for many films on one hand and his recordings for various gramaphone companies on the other, Ghantasala established himself not only as a singer but also as a music director in demand. He got the opportunity of being an independent music director first for the picture, 'Srilakshmamma', released in 1950.

Despite his miserable failure as a producer, there was no need to look back any more. While he set exquisite music for more than 100 films, he sang more than 13,000 songs in Telugu and Tamil, in addition to many more for the gramaphone companies. He lent voice for almost all the actors in the main and the supporting cast constituting a variety of heroes, anti-heroes, commedians, other charecters of young, middle-aged and old donned by stalwarts in mythological, historical, folk and social films.

Such was Ghantasala's versatility. He not only sang with an affected modulation imparting an effect of the tonal qualities of the particular actor to whom he sang play-back but also enchantingly captured the mood along with the special attributes of the character relevant in the particular situation.

With passionate urgency in his rendering, he stirred the very souls of all categories of listeners and their unfathomable yearnings alike by his picturesqe visualisation of the lyrical content in the sound medium.

The period from about 1947 till he died on February 11, 1974, was a saga of Ghantasala's colossal contribution to the contemporary cultural scene which set an exemplary trend of exposition of both semi-classical and 'desi' (music of the common people) on one hand and the rendering of Telugu Padyam (prosodial verse) on the other. The voice remains indeciduously haunting for ever.

A. RAMALINGA SASTRY

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