S.Janaki’s songs in Malayalam – Part I

The Nightingale in God’s Own Country- Part 1

I promised I would return with a sequel to the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ that had appeared in April to celebrate Janaki’s birthday and to commemorate her completing 50 years in film music. And with a view to have a sense of completion in the sequel, I set about documenting her career in other languages in brief. But I soon gave up the attempt in sheer frustration, for Janaki’s stupendous achievements in each language defy any attempt at abridgment. Hence, here I am with an inevitable attempt at a detailed look at the diva’s career in each language. Let me begin with Malayalam, for even while Tamil and Telugu cinema chose to offer Janaki only sporadic employment in the 50s and 60s, (that she made the best use of the opportunities that came her way in these languages is another point altogether!), it was Malayalam and Kannada cinema that embraced the young singer and welcomed her unreservedly.

Soon after her first Tamil and Telugu songs, Janaki made her debut in other languages like Malayalam, Kannada and Sinhalese. I remember reading that she had sung film songs in six languages in her very first year! With her innate flair for languages and phenomenal grasping skills, this would not have been a daunting task for this extraordinary woman. Many of you would remember a vividh bharati programme called ‘madhur geetham’ between 4.30 and 5.30 in the evening that was devoted to film songs from the four southern languages with the announcements in Hindi. As a child I used to listen to it immediately on returning home from school, before running out to play, and I still remember being filled with wonder at Janaki being a regular feature in all the four languages, day after day.

* * * *

‘kEshaadhi paadham thozhunnEn, kEshavaa, kEshaadhi paadham thozhunnEn…’ Lines that floated serenely in the air in the temple precincts and made me stand still with inexplicable bliss when on a pilgrimage to Guruvayoor. My friend from Cochin who accompanied me informed that this famous devotional song can be heard everyday, not only in Guruvayoor, but also in most temples all over Kerala. I was particularly intrigued, for the piety-soaked voice that had sung those lines was Janaki’s. And much later my search for the song unfolded the fact that this was originally a movie song (pagal kinaavu/ 1967), composed by B.A. Chidambaranath and sung by Janaki. But the composition had long outgrown the cocoon of a film song, and over the years has metamorphosed into one of the best-loved hymns in Malayalam!

Janaki’s first song in Malayalam was for the movie ‘minnunathellaam ponnalla’ (1957/ Kerala Arts), recorded at the AVM studios. The song was ‘iruL mooduyagO en vaazhvil’, written by P.N. Dev and composed by S.N. Chami. Malayalam is a difficult language for any outsider to master, but Janaki got the accent and the rich niceties of the language right within no time. However, ever humble, Janaki acknowledges, “Malayalam was a challenge indeed. But I worked hard on the language and managed to get the pronunciation right under the guidance of composers and lyricists”. In this connection, Janaki recalls an ardent fan of hers called Leela Chacko. Apparently during those early years, Leela used to call her up everyday, and Janaki’s daily conversation with Leela resulted in significant improvement in her Malayalam. I happened to watch a part of music show titled ‘Little Masters’ in one of the TV channels two weeks back, and was delighted to see a group of talented children sitting with Janaki in the lawns of her beautiful house and sing in her presence and seek valuable guidelines from the venerable veteran. To a question from a child about singing in other languages, Janaki replied with a twinkle in her eye that languages are easy to master, especially when one is young, and that each language has certain key syllables and the secret lies in mastering them. How simple it sounds!

Janaki gained so much proficiency in the language that she soon sounded like a native Malayali. And even while singing in the language, she has employed subtle variations in accent and pronunciation to suit the particular region/ caste/ religion of the character. So much so that I have some friends from Kerala here who look at me pityingly whenever I assert that Janaki’s mother tongue is Telugu! I have even heard that Janaki once objected to a tune when the rhythm set by the composer resulted in the word ‘maadala’ in the line ‘maadala poo pOloru’ being wrongly emphasized as ‘maddala’. The composer, who was not a Malayali, looked askance at her insistence, but when she explained that ‘maadala’ meant pomegranate while ‘maddala’ referred to a folk percussion instrument, he readily changed the rhythm to Janaki’s satisfaction. The composer was none other than the venerable Salil Chowdhury and the song, the unforgettable ‘shaarikE en shaarikE’ (swapnam/1973).

I have listened to some of Janaki’s early numbers in Malayalam and they were indeed a startling revelation, for I was quite unaware of her rich legacy in the language. Her duet with A.M. Raja, ‘raakuyilE raakuyilE’ from the movie ‘minnal padayali’ (1959) composed jointly by P.S. Diwakar and Ranganathan for instance, is a tantalizing treat from a bygone era. Two other enthralling songs from the same movie have managed to survive the ravages of time as well- the memorable SJ solo ‘valayalitta kochchu kaigaLE’ and the dainty duet ‘poovanamE pudhuvanamE’ where PBS and Janaki usher in the magic that only they are capable of.

Janaki then sang ‘mangalam neruka’ for V. Dakshinamoorthi in the movie ‘seetha’, which marked the beginning of a endearing and enduring relationship between the exacting composer and the gifted singer. Swami’s albums like umminithanga/1961, sathyabhama/1963, susheela/1963, sree guruvayoorappan/1964 had some exquisite numbers by Janaki. Over the years, the revered Swami summoned Janaki repeatedly to do justice to his intricate compositions like ‘kadhayoNNu kEttu’ (Cochin Express/1967), ‘vidilla nyaan’ with Kamukara Purushothaman (Lady Doctor/1967), ‘padunna puzha’ (padunna puzha/1968), ‘vaikathashtami naaLil’ with Yesudas (bharyamaar sookshikkuka/1968), ‘kaNNil kaNNil nOkkiyirunnaal’ (Danger Biscuit/1969). Kanoor Deluxe/1969 had the famous Janaki solo ‘varumallo raavil priyathaman’ and the jaunty ‘ee muhabathendoru’ where Janaki is serenaded by PBS and Yesudas on either side. The same year saw the release of another brilliant album ‘pooja pushpam’, wherein Swami gave Janaki the solo ‘mOhamO dhaahamO’ and the duet with Yesudas ‘raaja malligE.’ kalpana (‘amrithavarshini’ with L.R. Eswari and ‘kunnathE poomaram’) and sthree (‘ínnalE neeyoyoru’ and ‘kavitha paadi raakuyil’) were Janaki’s songs for Swami in 1970 that held the listeners captive. ‘govardhanagiri kayiluyarthi’ (marunaattil oru malayali/1971), ‘valampiri sankhil’ (maya/1972), ‘oru chumbanam oru madhu chumbanam’ (driksakshi/1973), ‘abhinavajeevitha’ (poimukhankaL/1973), ‘aalOla neela viLochanangaL’ with Yesudas (veendum prabhatham/1973) ‘chale chalicha’ (udhaya/1973), ‘mullapoompallilO mukkuttikkavillilO’ with Yesudas (arakaLLan mukkakkaLLan/1974), ‘pournami chandrika’ (alakaL/1974), ‘manadhoru kavadiyattam’ (chumaduthangi/1975), ‘ellaam neeyE soure’ (sreemad bhagavad geetha/1977) – Janaki continued to gladden the heart of the venerable master with her impeccable performances. In the 1982 movie ‘gaanam’, Dakshinamoorthi extracted some intricate classical numbers from SJ such as ‘sindoora vigraham’ and ‘aalaapanam aalaapanam’ (a stellar ragamaalika with Yesudas, this one!). The musical ‘ente mOhangaL poovaninju’ had Janaki rendering some challenging compositions of Swami like the lilting duet with Yesudas ‘nananju nEriya patturumaal’, the dazzling solo ‘thamburu thaanE shruthi meetti’ and the melancholic duet with Yesudas ‘aashaada meghangal nizhalukalerinju’. The crowing glory, of course, was when Swami picked Janaki to match vocals with trained singers like Balamuralikrishna and Yesudas in the in the Tyagaraja krithi ‘raghuvara’ wherein Janaki’s swift, spellbinding swara repartees to Balamuralikrishna and Yesudas are truly awesome, considering how negligible her formal training in classical music was. She would repeat this feat under Ilaiyaraja’s baton when the movie was remade in Tamil in 1986 as ‘isaipaadum thendRal’.

Listen to ‘íniyurangoo’ by S.Janaki from vilakku vaangiya veeNa (1971)
Lyrics by P. Bhaskaran
Music by V. Dakshinamoorthi

Listen to ‘aalapanam’ by K.J.Yesudas & S. Janaki from gaanam (1982)
Lyrics by Sreekumaran Thampi
Music by V. Dakshinamoorthi

Perceiving the intrinsic worth of the young singer, stalwarts like M.B. Sreenivasan, K. Raghavan and B.A. Chidambaranath vied with each other in offering her challenging numbers that saw her ascend the firmament of fame. MBS took Janaki into his fold right from kalpadukal/1962 in which Janaki rendered that unforgettable duet ‘tharil thararaO’ with K.P. Udhayabhanu. In the same year, she sang ‘ellaam kazhinju thelinju’ (swarajyam), ‘valamnu valamnu’ (kaNNnum karalum) and ‘asavasantham’ (snEhadeepam) for MBS. Her duets with Kamukara Purushotaman, ‘chandrantE prabhayil’ and ‘odum pava chadum pava’ in snEhadeepam retain their popularity to this day. Over the years, songs such as ‘kaNNezhuthi pottumthottu’, ‘varum oru naaL sukham’, ‘kanyamariyamE punyaprakasamE’ (all from althara/1964), ‘vaarmukilE vaarmukilE’, ‘thaazhathE chOlayil’ (both from puthri/1966), ‘rajahamsamE’ (aparadhini/1968), ‘chirukkumbOl koodE’ (kadal/1968), ‘aathiraakkuliruLLa’, ‘yamunatheera viharini’ (both from madhuvidhu/1970), ‘araLi thulasi raajamalli’ (iniyoru janmam tharu/ 1972) and ‘swapnam kaaNukayO’ (prathikaaram/1972) cemented the endearing bond between the composer and the singer. The high-pitched ‘veLichchamE nayichaalum Bethlahemil kaalam koluthiya’ tuned by MBS, (vidhyarthikalE ithelE ithilE/1971) has Janaki adding gloss to the composer’s famed choir arrangement. Besides these solos, Janaki has sung some memorable duets with Yesudas for MBS such as ‘chandrapalunku maNimala’ (kanyakumari/1974), and ‘swarnavigrahamE’ (swarnavigraham/1974). ‘viswamahaakshEtra sannidhiyil’ (idavazhiyE poocha minda poocha/1979) is said to have fetched Janaki heartfelt accolades from the composer. ‘oru vattam koodi’ (chillu/1982) is another bewitching MBS composition that Janaki did ample justice to.

Listen to the award winning ‘ettumanoorambalathil ezhunnallathu munnil’ sung by S. Janaki from oppOl (1980)
Lyrics by P. Bhaskaran
Music by M.B. Sreenivasan.

Janaki was the favorite singer of composer K. Raghavan, and their collaboration has brought forth of some of Malayalam cinema’s most popular numbers. ‘kothikallE kothikkallE rebecca’ from the 1963 movie ‘Rebecca’ is such a simple, endearing number, recalling an unhurried, tranquil past, while ‘karikkodi thanalathu kattilE kiLi peNNin’ that opens with ‘unarunaroo unni poovE unni poovE’ from ‘ammayE kaaNaan’ of the same vintage showcases Janaki in her breezy, blithe elements. Decades have passed by, yet Raghavan’s albums such as unniyarcha/1961, shyamala chEchi/1965, shyamalachEchi/1965, shyamala chEchi/1965, nagaramE nanni/1967, asuravithu/1968, kakkathamburaatti/1970, kurukshEtram/1970, ummachu/1971, anandasyanam/1972, pathiraavum pakalveLichavum/1974, kaNNapanunni/1977, thachOli ambu/1978, mamankam/1979, sandhyaragam/1979, kaattilE paattu/1982, nyaan oNNu parayattE/1982 and pallankuzhi/1982 brim with the undiminished exuberance of Janaki.

Listen to ‘manjani poo nilaavu’ sung by S. Janaki from nagaramE nanni (1967)
Lyrics by P. Bhaskaran
Music by K. Raghavan

B.A. Chidambaranath, who passed away recently, was another composer who managed to extract the best out of Janaki. Janaki’s songs for Chidambaranath like ‘kalithOzhimarennE’ and the duet with Shanta P. Nair ‘kadavathu thoni’ (muRappeNNu/1965), ‘karpoora thEnmaavil’ (rajamalli/1965), ‘viravalan kuruvi’ and the duet with Yesudas ‘kungumapoovukkuL poothu’ (kayamkulam kochunni/1966), ‘OdakkuzhaLOchayumE’ and the duet with B. Vasantha ‘pathinEzhaam vayasinttE’ (kalli peNNu/1966), ‘oru thulasi’ (Station Master/1966), ‘nidrathan neeraazhi’, ‘guruvaayooril oru’ and ‘kEshaadhi paadham’ (pakal kinaavu/1967), ‘OlOlam kavillulla’ (kunjali markkar/1967), ‘aalOlam’ with P. Leela (sahadharmini/1967), her three duets with Yesudas ‘mayilpeeli mizhigaLil’, ‘anjana kuLir’ and ‘andhimalarkkiL’ (chattambi kavala/ 1969), ‘Olam kunjOlam’, ‘thaamarappovE’ and the duet with Balamuralikrishna ‘neela neela vaanamitha’ (kalippava/1972) showcase the talents of both Chidambaranath and Janaki.

Listen to the serene ‘kEshaadhi paadham’ sung by S. Janaki from pakal kinaavu (1967)
Lyrics by P. Bhaskaran
Music by B.A. Chidambaranath.