Murali Nair profiles the maestro and his music

With the arrival of the new millennium one of the first celebrations Kerala had seen was the Shashtipoorthi of Yesudas, the musical legend. The celebrations initiated by the Government and music lovers of Kerala must have come as a surprise to Yesudas; An intensely private person, he usually spends his birthdays quietly at the Mookambika Saraswati Temple. True to the malayalee spirit and tradition, Yesudas shun pomp and show on such personal occasions unlike many celebrities who throw glittering bashes on such occasions.

Yesudas was born in Fort Cochin on January 10th, 1940 to the musician and stage actor Mr. Augustine Joseph Bagavathor and Mrs. Alikutty Joseph. His father spotted his musical talent at a very young age, and became his first guru at the age of 5 giving him the early musical lessons. Young Yesudas had to face a great many odds during his school years. Against the background of bad economic conditions of the time, his family had to cope with meager financial resources. To compound the financial problems, Yesudas had to overcome other barriers as Carnatic music was then accessible only to the privileged few.

His devotion to music, determination and hard work enabled him to become the best student in the Music School, and go on for further studies at the Swati Thirunal Music College, in Thiruvananthapuram. He could not complete the studies at the college due to financial reasons. He left for Madras with Rs.16 in search of a career in singing in films. In 1961 he sang his first song for the Malayalam film, Kaalppadukal, which was a big hit. Rest is history.

Years later, on establishing his career, he resumed his studies under the great musician Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, becoming his favourite disciple and giving Carnatic concerts along with his guru. Chembai's recognition compelled other stalwarts in Carnatic music to accept Yesudas.

Yesudas has sung over 30,000 songs in Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi and Telugu, and achieved endearment of music lovers regardless of the geographical boundaries. He has also sung in other Indian languages. He achieved this great success and, in spite of the religious, linguistic and regional hurdles he faced. When he started singing in Tamil and Hindi his pronunciation was criticised. It is a great challenge for a Malayali to achieve recognition outside Kerala.

The President of India conferred on him the coveted title of Padmashree in 1973. Annamalai University honoured him with a doctorate in 1989. In 1992 Kerala Government and ` The Sangeeta Nataka Academy' conferred the title of `Aashtana Gayakan’, For his unique contribution in the field of Music, he was selected for the prestigious National Citizens’ Award in 1994. He has won seven National awards, five of them for his songs in Malayalam and one each for Telugu and Hindi. In 1965, USSR invited him to perform concerts in various cities.

Great fame and fortunes have not affected the humility and simplicity of this gifted artist. An ardent believer in God, one might wonder whether he has also been on a non-dogmatic spiritual sojourn, following Sri Narayana Guru's message,

"One caste, One Religion and One God for all Humans".

Religion is a path to God, and music is his religion Singing in certain places had given him inspiration when he was young. To get his inspirational recharge, he says, he continues this practice even now. In a recent interview with rediff.com, he said, “There is a small chapel near my birthplace in Cochin. My father first took me there when I was 12 and I sang there. Ever since, I have been singing at the chapel every year, without any break. Two other occasions that I would not like to miss are the Chembai festival and the Thyagaraja festival. And Mookambika Temple - I go there to mediate in front of Goddess Saraswathi, and sing at the Saraswathi mandapam for sometime at night - just an offering to the Goddess."

It is ironic that prohibition of entry to non-Hindus has denied him a chance to sing in Guruvayoor, Tripoonithara and Padmanabha-puram temples, though his songs in praise of these deities are regularly played in these temples' precincts.

His songs have given great delight and entertainment to people all ages, and have made them forget momentarily their troubles. Many of his old numbers, romantic or otherwise, strikes a common chord with many Malayalees. His songs in other languages are equally well appreciated. As every year passes the melody and depth of his music are breaking new grounds. His passion for music continues. Today he is the only musician who has earned a name in both light music and classical music. Coming from humble beginnings, surmounting great odds and reaching the pinnacle of success and staying there for several decades is the ultimate testimony for his devotion to music.

Back >>