During the 53rd edition of the Bengaluru Ganesh Utsava, veteran singer Vani Jairam was in Bengaluru to share the stage with fellow singers P Susheela and Vijay Prakash.
When we caught up with the legend hours before her performance, she was struggling to find some quiet amid the din of rehearsals.
Finding quietude has not been difficult for this artiste, who suffered the after-effects of a great deal of opportunism in the Hindi film industry in the 1970s and chose to leave the vitiated space and carve her own niche elsewhere.
Today, Vani Jairam, who was born in 1945 in Tamil Nadu, has recorded several successful albums across different genres, performed to packed houses in India and abroad, has won the National Film Award for Best Female Playback Singer three times and has taken home numerous state awards for her work in Hindi, Tamil, Gujarati, Marathi, Marwari, Haryanvi, Bengali, Tulu, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu and Oriya music.
Vani, who is most loved by Kannadigas for her series of famous duets with Dr Rajkumar, has worked with leading music directors from South India. From lighting the lamp at the first concert of a young teen who later became known as A R Rahman, to working with M S Viswanathan, M B Sreenivasan, K V Mahadevan, M K Arjunan and Ilayaraja, she has done it all.
During the telephonic interview, Vani burst into songs spontaneously and as you marvelled at her range and the freshness of her voice, she said modestly, “When I rehearse for concerts, a lot of technicians ask me how I am able to touch the same scales I sang in decades ago. I just lead a simple, disciplined life, that’s all.”
She refused to name Lata Mangeshkar as the reason behind her disillusionment with Hindi film music. “I won’t take any names. It is all in the past and what happened has been documented well by many film historians. I have no regrets and no negativity.”
Excerpts from the conversation:
Duets with Dr Rajkumar
I remember meeting Dr Rajkumar for the first time during a stage performance with music director Vijaya Bhaskar and composer G K Venkatesh. We went on to collaborate on many songs. He was very fond of my songs and made it a point to include me in the musical scores of all his home productions. I fact, I have requested his wife to release a CD of our duets.
The teen Rahman
I remember singing a hugely popular song Ashadamasam Athmavil Moham for R K Shekhar, who was a gifted composer. I remember meeting his son Dilip when he was just 13 or 14 but had already formed a band. Later, he converted to Islam and became known as A R Rahman.
When I was given a lifetime achievement award, he was the one who presented it to me. He recalled how I had lit the lamp for his first major show.
He said that he regretted not working with me more often and that he had great respect for me as a human being. It was so moving to see that he held me in such great regard, that he was so humble despite his global success. In this industry, people become arrogant after just one hit.
Back in the days, songs were situational and that is why they had meaning, context and melody. Today, songs are inserted for the sake of entertainment alone and sometimes, the playback singer’s voice does not even go with the heroine’s. But as long as it can be choreographed with 40-50 dancers, who cares? Today, where is the kind of choreography that you saw in Raj Tilak (1958) where Padmini and Vyjayanthimala danced together?
Her big break
I was learning classical music from Ustad Abdul Rahman Khan saheb. Khan saheb happened to meet music director Vasant Desai and told him, “Ek ladki hai..deemag bahut tez hai aur awaz bhi acchi hai (There is a girl..has a sharp brain and a sweet voice).” I went to meet Vasant da and he liked my voice very much. Around that time, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand became a big hit and he wanted to make Guddi (1971) next. He went to FTII (The Film and Television Institute of India), chose Jaya Bhaduri to play the lead. Amitabh Bachchan was to be cast opposite her but post Anand, he became well-known and Hrishi da replaced him with Bengali actor Samit Bhanja because he wanted someone who could play a regular boy. Vasant da then called me to sing three songs, two of which, Bole Re Papihara and Humko Mann Ki Shakti Dena, became really popular and won me multiple awards.
Hari Bin Kaise Jiyun Re was another song recorded for Guddi and Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia played the flute. Another milestone was singing for Gulzar’s Meera for Pandit Ravi Shankar who laughingly told me, “I got a telegram from almost every singer wanting to sing for Meera..except for you!”
What I learnt from being denied opportunities that were meant for me is that you are no one to snatch anything away from anyone. You cannot stop anyone’s journey. There is space for everyone in this world. Vasant Desai, who was like a mentor, said once, “If you can face yourself in the mirror each day and say to yourself that you did not cheapen yourself for a personal or professional gain today, that is the biggest reward and award.” I can say that in all the years I have worked in multiple industries, my personal and professional lives have not been besmirched by anything negative. I have never snatched anyone’s due. That is my reward.
Humility is a gift
What is there to feel proud about in life? I have worked with legends like L V Prasad, Dr Rajkumar and Mohammed Rafi and they did not have a trace of arrogance. I remember singing with Rafi saab for O P Naiyyar. I told him I worshipped him and he said he really liked my voice and gave me an autographed picture because I had asked for it.
Whatever we have, it is a gift from above. You cannot take credit for anything or even feel great about your own humility because even that is a sign of arrogance. If you have talent but also arrogance, you are not gifted enough. I still cook all my meals at home and shop for vegetables myself. I live a simple, boring life where a spiritual perspective simplifies everything. People ask how I am able to stay so calm amid all the conflicts in the world. It is because I choose to be so. We must love our fellow beings and let go of grudges.
Reema Moudgil works for The New Indian Express, is the author of Perfect Eight, the editor of Chicken Soup for the Soul-Indian Women, a translator who recently interpreted Dominican poet Josefina Baez’s book Comrade Bliss Ain’t Playing in Hindi, an artist, a former Urdu RJ and a mother. She won an award for her writing/book from the Public Relations Council of India in association with Bangalore University, has written for a host of national and international magazines since 1994 on cinema, theatre, music, art, architecture and more, has exhibited her art in India and the US…and hopes to travel more and to grow more dimensions as a person. And to be restful, and alive in equal measure.