S. Janaki - Ode To A Nightingale
writes: Thou wast not born for death, immortal bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown..- John Keats (Ode to a Nightingale)
As our own nightingale S. Janaki celebrates her 69th birthday today
, let us offer the remarkable singer our best wishes for a long life filled with good health and happiness. And to mark this joyous occasion, here is the first installment of a two-part dedication to the diva…
* * * *
The imposing Lalita Kala Thoranam at Hyderabad was filled with people on 4th April 2007. The occasion was the celebration of a remarkable singer completing 50 years in the Indian film industry
. Celebrities and commoners thronged the venue, eager to offer their felicitations to a person whom they all adore- S. Janaki. It was on 4th April 1957 that Janaki recorded her first ever film song, and the Andhra Pradesh State Cultural Department and Andhra Pradesh Kala Vedika joined hands to organize a magnificent jamboree to mark this momentous event. Tastefully designed hoardings and aesthetically pleasing decorations added to the artistic ambience of the hall. All the hoardings, fliers and invitations had the familiar face flashing the famous guileless smile, the same trademark smile that remained serenely in place all through the 50 years, through highs and lows, and even more astounding, during all her recordings and stage performances, whatever be the song, irrespective of the intricacy of the composition, tempo or pitch…
Generations of singers had gathered in hordes to greet their beloved colleague. If Ravvu Balasaraswathi, K. Rani, P.B. Srinivas, P. Suseela and L. R Eswari represented the old-guard who were part of the golden era when Janaki made her debut, SPB was the reminder of the heady times when Janaki soared to the very pinnacle of popularity all over the South, and S.P. Shailaja and Chithra were the proud envoys of the younger generations who had Janaki as their role model and who were fortunate to enter the industry when the senior had several years of singing still left in her.
24 singers presented 50 songs of Janaki to mark the milestone. The doyenne began the show herself, going down in memory lane singing her first song in Telugu ‘neeyasa adiyasa’
. K.B. Tilak, the producer and director of the movie ‘M.L.A’ (1957/ Anupama) which had featured that song 50 years ago was seated right at front, no doubt filled with sepia toned memories of that day in the distant past when the nineteen year-old Janaki had made her debut in Telugu with this song. Filled with joy at his favorite co-singer being honoured thus and eager to do his mite, SPB came on stage and sang a few duets with Janaki. ‘ mounamElanOyi, malli malli idi raani rOju’
had the audience heave a wistful sigh for the wonderful times when the sheer magic of this singing pair ruled the airwaves. And when the chanteuse crooned ‘sirimalle poova’
(the Telugu version of ‘sendhoora poovE’
), the standing ovation that she received took a long time to subside.
Union Minister T. Subbirami Reddy, State Finance Minister K. Rosiah, IAS officer K.V. Ramana, Rallabandi Kavita Prasad, Dr. C. Narayana Reddy and the Chairman of the State Legislative Council, Chakrapani were some of the celebrity fans of Janaki who stayed all through the show, enjoying every minute of the event. Subbirami Reddy presented Janaki with a cheque for Rs. One Lakh. In his heartfelt words of encomium, the minister echoed the hopes of the thousands in the hall, when he wished aloud that the Government of India would honour Janaki with a Padma Bhushan.
When called upon to speak a few words in response, a visibly moved Janaki said, “"Millions of fans have showered so much affection on me all these years. They have secured my voice in their hearts. What more can I ask for as a singer!”
After a brief pause, flanked by a beaming Suseela and Eswari on either side and flashing her heartwarming smile, Janaki added, “Fifty years have gone by. But even today when I stand up to sing, I tingle with the same excitement that I felt while singing my first song!”
Where would have her thoughts wandered that emotional moment in that august assembly, I wonder… was she remembering her late father-in-law who was untiring in his efforts to get her a foothold in the film industry, or was she paying mental obeisance to the late Chalapathi Rao who gave Janaki her first song...was she lamenting the loss of her husband who had been her pillar of strength… would she have thought of the first 20 years of her career when she had to wait in the sidelines in Tamil film music despite the few songs that came her way becoming hugely popular, or the stupendous successes that she notched in Malayalam and Kannada during the same period, or was she recalling Ilaiyaraja and the unforgettable decades when she finally zoomed to the front ranks in Tamil film music as well and stayed ensconced there singing one marvel after another… Would she have remembered the awards and accolades that have been bestowed upon her, or was she lost in nostalgia thinking of the challenging compositions that she had sung with élan over the years, the generations of actresses from Vyjayanthimala to Vindhiya she had sung for, the galaxy of venerable composers, gifted lyricists and talented singers she had worked with who were no longer around to watch her cross this milestone… or was she simply filled with memories of the sleepy Pallapatla where it all began…
* * * *Sishtla Janaki
was born on April 23, 1938 in Pallapatla, an idyllic hamlet forming part of Repelle Taluk in Guntoor District. Nine children were born to her parents Sishtla Sriramamoorthi and Satyavathi, but only six daughters survived, Janaki being the fourth child. Little Janaki was a vivacious, outgoing child, who was always curious to know more about anything that caught her fancy. She surprised her elders repeatedly with her keen powers of observation and assimilation. A traveling circus happened to visit Pallapatla, and Janaki watched with wide-eyed wonder the acrobats performing their nimble stunts. The very next day the child became the toast of the neighbourhood when she nonchalantly repeated many of the stunts she had seen, including turning cartwheels and ropewalking!
Music, of course, was her mainstay. From the tender age of three, Janaki used to spend hours by the radio, fascinated at the variety of music that spurted from the ‘magic box’. And more often than not, she managed to remember and sing the lines that she had listened to, irrespective of the language or genre. Her elder sister was enrolled to learn music under G. Paidiswami. (Besides being a reputed vocalist, Paidiswami was also a Nadaswaram exponent. Singer A.P. Komala had been under his tutelage for a few years) Janaki used to accompany her sister on her music lessons, more out of curiosity than any serious inclination. One day at class, when her sister could not recall the notes that she had been taught the previous day, the precocious Janaki sang them with effortless élan, much to the amazement of Paidiswami. The delighted Guru volunteered to teach the child and thus Janaki came to learn the rudiments of classical music.
However, she had hardly completed few months of basic music lessons with Paidiswami when the venerable teacher passed away. Janaki was back to listening to the radio and singing to herself all that she listened to. ‘Mono actor’ and ‘fun doctor’ Vaidyula Chandrasekaram (who was to become her father-in-law later) recognized the spark in the girl, and took it upon himself to secure for her the opportunities and recognition that she deserved. The first step was getting Janaki to sing on stage. Chandarsekaram was invited to present a program at the local men’s college, and he persuaded Janaki to render a song in between. When the dhaavani-clad sixteen-year-old girl appeared on the stage, whistles and catcalls filled the air. Anyone would have been intimidated at such a raucous reception, but Janaki was unfazed. She went on to sing Lata’s bewitching ‘mEra dil yE pukaarE’
from Naagin. The audience sat in absolute silence, as though in a trance… and when she was done, the thunderous applause that greeted her was music to her ears…
In 1956 Janaki participated in a music competition held by All India Radio. The participants were asked to sing some classical compositions. Though bereft of formal training, Janaki won the second prize, receiving it from the hands of no less a person than the President of India, Dr. Rajendra Prasad. All this while, Chandrasekharam was unswerving in his efforts to get Janaki some more opportunities to showcase her singing skills. Janaki got married to Chadrasekaram’s son Vaidyula Ramaprasad during this time. At Ramprasad's insistence, Chandrasekharam wrote to the AVM Studious at Madras, telling them about Janaki’s talents. He received a reply from the Studious asking him to bring Janaki to Madras for an audition. So they traveled to distant Madras, the Mecca of their aspirations…
In Madras, Chandrasekaram took Janaki to the AVM Studious. After a voice test, she was found suitable and taken on the rolls as a staff artiste. However, Janaki’s first movie song was not for an AVM movie- it was for a Tamil film called ‘vidhiyin viLaiyaattu’
. Thathineni Chalapathi Rao was the composer who gave the nineteen year-old girl her very first movie song. The recording was slated between 9 in the morning and 1 in the afternoon on April 4, 1957. Janaki, who hardly knew a word of Tamil, sang her first ever film song ‘pEdhai ennaasai paazhaanathEnO’
. The pathos filled number was followed by another sad song. And by 1, both songs were recorded. The members of Chalapathi Rao’s orchestra, the audiographers and Chalapathi Rao himself were astounded at the speed at which the young girl grasped the finer aspects of the notes, the nuances of the tune, the subtleties of the unfamiliar language and the meaning of the lines and, without a single retake, delivered the songs with the grace and ease of a seasoned stalwart. Unperturbed by the thought that she was an aspiring singer making her debut, Janaki even spontaneously incorporated a few sobs and sighs of her own into the rendition, winning the joyful approbation of the legendary composer.
However, to Janaki’s eternal regret, fate did play, and a cruel trick at that- ‘vidhiyin viLaiyaattu’ proved a non-starter and the songs too were never released. The very next day, Janaki sang her first Telugu film song, for the movie ‘M.L.A.’ The recording was held at the Golden Studio. Written by Arudra, the song ‘neeyasa adiyasa chejare manipusa’
was composed by Pendyala Nageswara Rao. Janaki’s co-singer was the redoubtable Ghantasala, and the song became immensely popular…
* * * *
Janaki’s first Tamil song to be released was ‘kaNNukku nErE minnidum thaarai’
for the movie ‘magadalanaattu mary’
(20.12.1957/ Jaikumar Pictures). A devotional theme based on the story of Mary Magdalene, the movie was initially to be jointly produced by actor T.S. Baliah and M.L. Pathi. However, Baliah and Pathi fell out over some issues, and Pathi went ahead the produced the movie with a modest budget. Sam D. Dasan wrote the screenplay and dialogues. Sriram, Raghuveer, Kumari Thangam, G. Shakuntala and E. R. Sahadevan formed the cast.
A 22 year old young man called R. Parthasarathi made his debut as a full-fledged music director with ‘magadalanaattu mary’. Rangaswami Parthasarathi was a gifted musician who later composed music for a few more Tamil movies like ‘kalyaaNa maNdapam’, ‘avan piththanaa’, ‘paal manam’ and ‘kalyaaNa oorvalam’. Relocating to the U.S. in later years, Parthasarathi brought out several landmark albums of popular musicians under his ‘Oriental Records’ banner. He was also associated with IR’s Echo Company for a while.
For a romantic duet in ‘magadalanaattu mary’, Parthasarathi got the newcomer Janaki team up with the upcoming P.B. Srinivas, a singing pair that would create sensation in the coming years… Listen to the nineteen-year-old Janaki in this quaint number…Listen to kaNNukku nErE minnidum thaarai from magadalanaattu mary
[b]Sung by P.B. Srinivas and S. Janaki
Lyrics by M.P. Sivam
Music by R. Parthasarathi