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The eternal voice

Hema Iyer Ramani, Nov 25 2017, 23:18 IST
Vani Jairam

Vani Jairam

When Vani Jairam sang 'Bole Re Papihara' in Raag Miyan ki Malhar, it brought in a downpour of praise from all over along with five awards, including the coveted Mian Tansen Award from Sur Singar Samsad in 1971. This beautiful number, penned by Gulzar and set to tune by Vasant Desai, was an instant hit. It is 2017 and neither the singer nor the song seems to have faded from memory. "I still sing in the same pitch and scale as I did 47 years ago," says Vani Jairam quite simply, a fact I had to acknowledge as I heard her going into musical outpourings during the course of the interview.

Musical beginnings

Born into a family of nine, Vani Jairam, born as Kalaivani, was initiated into music at a very young age. "I could identify ragas even before I turned three," she admits. Her mother Padmavathi was a source of great inspiration to young Vani. When Kadalur Srinivasa Iyengar came home to teach Vani's sister music, he found young Vani very observant with a keen sense of grasping power. So, he began to teach Vani 'Dikshitar kritis' even when she was just five years old. When she was all of eight, her voice was heard for the first time over All India Radio. Her journey into Carnatic music saw her being tutored by two other gurus: T R Balasubramanian and R S Mani.

Like many in her generation, Vani sat glued to the radio set as she waited for Radio Ceylon to play her favourite numbers on Binaca Geetmala every Wednesday at 8 pm. She would not merely listen but would be able to render it perfectly in the original scale and pitch after she had listened to it. She secretly hoped that she would someday be able to make it big as a playback singer, an idea that did not receive any encouragement from her parents.

And so it was that Vani found a career in banking when she sought employment with State Bank of India. Marriage to Jairam saw her moving to Mumbai. Recognising his wife's talent, Jairam put her under the tutelage of Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan. Ustadji convinced her to bank only on music in her life ahead, a decision she never once hesitated to take nor regretted. Vani acknowledges the vital role her husband Jairam played in her career, not merely supporting her from outside, but giving up his own to allow her to follow her dreams.

When the celebrated music director Vasant Desai listened to her, he immediately provided opportunities, and thus began Vani's foray into Marathi songs. The big break came in 1971 when Hrishikesh Mukherjee signed Vasant Desai to score the music for his movie Guddi. Desai immediately signed Vani for the film. The first song that she recorded for the film was not 'Bole Re...' but a bhajan. But sadly, it did not see the light of the day. However, the other two songs surged to become chartbusters.

She was soon being signed by well-known music directors €“ O P Nayyar, Naushad, Madan Mohan and Kalyanji-Anandji. When Gulzar invited Pandit Ravishankar to score the music for Meera, it was Vani who once again won the hearts of millions with her poignant rendering of the bhajans. Her training in ghazals, bhajans and light Hindustani besides Carnatic music saw her earning her place among the giants in the field. It also won her a Filmfare award, her first, though the film bombed at the box office.

Pandit Kumar Gandharva, impressed with her fine timbre, agreed to sing a duet ('Runanubandhachya') with her. She also had the honour of working with Pandit Birju Maharaj. On another occasion, she had the privilege of Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra accompanying her on the pakhawaj for a recording of Jayadeva's Gita Govinda, composed in the odissi style of singing by Prafulla Kar.

Soon, Vani sang for the Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada film industries. Vani breezed in with her rendition of 'Malligai En Mannan', where she charmed her way into the hearts of the Tamil audiences. She established her hold with the song 'Ezhu Swarangalukkul' that won her the first National award in 1976. The much talked about Telugu films Sankarabharanam and Swati Kiranam again won her National awards in 1980 and 1982.

A diverse portfolio

Her ability to sing in different genres of music €“ film, light, classical, bhajan is what has kept her as a much sought-after artiste even after a span of 47 years. More importantly, she has been blessed with a voice that seems to be ageless and evergreen like some of her very memorable numbers. Her 'Hum Ko Man Ki Shakti Dena' is a school prayer that is on the lips of many a school student.

It is no small wonder then that the Filmfare (South) award was bestowed upon Vani in 2013. More recently, she has been applauded again for her work in Malayalam films: 1983, Action Hero Biju and Pulimurugan. Earlier this year, she was invited by the North American Film Awards (NAFA) where she was presented with the Best Female Playback Singer for 2017, and the All Malayali Association of Chennai conferred upon her the Sargashrestra Puraskaram Award, making her the first woman to receive it.

For Vani, who will be turning 72 this week, it has been a long and satisfying journey. Ironically, though the film Meera failed to take off at the box office, Vani today is sought after as the real-life Meera who sings her way into the hearts of her listeners.

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