In December 2012, Kochi in Kerala became India’s first city to host the global Biennale, a migratory art universe begun over a century ago in Europe. This confluence of international contemporary art, held once every two years, is an event designed to fascinate us—this time for three months, with over 80 artists from two dozen nations exhibiting their paintings, sculpture, and other forms of artistic expression. Much of this display is currently on in the streets of the quaint part of the city, called Fort Kochi.
It is here, in this very part of this lovely town that a gifted singer called KJ Yesudas was born on 10th January, 1940. Of course the locals are aware of this man. They are delighted to point you to his house and share memories about this legend. Of his singing some 30,000 songs in most Indian—and some foreign—languages, etc. But radiate away from the city into any part of Kerala—indeed into the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu too, and you are bound to find him recognized and revered there as well. They call him Dasettan, means loving elder brother. For some he is known as just KJ, and these initials are at least as popular there as the filmmaker KJo’s are in the northern parts of the country. For many more, the singer KJ Yesudas (Kattassery Joseph “Servant of Jesus”) is called by another name, Gana Gandharvan (Heavenly singer).
How did this man win so many hearts to be addressed so endearingly? Here’s a bit of what we know:
Yesudas’ father was a classical singer, and fittingly became his first guru. The student then learnt from some others, before coming into his own in the classical mould. His entry into cinema was through a song in Kaalpadukal, a Malayam film for which he recorded in November, 1961. After that, he acted in some half a dozen films too, feeling his way, until it became abundantly clear that singing was his métier.
Most of us agree that music has no religion, and we can only admire the young Roman Catholic Yesudas who soon began singing devotional bhajans in many places of worship such as the Kollur Mookambika temple at Udipi, Karnataka, offering his best to Goddess Saraswati. Here he was more than welcome, not just for his éclair voice, but his exceptionally kind eyes and personality of submission. Not surprisingly, he has been offering his music and prayers here for some 30 odd years.
However, he has been disallowed entry into Kerala’s 1000 year old Guruvayur temple, dedicated to Lord Krishna, an act that has generated pervasive sadness among his many admirers, who have remained helpless for decades. But entry into listeners’ hearts has never been a problem. The singer, who lives in Chennai, Trivandrum and has properties in USA, has won the National Award for best male singer seven times, a record unlikely to happen to others.
We pause his story and overlook his awesome opus in other languages now to consider just a handful of his wonderful songs in Hindi cinema, where his voice was first heard in the 1970s.
- Donon ke dil hain, with Lata in Bin Baap Ka Beta (Unreleased, 1970s)
- Jaan-e-man jaan-e-man tere do nayan, with Asha in Chhoti Si Baat (1975)
- Jab deep jale aana, with Hemlata in Chit Chor (1976)
- Tu jo mere sur mein, in raag Pilu with Hemlata in Chit Chor (1976)
- Aaine kuchh to bata unka to humraaz hai tu, in Jaadu Tona (1977)
- Neele ambar ke tale, in Safed Jhootth (1977)
- Ka karoon sajni, aaye na baalam, in Swami (1977)
- Madhuban khushbu deta hai, in Saajan Bina Suhaagan (1978)
- Maana ho tum behad haseen, in Toote Khilone (1978)
- Aap ki mehki hui zulf ko kehte hain ghata, with Lata in Trishul (1978)
- Zid na karo, ab to ruko, in Lahu Ke Do Rang (1979)
- Chaand jaise mukhde pe bindiya sitaara (Saawan Ko Aane Do, 1979)
- Kahaan se aaye badra, based on raag Megh, with Hemanti Shukla in Chashm-e-Baddoor (1981)
In his work for Hindi films, Yesudas teamed up with so many composers—Usha Khanna, Basu-Manohari, Rajesh Roshan, Khayyam, Bappi Lahiri, Salil Chowdhury, Jaidev and many more. He did a lot of work for Ravindra Jain too. This was the blind composer-lyricist who was delighted with Yesudas’s voice in Chit Chor (1976). Main palkan dagar buhaaroonga, teri raah nihaaroonga, Meri preet ka kaajal tum apne nainon mein male aana, went Yesudas in the stanza of the Yaman product Jab deep jale aana, written by Ravindra Jain too, and was the latter impressed! So much so, he made a significant remark: that if he was to regain his sight, he would love to see Yesudas first. If that miracle happens, the composer won’t be disappointed, because this singer’s persona can only be a sight for sore eyes.
As for the temple that won’t let him in, his many admirers can find comfort in the words of Dr. Vaidyanatha Iyer Thankamani of the University of Kerala: “Dr. KJ Yesudas, humility incarnate, does not realize that Guruvayoorappan dwells inside him!”
That really says it all.
Originally published: January 1, 2013