India’s legendary K.J. Yesudas dispenses wise words to aspiring singers. Subhadra Devan takes note
“MUSIC is such an ocean that we can’t finish it in one lifetime. I am till now still a student,” says India’s legendary singer, K.J. Yesudas, with a 50-year career in the music industry.
The Kerala-born music maestro has recorded more than 50,000 songs since he started as a playback singer in a Malayalam movie in 1961. Today, Yesudas, born Kattassery Joseph Yesudas, is renowned for his vocal talent in Indian classical, devotional and popular songs.
The 72-year-old has won innumerable awards and accolades for his versatile and melodious voice including the coveted Padma Shri (1975), Padma Bhushan (2002) and seven National Awards for Best Playback Singer (highest by any singer in India).
“But you must always practise,” he says at a Press conference last Friday, a day before he stood as the chief judge for the Astro Vaanavil Super Star grand finale in Kuala Lumpur.
“It’s not about the competition, forget the competition. Improvement is more important. See what you lack and practise,” says the maestro.
He himself did take part in a vocal contest, on the instruction of his first master, who was also his father, Augustine Joseph, a well-known singer and actor in Kerala.
“I was 16 or 17 then, and I came out second. The competition is but the first step. You may or may not get a prize. But that’s not the point — you practise to improve as a singer. Above all, you must love music.
“Until I was 20, my guru didn’t even allow me to attend performances. That strictness made me learn the basic things of being a good singer, and the depth of musicality. So, you must always increase your knowledge. Otherwise, you win a prize and think you are a great singer. No. You must know your basics to be a good singer. Today you can manipulate with electronics to make your voice sound good, but it is not that which makes a good singer.
“You must know how to control your voice, to sing high or low to suit the song, to control your breath. You must learn your natural sound, to get a feel of what your voice can do for the different sounds needed for the many styles out there. Don’t sing from the throat but from the body. Your voice is like playing a flute.
“So, I request all young singers to be careful of your voice. Control your basic habits, drinking, smoking, doing unwanted things to the body, causing chemical reactions in the body that can affect your voice. I am against all that. I too worry about what food can do to my voice. You choose your food, like how you choose your friends.”
While Yesudas is obviously serious about music, he punctuates his advice by singing out the do’s and don’ts, to everyone’s delight. He also shows a sense of humour with anecdotes.
Asked about today’s musical bent towards hip-hop, Yesudas demonstrates that he can sing in that style too but, “I enjoy my classical music”.
“In classical music, I can improvise and be spontaneous. I don’t know what I will create on stage. A classical concert is a concert in creation. With the current music trend, that’s difficult to do,” says this singer whose voice and phrasings turned ordinary songs into divine music earning him the popular tag, “India’s celestial singer”.
Yesudas, by the way, sings not just in Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi but also in other Indian sub-languages as well as Malay, Russian, Arabic and English.
Stressing the importance of education when it comes to music, he offers this anecdote: “I went to my friend’s house for a child’s birthday. I was singing the start of a raga, going aaaa..aaaa, and she said, ’grandfather has forgotten the words to the song’.”
We laughed and he continues: “You know better but she, being a child, didn’t because she didn’t have the knowledge. Understanding comes from knowledge. Know your basics.”
Asked about talk that he had been unwell, Yesudas looks the tiniest bit angry before replying: “A nurse said she treated me for cancer. I don’t know why she said that. But I’ve never felt better. I am well, as you can see.”
On what else he would want to accomplish, given his illustrious career, he says: “To learn music, that’s all... nothing more than that.”