It is natural to assume that the presence of a formidable talent would be intimidating. But, with a down-to-earth disposition Vani Jairam makes you feel at home. “May I make a cup of tea for you,” she asks with a smile. As you wonder if you are actually in front of the person who has three National Awards and dozen of other popular awards to her credit, Vani Jairam settles down in a sofa at her Haddows Road apartment, for a tête-a-tête on all things music.
She had made up her mind to pursue singing in Hindi films when she was barely in her teens, as a fan of Bollywood songs and tirelessly listening to hit numbers on Binaca Geetmala, a popular radio music programme. “I told my mother that I wanted to become a Bollywood playback singer. It naturally upset her, as she wanted me to pursue Carnatic music,” she says. Interestingly enough, she worked with all the singers she had adored as a child.
Enraptured by the mellifluous interludes and the deft orchestration, Jairam was always a fan of Bollywood music. “Take the duet Tasveer tere dil mein from Maya. It was a masterpiece by Salil Chowdhury. Then there were golden voices of Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh from that period,” she says.
When Bol Re Papi Hara from Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Guddi, set to tune by none other than composer Vasant Desai, catapulted her to dizzying heights overnight, her prophecy had come true. “The song was in the top slot on Binaca Geetmala for so many weeks. My words had come true,” she says.
After Guddi, Jairam had a beeline of composers wanting to sign her up for their works. “I gradually started receiving more and more work. My recording shifts and schedules grew in number, with every passing day,” she says, adding that she feels providential to have received acceptance in both regional and Bollywood films.
Her illustrious career in music includes work with an array of stalwart music directors from Naushad, Madan Mohan, O P Nayyar, R D Burman, Jaidev, Kalyanji-Anandji, Pandit Ravi Shankar in Hindi film industry and big names in the South like M S Vishwanathan, K V Mahadevan, Vijay Bhaskar for films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.
“It was work and only work for me, all day. I had settled down in Bombay. I used to take the early morning flight to Chennai, finish my recordings that were usually scheduled for the whole day and then I took the night flight back to Bombay. There, the next morning I had a recording again and then had a few other shifts lined up for the whole day. It was like that for a long time,” she adds, recounting the halcyon times when she was flooded with offers.
Quickly she moves on to recount her experience working with the legendary composer Salil Chowdhury, while recording a Malayalam song for the movie Thomasleeha (1975). A classical number, the melody had some of the most complex notes and scales. “Salil da had come up with such a difficult composition,” she says, going on to demonstrate a piece of the song - Dhoom tana. Her voice is as intact and as refreshing as it was, when she began her career as a playback artiste four decades ago.
Another milestone in the graph was Gulzar’s Meera that had Hema Malini playing the title role. Working with none other than Pandit Ravi Shankar, the album of songs that comprised bhajans explored Jairam’s forte-Hindustani music. “It was a dream project for me. I had rendered all the songs that featured in the movie,” she says, adding that it has been one of her most memorable work experiences.
Receiving three National Awards for Ezhu Swarangalukkul (Apoorva Raagangal), Shankarabharanam and Anathineeyara Hara (Swathi Kiranam), it couldn’t have got better for her.
However, one would never stop wondering why the singer never stayed in Bombay for longer to enthral the industry where she began her career. “But I have received so much; I can’t ask for more. I am thankful to those singers whom I have worked with and admired, the composers who knew my potential, and most importantly my guruji who put me through rigorous riyaz to perfect my voice. He told me, ‘You are now ready to become a big singer’,” she says with a glint in her eye.
Like many singers from her generation, Jairam is a little disillusioned by the music of today. “It is sad, but then when you watch reality shows, you always see the younger contestants opting for old songs. That speaks for the shelf life of golden melodies,” she adds.
“I have had my time and great success. Now, I find all the time to enjoy things I love to do like cooking, attending music-related functions. I am amazed by the treasure of talent around me,” she signs off.