CHENNAI: A mellifluous voice filling the recording room and rendering songs with ease’, is how most yesteryear music composers reminisce this singer. Listening to her chartbuster songs like Kannuku Mai Azhagu (Pudhiya Mugam, 1993), Enna Enna Varthaigalo (Vennira Aadai, 1965) and Rajavin Paarvai (Anbe Vaa, 1966) evokes a sense of nostalgia among music lovers, even today. ‘Gana Kokila’ and Melody Queen, P Susheela, with over 25,000 songs in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi, Kannada and even Sinhalese to her credit, she was recently credited by the Guinness Book of Records for singing 17,695 songs in 12 Indian languages. She chats with City Express about her 60-year journey in the music industry.
Born in 1935 in Vijayanagaram, Andhra Pradesh, Susheela was one of the few who was fortunate enough to have a family that encouraged her talent those days. Her father’s effort to provide her with proper music training at a very young age was the much-needed push for young Susheela. “Even as a kid, I always used to sing and my father made arrangements for me to formally train in music. That nurtured my talent,” smiles the first playback singer to receive the first National Film Award for Best Female Playback Singer in 1969 for the song Naalai Intha Velai Paarthu (Uyarndha Manidhan, 1968).
An innate inclination towards Carnatic music did not stop her from exploring and Susheela went on to become a prolific singer in light music too. “I keenly observed people singing light music. That interest helped me grow as a singer,” she recalls. “I also sang in school dramas and was appreciated by many.” Well, at 80 years, the versatile singer is still lauded.
Susheela always came home with the first prize in competitions and honed her talent by intensive training. “I went to Music College to complete a diploma in classical music,” says the singer. Later, she came to Chennai and enrolled in a Vidhwan course. “It wasn’t for a long period. I only attended for six months. Later, opportunities from the film industry came; I became busy,” she shares.
She found a footing in the world of cine music when music director Nageswara Rao spotted her. In 1950, while he was hunting for a singer, he approached All India Radio to connect him with new, good singers who participated in their programmes. “I was shortlisted and selected after auditions,” she recalls.
In 1952, she sang her first song, a duet song Edhuku Azhaithaai with AM Raja for the Tamil movie Petra Thaai (1953). One of her associates
Sriram says, “Nageswara Rao had tears when he heard her sing for the first time and he retained her as his favourite singer throughout his career. That was the impact she created!”
She went on to bag the National Award for best singer in 1969, 1971, 1977 and 1983. A naturally humble person, Susheela has always been unperturbed by her big achievements and her humility makes her the person she is, opine her associates. “Awards and titles have been aplenty. But, I think god created me to sing and my duty is to do that right. Nothing else runs in my mind, except to do a good job,” she shares.
Susheela cracked intricately composed songs and those with different polarities and she became the most sought after singer. From the likes of composers like Viswanathan-Ramamurthy, G Ramathan, AM Rajah to Naushad and Ghantasala Rao, Susheela became the reigning queen in the music world. But, it wasn’t an easy task.
Recording sessions from 7 am to 2 am with sporadic breaks, infinite improvisations and changes in the compositions were part and parcel of that era’s music making. “It was tough but worthwhile. We used to do 30 takes sometimes and the most astonishing part was, we had to sing the whole song from scratch. It doesn’t matter if you do the mistake or the orchestra does, we sang until the composer was satisfied,” she smiles.
After a successful performance in Kalyana Parisu (1959) with over three songs to her credit, the trend of emphasis on both songs and scenes was set. She went on a singing spree and has given hundreds of songs under the direction of Viswanathan-Ramamurthy. “MSV used to call me his favourite singer. I still remember the way he liked his songs to be presented and the way we recorded a song...though I don’t remember most of the incidents, some are etched forever,” she giggles citing age and also for being ‘forced to forget the past’. “It’s not as scary as it sounds. Back then with the old technology, whenever we had retakes, we had to forget the previous performance and sing again. This became a practice and I don’t remember anecdotes from my past. But, my associates sometimes filter the best they can…whenever I share something with them, they document it!” chuckles the Padmabushan recipient.
A long and enviable career with classical songs like Brindhavanamum Nandha Kumaranum and Unnaikkan Thedudhe, Susheela, known for her clarity in the pronunciation of words (in 12 different languages) still remains the unbeaten melody queen. “I listen to new songs too. But, I don’t remember them. I don’t remember my own songs,” says the subtle humourist.
Crediting her journey to having been at the ‘right time, right place’, she adds, “I don’t credit myself. I just went with the flow and everything fell into place. I will always do my duty as a singer, which is to sing well!”
Catch P Susheela performing live along with Rajesh Vaidhya at ‘The King and Queen’ concert (a fundraiser by Mission 2100, in aid of social projects by the trust) on September 18 at Loyola College from 6:30pm onwards