Music is a continuous process of learning,
says K.J. Yesudas
says K.J. Yesudas
When he looks back, he realizes the thorns that have littered his way to a life journey. He remembers every little help that has come his way from very many quarters. A father's student, Padma Bhushan K.J.Yesudas is happy that God has blessed him with the music knowledge. The vidwan degree may have eluded him for whatever reason. He remains a happy student even today. He turned 70 on January 10. As has been a practice on every birthday of his, he paid obeisance with his family at the Kollur Mookambika temple near Bangalore. And, he is gearing to learn more, still more and much more. A few years ago, Sudha Jagannathan interviewed him. We reproduce the interview here.
How did you get initiated into Carnatic music?
My father Augustine Joseph was a stage actor and a singer. It was so different for a Christian family in Kerala to take up Carnatic music. In those days, singing ragas and keerthanas in a `stage drama' was quite in vogue. This was so even in any drama with a `Christian subject'. My father learnt through listening. My mother Elizabath Joseph also used to sing `church songs'. My mother's side had the gift for music - not exactly classical but light singing. My father was the only son of his parents.
At that point, there was `Carnatic spirit' in Kerala. Cinema was not there then. So, my father said I must necessarily learn music. I started learning from nadaswara vidwan Rajarathinam Pillai's disciple Kunjanvelu Asan at the age of five. Thereafter, my father asked one Joseph from Tamil Nadu to teach me. I went to music classes in the evening after returning from school. After a while, I shifted to Ernakulam. There was this person from Annamalai Univerisity. I learnt from him for a while. By then, I had finished my SSLC.
Then I joined the Music Academy in Thirupunithura. It was established by the Raja family of Cochin and was known as RLC Music Academy. It was a four-year diploma course. Considering my experience, they gave me a year exemption. This diploma is for `Ghana Bushanam'. For the Sangeetha Vidwan course, I went to Trivandrum. It was a two-year course. My father was unwell then. We had lot of difficulties. I suffered very much. Even one meal a day was a luxury. I was staying in a small hostel. I found it tough to pay the rent and buy meals. So I stayed at Semmangudi Swamy's car shed.
Did you go through gurukulavasam?
It was not a gurukulavasam. Semmangudi taught at Music Academy. Actually, this guy was learning from him. Without his knowledge, I also learnt along with him. He didn't say anything. I should say I was blessed. It was indeed a big boon. He did not teach at home. When he visited Music Academy, he taught me. After one year, I got chicken pox. He asked me to go home for a while. That was how I could not become a vidwan. Even today, I am not a vidwan. I am a student even now.
You are saying this because of your humility.
No. This is a fact. God has never given me the vidwan tag. HE, perhaps, said: ``You are not a vidwan. You have to learn more and more.'' So, I am a student. Then I left Trivandram for home. I was born in Fort Cochin. When I was studying the final year at Thirupunithura, this fellow offered me a song in film. The offer remained in the realm of vagueness. I wasn’t sure if it would come at all. It worked when I was not keeping well. They told me to come to Madras. He was staying at Ajanta Hotel. A cousin of mine was living in Triplicane then and was working in Simpson. I stayed with him. He was little better off. I used to walk up to Ajanta. After a while, they gave me a chance in a film. I was made to sing for the first time.
It was a duet song, though. If you listen to it, you will laugh at it. At that point of time, I had a mild typhoid. They, perhaps, were little jittery. Since I had come anyway, they had asked me to sing four lines. Those were greatest words and anybody could sing them. They did not come that easily for me. The lines were about how the love was given an elevated status and how it transcended caste differentiation and religious hatred. M.B. Srinivasan said ``Yesu give me a very good rehearsal.'' I knew nothing about rehearsal then. It was at Bharani Studio on 14th November 1961. Kotteswara Rao was the engineer. It was in Ananda Bhairavi. It was a sort of sloka. No music. I sang alone. After I finished singing, he asked me to come in. Srinivasan put me in such a comfort that I didn't feel that I was singing for the first time. Srinivasan asked Kotteshwara Rao ``How is his voice?'' Rao replied, ``I will tell you after 10 years.'' I did not understand the meaning then. I thought I should come back only after 10 years. Thanks to God's blessings and Kotheswara Rao's words, I continue to sing all these years.
Did Srinivasan discover you?
My first music director is Srinivasan. Actually, I was discovered by K.S. Antony. I had to always remember this thing. At that point of time, there was one Chandran. He was a very good singer. He introduced Antony to me when I was practicing in a friend's room. He had that magnanimity. This is very rare. This is very important. This is what you have to learn. I remember all the time what Surya Das said ``dhane dhane pee likhe ghan khane wale kh nam." In each and every strain of a cereal, the name of the person who is going to be fed is written. You don't worry if it will reach your mouth. I changed it a little bid. Some years ago, I said ``ghane ghane pee likehe ghane wale ka nam.'' Every song is written with the name of the singer. I never think about that song I did not sing. It was not mine. That is why I didn't sing. I never bothered about it. But I am trying to improve my capacity all the time.
When did you start giving performances?
At around the age of 12, I have sung in many places. Much before that, my father used to sing in St.Joseph Chappal. They used to sing songs (like Vedanayakam compositions) in Carnatic style. They used to sing swarams and ragams. I never used to miss that. From the age of 12, I am doing it even now. I never missed it. It falls on 31st of March every year. When I get a new dairy, I instantly mark 31st March first. I still have that connection. Then the Thiruviyar festival. Then of course my birthday that falls on 10th. I go to Mookambki temple that day. Then the Chembai Swamy utsavam. These are three to four battery-chargers that keep me going.
Who is your guru in Carnatic music?
Actually it was my father. Then, of course, K.R. Kumarasamy, brother of K.R. Kedarnath. He was the principal in Thirupunithura. I got my initial groundings there. Then I learnt from Semmangudi Swamy for one year. Only around 1968, I got to know Chembai.
What did you learn from them?
Different styles. My view is that even if a small boy sings a sangathi well and you happen to hear him - I will grasp it. That particular time he is my guru. Lord Murugan became the guru to his father. We have to take that. That is a good model for each and every one of us.
Who had been a major influence on your music?
The main thing is pronunciation. My father was very keen on that. He was very particular that each and every Sanskrit word was uttered properly. During prayer time, my mother used to fight with him. She otherwise never used to talk. My father used to correct me. My mother used to tell us, ``I had to get up and start work early in morning. So, please finish your prayer fast.'' He was not worried about the prayer. The important thing was that he cared for the diction. That helped me a lot.
I began learning Sanskirt only when I started going to Music Academy. Padma Madam helped me a lot. She is just like my mother. My mother is no more. My wife's mother is also no more. So we go there and get her blessings. She lives in Thiurpunithura.
What influence does Carnatic music have on you?
I have a great doubt. I think I will live with the doubt. Every body says Sampradayam. What is the meaning of Sampradayam? Nobody can explain that. In an old Telugu book, the notation for sangeeta gyanam is very different. If I learn from that old book and present it, nobody will accept it. How to render that? The correct way to sing that is ``sangeeta gyna moo.'' Actually, I hear `sangeeta agynamoo!' When we take something and propagate it in a different way, people get it struck on their ears. Aberi. Every body says it is Janya raga of Nata Bhairavai. Now, most of them sing in Karaharpryia Janyam. If I want to rectify, people will beat me up.
What have you gained from Carnatic music?
Actually, Carnatic music is an ocean. The ocean contains everything - lots of good and bad. To dive deep and scoop the pearls we want is difficult. We have to strive anyway for that. You may take any number of births. Yet, if you don't do it with the dedication it commands, you won't get the pears you want.
Music - any music for that matter - is soothing. What role can Carnatic music play in a plural society and a diverse land like India?
We will go to the basics. Who are we? We are Indians. We are born as a human being. You become a Christian after conversion. When I was born, I was nothing. I did not have any title. I was just a baby. I am neither denying nor criticizing. Due to circumstances, my father and my mother took me to the Church and got blessed me by a priest. I am a Christian now. Look at what happened later on.
There are good and bad priests in Christianity. There are good and bad priests in Hindu. There are good and bad mullahs in Muslim community. When I was around 6 years, Catholic classes were important for Christianity. This particular priest said one day that only Christians would go to heaven. It was very important. It changed the course of my life. I knew nothing about vedam and the stuffs like that. When the priest said that, a thought crossed my mind. What will happen to my friends? I got Chandran, Tilakan, Paul and another Muslim guy as friends. I went to my father and asked his explanation for what the priest had said. What will happen to my friends? My worry was that I needed friends to play in case I go to heaven. That was my concern. My father did not get angry. He only said ``you keep this in your mind and you will get the answer sometime.'' I just forgot it after that. That was the seed for me. After that, God has helped me to take lessons from all problems I have encountered in my life.
Those days, Madurai Mani's kutcheri used to be held frequently at Thirupunithura. I was very eager to get into the temple and listen to his kutcheri one day. My friend tried to get me into the temple and raise problem. However, another friend of mine got wind of it and advised me not to go into the temple. I was crestfallen. I listened to the kutcheri standing outside the temple.
That was the time every body was going to the Sabri temple. I wrote to the temple authorities asking if I could also go to the temple. They said anybody could go there if he had done the fasting and followed the laid-out procedures.
HE is an Advaitha Murthi. HE does not distinguish against a Muslim. HE had a Muslim friend in fact. I kept that in mind. I became very famous when I visited the temple. By then, my father had died. I was not married. I did not ask my mother before hand when I visited Sabari. Only after I went to the temple, I told her. The visit had attracted a lot of publicity. But till date, none had questioned before my face. Not the Church authority. Not the church priest. None came forward. I did not do any wrong. I only went to a Devalayam. Later on, I realized that HE does not have any difference between religions.
Not only that. My father moulded me on several things. He is the reason for me. He told me not to get affiliated to any political party. ``You need all people. You are an artiste. They may hear you. If you join them, you will get struck only there,'' he told me. This had helped me. I am a free bird. If they allow me, I will sing in that tree. If someone calls me elsewhere, I will go there also and sing. That is my small knowledge.
You are a playback singer as well a Carnatic vocalist. People say if you do both, your voice will get hit. How do you react to this?
I will again put a question. Which is the correct Carnatic style? Who will authenticate it? What way does one sing it? I remember what I asked a small boy - Sriram Parthasarathy. He was tiny. He was standing in a studio. He was looking at me. I got attracted to him. I called him inside. He came running. I asked him if he would sing. He said, `ooh'. I liked the way he said that. When he sang, I was flabbergasted. I was stunned by the way he sang at that very tender age. He sang `rama nanu brovavara'. He sang exactly the way M.D. Ramanathan did. I was just dumb-founded. Partha came and said ``Anna he is my son''. I told Partha that I have nothing more to ask.
His father, his grandfather and grandmother are all veena artistes. ``Veenai and not `veena (waste).’' So, there is nothing to worry about him. I asked Partha who teaches him. `He loves M.D. Ramanathan,'' Partha said. To know M.D. Ramanathan at that age, you must think of the knowledge the child has. I told this thing to Sriram. This is very important. It is not connected with M.D. Ramanathan. That is his style. What Sriram has to do is what younger generation has to do. I told his that I would call him in two styles. ``Sriram. Come here,'' I said this the way M.D. Ramanathan would have said. I also said that in a normal way. I asked the boy which one he would prefer. The boy Sriram said, ``I will prefer the second one.'' I asked the boy ``why can't he sing in his own way?’’ Akshara shuddhi without changing the meaning of the word - if you can present it - even those who don't know Carnatic music will sit and listen.
You would have listened to great artistes? Can you say something about them?
I used to listen to GNB sir kutcheris those days. I also used to frequent Madurai Mani sir kutcheris. When I was struggling, I used to go to kutcheris. When you listen to music, you forget every thing. I used to hear Alathur brothers and Semmangudi Swamy. Also,I used to listen to Hindi songs. Rafique is maanaseeka guru for me.
Do light music and Carnatic sangeetham compliment each other?
What is music? To traverse gently from one swaram to another is what is known as gamakkam in Carnatic music. No one can discover exactly how many sruthis are there for that swaram. Infinite. But they have given strict position for that. From Shadjam to Rishabam - there is a space. From Rishabam to chatusruthirishabam - there is another space. From chatursruthi rishabam to ordinary Gandharam - there is different space. They have given a point. If one who give that particular gamakkam correctly... No meter for that. The nodding heads and applauds are the meter. That signifies the singer's purity and his relationship with the audience.
Can you write any book for reaching this?
How can you differentiate them? If the same notes are played in piano, will that work? Are Bhairavai and Thodi possible in a piano?
We can nod our heads and move the body for the gamakkam effect. But the gamakkam won't come. People who add western instruments to Carnatic music- I don't have that much respect about them. There is a limitation for them.
Why did we select violin among the western instrument?
It is very near to vocal. Without the language, the disadvantage that a flute has violin does not have. The gamakkams on the upscale as well the downscale - you can bring it in a violin. We can't do that in flute. Not in veena as well. We have taken into account the disadvantage and then only adapted violin into Carnatic music.
Time was when flute and veena dominated kutcheries. Why did it change? All the things - with perfect gammakkas - that we get in violin we will not get in any other instrument.
We are not going into the capacity of an individual. I am coming to the difference between a light and Carnatic music. If any particular gamamaka is produced by an artiste, the audience will be able to acknowledge and identify it as either Carnatic music or Hindustani and Arabic. In Carnatic music, there are a number of gammakks for swaras that are on the upscale. Actually, it is very rare and difficult to do that for swaras on the downscale. In Hindustani, it is quite the opposite.
Did you learn Hindustani music?
Tansen's guru was talking to a famous vidwan. The vidwan said I knew 100 ragas. This guru immediately sought the vidwan's blessings. He told the Vidwan that after many days of practices he was not getting Thodi in the right way. If you could perfect 100 ragas, I would rather bow before you, he said. The vidwan realized the meaning. It is not enough to know many ragas.
What is your favourtie raga?
From childhood, Kalyani is my favourite raga. I used to sing that whenever any body asked me to sing. But later on, experience has taught me that every raga has a character of its own. For nearly six years, I practiced Kanakangi. Not constantly. But whenever I got the time and mood I sang. I have now the confidence that I can sing the 72 melakartha ragas without fear.
What for you sing? What have you achieved? What will I gain if I don't sing?
It is not about what we get. We don't think about it. Some times, we go to kutcheri and take money. All these are there. More than that, singing gives us satisfaction. You can't buy that. Achievement is all about perfection. No one can achieve perfection. But we can measure the percentage of perfection. There is none with 100 per cent perfection. Only God is perfect. When do you get complete perfection? When you sing, you should forget that you are singing. ``I merge into swaras and merge into particular vibration.'’ That point of time, I will reach HIM. To get that satisfaction, we have to keep doing this japam all the time.
What is you life ambition?
For me, this is a continuous process of learning. We can't finish it in one birth. If you give me next birth - if there is one for me - I have to continue the same thing. If I don't get permission to begin from where I stopped in the present birth, I don't want the next birth.
Semmangudi had said that you don't need to experiment and it is enough if you can learn what is already there. What is your view?
When they say `I created'- I am very much against it. No one can create anything. You can only invent. You have to use the word carefully. Look at the sky. Can you say that you have created it? You can only say ``I invented it’’. It is exactly like the permutation and combination. There are 72 melakratha ragas. They are there only in Carnatic music. These can produce a number of ragas mathematically. Who created them? They are already there. Suppose I say Veera Vasantham - it is a combination of Ananda Bhairavai and then Nishadam and Daivatham. It is a beautiful raga.
If someone says don't sing that, it is his problem. If I want to sing - if I am sure and thorough about it - I have to sing and show it to the public. Public will enjoy. There are lots of examples. How many of us know the existence of a raga called Veena Vahini? It is Hamsadhwani's related raga. Only Nishadam is changed. ``S,ri,ga,pa,ne'' - small ne - when you sing it first, there was that jerk. If you don't give that how will the people know? Our duty is not to give everything new in all kutcheries. At least one new raga should be given. Otherwise, it will become a big dosage and people won't be able to digest. We can give them in small dosages. Then they will get used to it and listen to them.
What is the status of Carntic music as you see it today?
You really don't worry about it. If you want to worry, it is not our responsibility. Tell me how many people even today sing `Vathapi Ganapathy'? It is popular even today. That is Carnatic music. So you don't need to worry. Film songs won't stay that long. The song that came yesterday doesn't stay. Songs composed by great saints like Thyagaraja and Dikshitar are sung even today. Without knowing the language, Sanskrit and Telegu kritis have been sung by many. People are happy to listen to them. So, Carnatic music won't melt away.