If god has made any special gift to Malayalam film music,it is undoubtedly KJ Yesudas. Indescribable is his contribution to Malayalam cinema and Malayalam film music for the last over four decades. His voice , his ability for impeccable modulation and his perfect pronunciation contributed to make him stand apart as a singer par excellence. And when Malayalees fondly refer to him as a’Ganagandharva,’(Celestial Singer), they mean it.
At a time when playback singers from South Indian languages including Tamil and Telugu , like Dr P B Sreenivos, A M Rajah, Dr Balamuralikrishna, Paramasivam etc had ruled the Malayalam music industry during the early 1950’s and 1960’s. a naïve, novice voice was heard in the playback field. Kattassery Joseph Yesudas, Aka K J Yesudas, who was born as the son of Augustine Joseph, popular drama and film actor and singer of his times and Alicekutty , made his debut in the Malayalam playback industry as a singer through the film ‘KaalpadukaL,(1962).’
Directed by K S Antony and starred Prem Nazir, the film was based on the philosophies of Sree Narayana Guru , the producers of the movie wanted a new singer to sing two songs. And it was none other than K J Yesudas, a staunch follower or Gurudev, who got introduced to Antony and music director M B Sreenivasan and this marked the singers foray into the Indian Playback industry. He sang two songs in the movie, ‘Jathi Bedham Madham Dwesham,” and ‘Attention Penne,Attention Penne, ‘ a duet with the then popular singer Shantha P Nair.
Born on January 10 1940, at Fort Kochi, it was not a bed of roses for the young boy all the way. Earlier in life, he had suffered severe deprivation and rejection. But once, he got the break he deserved, there was no looking back. Yesudas was initiated into Carnatic music by his actor and singer Father, Augustine Joseph. He obtained the ‘Sangeethabhooshanam,’ from the R LV Music Academy at Trippunithara. Later, he joined the Swathy Music College at Trivandrum where he passed the ‘Ganabhooshanam,’ diploma with first class in 1958. When he joined Swathy Music college, he got a chance to get acquainted with Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar.
His initial search for an opening was indeed frustrating. The All India Radio, Thiruvananthapuram, rejected him , as did many institutions and film studios he went around in Chennai. Still nursing his big dream, Yesudas continued his search for the big break .He associated with the Kalabhavan at Ernakulam which encouraged upcoming artistes by organizing stage performances. It w as here that he met K S Antony, director of Kaalpadukal through lyricisit Nambiath who introduced him to music director M B Sreenivasan. Thus, he debuted through the film ‘Kaalpadukal.’(1962). Though it was not a full song, but a four line sloka, ‘Jathi Bedham Madham Dwesham,’ written by Sree Narayana Guru. He also sang a duet with Shantha P Nair, ‘Attention penne , attention.’
From there onwards,there was no looking back. He became t he most sought after singer in Malayalam filmdom. His reputation spreadfast and soon he was singing all the South Indian languages including Hindi.
‘Alliyambal(Rosy),’ ‘Aadyathe Kanmani,(Bhagyajathakam),’ ‘Panchara Palu Muttai,(Bharya),’ ‘Dayaparanaya Karthave,(Bharya),’ ‘Kannuneer Muthumai,(Nityakanyaka),’ ‘Ayalathe Sundari,( Moodupadam),’ ‘Madhurapatinezhu Kari,( Ammaye Kanan),’ ‘Idayakanyake,’ and ‘Asthamudikayalile,’ (Manavatti),’ etc were among the early super hits of Yesudas in Malayalam.
It was the late Salil Choudhary who provided the break for Yesudas in Hindi films in 1976. His first venture Anand Mahal was not a big box-office hit though the Yesudas-Sabita number Aa Aa Re Mitwa... was noticed. It was the film Chit Chor under Ravindra Jain that really launched Yesudas in Hindi films. There also he won many awards and recognitions.
Yesudas performed in many major cities around the world. In 1965, he was invited by the Soviet Union government to perform at music concerts in various cities in the USSR and also sang a Russian song over Radio Kazakhstan. In 2001 he sang for album Ahimsa in Sanskrit, Latin and English and in a mix of styles including New-Age and Carnatic]. In his music concerts in the Middle East he sings Arabic songs in the Carnatic style He frequently did the role of a cultural ambassador of India through his numerable performances abroad by promoting Indian Music.
He is the only singer who has been accorded the title Asthana Gayakan (Official singer) of Kerala State. He has been awarded the Padma Shri in 1975 and Padma Bhushan in 2002. In 1970, he was nominated to head the Sangeetha Nataka Academy of Kerala and was being the youngest person ever to occupy that post.
Yesudas got his first recognition at the tender age of seven, when he won a gold medal for music at a local competition in Fort Cochin. He got the prestigious national award for best playback singer seven times: Manushyan Mathangale Srishtichu (Achanum Bappayum-Malayalam) in 1972, Padmatheerthame (Gayatri-Malayalam) in 1973, Gori Tera (Chit Chor-Hindi) in 1979, Akashadeshamu (Meghasandesham-Telugu) in 1985, Unnikale Oru Kathaparayam (Unnikale Oru Kathaparayam-Malayalam) in 1987, Ramakatha Ganalayam (Bharatham-Malayalam) in 1991 and for songs in the film Sopanam in 1993. He has won the award for the best playback singer in Malayalam ever since its inception in 1969, except for seven times. He opted out of the race to facilitate opportunities for fresh talents). He picked up his 23rd state award last year.
The other major accolades India's ace singer received were - the best playback singer award in Tamil in 1988 and 1992, best playback singer award in Telugu in 1988, Sangeetha Raja Puraskaram in 1974, Sangeetha Chakravarthy Puraskaram in 1988, Sangeetha Sagaram Puraskaram in 1987, Lata Mangeshkar Award of the Madhya Pradesh government in 1992 and National Citizens' Award in 1994.
In 1980 Yesudas established the Tharangni Studio at Trivandrum. In 1992 the office and studio were moved to Chennai and the company was incorporated in the US in 1998. Tharangni Studio and Tharangni Records became a recording center in Kerala which, for the first time, brought out audio cassettes of Malayalam film songs in stereo. The record company also had a voice mixing studio in Chennai, Studio27. The studio continues to produce and present events of Yesudas both for film and Indian classical music concerts throughout the world.
Apart from singing, he had also done music direction for films like ‘Azhakulla Celena,’ ‘Theekkanal,’ ‘Udayam Kizhakku THanne,’ ‘Sanchari,’ and ‘Poocha Sanyasi.’ He had also appeared in many movies as himself including ‘Bus Conductor(2006) directed by Vinayan.
Yesudas is married to Prabha for more than 30 years. They have three sons, Vinod, Vijay and Vishal. The second son Vijay Yesudas, is a budding musician. The family is currently settled in Chennai and Kerala.