Indian film singer Yesudas to perform in Hong Kong

K.J. Yesudas is the epitome of the Indian film singer after his early years of hardship and prejudice

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 30 August, 2014, 10:13pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 August, 2014, 10:13pm

The numbers that one associates with the Indian movie industry are always mind-boggling to those outside. But even in a country that churns out hundreds of movies every year, the numbers that singer Kattassery Joseph Yesudas have racked up are impressive. Even more so, when you consider that a major portion of his works are not associated with the Hindi language movies that make up the main output of Bollywood.

Popularly known as Yesudas, he has recorded more than 40,000 songs since he started singing in the 1960s, bagged the yearly national award for best singer a record seven times, recorded songs in more than a dozen languages and won more than 40 annual awards given by various states in India.

But his greatest achievement is his longevity: over five decades, Yesudas has scored hit songs in various languages and still is a towering presence in the Indian film music industry despite the changes in form and technology of the art he is involved in.

And now Hong Kong will see him perform at a concert on September 6 at Youth Square in Chai Wan.

Born in 1940, in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Yesudas has sung most of his songs for the films made in the state's language, Malayalam. But he transcended almost every language in the country (where each state has its own language and script) and his voice is instantly recognised almost anywhere in the country. The Indian government honoured him with the third-highest civilian award of Padma Bhushan in 2002. But even more valuable has been the legion of fans he has accrued over the years, a following that cuts across ages, languages and generations.

But the journey to his legendary status was not a path of roses. His talent was recognised very early, right from the days when he won his first prize as an eight-year-old in a competition in the city of Cochin, where he grew up. But being born into a Christian family in a Hindu-dominated society as the son of a struggling stage actor meant the doors of opportunity were often shut to him - especially at a time when music was seen as a domain of the upper caste Hindus and the classical tradition of Carnatic music was a religious affair connected to the temples.

Some people advised Yesudas to change his name to a Hindu one to gain acceptance. But his father objected, saying it was better to leave the profession than to change his identity.

For generations of people born in Kerala, the name Yesudas became a synonym for a singer

Yesudas' prodigious talent and silky voice kept him focused on his dream, even when financial difficulties ended his education. "What does a Christian have to do with Carnatic music?" a professor of music asked him when he could not pay the fee at the music college.

But some top singers of those days recognised his talent and helped him on his musical journey. Along the way one of his biggest disappointments came when the state-run radio authority declared after an audition his voice was not good enough for broadcast. (It is an irony that the same broadcasting authority has been playing his songs incessantly over the years to meet listeners' demands.) Denied access to state-run radio stations, the only way to make a living as a singer those days was to turn to film songs. The movie heroes, chosen for their looks, lip-synced the songs while talented singers recorded them.

For Yesudas that meant leaving his parents' home and shifting to the then filmmaking centre in southern India, Madras (now known as Chennai). Having reached the city with borrowed money, he struggled to even feed himself. Yesudas has often recalled the days when all he had was water from roadside taps.

After much heartbreak and disappointment, Yesudas finally got his big break in 1961 when he was picked to sing for a movie based on a controversial Malayalam novel, Bharya. That song proved popular and as chances to sing in movies trickled in, his voice and singing began to find a steady fan base.

Soon his voice was in demand and, after decades of denial, the Christian singer was accepted as the best even by the most grudging music critics and film bosses. Over the next decade he surely but steadily climbed up in his career and soon was churning out hits in almost every language in southern India.

His dominance in the film music industry was so great that for generations of people born in Kerala, the name Yesudas became a synonym for a singer. His style of singing and his attire of all whites - down to the shoes - became the style and fashion of every aspiring singer in the state. From an outcast, Yesudas became the "celestial singer", adored and admired by all classes and castes in the state.

But behind the success was a strict discipline of diet and habits he formed to protect his voice: avoiding hot and cold dishes, stress and strain; and the constant fine tuning of his vocal chords. "As a singer, we have a responsibility to entertain our listeners. It becomes my duty to maintain my voice," he has said.

Controversy still follows him. A deeply religious man, Yesudas prays not just in churches but also in temples and mosques, and his devotional songs are part of almost every major religious festival in Kerala. He is welcomed by many temple authorities across the country where he holds concerts regularly - except for one Hindu temple in Kerala, about which he has so many popular songs. This temple refused to allow him inside without converting to Hinduism.

But Yesudas would not give in to the demand, triggering debate in the country about the rights and wrongs of the move. On the other side, church authorities - uncomfortable with his worship at Hindu temples - initially refused to baptise his children before relenting.

Yesudas' fame and fan base began to spread and in the 1980s he broke into the much sought-after Bollywood arena which gave him a nationwide audience. But while that launched him into another orbit, his critics accused him, rightly or wrongly, of being too dominant and blocking the growth of young talents. Most of these new talents faded away quickly because they fell short of the standard Yesudas set.

The movie and music industries have undergone massive technological changes in the past few decades. Where once songs were recorded with all instruments played live together in a studio, now there is software that can chop, change and mix the notes in a computerised console. That, along with the passage of time, has seen new talents blossom, boosted by booming numbers of television networks.

Yet even after his five decades, Yesudas is still seen as the gold standard and the 74-year-old continues to record songs to be "performed" on screen by young movie heroes. Nothing illustrates this more than his concert in Hong Kong on September 6 when, along with his son Vijay Yesudas, one of the young artists who will perform is Shweta, daughter of renowned south Indian singer Sujatha Mohan.

Four decades ago, Yesudas brought Mohan to the music world - as a teenage prodigy.

K.J. Yesudas , Sep 6, Y-Theatre, Youth Square, Chai Wan. For details and tickets email or call 6821 6252