Her name was synonymous with playback singing for several decades in south Indian cinema. I met her a few weeks back to do a story for The Times of India’s 8th anniversary edition in Chennai, where she shared some fond memories of her musical journey and the city that became her home – Chennai. you can read the online edition here.
For those who have grown up on a staple of film songs in the last six decades, P Susheela is a name that requires no introduction.Earlier this year, the Guinness World Records deemed her the singer with the highest number of solo, duet and chorus songs.The laurel seems to rest lightly on her head, like several others that she has won in her illustrious career, including a Padma Bhushan and five national awards for playback singing. Susheela was the first singer to receive a National Award for playback singing, way back in 1969 for the song Paal Polave, in the movie Uyarndha Manidhan.“It was an AVM production and A V Meiyappa Chettiar was extremely proud that I had won the award. He organised a huge felicitation function for me in Chennai, which saw several dignitaries, including the then chief minister M Karunanidhi and the legendary playback singer Lata Mangeshkar being a part of it,“ she says.
While the Guinness citation refers to 17,695 songs from the 1960s, there definitely seems to be a lot more that have not been taken into account. “Back then, I didn’t keep track of the songs I sang. There were times when I recorded over five songs in a day and my focus was on delivering the best to the music director. Now I am trying to trace the songs I sang and perhaps, the total number might come to approximately around 25,000.”
The reward has not come overnight. For the sake of setting a record, many artistes deliver upon efforts which are done over a few hours. But with Susheela, it is a summation of the efforts of a lifetime, during which she has seen people rise and fall and trends come and go.“That was also a time when technology wasn’t as great as we have today . Even if one singer or instrumentalist got it wrong during the recording, we would have to do the whole song all over again. But then, the singers before us had it even more difficult. We could read the songs as we sang them.Artistes like M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar had to act as they sang. They were truly great!“ The time Susheela broke into the music scene was also when a lot of churning was happening in the world of film music.In Bombay , Lata Mangeshkar had become a sensation, bringing in a new style of singing, which broke off from the likes of Zohrabai Ambalewali and Noorjehan. In the south, the era of singing stars had ended and heavy classical numbers were giving way to light music in films. Susheela became the face of a new trend, where she utilised her grounding in classi cal music to belt out one melody after the other. But the drill of film music didn’t leave her with much time to pursue classical music.
“The classical music scene had towering giants like MS Subbulakshmi, ML Vasanthakumari and DK Pattammal. I went with the flow and got into films. I got a break when music director P Nageshwara Rao chose me from a list of new singers given to him by All India Radio. I used to sing for AIR and had also done a kutcheri there. I sang a song for the movie Petra Thai (1952) and thereafter, I got employed at AVM for a monthly salary . A V Meiyappan also employed a tutor for me to learn Tamil. I lived in Triplicane and we would often go to the beach.We also had trams in Chennai.Being in this city made things a lot more convenient for me as the recording of songs for any language would happen here,“ she says.
Susheela also became the chosen voice in Malayalam and Kannada as well. “In Malayalam, I began singing after V Dakshinamoorthy got me to sing the song Pattu padi urakkam from the movie Seeta. I didn’t learn Malayalam. The music directors would help me with translation and pronunciation,“ she says. When Mughal-e-azam was being made simultaneously in Tamil as Akbar, Susheela was called upon to sing for the Tamil version. “There was a lyricist by the name Kambadasan, who would translate the Hindi songs into Tamil. He took me to Bombay and introduced me to the music legend Naushad. Till then, I didn’t know who he was. Naushad was very impressed with my rendition of his songs and many decades later, when he was asked to compose for the Malayalam movie Dhwani, he agreed to take up the project on the condition that I sing his songs.“
Susheela clearly doesn’t believe in a `then and now’ comparison. “Those songs and movies were a product of the times. Today’s artistes are also doing a lot of good work. After I cut down on films, I focused on stage performances. Today , artistes do a lot of stage performances early on in their career. I worked with some wonderful music directors.People like Viswanathan Ramamoorthy and K V Mahadevan gave me songs with a lot of variety. When I look back, there is no instance when I feel that I could have done something better. The music directors would make us sing 10 times and finalise the sixth take. They were such perfectionists.“