"Peerlessness" is her Prefix - P.Susheela
The abstract import of artistes such as P. Susheela is ageless, timeless and definition defying. Therefore let us treat this article as an excuse, yet another opportunity to portray and elucidate the peerless attributes of this phenomenon on what in earthly terms is known as Birthday, her Birthday, November 13th. Yes, our connection to Mother Earth needs to be intermittently referenced lest we should forget our true domicile status on this planet and take our celestial sojourns this voice takes us to, as our permanent abode.
First of all, let us imbibe this simple truth, she defined playback singing as far as South Indian Films were concerned. Playback singing as we have learnt now involves perfect portrayal of the innermost sentiments of the character on whom the song is picturized. The natural corollary is that any technicality incorporated within the tune such as rolls, shakes i.e. sangathis, every word sung out, the curves and glides need, to be put through in a manner befitting the character of the beautiful heroine on the screen. Any special efforts taken to sing a brigha or a sangathi however difficult they are, will render the song seem more technicality orientated ,flipping the listener out of the mood, thus impairing the primary attribute a film song should possess, emotions. P. Susheela’s singing regardless of how technically complex or brigha ridden the song was, ensured none of the technical aspects overrode the character based emotional throughput of the song. That was primarily because of her effortlessness in producing sangathis which naturally remained within the emotional confines of the song and never stuck out, however complex they may be. Several stage singers therefore discover much to their consternation, several unobtrusively peppered sangathis and a song that seemed a proverbial cake walk, becomes unnegotiable. Several of the current crop of singers have admitted that the safest place to sing P Susheela’s songs is within the safety of the four walls of home. Her singing process involved establishing a thematic tonal quality that served as the bed spread for the entire song to ride on and with all the above mentioned attributes, her singing thus sat pat on the lips of the beautiful heroine, a visual translation of the aural treat.
Penn State University in USA had conducted a research on Playback singing in Indian Films and came to the conclusion that Lata Mangeshkar up North and P. Susheela Down South had defined femininity as it was required in Films. P. Susheela defined femininity in the early 50s and into the late 50s had portrayed all moods, right from demure disposition to rumbustiousness, inebriation, wild romance and the “vampishly” romantic jabs as well, especially in Telugu.
Furthermore, it is often stated that “open” singing smothers subtlety and with it, nuanced sangathis, and on the other hand subtle singing can take away the impact and the “punch” in singing. P Susheela’s voice was bold when it suited the cinema situation and could yet reel off nuanced passages with “rolls and shakes” while being bright and bold, voice of a kind was it, with this dichotomous nature !!!!
Some good hearted soul had urged P. Susheela, aged 16 then in 1952, to approach Pendyala Nageswara Rao as he was scouting for fresh voices to embellish his, somewhat fledgling career. P. Susheela paid heed and had sung Naushad’s serenely melancholic “mohE bhool gaye sawariyA” during her auditions which force ejected tears from the Master composer’s eyes . He immediately fixed a recording date for recording the songs for his upcoming “kanne thalli”, in Telugu, “petra thai” in Tamil. So, a simultaneous entry into Tamil Filmdom simply happened !!! “Padhyams” are a part of the Telugu Culture and where ported to the Telugu filmdom as well. Padhyams became an integral part of Telugu Film Music and P. Susheela herself was gifted with the “Gajendra Moksham” padhyam as her first ever complete recorded song. This was followed by a duet “Ethukku azhaithAi Ethukku” in Tamil and its Telugu version “enthuku pilichavu enthuku” with AM Raja in the same movie. Pendyala came to swear by P. Susheela for the rest of his career as did several peers of his, across all the South Indian languages. An exacting perfectionist was he, even the simplest of his songs went for numerous takes as every executed version of the song acted as a stimulant for fresher composing ideas. Ever the smiling assassin, he would gently step into the booth, praise the performers and then punctuate the laudatory statements with a request for a change, on very many occasions, more than a subtle change it could be. Hence, yet another take !!!! Within a couple of years. Susheela had stepped into bigger league by being commissioned by “Big Daddy of them all“, Saluru Rajeswara Rao for “Missiamma”, the perennial classic. Prior to that, P. Susheela’s assignments in the Pendyala album “Donga Ramudu” (released in 1953) had created enough ripples for the music industry to extend its reach to the then 16 year old. “Donga Ramudu” had a javli “Bala Gopala” , sung in the traditional classical style, open throated and all and “Anuragamu virisena”, a romantic ditty set in the Thumri mode. The latter song is “crooned”, a technique wherein every sensitivity inducing passage is sung softly and every piece of technicality is executed within the periphery of softness. Every sangathi, brigha had to be “crooned”, no mean task and one wonders how a 16 year old could bring such a conspicuous change in delivery style across songs when her experience was slender then. So back to Rajeswara Rao, a few months before the Missiamma project happened, he had requested the seemingly shyness smitten 16 year old who spoke very little to come to Gemini Studios to sing as a part of the chorus. Swift had been the response and sharp and curt too, taking the maestro by surprise, so sharp that he perished such intentions immediately. The young girl had some spunk you know, she was to later arm herself with a broom stick when her hotel room in Mumbai was on the verge of being invaded by rioters in 1957 !!!! She had gone to Mumbai to record songs for the Tamil version of “Mughal E Azam” for Naushad Ali then. “Missiamma” had the classical “ariya paruvamadA” and the ever titillating “brindavanamum nandakumaranum”. If the teenaged girl’s earlier mentioned caustic response had created a scar in Rajeswara Rao’s mind, he showed no indications of that as he swiftly made her his lead singer. Even in the 50s, everything from classical to Club songs and Middle Eastern ditties were mapped to her by this prodigious composer. He was to become so besotted with her singing when he had to seek the services of another singer owing to P Susheela’s absence, he was found hanging a towel on his head as a mark of protest !!!!
Come the mid-fifties, 1955 to be precise, the promise that P Susheela’s career carried was actualized. Yet another maestro, Adhepalli Rama Rao was the tool destiny used to further P Susheela’s career. “kanavaNE kaN kaNda deivam” was the movie wherein the great composer roped in the young singer to sing what eventually became cult classics, “enthan uLLAm thuLLi viLaiyAduvathum yEno”, the serpent woman’s peals of romance, the depiction of inebriated pining with the “hic” “unnai kaN thEduthE”, “anbil malarntha nal rOja” the soothing lullaby amidst helpless deprivation, a melodic wonder whose allure increases by the passing minute. Then there was this open hearted scream towards The Mother Divine, “o mAdha vantharuL” and the chirpy duet with P Leela “intha veeN kObam varalAmO”. The legend had arrived well and truly !!!! Little wonder that the numero uno composer of that era in Tamil, G Ramanathan had wanted her to sing for him and for reasons still nebulous, P Susheela was giving him the slip. The great composer finally got her to start singing for him through “ennai pOl peNNallavO” in “vaNangAmudi” , a song set to Todi in its most expressive splendor, but that too was after Susheela had tried squeezing out with a lame excuse. “I will make you sing if you don’t, yourself “ the genius of a composer had thundered. Several other songs were awarded to her the same movie and yes, the composer stuck to her until his untimely demise in 1964. “Susheela enrAl Auditorium voice. Sangathi kAlam avangaLa thoda mudiyAthu. Enaku kidaithha miga periya pokkisham”….those were observations made by MS Viswanathan about P. Susheela on several occasions . “Sangathi kAlam”, an interesting coinage used by the path breaking incomparable legend points to the ability of the songstress to roll out rapid gamaks within a short interval span. MSV’s voice had carried overtones of justification for having chosen Susheela as his first choice lady singer. Rewinding back to G Ramanathan, the first ever composer in Tamil to compose specifically for the vocals of P Susheela was he. Many of his songs had gamaks laden phrases that exploited the “sangathi kAlam” ability of P Susheela most wondrously. To quote only a few of those G Ramanathan nuggets with rapid gamaks for P Susheela “Thannai maranthAdum en manam nAdum chandiranE from SarangathAra , enjoy the gamak slides and glides within the charanams and at the pallavi at the word “chandiranE”, “unnazhagai kanniyargaL” from uthhamaputhhiran, the agArams that serve as the prelude are example enough, “kannA manam kallO” from “kadavuLin kuzhanthai” the phrases that complete the tail end of the charanams are riveting enough. G Ramanathan, it is said, would on purpose, sing out the word “kaNdithnAlE” in the song “unnazhagai kanniyargaL” in the classical mould and would ask his troupe members to observe how P Susheela would automatically modernize it and give it a polish that resonated with the cinema situation. Her final assignment with the blessed composer was “deivathhin deivam” which marked his effortless foray into “light music” . He could do that too, you know!!! What perennial classics he had her singing for him in that film “nee illAtha ulagathhilE”, “pattu pAda vAyeduthhAn” and “annamE sornamE”, a lilting duet with S Janaki. Listing the movies that G Ramanathan had Susheela singing for him would be a tiresome exercise, let us simply observe that she sang everything from vampish to classical for the much respected G Ramanathan and had remained his singer of choice since 1957. A watershed was this year for Susheela in all languages except Malayalam where Shantha Nair and P Leela were still being awarded a major slice of assignments. The pEsum padam awards for 1957 and 1958 were clearly reflective of the market position of artistes in Tamil. For 1957, the Best Music Director award went to G Ramanathan for his delicious score in “vaNangAmudi”, TM Sounderarajan bagged the award for the best male singer (for “vaNangamudi”) and P. Susheela was chosen as the best lady singer for “several movies”. Her market presence in both Tamil and Telugu during this phase belittled every other singer’s by the proverbial mile. Every composer of substance plumped for her starting from the already established Rajeswara Rao to the then up and coming Viswanathan-Ramamurthy. Interestingly enough, the “pEsum padam” awards for 1958 had the “Usual Suspects”, G Ramanathan for Sarangathara, TM Sounderarajan for Sarangathara and P Susheela again, for “several movies”. Now , she didn’t have to wait for too long for a call from God’s Own Country as the veteran V Dakshinamurthy roped her in for “pAttu pAdi urakkAm” from Seetha in 1959-60 as an entry point in Malayalam movies. He was to follow this up with several more offers for his protégé as far as Malayalam Films were concerned and eventually, one of the most impactful combinations in Malayalam Film Music G Devarajan-P Susheela happened and most enriching was it to be. G Devarajan like a few others in Malayalam Film Music Industry would compose a tune and place it in abeyance for 2 weeks for the songstress to lend her voice to it. Similar was the case with M Ranga Rao and Vijayabhaskar in Kannada too. Call sheet issues you know, Susheela experienced a plethora of Call Sheet issues and that extended into Tamil and Telugu as well!!!
Such was Susheela’s demand in the South that she had ended up not singing several hundreds of numbers all four languages, especially in Malayalam and Kannada that were composed keeping her mind. The fact that the technology of that era demanded that the song recording be a very protracted process was one of the main reasons. Any mistake by any musician would call for re-commencement of the entire process and inevitably every take would be embellished with amendments to the composition itself.
And what about the difficulty level of songs ?!!!? Very high !!! Especially in Telugu !!! The Telugu filmdom was replete with historical movies and sub-plots culled out of epics like Ramayana and Mahabharatha made into movies. The Hindustani idiom was used extensively by composers such as Adi Narayana Rao, Pendyala Nageswara Rao and Rajeswara Rao for these movies and how Ghantasala Master and P Susheela rose up to this idiomatic challenge !!!! Several unprejudiced artistes up North were forced to marvel at the natural predilection of the Telugu composers, and the singers Ghantasala and P. Susheela towards this Carnatic’s equivalent up North. They were in for a greater surprise when they were informed that none of them had undergone any training in Hindustani Music !!! And add to it , Padhyams that were composed in thousands. Padhyams are typically what in Tamil is termed as “viruthhams” set to a string of ragas (ragamalikas) involving very intricate passages. Tons of such toughies came Susheela’s way and she greeted all those challenges with diligence, patience, understanding and her talent in giving an aural shape to the creations of these masters.
The VIswanathan-Ramamurthy mode however, posed a different set of challenges !!! In Tamil, post the G Ramanathan phase, the V-R combine was blooming with its trail blazing “novelty without loss of worthwhile musical values” philosophy. They were presenting songs like none else had with music deeply intertwined with the cinematic situation. The V-R combination touched the innermost recess of the listener’s Hearts as they could spin out compositions that well and truly depicted the common man’s sentiments with uncanny accuracy and telling effect. They mixed the process of running the melody through chord progressions with grammar defying phrases and adding to it, a generous dose of sangathis of the “neo” kind. Please do listen to “nAN uyara uyara pOgirEn” from “nAn ANai ittAl” , especially the tail part of the charanams which has rapid tonic shifts (an unheard of thing, down South those days) combined with a need for portrayal of drunkenness with brighas as well. Please do enjoy P. Susheela’s “drunken ramblings” prior to her commencing the second stanza. Unblemished drunkenness alright !!!! If “thithhippathu ethu” from “thattungaL thirakkapadum” presented an erotic, sleazy invite , “kalyANa panthal alangAram” from the same film portrayed a woman at her bashful womanly best. Polarities of sentiments all of them were dealt with, with alacrity and with obvious dexterity. Turning Westwards, the subtle vibrato delivered in falsetto in the song “enna enna varthhaigalo” at the word “vArthhaigaLO” , the exaggerated vibratos in “oruvan kAthalan” (both songs in veNNira Adai), letting the proverbial hair down in “pAvai pAvai thAn” in enga mama all of them had the indianized nuggets from the Western world of singing . “ragasiyam parama ragasiyam” in periya idathhu peN was hushed musicality sprinkled with romance, “nAn sathham pOttu thAn pAduvEn” (veLLI vizha) , pesky, impish mischievousness with immense musicality and swaram phrases, the halting paralyzing shyness in “athhAn ennathhAn”, the brooding “vasantha kAlam varumO” (TKR), the resigned helplessness in “idaya veeNai thoongum pOthu” (KVM) and several hundreds of those, she had them all covered and verily laid down the pathway for others to follow. “thookkaNAn kuruvi koodu”(KVM) (vANambAdi), “kurunjiyilE” (kanthan karuNai) (KVM), “kaveri meenadiyO” (KVM)(with TMS in ”alli”) and many others melodiously exhibited the rustic side to Susheela’s singing and what impeccable rusticity in Tamil!!!! Talk about respectable, serious romance and you have the feminity dripping “kaNNan enthan kAthalan”, “oru nALilE uravAnathE”, “kunguma pottin mangalam” and tons more…womanhood expressed at its feminine, romantic best !!!! Mention racy romance and you have “neeyE thAn enakku maNavAtti”, “nallathu kaNNE” and yet again, tons more !!!! Listen to “paN pAdum paravayE” in arasa kattalai, the melodious voice comes down as a hammer, a true clarion call for the complacent and the slavish to rise up and show some grit and mettle, an uncommon assignment awarded to lady playback singers. Only Susheela’s voice could have sounded melodious and boldly assertive simultaneously, yet another unique attribute!!!
Many have observed that the epitome of precision in pronunciation is Susheela indeed !!!! To us listeners, correctness in pronunciation is one aspect that can be labored upon and mastered , but its abstract equivalent, the style and the aesthetic component require Blessings from beyond the skies. Susheela had this in plenty, words were ornamented and put through with clarity and deliciousness that augmented the sense of appreciation of beautified singing amongst listeners. On the other hand, as mentioned above, her ability to adapt to rusticity in delivery of words extended to other languages too, apart from Tamil and Telugu. For instance, some of Kannada numbers sung in the North Karnataka folk slang forced Kannada listeners to believe that P. Susheela was at the very least a naturalized Kannadiga if not a Kannadiga by birth !!!
P. Susheela’s influence extended beyond the South as well, well, quite naturally. C Ramachandra went to extreme lengths to get to her to sing in Marathi, which didn’t fructify but did cherish all his collaborations with the Songstress in the South. Naushad Ali first recorded “Atrangarai thanilE” the Tamil version of “mohe panghat pe nandalal” in Mughal-E-Azam with the songstress and immediately decided to offer all other songs in the movie to her but not before coercing her for a dinner at his residence in Bandra, Mumbai. When “Dhwani” the Malayalam movie was offered to him in Malayalam, Naushad put down the condition that P Susheela had to be awarded the contract before he himself signed on the dotted line. Greats like Jaidev and Khayyam had surreptitiously invited P Susheela to sing for them for their Hindi projects, but alas to no avail, the songstress did not accede to their wishes !!! Salil Choudhry the maverick genius did 25 films down South and had 25 songs sung by the peerless performer across all the four South Indian Languages and how all encompassing were those ditties, starting from day to day cinema music to folk and classical as well. Yet again, his requests for her to sing for him in Hindi was not met with an acquiescence , the partnership thus stayed within familiar bounds, South India.
One wonders how she negotiated challenges thrown by Master composers such as Rajeswara Rao, Pendyala Nageswara Rao, Adi Narayana Rao, MS Viswanathan-VR, KV Mahadevan, G Ramanathan, SV Venkataraman, G Devarajan, Raghavan Master, MK Arjun and numerous more to become the most recorded voice and may we add, with least assistance from technology !!! Raise the number of songs she has sung exponentially by crores and that would be the number of Hearts she has touched and found a primary spot in. Covering P. Susheela’s career with its multi-dimensional resplendence through an article is akin to standing atop an insignificant hillock , hoping to scrape the Pole Star. Please treat this piece of writing ,therefore as a uni-dimensional snapshot of the career of this childlike great who lives in peace, who blissfully allows encomiums from great composers roll down her back, chuckles her way through in the presence of adoring fans and indulges in quick wittedness and subtle humour !!! Her interviews do not involve vainglorious pompousness and references to laudatory statements directed towards her, she infact hides them all, never reveals even factual moments of personal glory !!! So there, that’s her, she would rather root herself in the present, in the midst of explosive laughter and light hearted fun than perch herself on a “holier than thou” pedestal . She prefers traveling light, keeps her mind light, never allowing it to get puffed up with her achievements, though incomparable they are !!!
As a parting gift, please do give the following ditties with their multi-hued spread, a listen….Trusting that the quality of music will render the listeners “language agnostic”.
- Yesko Bullemma at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qn9oRIJzVd8, a Salil Choudhry rollicking feast !!!! Vampisheness of the mistress of a toddy shop !!!!
- Jal jal jal sathangai, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uG337tVb-qk, from “mangayar uLLam mangAtha selvam”, Adi Narayana Rao spinning his Hamir Kalyani Magic. Ghantasala Master accompanies
- Nuvvu nenu https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=nuvvu+nenu+chakkani+chukka+takkari+donga, Erotic forceful coaxing, a jazz blues extravaganza put through with unmitigated “wildness” amidst sinister softness and fierce overtures, crescendo and all, a Sathyam creation
- Thookkanankuruvi koodu,.. has rusticity been better celebrated ?!!!?
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fF_P01DOlbI, the essence, the flavor of Tamil emanating from every pore of the song
- Paruvam enathu paadal https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=94tYRNOXqQc, a MSV path breaker, he called her’s as the only “melodious , auditorium” voice. Here’s the voice ripping through our consciousness melodiously , verily the milky way piercing through the dark skies
- Nayanadale https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aJEKYIYjOI4,
A TG Lingappa classic. Hushed, halting bashfulness expressed in its womanly magnificence. She croons, doesn’t not go open throated, croons through lightning akArams and the expressions simply happen, a definition for singing for a heroine.
- Ninduga vinagalana https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yfuDDUMNL50,
Bhaktha Sabari just about manages to sing with her worn out vocals !!!! P. Susheela’s voice quivers with devotion and excitement, being truly overwhelmed in the presence of the avatar but with the entire spectrum of emotions smothered by old age. Yet, amidst the “old age” tremolo, every note is in place and every phrase in tune.
- Loguttu perumalla, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xG5fET2w2VU
A Sathyam creation in Toofan Mail….well she could be caricaturist as well you know !!!!
About the Author
Mr. Sriram Lakshman worked across the globe as a Software professional for 25 years. Presently indulges in healing, deep spiritual pursuits and bringing to South India the path he subscribes to which is elaborated at www.padmacahaya.com. Out of personal interest did fair amount of research work on Indian Film music of the 50s and 60s with accent on Hindi and Tamil songs. Founder Trustee of msvtimes.com a website dedicated to discuss the works of MSV. Msvtimes.com conducts regular research oriented programs and annual musical programs to highlight nuances of MSV's music. He comperes all these programs A part of P. Susheela trust that is geared towards providing financial support to needy musicians, he acts as a coordinator for fund raising programs for the same.