I’m Still A Vidyarthi When It Comes To Music: Yesudas

I’m Still A Vidyarthi When It Comes To Music: Yesudas

His name is synonymous with music, and his mesmerizing voice has been tugging the heartstrings of music lovers across the world for decades now. However, KJ Yesudas (Kattassery Joseph Yesudas) isn’t stopping. As we walk in for this interview, he is busy practicing a kriti in Raga Bilahari for an upcoming concert. Does he practice rigorously even now? “Decades ago, I wanted to learn music at Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala and become a vidwan. I joined the course and realized that I will remain a vidyarthi (student) forever and not become a vidwan,” he begins.

Having worked with several generations of music directors, Yesudas says that of late, he has been focusing on Carnatic music. “I keep recording for both films and devotional songs. But these days, I’m devoting a lot of time for Carnatic music.” A disciple of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, he says he doesn’t want to deviate from the sampradaya in his classical concerts. “Several stalwarts have created a system and I would like to follow that. I don’t deviate from the format. I do sing bhajans and such request songs for the audience towards the end of my concert, but for that, they will have to wait,” he says.

Ask him what his favorite raga is, and he says, “There was a time when I used to tell everyone that I love Kalyani. However, now I don’t think like that. For me, every raga is like the bhava of Goddess. How can I discriminate or pick and choose one particular raga over the other?”

Even after five decades of non-stop singing, his voice has not lost its sheen. What’s his secret? “It’s not that I always had this impeccable voice. Some 15-18 years ago, I started noticing that I could not reach higher octaves. I thought that it’s a natural phenomenon and a part of ageing and continued singing in low pitch. But once on a tour in the USA, a life-changing event happened. I was told that a Sri Lankan boy was an ardent fan of mine and that he wanted to drive me to the concert organizer’s place. While sitting in his car, I noticed a book lying on the seat, titled, Eat Right for Your Type. Out of curiosity, I just started reading it…”

I soon got so engrossed in the content that when it was time to alight, I asked the young man whose book it was. Since it belonged to someone else, I decided not to take it, but buy one. I was waiting at a bookstall and though I asked a couple of people there to get me the book, they said they didn’t have it. But when I was just about to take a sip of my coffee while sitting there, I spotted the book, on the shelf just opposite to me. I immediately bought it. Though not an exhaustive work, the book is about diet based on one’s blood type. After reading the book, I realized the mistakes that I had been making in my diet and soon started following the plan as suggested by the author. It worked like a miracle. Since then I have been adhering to the diet plan and I have never faced any pitch issues. In fact, some of my toughest songs and biggest hits happened after that.”

He says that his day begins with coffee and an energy bar and he can go on with that till lunch. “My lunch is a typical Kerala meal — rice with some side dishes. Earlier, I used to have rotis at night. It was easy to eat rotis after late night recordings and shows. But after reading the book, I stopped having rotis and that helped me. Even today, if I alter my diet, I feel the difference in my voice.” He adds, “I don’t drink tea. When I was young, I would gorge on chicken. But for the last several years, I’ve been a pure vegetarian; I don’t even eat egg.”

Mentioning that he seldom eats from restaurants, he says, “It’s my duty to upkeep and safeguard my voice, my ability to sing. I believe in mujjanmam. What I’m today maybe because of that. It’s like today’s bad food habits affecting your health tomorrow. I should not allow my music to go bad because of my negligence.”

Yesudas will be performing at a live event soon. “I don’t select the songs beforehand. The songs will be decided based on the audience and mostly impromptu,” he says. Ask him if he will be performing any of the songs by Ilaiyaraaja as the royalty issue of the composer’s songs is already rocking the music scene, he replies, “No, unless the organizers have taken permission from Raja sir, I won’t be singing them.” Will it not affect the show, in a negative way? He says, “There are enough number of songs by other music directors to keep the audience hooked. So, there need not be any worry on that.”

Ask him what he thinks of the royalty issue, and he says, “We are still following the colonial law. While it’s a team effort and everyone is getting paid for their part, how can the royalty be given to only one person? Now, he wants the singers to pay him additionally if we sing his songs. No one can deny that singers play a great role in making a song popular. If they think that singers are just laborers, music directors themselves can sing all the songs and make them popular, right?”

However, he quickly adds that he shares a great rapport with Ilaiyaraaja. “He addresses me anna and is fond of me. But when he stopped Balu’s concert, (S. P. Balasubrahmanyam) saying that he should pay money to sing his compositions, I felt bad. I know their relationship. Balu and Raja sir were so close. But this has created a dent even in my mind,” he signs off.