K J Yesudas is an renowned playback singer of Bollywood cinema, but he is hailed as a legend in his native Kerala. His output has been enormous – he is believed to have recorded 80,000 songs. He sings in multiple Indian languages, including his native tongue Malayam, Hindi, Bengali and Tamil as well as having recorded songs in English, Russian, Arabic and Latin. Yesudas has won the Filmfare Award for Best Male Playback Singer a record seven times. His achievements are extraordinary but his standing has never quite reached the level of predecessors like Mohammed Rafi and Manna Dey.
Early Life in Kerala
Kattassery Joseph Yesudas was born in Fort Kochi, Kerala in 1940, to a Catholic family. His father, Augustine Joseph was a renowned classical musician and taught him Carnatic music from an early age. At school he excelled in music and won state-wide prizes for singing. He continued his musical education at the R. L. V. Music Academy, Thripunithura, graduating in 1960. Soon after, Yesudas experienced his first success with the 1961 song Jaathi Bhedam Matha Dwesham.
Entry into the Malayam Film Industry
Yesudas soon became a regular playback singer in the Malayam film industry. His breakthrough came with the Malayam film Bharya in 1962. The film was adapted from Kanaam EJ’s novel of the same name that tells the story of a love triangle, said to be based on the real life Thiruvalla Ammalu murder case. The film was an instant hit and the soundtrack was very popular.
Throughout the 1960s, Yesudas featured in some of South India’s top films, including Konjum Kumari, 1963 and Bommai, 1964 (both Tamil language). In 1967 his recording of the song Kalichirimaaraatha for P. Venu’s Malayam film, Udhyogastha became a big hit and secured Yesudas’ position as South India’s leading voice artist.
Breaking into Bollywood
KJ Yesudas’ first ventured into Hindi cinema in the early 1970s. His first real success was in Basu Chatterjee’s romantic comedy, Chhoti Si Baat, (1976). The song Jaaneman Jaaneman Tere Do Nayan, a duet between Yesudas and Ashe Bhosle, became a huge hit.
Later that year, Yesudas secured his position in Bollywood with the release of Basu Chatterjee’s next film Chitchor. With music and lyrics by Ravinda Jain, Chitchor’s soundtrack has become a classic of 1970s Hindi cinema. Yesudas won the National Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer.
Return to Carnatic Style and Reaching Beyond
Since the 1970s KJ Yesudas has returned to his Carnatic routes as well as broadening his role, by becoming something of a cultural ambassador for Indian music internationally. He regularly performs in the Middle East, including singing Arabic songs in Carnatic style. In 1999, Yesudas was presented with an honorary award for ‘Outstanding Achievements in Music and Peace’ by UNESCO. His prodigious output, his extraordinary voice and his dedication to both classical and cinematic music has ensured his reputation as one of India’s all-time great singers.
Yesudas’ voice is touched by God. After Kishoreda [Kishore Kumar], he was another singer who brought out the best in me. He is a yogi, a mystic who lives for music. He takes your tunes to another level. And his note is perfect, you can rely on him to deliver it right the first time. Working with him made me touch base with my melodious side. Bappi Lahiri, 2012
Read more about KJ Yesudas
Life devoted to music – The Hindu
Music is a continuous process of learning, says K.J. Yesudas – Carnatic Darbar
KJ Yesudas – Last.fm
For me music is God – The Tribune