Readers Write In #323: Reminiscences of a Yesudas concert

Posted on January 11, 2021

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(by Jayram Sataluri)

It was Sunday, April 17th 2011. I was at JP Stevens High School in Edison, New Jersey waiting outside the school.I did not have the exact money to pay for the ticket. But a family friend who I hadn’t seen in a decade understood my predicament and paid for it. I paid him back a couple days later.

To celebrate their 35th anniversary, Carnatic Music Association of North America (CMANA) was organizing 6 concerts on Saturday April 16th and Sunday April 17th. 3 concerts would be performed on each day. Names such as TM Krishna were to perform. But I was not interested in TMK. I had heard A Kanyakumari for so many years through the cassette tapes/CDs where she would either play solo or accompany topnotch artists such as ML Vasanthakumari (MLV), Balamuralikrishna (BMK), Mandolin Srinivas and Bombay Sisters and since I was not in the mood for an instrumental concert, she and Rajesh Vaidya were eliminated from my list. Though well-regarded artists in their own right, Neyveli Santhanagopalan and Priya Sisters did not make an impact on me, so they had to go too.

Which meant there was only one artist remaining and he was to be the last performer of the weekend. Growing up listening to his music through the cassette tapes my parents collected or on the radio, I knew I had to see this ageless wonder live. To me, he was and still is one of the main reasons why I love music. Whenever I would hear him, I would be instantly captivated and would not leave my room until the recording was finished even if my mom called me numerous times for dinner! Whether it was classical, devotional, spiritual or film songs in any language, I would constantly listen to his music until it was ingrained in my mind and heart. And the best thing is despite conquering the musical world for 6 decades and counting and amassing a billion fans around the world, he still considers himself a humble student of music. Yes, he is no other than Kattassery Joseph Yesudas!

After receiving my ticket, I went to a corner near the school auditorium and patiently waited. As the seconds turned into minutes, more people came inside. A couple of ladies and girls wearing excessive makeup and expensive jewelry were gossiping amongst themselves alternating between English and Malayalam. A couple of mridangam students were tapping the walls and tables, playing their sollukattus with alacrity. A couple of gentlemen were conducting business on their phones. Soon the crowd began milling towards the auditorium doors and it was becoming unruly. The men guarding the doors told the recalcitrant crowd to wait as the artists needed to do an extensive sound check. An elderly man lost it and screamed, “This is injustice! We have been waiting here for the past 3 hours and it’s past 5:30. And you are telling us they are not ready?! Let us in immediately!” The guards calmly repeated the message, but the crowd wasn’t listening. People were pushing their way to break down the door. At that moment I thought that a stampede would occur and I shrank at my corner, unable to bear the commotion. Finally, the doors opened 15 to 20 minutes later and people came in droves to their seats.

The ticket had my seat number so I walked towards the left and sat down. A boy and his mom were sitting a couple of seats to my right and told me they had reserved the seats for the rest of their family members including the one I was sitting on. I politely told them that I would not move. Two minutes later, a girl who looked like a hall monitor for the organization came to me and said that I was in the wrong seat. She took my old ticket and gave me a new one. After a minute, I found my seat next to a middle-aged man who looked like Dr. Mohan Agashe (the parallel cinema actor and psychiatrist) and sat next to his left. I looked around me and saw that the auditorium was fully packed.

After a couple of minutes, the MC came up to the stage. He started off talking about the 35th anniversary of CMANA and the upcoming concerts. He then went into housekeeping items and told us to switch off our phones (which I didn’t). Finally, he introduced the man of the evening and the curtains swung open revealing KJY sitting on the stage with a laptop in front of him. We instantaneously clapped as the legend did a namaskaram. Embar Kannan, the disciple of A Kanyakumari was on violin and B Gowrishankar of Toronto also known as Toronto B Gowrishankar was on mridangam. There was a ghatam artist, but I forget his name. Also on the stage was a middle-aged woman wearing glasses and strumming the tambura.

KJY spoke in English and apologized for keeping us waiting. He was delighted to be back in NJ after a long time and was looking forward to sing for us. He then talked about the true meaning of Carnatic music; that it should not be labeled as Karnataka music aka music from Karnataka, but derived from the Sanskrit word “karnam” meaning ear which means it should be pleasing to the ears (something BMK followed and always emphasized). He added, “Whatever I have learnt so far and continue to learn is thanks to my gurus especially my main guru Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and all of you who have guided me throughout my musical journey.”

He started with his trademark Om in Sa Pa Sa with his voice being in sync with the tambura. Though his voice was no longer in his prime (70s and 80s), it sounded exactly like his 90s form without much deterioration. It was a relief his voice was not shaking so much and going off sruti unlike a certain vidwan of his generation namely TN Seshagopalan aka TNS. He then launched into the famous Patnam Subramanya Iyer Thodi Varnam, Era Napai. Though I had heard this varnam rendered numerous times by many vidwans/vidushis, it was the first time I had heard it from him and he was in command. He did not falter whether it was in slow or faster tempo and just mesmerized us. The accompaniments followed him dutifully.

Next was a composition on Lord Ganesha called Sharanam Porule Tunai Va Vinayaka in a rare ragam I forget now but I believe it’s derived from Keeravani. But before he began, the MC interrupted with a small announcement for us not to record the concert from our devices. KJY added to that saying he agreed with the MC and that we should honor the practice of not recording andenjoy the music. Focusing on recording concerts will spoil our enjoyment, he stated.After the small speech, he proceeded with a short alapana which sounded divine and Embar responded with his own. Then the krithi commenced and it was delightful. The Tamil sahitya described Ganesha in glowing terms though I don’t remember any of it! Then came the swaraprastara and he kept us spellbound for the next 10 minutes. He did not engage in complex calculations, but focused bringing beauty in each note. While the percussionists maintained the beat, Embar gave his own take without spoiling the mood. During the shorter swarams, KJY would end with a tara shadja. After that, he deftly maneuvered through each swaram pattern and ended it exactly at the samam (start). We applauded with fervor.

Next was one of his famous hits, Lalithadasar’s Pavana Guru in Hamsanandi. I think it was before this krithi that he mentioned he couldn’t remember the lyrics very well and so he needed the laptop to guide him while adding jokingly, “Please don’t do what I’m doing” prompting laughter from us. Even though I heard this krithi many times from him in the same tempo and tune, it still sounded evergreen. He was able to evoke the image of Krishna clearly and Embar shook his head with delight, at some points exclaiming out loud.

Following was Evaritho Ne Delpudu Rama, the first Thyagaraja krithi he would render. This again was the first time I heard him sing this krithi. It sounded so different to the other versions I’ve heard as it started from the tara shadja and yet it sounded more truer to what Thyagaraja wanted to express. Even the ragam sounded much better as it was note to note rather than by common phrases. 

Following that was Ksheera Sagara Sayana in Devagandhari, one of my favorite Thyagaraja krithis completely owned by him and BMK. He sang it in his own inimitable way with clear devotion towards Thyagaraja and Sri Rama. When he was singing at tara sthayi, he didn’t go off sruti. His brigas during “Neerajakshikai Neeradi Daatina” were still intact. When he went to “Tharaka Nama Thyagaraja Chitta”, especially when hitting the tara panchama, it felt as if the gods came down to witness this performance. He finished it off in style.

Next was Kripaya Palaya Shoure, Swathi Thirunal’s ode to Lord Padmanabha tuned in Charukesi. During his alapana, he was completely engaged, splendidly decorating every note as if it was a garland. Embar responded with a technical alapana, alternating between slow and faster gamakas with ease but didn’t sacrifice an iota of soulfulness. He gained a lot of applause. When the krithi began, we were taken to another world entirely. KJY brought back the memories of the past greats rendering it. When he rendered “Tapaneeya Nibhachela Tuhinaamshu Su-vadana Sri Padmanabha Sarasija Lochana”, I had the movie version in my mind where he sang for Anant Nag. This version felt exactly the same. The way he sang the charanam “Kurume Kushalam Muda….” was fabulous as if Swathi Thirunal himself was singing it. The swaraprastara was simply superb when he seemed to so entranced by the ragam that he just did not want to finish.

Next was another of his famous hits, Thyagaraja’s Vinave O Manasa in Vivardhani. This is another krithi that belongs to him only and it sounded almost exactly like the cassette version I’ve listened to for so many years. The difference was the sahitya sounded more polished here especially during the anupallavi and charanam. The chittai swarams were exciting with all 4 in sync.

Next was the main piece, a krithi that is a must for every performing artist to learn and render on the stage, Thyagaraja’s immortal Chakkani Raja Margamu. Kharaharapriya came out in such majestic and magnetic form that everyone was paying rapt attention. KJY displayed his 3-octave range which hadn’t deteriorated at all. His briga laden speed was still intact like his prime. Every note was treated equally without a false sound. He just blew our minds by exploring the tara sthayi with such ease and hitting the highest shadja much to our delight. But he wasn’t finished. He went down to the mandra sthayi and hit the lowest shadja and then scaled back up to the top effortlessly. He ended with the madhyama sthayi shadja. Then Embar gave an out of the world response combining his feats of speed with sensitivity. He took the alapana to another zone. I remember seeing the person to my left tearing up. The Mohan Agashe lookalike to my right just shook his head, marveling at what he just witnessed. KJY himself was in raptures. Then came the krithi and like the varnam and Evaritho, it was the first time I heard him render it. He sang it a bit differently than the usual version by focusing on the mood and splitting Thyagaraja’s sahitya appropriately. He did go into some gymnastics while singing some sangatis but did not indulge in them too long. I was very impressed when he rendered the anupallavi and charanam with such passion and intent as if he was following every sahitya line Thyagaraja wrote like it was the letter of the law. I don’t recall if he did a neraval at “Kantiki Sundara” or back at “Chakkani Raja”, but the swaraprastara as always bewitched us. Kharaharapriya completely possessed him and he kept pouring swarams after swarams until he was fully satiated. Embar was at his supportive best throughout by echoing whatever he had and adding his own mark to it.

The thani avarthanam by the two percussion artists was good though the sollukattus and korvais they were playing were not foreign to my ears. During the first round, the mridangist played a simple korvai in three different speeds, while the ghatam artist recreated whatever was played before, but played a fourth speed.I think tisra gathi was used for the second round and it wasn’t very complicated. After playing shorter rounds, the duo combined to play the farans, mohara and korvai which I and many of the percussion students were able to recognize. They did not resort to banging their instruments nor did they ask for the volume to be raised. KJY complimented them throughout.

After a festive Kharaharapriya, the thukkada section arrived and he sang all of his famous hits we have grown accustomed to. These included Jagadhodharana, Harivarasanam, Rajeeva Netraya, Madhuban Mein Radhika Nache Re, Yogeendranam (from Narayaneeyam) and Pavamana Mangalam aka Nee Nama Rupamulaku. During the thukkada section, he reiterated how grateful he was to perform again and that he still sees himself as a student of music and feels young at heart. He gave tips on gurubhakti, how one should learn and perform music and how one should maintain one’s voice. He then gave a demonstration of scaling from the lowest notes to the highest notes and stated it took him a long time to get to that point. He again thanked us for being part of his musical journey and hoped to come back again. I would also like to add that prior to Madhuban Mein Radhika Nache Re, he said, “I may be singing a classical music concert, but it doesn’t mean I can’t sing other songs as well.”

Thus, the concert came to a close after the Mangalam where he ended with a small Madhyamavathi alapana ending in a tara shadja. We got on our feet and applauded for many minutes while he and the accompaniments simply did namaskaram. I immediately looked to my right at the Mohan Agashe lookalike and he wore a broad smile, completely soaked by the divine music. Even the lady strumming the tambura couldn’t suppress her joy. As I slowly exited of the school and headed to the car, I said to myself, “I witnessed divinity today. He’s still got it after all these years. I’m glad I got to see him live.”

I feel blessed to listen and celebrate his music today. I have attended many concerts but there are a few concerts that give me a divine high. This is one of them. And I will remember it forever.