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Screen - August 4, 2000
50 years, 40,000 songs and still going strong

The South Indian version of Lata Mangeshkar, P. Susheela enters the 50th year of her singing career, this year. The five time National Award winner has recently turned music director and as brought out a devotional album. In her long, chequered career, Susheela has rendered over 40,000 songs, a record by any standards! Though she has cut down on her film assignments, Susheela is busy composing music and performing in concerts at home and abroad. Excerpts from an interview with the melody queen of the South.

All along, you’ve been behind the microphone singing others’ tunes. How do you feel conducting the orchestra for your private album?
Oh! it is a very tension-ridden job. Now I feel singing is much easier. But this also is an experience which I am enjoying. Moreover, the urge to prove myself as a composer has been fulfiled. And the album is devotional, in Sanskrit, eulogising the man I worship, Puttaparthi Satya Saibaba. Titled Parthi Sai Bhajans, the album contains 10 songs written by Dr. Saikrishna Yachendra and rendered by me and my niece Sandhya Jayakrishna.

Tell us about your early days as a singer and how did you develop interest in a singing career?
It is an old story, about 49 years old. I hail from a well-to-do family from Vizianagaram, the birth place of many well-known singers and musicians like Ghantasala and Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu. My father, Mukunda Rao was a famous criminal lawyer. My parents wished to see me as a great classical singer like M.S. Subbulakshmi. I was an avid listener of Lata Mangeshkar’s songs over radio. I obtained first class diploma in music. In fact, I came to Madras in 1951 to enroll for the Sangeetha Vidwan course. Music director Pendyala Nageswara Rao spotted me at a children’s radio concert and took me as a lead singer for Kannathalli. And the rest is history (smiles).

You mentioned listening to Lataji’s songs on the radio. We also hear that she too is fond of you. Tell us about your interaction with the famous Mangeshkar family.
I cherish each moment of my association with them. Long ago, she invited me to her home. I can never forget the warmth and affection she has showered on me. One has to learn how to respect artists from her. When I won my first National Award for the Tamil film, Uyirnda Manidan produced by A.V.M. there was a gala function. Lataji and Naushadji graced the function. After that we met many times and exchanged thoughts on music and allied topics. Even Ashaji calls me Didi. I used to tell them that you are not four sisters but five. The fifth (that’s me) was born in the South by the wish of God.

Why did you shun offers from the Hindi film industry?
It is true that once Filmalaya approached me to be their permanent singer. That was when I went to Bombay to sing for the Tamil dubbed version of Nayadaur. The bosses of Filmalaya heard the songs and asked me whether I know Hindi and gave me the offer. I did not accept the offer for lack of proper guidance then and also because I was busy down South, singing for both Tamil and Telugu films. Of course, I did sing for Hindi films like Bachpan and Wohi Ladki, besides some dubbed films.

Right from Pendyala and M.S. Viswanathan to Ilayaraja and A.R. Rahman, you’ve worked with over 50 music directors. Among them, who do you think was a tough task master?
A good music director is the one who knows how to extract the best from the singer. M.S. Viswanathan gave me some of my best songs. So did Ghantasala and Pendyala. Under the baton of MSV, Mayingugiral or maadu (from Uyirinda manidan), from K.V. Mahadevan, Manoo maakunu kaanu (Moogamanasulu) and from Ghantasala, Aligina Velalo Choodali (Gundamma Katha) are some of the songs I consider as my best. I sang not only for Ilayaraja but for his son Karthik Raja too.

We hear that you’ve rendered over 40,000 songs in all the South Indian languages. How did you manage such a buy schedule?
In those days, we used to do a lot of rehearsals. So we didn’t find it difficult. Moreover, it is God’s gift. I do not know Malayalam. But I have sung nearly 5,000 songs in the language. Before singing the song, I always ask for the story and the situation. So while singing, it is easy to get into the skin of the character, for which I am rendering the voice. That was possible during the ’60s and ’70s, the golden period of film music.

How do you rate today’s singers?
We have some very talented singers today. They are doing their job according to the dictates of the times. If you give me a 2000 year speed song, I too render it the way they are doing. Everybody now is trying to give something new. Some are liking the music some are not. Those who do not, are going for the old songs. It is a cycle. The melody of the ’70s will be back soon. In fact, it is already on the way in, again.

Isn’t the present track system of singing a part of technological advancement. Why then do you abhor it?
The track system may have its advantages. Each singer need not wait for the other singers and also the orchestration can be done with each musician separately. But I still prefer the old system of all the instrumentalists and singers working for the song in unision. There is a rhythm and order. In the track system, even if there is an iota of lag, then the song loses balance. Just switch off the background music and listen to the voice alone; you find ups and downs. Loud music camouflages this. That is the reason today’s music is like fast food.

Your advice to the present generation singers?
I’ve stopped giving advices. Those days have gone. Today, they’ll advise us!

Recently, after the announcement of the Padma awards by the Government, there was some resentment from the film folk for not awarding a Padma Bhushan or at least a Padmashree to such a versatile singer like you. Do you have any regrets on this count?
Recognition acts as a tonic for any artiste. If it comes through the Government, it makes one happier. But I am happy that the Kerala Government has done a unique thing by felicitating renowned singer K.J. Yesudas when he turned 60 recently. I do not expect any awards or titles. I do my work sincerely and in the process if they come my way, I am happy.

Your future plans?
I do not plan anything. Things just happen. I think this was all pre-destined by God. But yes, I would like to compose music for a video album.

-- Naresh

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