She pined for Bollywood, found luck down South – Times of India

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Samhati Mohapatra is from Odisha
Ask 71-year-old Vani Jairam, known in film music circles for her exceptional vocal range, if the years have taken a toll on her vocal chords and she answers by singing a few lines from ‘Bole Re Papihara’, the song from the 1971 Hindi film ‘Guddi’ that won her stardom. “I still sing in the same shruti (scale),” she says. Feted by Andhra Pradesh recently with the Ghantasala National award, Jairam, felicitated by several other regional film industries too for her contributions to their music over a 47-year career, says she still loves singing in different languages. Known for her dexterity that makes her at ease with tricky compositions, Jairam has recorded in 19 Indian languages. In a tete-a-tete with Samhati Mohapatra, she talks about her recent recordings and why south Indian film industry is her favourite.
What inspired you to start singing in different languages?
Before singing for films, I did jingles in 14 languages. I am very meticulous about perfecting the local dialect, which is probably why most of my songs are recorded in the first take.
What made you pick films when you had a strong foundation in Carnatic music?
When I was a kid, my mother ensured that I took my Carnatic lessons seriously and learned the form well. But my heart always pined for Bollywood music. One of my favourite radio programmes then was Binaca Geetmala, which would play the top 16 film numbers. Listening to those songs, I would daydream about being a Bollywood singer and my songs being played in the programme. Life came a full circle a few decades later when my song ‘Bole Re Papihara’ was played on the programme.

Why did you leave the Hindi film industry when you were doing so well?
I was flooded with offers from south Indian filmmakers soon after my first concert at Music Academy in January 1973. One was from Salil Chouwdhury, for a Malayalam film. I later became the first choice whenever a Hindi film was dubbed in a south Indian language or a composer had a complicated piece. I couldn’t say no to such big opportunities and shifted base to Chennai in 1975-76. South was lucky for me. I won all my national awards after coming here.
Are lyrics as important in songs today as they used to be?
Not so much. Songs were situational earlier and had lyrical beauty. Today, songs are more for entertainment.
You have also judged reality shows. Do you believe the platform produces genuine singers?
Why not? True, reality shows are dramatised these days, but the country has found many singers, like Shreya Ghoshal, through reality shows.
Your last song in Tamil was ‘Thiruppugazh’ from the 2014 movie ‘Kaaviya Thalaivan’. What’s keeping you busy these days?
I recently recorded a song for U K Murali for a coming film. The Malayalam film industry has kept me busy for the past three years. My songs ‘Maanathe Marikurumbe’ from ‘Puli Murugan’ and ‘Pookkal Panineer’ in ‘Action Hero Biju’, both 2016 films, were hits. I have also been singing a lot of devotional songs.
What would be your message to aspiring playback singers?
Be focused, work hard, take competition in your stride and, most importantly, when success is yours, stay humble. Art comes with humility.
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Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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