P. Susheela is in high spirits. A musical finale not easily replicable has been played out as a culmination of her eventful career. Her prolific musical output has been documented in a way that has got her into the Guinness Book of World Records. The event has warmed the cockles of the hearts of her myriad admirers. Heroines of yesteryear have flocked to her residence to express their joy.
A cultural icon of the Tamils and the Telugus, Susheela is also appreciated for her contribution to Malayalam and Kannada film song. Though she is a Telugu and her film songs in her mother tongue handsomely outnumber her Tamil songs, she is undoubtedly the main female figure of the golden age of Tamil film music. The most prolific lyric writer Vali made his debut writing for her (Nilavum thaaraiyum in Azhagar Malaikalvan) while SPB of a thousand duets sang his first with her (Aayiram Nilave Vaa).
But it’s more the quality of her numbers than the quantity that has earned her the love of music lovers. The sheer melody, lyrical significance, musical excellence and popularity of many of her songs have made an iconic singer of South India. Many of the jewels of Kannadasan, Tamil cinema’s lyricist par excellence, are framed in Susheela’s inimitable voice. While carving a niche for herself in the film world dominated by men, she retained her dignity and self-respect as a tremendously gifted and resourceful songstress. A winner of many national and regional awards, she is also the recipient of the Padma Bhushan.
Hailing from a musically inclined family in the princely state of Vizianagaram, Susheela acquired a diploma from the music college in her home town and came to Chennai for further studies. Her got her first singing chance easily enough with Pendyala Nageswara Rao choosing her for a duet with A.M.Raja in Petrathaai (Kannathalli).
Initially Susheela was a staff singer of AVM studios. The positive side of her years in AVM was the honing of her Tamil diction as well as the professionalism she brought to her career. Though she speaks Tamil with a strong Telugu accent despite her 63 years in Chennai, her Tamil singing sets the benchmark for excellence in Tamil pronunciation. That’s why Susheela was chosen along with T.M. Sounderarajan to render the State song of the Tamil Nadu government in 1970 (Neeraarum Kadaluduthu). Earlier, she had rendered Bharatidasan’s paean to Tamil, ‘Tamizhukkum Amudhendru Paer’ in the sweetest of strains.
The fifties were competitive times with many female singers in the field and Susheela had to fight her way up. That she progressed steadily can be seen from the fact that a musical genius like G.Ramanathan trusted her with great numbers like ‘Mullai Malar Mele’ and ‘Inbam Pongum Vennila’. She was often fancied for dulcet duets with A.M.Raja with the latter himself opting to sing with her in the enormously successful Kalyana Parisu (Vaadikkai Marandhadhu Yeno, Aasaiyinaale Manam). Viswanathan-Ramamurthy came up with ‘Thangathile Oru Kurai Irandhaalum’ which lit up a million hearts.
Paava Mannippu (March 1961) set the stage for a new musical phase that would crown Susheela as the queen of Tamil film song. There was an upsurge of innovation, melody, meaning and orchestral colour. As Susheela’s art shone in dainty songs like ‘Paalirukkum Pazhamirukkum’, it was clear that the golden key to the kingdom was in her voice. Master composers like Viswanathan Ramamurthy and K.V.Mahadevan would henceforth make it the measure of their melodies. V. Kumar and others would follow suit.
It’s significant that Chief Minister Jayalalitha has recalled that Susheela sang for her mother Sandhya. The classic images of some of the most charismatic heroines like Devika (Sonnadhu Nee Dhaana), Saroja Devi (Unnai Ondru Kaetpaen), Savithri (Malarndhu Malaraadha), Sowcar Janaki (Maalai Pozhudhin Mayakkathile), Padmini (Mannavan Vandhaanadi), Kanchana (Enna Paarvai), K.R. Vijaya (Athai Madi Methaiyadi) and Jayalalitha (Unnai naan sandhithaen) mirror a greater charisma because of Susheela’s song. The actresses knew that the fragile moments of their fleeting beauty were sculpted for life in the evergreen melodies that flowed from Susheela.
Musical instruments acquired their signature passages in her songs. Mangalamurthy’s superb accordion accompaniment in Susheela’s entrancing melody ‘Athaan En Athaan’ drew attention to the instrument. Satyam’s soaring notes on the Shehnai in ‘Aalayamaniyin Osaiyai’ masterfully underscored the serene atmosphere of the song. Hanumatha Rao’s consummate tabla playing lent ‘Maalai soodum mananaal’ an ineffable grace. ‘Enna Enna Vaarthaigalo’ in which Susheela’s voice and the keys of the piano frolic together shed light on Joseph Krishna’s mastery over the instrument. Nanjappa’s honeyed phrases on the bamboo shimmered in ecstatic hues around Susheela’s vocals in ‘Kannukku Kulamedhu’.
Susheela was extremely receptive to musical ideas and fast in grasping them. She was also uncannily sensitive to microphone positions and the needs of sound engineers to get a recording right. The later decades of her career saw a great deal of competition emerging and singer-music composer politics playing out to her detriment, but she kept on doggedly. She wisely patched up with Ilaiyaraja after some initial misunderstanding. She is a woman of much poise and reserve but can be scorchingly sarcastic in private. She has a piquant sense of humour too. She once remarked about raagas in the general run of film songs – ‘’One can say they represent an all-India raaga. Even if you search all over India, you won’t be able to find the raaga!’’ At eighty plus, Susheela still rocks
(The writer is a historian of Tamil film music and has authored many books on the subject).