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Music lives forever, believes Padmashree Yesudas

By Anjana Sankar / 24 March 2006

ABU DHABI — K.J. Yesudas is a name that needs no fancy adjectives or frilly anecdotes. A legend by himself, Das is one of the greatest exponents of Carnatic music who is often dubbed as India's answer to Pavarotti.

Hailing from Cochin, the port city of Kerala, Padmashree Dr K.J. Yesudas began his musical conquest into the hearts and minds of millions in the early 60's and has recorded over 30,000 film and devotional songs. He is probably the only Indian singer who has sung in almost all the Indian languages, winning national and international accolades. But Das's first love remains classical music and to him goes the unquestionable credit of popularising the genre music in India and abroad. As an emirates-based Arab pianist put it, 'an Indian needs no better reason to feel proud than having Yesudas.'

Das was in Abu Dhabi last week to perform at the National Theatre on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the New Medical Centre. When Khaleej Times caught up with him over lunch at Dr B.R Shetty's house last Thursday, the exceptionally talented singer was in an unwinding mood. Here are the excerpts:

Q: A musical career spanning four decades, numerous awards and recognition, unparalleled fanfare crossing continents. Do you still feel that there is room for improvement?

A: All that I have achieved reminds me of my responsibility to improve and acquire more knowledge about music. No one reaches a point where there is no need for improvement. Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, himself has said that one has to learn until his Qabr. The learning process, actually never ends. Every time I listen to a new music, I understand that there are some hidden factors that I still need to explore. Seeking and pursuing knowledge is the only way to improve and I fully understand that one has the responsibility to keep on improving.

Q: You always profess the oneness of God and the need for religious tolerance. How do you associate your spiritual leanings to your music?

A: In music, there are seven notes, whether it is Arabic, Carnatic or Hindustani. The variations are there in the rendition of each genre of music. Likewise, there is only one supreme power that is immortal. Believers describe him in their own language. And that is the only difference. People think that I have converted to Hinduism. Why should I? I may not be permitted to visit some holy sites and places of worship. But nothing stops me from reading and imbibing the principles of Upanishads or Quran. I believe in taking all the good aspects of all religions.

Q: Do you owe your spirituality to music? Is it the music that brought you closer to God?

A: Yes. In India music is a form of worship, it was practiced to invoke deities. Coming from a Christian family, there were barriers. But I overcame all that and in my musical journey, I realised that ultimately the God has no difference. He is the sole authority for creation, sustenance and destruction. All that he needs is complete and unquestioned surrender. You love everything that he created and only thus your surrender is meaningful.

Q: Today there is much talk about music as a cultural bridging force. Have your ever felt that cultural barriers restrict music?

A: No. I don't think music is ever affected by cultural barriers. But of course, sometimes language is a barrier. When you understand the language, your understanding is enhanced. Luckily lovers of music consider me as their own.

When I perform I do make a conscious effort to overcome that language barrier. For example, tonight when I perform at the National Theatre, I will be singing some Arabic songs in Carnatic style. It again reaffirms the universality of the seven notes that I mentioned earlier. You know, when you serve food to different people, you should know how much spice and other masalas can be added so that it suits their taste buds. An artist has to flexible and a successful artist can never maintain that I am a pure traditional singer and hence cannot cater to the audience's tastes.

Q: How do you judge the new generation of singers?

A: See nobody has the right to sit and pass judgements on others. There were legends before me and they allowed me my space. I do hear so much of criticism about the lack of quality in music, lyrics and singing. But I personally feel that is what people need today. Just as fast food is inevitable, fast music is the order of the day. In olden days, a carpenter would toil over a piece of furniture to perfect the carvings and the design. But today, the same thing would be available in a plain fashion. But both serve the same purpose. But my only request to the younger generation is that in their pursuit of new trends, they should not forget their traditions.

Q: What is your take on those artists who prefer to play recorded music and do the lip movements while performing live? Have you ever done that under any circumstances?

A: I do not criticise them. So when singers do not sing on stage, they know that they are cheating. We can use the word 'cheating' because you are paid for your presence and your live performance. I have not done that and will never do it. My policy is even if you cannot achieve perfection, just sing and entertain the audience. I think the main reason why many do it is while on stage, is that they have to move around, perform and gesticulate and that might affect the voice modulations. And moreover, media also want quality recording.

Q: You are 65 now. Have you ever felt the age factor creeping into your music prowess?

A: We are human beings and are bound to be affected by physical factors. But care and control over one's life style makes a lot of difference. When you get old, the strength of your vocal cords weaken and that affects your singing. If a heart patient follows his doctors advice to do exercise and avoid fatty foods, his life can be prolonged to a great extent. I am extremely careful in my food intakes and avoid fatty foods so that there are no fat deposits the vocal chord. Alcohol and cold drinks have always been a big 'No No.'


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