KJ Yesudas’s first Hindi film song appears in a film within a film.

Jaaneman Jaaneman, from Basu Chatterji’s Chhoti Si Baat (1976), plays in a film that Arun (Amol Palekar) is watching in a theatre. Dharmendra and Hema Malini – among the biggest stars at the time – play lovers romancing in a park. It is a situation that Arun can only dream of because his own love life is depressingly the opposite. Arun adores Prabha (Vidya Sinha) but is tongue-tied in her presence. In the darkness of the movie hall, Arun finally feels brave enough to imagine that he is the hero of his life and can freely sing about his love for Prabha. He even inserts himself into the song and replaces Dharmendra and Hema Malini with himself and Prabha.

In the song, Dharmendra accuses his lover of stealing his heart using her eyes – an accusation that the bashful Arun could never hope to make. But Basu Chatterji, music composer Salil Chowdhury and lyricist Yogesh solve this problem by making Yesudas sing the song.

In Yesudas’s coy rendition, the song – and the bold accusation of a lover’s embezzlement – acquires a sweetness and innocence that fits Arun’s sheepish personality. Similarly, Asha Bhosle’s more assured rendition seems perfectly suited for the contrastingly confident Prabha.

Chhoti Si Baat (1976).

It is fitting that Yesudas’s voice reaches the audience through the device of a film within a film. By 1976, Yesudas was an established playback singer in Malayalam and Tamil film industries. His was a voice that the screen had already embraced.

There are only three songs in Chhoti Si Baat and this is the only one sung by Yesudas. Chatterji was not fond of song and dance as used in Hindi cinema. According to Anirudha Bhattacharjee’s biography Basu Chatterji and Middle-of-the-Road Cinema, this was why Chatterji placed Arun in a movie theatre when the song plays.

Jaaneman Jaaneman remains immensely popular – and should also be remembered for introducing Yesudas to Hindi film audiences.

By one estimate, Yesudas has sung at least 207 film songs in Hindi. This number does not quite do justice to the outsized impact he has had on Hindi film music.

Yesudas’s style is often described as classically tinged, and that is indeed true of most of the songs he sang even in Hindi. A Yesudas number is easily identifiable. This isn’t only because of the unique tenor and timbre of his voice, but also because of a sense of propriety, sweetness and devotion with which each of his renditions is imbued.

In his stand-up special about film music and musicians, comedian Alexander Babu aptly said that even a raunchy number by Yesudas acquires an innocence and devotion that can confuse the listener. Whether it is a playful love song or a kutcheri performance or a melancholic number, in Yesudas’s voice, it acquires an earnestness that is unmatched and hard to replicate.

A happy accident

Kattassery Joseph Yesudas’s discovery as a playback singer was entirely serendipitous. In his essay The Voice for the anthology Where the Rain is Born, Suresh Menon writes about how 21-year-old Yesudas landed his first-ever film song.

It was 1961. Malayalam director KS Anthony was looking for a new voice for Kalpadukal. Anthony approached Vaikom Chandran, who declined the offer, Menon writes. We don’t know why, but what we do know is that Chandran recommended his friend, KJ Yesudas, instead.

Yesudas’s ascent in Malayalam cinema was instantaneous and surefooted. As Menon half-jokingly writes, he is the best-known Malayali there is.

Salil Chowdhury is credited with introducing Yesudas to Hindi cinema. Chowdhury first met Yesudas when he was invited to compose the music for Ramu Kariat’s Malayalam-language Chemmeen (1965). There is little known about why Kariat picked Chowdhury. After Chemmeen, Chowdhury became a well-known name in Malayalam cinema as well.

Yesudas sang three of the four songs in Chemmeen: Kadalinakkare Ponore, Pennaale Pennaale and Puthan Valakkare. The most memorable track, Manasamaine Varu, was given to Manna Dey.

Kadalinakkare Ponore, Chemmeen (1965).

During the creation of Chemmeen’s music, Yesudas created a strong impression on Chowdhury. In an interview, Yesudas recalls that it was Chowdhury who asked if Yesudas would be interested in singing in Hindi. “Who would say no to that?” Yesudas told the interviewer. It took nearly a decade, but Chowdhury made sure that Yesudas’s voice reached Bombay.

After Jaaneman Jaaneman, Basu Chatterji offered Yesudas another song in his next film Chitchor (1976) – what would become the iconic Gori Tera Gaon Bada Pyara. According to Anirudha Bhattacharjee’s book, Tarachand Barjatya, the film’s producer, heard Yesudas sing and said, “Why don’t you take him for all the songs?”

Yesudas thus became the voice of Vinod (Amol Palekar) in the film. Hindi film audiences owe a debt of gratitude to Barjatya for this suggestion because Chitchor has an incredible soundtrack.

Gori Tera Gaon Bada Pyara, Chitchor (1976).

Chitchor is a story of mistaken identity. Vinod is not the man that Geeta (Zarina Wahab) is supposed to be set up with. Music plays a key role in their romance. Vinod is a trained musician and constantly speaks in musical metaphors. Geeta finds it all very boring and even amusing at times. Until Vinod unveils the harmonium and starts the folksy Gori Tera Gaon Bada Pyara. Geeta cannot help but fall in love with Vinod and his voice.

Each of the four songs by Yesudas in Chitchor are unique, showcasing his prowess and range.

For instance, the passion between Vinod and Geeta is sealed by Jab Deep Jale Aana. Composed in Raag Yaman, this tune lets the classically trained singer in Yesudas shine. He opens with a short alaap and then proceeds into a simple mukhda. He reserves the impressive harkats and improvisations for the stanzas. There are three stanzas, composed identically, but Yesudas keeps the listener hooked.

Credit also goes to the composer Ravindra Jain, who keeps the musical interludes interesting. By the time of the third stanza, singer Hemlata joins Yesudas through a short sargam portion and the song seamlessly transitions into a duet till the end.

Jab Deep Jale Aana, Chitchor (1976).

Then there is Aaj Se Pehle, a complete contrast to Jab Deep – a road trip song and hence arguably more modern, with more pointed phrases instead of the bends that classical music prefers. But Yesudas is equally at home here and renders it with confidence and his signature poise. One can’t help but notice how well Yesudas’s voice matches Palekar in all these songs.

Even though he made his Hindi debut in the late 1970s, by the end of the decade, Yesudas had already sung an impressive number of chart-toppers, most of which have become classics. Be it the dramatic Dil Ke Tukde Tukde from Dada or the lovely O Goriye Re from Naiyya. There’s also the soulful Koi Gata Main So Jaata from Alaap and the iconic Kya Karoon Sajni from Swami.

O Goriye Re, Naiyya (1979).

If Chitchor gave Hindi audiences a peek into Yesudas’s Carnatic training, Ni Sa Ga Ma Pa Ni from Anand Mahal spotlighted it. For this song, Yesudas reunited with Salil Chowdhury. The slow tempo track is easily among Yesudas’s most memorable Hindi songs.

Yesudas cruised into the 1980s with Sai Paranjpye’s Chashme Buddoor (1981), another soundtrack with a classical flavour. In both the songs that Yesudas sings – the ruminative Kahan Se Aaye Badra and Kali Ghodi Dwar Khadi – Yesudas gets ample opportunity to showcase his classical training and expertise.

No account of Hindi music in the 1980s and no Yesudas appreciation essay can be complete without the mention of the legendary Surmayi Akhiyon Mein from Sadma (1983). Balu Mahendra’s remake of his Tamil film Moondram Pirai did not do well in Hindi, but that did not stop the movie from achieving cult status.

Surmayi Akhiyon Mein, Sadma (1983).

Ilaiyaraaja composed for Moondram Pirai as well as Sadma. Among the compositions that Ilaiyaraja repeated in the Hindi soundtrack is Surmayi Ankhiyon Mein, the lullaby sung by Yesudas in both the movies. That Surmayi Ankhiyon Mein holds its own in a soundtrack that also has Suresh Wadkar’s Ae Zindagi Gale Laga Le is no mean feat.

Composed to draw out the tears, Yesudas’s soulful rendition ensures that the song straddles the moods of a prayer as well as a dirge. It’s a melancholic number, but Yesudas eschews melodrama. He does amp up the sorrow in the sad version but somehow it still doesn’t sound over the top.

As the decade progressed, the number of Hindi-language hits by Yesudas began to dwindle. The 1980s and 1990s were also the time when Yesudas got busier in Malayalam and Tamil cinema, where he sang some of his career’s best tunes. However, every once in a while, there was a gem in Hindi.

In 1997, he sang what is arguably his last big Hindi song: O Bhavre for Ram Gopal Varma’s Daud.

O Bhavre, Daud (1997).

Daud followed Varma’s blockbuster Rangeela (1995). Varma roped in Rangeela’s composer, AR Rahman, for Daud. There are nine songs in Daud with a variety of singers. But there is no contest about the best track.

Yesudas is an unexpected choice as the musical voice of Sanjay Dutt’s Nandu, a small-time crook. But Yesudas pulls off the hypnotic and dreamy mood of O Bhavre with ease. He is accompanied by Asha Bhosle, who is equally marvellous in matching the free-spiritedness of Urmila Matondkar’s Bhavani.

Among the best parts of the song is the portion towards the end where the two senior singers improvise with some fun musical banter, crooning to the phrases Gun Gun Gun and O Bhavre alternatively.

It has been 26 years sincce O Bhavre. Yesudas is 83 years old. Is it too late for a comeback in Hindi?