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Back in the 1970s, Hindi films and songs were de rigueur in Tamil Nadu with several films from the north being dubbed into Tamil. The fad pushed original Tamil songs to the background. Ironically, this happened in a state where anti-Hindi agitations were once strident. Yet as a ray of hope, a crop of singers, male and female, appeared in Tamil cinema, stemming the tide of Hindi film songs. Among them the most notable was Vani Jairam whose mellifluous voice cast a spell not only on Tamil Nadu but also on the country as a whole.
Love for music
Born to Duraisamy and Padmavathi in Vellore, Kalaivani (her original name) had eight siblings — five sisters and three brothers. Attracted to music, she learnt Carnatic music at a young age and was enamoured of Hindi film songs too.
Through life’s phases of college education, banking career, marriage and settling in Mumbai, her interest in music stayed intact. That made her learn Hindustani music.
Vani Jairam debuted in the music world, singing for a Marathi music album scored by Vasanth Desai in 1969. After two years, she got her first playback opportunity in the film ‘Guddi’ directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Consequently, she worked in Hindi films where Telugu musicians called the shots.
Though she was singing in Telugu, Tamil and Malayalam films, she seamlessly sang in Hindi films from 1972 to 1977. But thereafter she started focusing on South Indian soundtracks.
Vani Jairam debuted in the music world, singing for a Marathi music album scored by Vasanth Desai in 1969. After two years, she got her first playback opportunity in the film ‘Guddi’ directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee
A voice in sync with characters
Vani Jairam breezed into South Indian filmdom when playback singers P Susheela, L R Eswari and S Janaki reigned supreme. Endowed with a voice that suited any female character, Vani Jairam found a place as an alternative to the iconic female singers. When a female character was lip-synching a song sung by Vani Jairam, her voice lent an air of reality and aestheticism to the character. Though it was a formulaic practice followed by all other singers, Jairam made it something unique thanks to the uniqueness of her voice.
The versatility of her voice made it impossible to get her pigeonholed as a particular type of singer suited for certain typecast characters only. Her voice came off as one of an introverted woman shy of expressing her emotions and also as one of a daring woman who cares hardly about traditional taboos.
Unlike other singers, Vani Jairam did not get the name and fame her voice deserved in the first shot itself. The songs she sang for S M Subbiah Naidu’s music in the film Thayum Seyum (Mother and Child) did not see the light of day for the film was not screened at all.
The song Oridam Unnidam in the film Veettuku Vandha Marumagal and the song Malarpol Sirippathu Pathinaru in the film Sollaththan Ninaikiren ushered in her young promising voice.
The song Malligai En Mannan Mayangum in the film Dheerga Sumangali brought Vani Jairam iconic status. It was the song of a middle-class woman showering her husband with affections. The song Aagayam Mazhai Pozhinja in the film Dhikkatra Parvathi captured the spirit and emotions of a poor pregnant woman. The song Anbu Megame in the film Engamma Sabatham was a musical exploration of a woman’s mind at its romantic best. These three women characters were totally different from each other. The only binding factor that connected them was Vani Jairam’s voice.
Through the song Thathi Chellum Muthu Kannan Sirippu her voice conjured up a mother feeling proud of her son. The song Engirintho Oru Kural Vanthathu was also of the same type. Only that the former was a moving eulogy on Kannan and the latter on Radha.
Vani Jairam sang two songs for M S Viswanathan’s music in K Balachander’s offbeat film Apoorva Raagangal (1975). The songs Ezhu Swarangalukkul and Kelviyin Nayaganae were so in tune with the character of a Carnatic music virtuoso that the audience thought it was Srividya who really sang the song, forgetting it was Vani Jairam. No wonder she got the national award for that.
Luckily for Jairam, the songs she got chances to sing happened to be classical in nature, demanding alapanas.
The versatility of her voice made it impossible to get her pigeonholed as a particular type of singer suited for certain typecast characters only. Her voice came off as one of an introverted woman shy of expressing her emotions and also as one of a daring woman who cares hardly about traditional taboos
Boisterousness and sorrow
Vani Jairam’s voice captured the boisterousness of a girl and the sadness of a woman as well. Her voice’s refined romantic spirit helped the song Ithuthan Muthal Rathiri in the MGR film Oorukku Uzhaippavan, the song Nee Kaettal Naan Maatten Endra Solven Kanna in the film Ilamai Oonjal Aadukirathu and the song Niththam Niththam Nellu Soru in Mullum Malarum take on different hues and express varied emotions.
When she sang devotional songs, their godly feel rubbed off on listeners. When she sang love songs, the audience was moved.
Expressing the innermost emotions of a love-struck girl in the song Ennullil engo aengum geetham in the film Rosapoo Ravikaikari and in the song Megamae, megamae in the film Palaivana Solai, Vani Jairam’s voice sounded appropriately sorrowful. At the same time, her voice ably and aptly captured the youthfulness of the songs Naane naano yaaro thana, Atho varandi varandi villendhi oruthan, enni irunthathu eedera and so on.
Having worked with cine music stalwarts such as K V Mahadevan, M S Viswanathan, Sankar Ganesh, Vijaya Bhaskar, Ilaiyaraja and so on, Vani Jairam gradually withdrew herself after 1990, giving way to the next generation of singers K S Chithra, S P Sailaja and Swarnalatha.
She sang Ethu sugam sugam athu for A R Rahman’s music in 1994. Though the song was slightly outdated, her notes wafted like a pleasant breeze entering into a dark and airless dungeon. Afterwards she focused on singing spiritual songs, now and then singing cine songs that came her way.
Vani Jairam has sung about 10,000 songs including 4,000 songs in Tamil films itself, in a career spanning nearly half-a-century.
One week after the union government announced the Padma Bhushan award in recognition of her service to the world of music, Vani Jairam was found dead at her residence in Nungambakkam, Chennai on February 4, 2023. She was 77.
She may be no more now. But the voice that spun magic these past decades will always live on through her numerous unforgettable songs.
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