Remembering Vani Jairam, the voice of the female soul

The writer is a producer and an art curator
Remembering Vani Jairam, the voice of the female soul

It is rather strange that two people connected with one breakout movie passed away within two days of one another. K Vishwanath’s Sankarabharanam not only established his foothold in cinema but also gave a splendid height to the rising popularity and talent of its female lead singer, Vani Jairam. The more unique aspect to note is this - of Vani’s three national awards, two were for her rendition of songs for a young male character from Vishwanath’s Sankarabharanam and Swathi Kiranam. Vani Jairam’s own career was unique as well. Here was a South Indian singer who “arrived tailormade for playback singing,” but found her first hit song in Hindi cinema. Till date, her Bholo re papi hara is a hard one to crack in any reality show for the sheer scale of the song, her diction, and her pitch-perfect rendering. Vani’s voice and diction was an aural delight for music composers who gave her songs where the charanam would be on a higher note than the pallavi, making it as tough a song can ever be! Her ability to lead her voice to that high a scale was hitherto possible only for someone like P Susheela. With Vani Jairam, it wasn’t just the scale but also the quality of her voice which was full-throated and strong, like a veena or violin. 

She was in many ways a counterpart to say KJ Yesudas who came armed with classical music training. Her ability to get into ghazals and Hindustani classical while retaining a Carnatic swara-base made her an apt choice to be the voice of Aboorva Ragangal's Srividya in Yezhu swarangalukkul yethanai paadal. It was this MS Vishwanathan song that gave Vani her second National Award. With her ability to sing in more than just the South Indian languages, she was matching strides with SP Balasubrahmanyam, and soon she sang more than 10,000 songs in close to 17 Indian languages with a majority of them being in Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu and Tamil. 

Despite rumours about Lata Mangeshkar stalling Vani's sojourn in the North, nothing could stop her from delivering one superhit after another in the South where her songs continue to remain on playlists. She was a picture of “no fuss” even when she sang the higher octaves, the emotional songs and duets. She could easily replicate her tough songs in Live shows as well. Apart from the top composers of her time, Vani Jairam also gave her singing heft to songs by newcomer music directors. Case in point, Shankar Ganesh (Muthu muthu therottam from Aaniver and the more popular Meghame meghame from Palaivana Solaior Vijayabhaskar (Anbu Meghame from Engamma Sabhadham) and Gangai Amaran (songs from Vazhvey Maayam and Sattam) who greatly benefited with Vani being part of their projects.

My all-time favorite Vani-Ilaiyaraaja song would be Enn Ullil Engo Yengum Geetham… from Rosapoo Ravikkaikari. It wasn’t just the haunting twang of the violin but also Vani Jairam’s emotional appeal which calls out to your heart, to listen to her (the character’s) yearning. MS Vishwanathan gave her two “ malligai” songs. While Malligai Enn Mannan Mayangum (Theerga Sumangali) remains to be one of the greatest happy female solos of all time, there was another jasmine that also brought Vani’s mellifluous singing to the fore — Malligai Mullai Poopanthal (Anbe Aaruyire).

Moving on from the 70s, Vani became the voice of the heroines in the 80s and MSV gave her another soulful swara-based solo (it's almost like she was the voice for the female soul) - Naadhamenum kovililey from K Balachander’s Manmadha Leelai. Interestingly, it was with Ilaiyaraaja that Vani sang some of the fun numbers in her discography like Devamrudham Jeevamrudham (Moondru Mugam), a duet with SPB, or Vaa Vaa Pakkam Vaa (Thangamagan). She was Sripriya’s voice in Ilamai Oonjalaadugiradhu where Ilaiyaraaja took on the challenge to compose songs, which would remind one of the MSV era (Nee kettaal naan maatendraa solvean kanna & Orey naal unnai naan). 

There are plenty more songs to add to the list as Vani leaves behind a legacy playlist full of pure singing. Hers was a voice that could take you inside a woman’s soul, and a voice that gave our thoughts expression. The Padmabhushan came in rather late, in January 2023, after a lifetime of being celebrated on the outlines. It is sad that she is hailed more after her passing. But perhaps her soul will be glad that her voice is celebrated more by a whole new generation today. I’m sure she’d like you to also listen to Indraikku Yean Indha Aanandhame from Vaidehi Kaathirundhaal and remember her with joy.

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