Vani Jairam: The Indian Nightingale Who Never Sung About Herself

Vani Jairam: The Indian Nightingale Who Never Sung About Herself

The year was 1971. The Hindustani music world — the epicenter of what the world calls Bollywood — was enthralled by a powerful new voice that came not from a traditional Hindi speaker (a must then to be a star in that industry) but a shy, soft-spoken Tamil (which represents both the main language and people of India’s southern Tamil Nadu state). 

Vani Jairam’s Bole Re Papihara (the songbird sings) hit, featured in the movie Guddi, won her that year’s All India Film-goers Association award for Best Playback Singer (the term playback distinguishes those who sing for movies in India versus singers in other mediums). The problem with Vani’s nomination was that it ended up beating that of Lata Mangeshkar — who was the queen of Bollywood music then (and still is, to millions of Indians, after her death in February 2022). Almost immediately, word spread in Bombay, the film capital of Bombay: Lata was furious about losing — to a Southerner, of all people — and would do anything to stop Vani from getting another song in a Hindi film.

Vani Jairam, the virtuoso of 10,000 songs in 19 languages

When asked about it, Vani seemed aghast — not at the rumored threat to her career from Lata, but at the very notion that she was a threat to Lata. Decades later, at a television interview, when the matter was brought up again, Vani made clear that Lata’s so-called scorn over the matter was nothing but the work of some very creative minds.

“Lata jee,” Vani said, using the term of respect Indians typically attach to  someone’s name, “was tied with me for that award, yes. But she was such a great artist. I’m no competitor to her.  In the end, four judges voted for me. But just because I got the award, it doesn’t mean I’m greater than her. What nonsense!”

It was vintage Vani: Humility before anything else.

Over a 50-year career, she sung praises of almost every playback singer whom she regarded a peer, be it a Bombay-based artist or one operating in Chennai, the film capital of Tamil Nadu.

But rarely would she utter a word about herself.  Those in the know, however, say her musical virtuosity was second to none.

“I think as a singer, Vani Jayaram was celebrated less,” Tamil film director Arun Vaidyanathan said. “She had immense knowledge on music. These days, even when a person sings a song or two, their fame gets skyrocketed but Vani Jayaram was still unknown to the younger generation. I wish she was praised more.”

Vani Jairam holds aloft an award during an undated public appearance.

In tributes that flowed almost endlessly from all spheres of the Indian music industry after Vani was found dead in her Nungambakkam, Chennai home  on Feb. 4, 2023, the verdict was the same: She was an unsung heroine of the trade or simply underrated.

To compensate for its long oversight of her, the government of India announced in January 2023 — just weeks before her passing — that Vani, who completed 50 years as a playback singer in 2021, would receive the Padma Bhushan award, the third-highest civilian award, for her contribution to music.

“She is someone who could effortlessly sing in a variety of genres,” renowned Tamil film music composer Devanesan Chokkalingam, mononymously known as Deva, said in comments carried by The Hindu. To Deva, Vani’s death, coming some 18 months after that of S.P. Bala, another top-notch singing legend of India, was a double blow.  

“SPB and Vani Jairam both had a unique quality,” said Deva. “Most singers will take at least an hour to practice a song that they are taught by the composer. She, however, would be ready in less than 15 minutes to record and would pick up the intricacies and nuances in compositions quickly. She was an extremely humble and soft-spoken artiste.” 

Deva recalled collaborating with Vani in the 1970s on several Hindu devotional albums, before both became busy with film music.

Sikkil Gurucharan, an exponent of Carnatic — or South Indian classical — music, said Vani’s singing was “austere … just like the way she carried herself as a person”. 

“Her diction in any language was awe-inspiring,” said Sikkil.

Nithyashree Mahadevan, a Carnatic-steeped vocalist, said Vani’s energy for music knew no bounds. “[She] once told me she has had to record even 20 songs in a day, going from one studio to another and even traveling to Bengaluru (217 miles from Chennai) and returning the same day.”

Vani was born on Nov. 30, 1945, in Vellore in Tamil Nadu, in a family of classically-trained musicians. At birth, she was named Kalaivani — after the Hindu Goddess of the Arts — and she was the fifth among nine siblings. As a child, Vani was enrolled into rigorous Carnatic training by her parents, becoming proficient enough in the art to give her first public performance at All India Radio in Madras (the previous official name for Chennai) by the age of eight.

But as much as Tamil and other South Indian languages formed the root of Vani’s music, it was Hindi music that she fell head over heels in love with. 

Vani sat glued before her radio, memorizing word for word songs sung especially by Lata, her idol.

On her Facebook page, Vani wrote in 2018: “I was a fanatic lover of Hindi film music, much to the disappointment of my mother who had trained me to be a Carnatic classical musician. I was hooked on to the radio in all my free time and used to observe all the nuances of singing and pronunciation from the songs of Lata jee.” 

Thus, after her marriage at the age of 24 to T.S. Jairam, she moved her work to a bank in Bombay at his insistence, and trained under Ustad Abdul Rehman Khan, one of the finest teachers of Hindustani classical music. When the opportunity to sing in the Guddi movie came along in 1971, she leapt with joy.

But even after winning the award for the songs in that film, there was something unfulfilled in Vani: She had not met the great Lata Mangeshkar yet.

Vani Jairam with Lata Mangeshkar, circa 1970s

“I always dreamt of singing in Bombay films and to get Lata jee’s blessings,” Vani wrote on her Facebook page. “It happened thanks to music director Jaidev [Verma] jee, who invited me to attend a recording of Lata jee and get her blessings.”

She recalls that Lata was singing for the movie Prem Parbat and the song was Yeh Dil Aur Unki Nigahon Ke Saye (My heart delights in my lover’s gaze). 

“I listened to her recording, touched her feet and took her blessings. Lata jee was so nice to me and invited me to visit her home. When I visited her home she blessed me and gave me a Banarasi silk sari at her Mumbai Peddar Road residence. I even attended a meeting in Lata jee house when all the top playback singers were present.”  

Thus, rumors that Lata plotted to kill her career understandably pained Vani.

Even five decades later, at Lata’s passing on Feb. 6, 2022, the memories of those allegations returned to haunt her.

“I am proud that I have lived in the same time as Lata jee and had the rare privilege of interacting with her on so many occasions,” Vani said. “Not a day goes by for me without listening to her songs. The day starts with her song for me, she has given us wonderful melodies.”

“Lata jee was one of a kind, there can be only one Lata,” Vani said. “It is very difficult to have a career going so strong for so many years, [unless] you are highly disciplined, you cannot achieve a thing like that. She was devoted to her art and hard working.“

To Vani’s delight, Lata even told a BBC interviewer once that she had liked Vani’s voice “very much”.

Despite Vani’s reaffirmation of her bond with Lata, those who know about the Bollywood days of the old say Vani was indeed sidelined in Bombay — not by the doing of Lata but another influential singer. 

That’s why even after her post-Guddi stardom, Vani did not get as many opportunities to sing in Bombay as would have another Hindi-speaking artist given such an award. 

Vani, however, took it in good faith. She instead turned her attention back to her home state of Tamil Nadu, where offers began pouring in from Tamil movie composers.

From M.S. Viswanathan, who put her on a pedestal with Apoorva Ragangal’s Yezhu Swarangalukkul Ethanai Paadal? (How many compositions can there be from the seven notes of music?) to Illayayaraja’s Naanae Naana? (Is that me?) and Shankar-Jaiganesh’s Yaarathu Sollamal Nenjalli Povathu? (Who swept my heart without telling me?), Vani mesmerized the Tamil music world.

At the time of her passing, she had already sung some 10,000 songs. And she had recorded in 19 languages in all, including Gujarati, Marathi, Marwari, Haryanvi, Bengali, Oriya, Bhojpuri, Rajasthani, Badaga, Urdu, Sanskrit, Punjabi, Tulu … and even English.

But for all her star quality, her humility never left her.

Arun Vaidyanathan, the Tamil film director quoted at the top of this obituary, remembers how kind Vani was, when he as a young journalist met her for an interview in the mid-90s. She was 50 then, and a high-flying star in the Tamil music world.  

“It was back in 1996, I was just 21 years old but Vani Jayaram respected me for who I am and welcomed, and made me feel comfortable,” the director said. “ We had just scheduled for one hour, but the talk went for nearly 2 hours and more.”


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