Chennai and Tamil Nadu
`Singing from the soul'
M.G. Sreekumar effortlessly straddles the worlds of television and the Malayalam music industry.
VERSATILE SINGER: From foot-tapping numbers to songs with a classical touch, M.G. Sreekumar has sung them all. Photo: C. Ratheesh Kumar
For a bank officer whose greatest ambition was to become a good singer, M.G. Sreekumar has come a very long way. In spite of his success as a singer and celebrity host on television his enthusiasm for singing has evidently not diminished as he says, "I am singing in `Vadakkunathan,' `Ananthabhadram,' `Navarasa' and `Sarkar Dada', all of which will be released soon."
However, in the very next breath, he adds that he will not stop working on television. "Cinema is a very uncertain field. Popularity is fickle and so you should not confine yourself to a particular field. So, no matter how busy I am, I intend to continue my work on television," says Sreekumar whose show on a private channel is one of the most watched celebrity music quiz programmes.
Influx of youngsters
One of the shows he had anchored had thrown up talented singers like Vidhu Pratap and Rimi Tommy. Does he feel insecure about the influx of youngsters who have completely changed the tone of the Malayalam music industry?
"No, not at all. This is not an empire where one can reign for forever. If you are very dedicated, you can continue singing till you are 60-65. After that, the wear and tear of the human voice might begin to show. Moreover, I feel that if you are destined to sing a song, it will come to you."
As it came to Sreekumar when he was working as a bank officer in State Bank of Trvancore in 1986. "In those days, two of my hits songs were `Sreepadam vidaranna... ' and a Tamil number `Ninnai Oru Njan.' I used to feel elated when the audience used to tell me that I had sung like K.J. Jesudas. Little did I dream that one day I would also be a playback singer."
Despite being born into an illustrious family of singers and music directors (his siblings are music director M.G. Radhakrishnan and Carnatic vocalist Dr. Ommankutty), Sreekumar had to go through the grind to make his mark as one of the leading playback singers in South India.
"And when I made my debut in the film `Coolie,' under the baton of the late Ravindran master, getting a break was very difficult. I was lucky that my friend Suresh Kumar, producer, encouraged me to sing in his movies. Suresh, Priyan (film director Priyadrashan), Mohanlal and I share an excellent rapport. Perhaps the fact that we were all students of the same school (Government Model School in Thiruvananthapuram) helped."
Emphasising this is producer Suresh Kumar, who gave Sreekumar his first break. "Sreekuttan (as Sreekumar is called by his friends) had an old Lambretta scooter and the two of us used to go to Chitranjali in Thiruvananthapuram for his recordings. We were all newcomers then." He points out that it was Sreekumar's hard work that took him all the way to the top. "After that first break, it was his luck, talent and perseverance that made him a chart buster."
As the trio of Priyadarshan, Suresh Kumar and Mohanlal went on to create cinematic magic, Sreekumar began to be identified as Mohanlal's voice. "We empathise with each other. It could be because we share the same birth star (Revathi)," laughs Sreekumar.
Thousands of songs later, with two National awards (`His Highness Abdullah,' `Vasanthi, Lakshmiyum, Pinne Njanum') and three State awards, M.G. Sreekumar is able to look back on his struggle with a smile. Although he found his niche in the world of music, he points out that it was Priyadarshan again who took him to Chennai and helped a "Trivandrum singer" reach out to a bigger audience.
"I was asked to sing for `Thalavattom' and that proved to be lucky. Soon I was singing for directors like Bharathan and Joshi. My seniors like Janakyamma (S. Janaki), Suseelamma (P. Suseela) and Vani Jairam were very encouraging." His songs marked a milestone in Malayalam cinema and opened the door to a flood of new singers who were waiting in the wings to find a space in the highly competitive music industry. His feisty numbers had youngsters dancing in the aisles while his slow evocative songs had women and senior citizens reaching for their handkerchiefs.
If it was `Coolie' that ushered in this talented singer, it was the unforgettable `Kaneer Poovinte..' in `Kireedom' that enshrined him in the hearts of music lovers. Recently, he also scored the music for the film `Chathurangam.'
Sreekumar feels that newcomers then had to put in more effort work to make their work get noticed as television was still in its infancy.
"Once, we were in the United States for a programme. I was introduced to a Malayali who wanted to know what I did for a living. I was taken back because by then I thought I had established myself as a playback singer and had quite a number of hits to my credit. Now, thanks to television and music channels, if one song is a hit, you can become a star."
Dwelling upon the changes in technology he says, "Technology was not so advanced then. It had its advantages too. A singer had to practise for at least six hours and that too with a live orchestra. By the time, the song was recorded, the singer would be singing from his soul.
For instance, even when we were recording the songs for films like `Thenmavin Kombathu,' a song recording brought the singer, lyricist, music director, film director and choreographer together. Emoting would be carefully monitored, the choreographer might have a request, the music director may make a change or two... This helped in giving the songs that extra something which made a great difference.
"On the flip side, technology has greatly added to the problem of piracy. As soon as a CD or a cassette is released, the market is flooded with cheap pirated versions. This is hitting the music industry and soon it will have a negative cascading effect on the film industry. We are losing money and unless the Government takes firm action, this will continue," he fears.
On his foray into Bollywood, Sreekumar says that he once got a raw deal. "Priyan had made me sing for his Hindi film that was produced by Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd. Nadeem and Shravan were the music directors and they made me sing `Jhoot Bolu Na' instead of `Jhoot Bolo Na.' Amitabh was reportedly unhappy with the diction and he had the songs sung by another singer. However, Malayalis do not seem to have a problem with diction or pronounciation. So, we have singers from Bollywood whose songs are hits in Malayalam. Malayalis seem to be more magnanimous."
And the future...
"Keep singing. One never knows what is going to happen tomorrow. I prefer not to plan. Tomorrow is another day," he says philosophically.
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Chennai and Tamil Nadu