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Soaring in the musical arena

Unni Menon's career graph is interesting. Meet the man, who is a popular singer in the Southern languages.

Photo: P. V. Sivakumar

CAREER SHIFT: On the musical path.

FOR A person who nursed no ambitions of becoming a singer and who came into the musical field by coincidence, Unni Menon has certainly done well. Today, his voice is frequently heard not just in Malayalam films but Tamil and Telugu as well. He is one of those singers who entered the musical arena with zilch training but is now established in the circuit. When he quit his job in a public sector company little did he realise that he would make it so big in music. Unni Menon was interested in music having won prizes in school and college level. This taste for music made him visit the studios for recordings of songs. It is at the behest of singers like Yesudas and S.P. Balasubrahmanyam that Unni decided to try out singing.

"I first recorded a Tamil song Amudham Teeyum (music by B.H. Chidambaranath). Actually it was a track for Yesudas. The song was not popular but it gave me a chance," says Unni, rewinding his early days when he was in Hyderabad recently. "By luck I got in due to the kind words put in by Yesudas and others. Yesudas inspired me a lot. I sang a few songs for Ilayaraja but they were not hits."

His lack of formal training in music made Unni Menon feel a little insecure so he also opened a recording studio `Alaap' at Kochi in 1987. "It was tough competition given the fact that anybody could start a studio. Unni Menon was catapulted to fame with Vellai mazhai... in Roja. "You could call that my second coming - a turning point." He also started another studio (`The Sound of Music') in Chennai in 1997. Since 1992 Unni Menon's musical graph has been soaring by the day.

Unni Menon began in the times of live recordings. Today, technology has taken over music to a certain extent but he finds the feeling of a live recording (with all the musicians at one go after some rehearsals) to be different. "Today it is more mechanical with the edit and paste method."

Fast-paced songs with less melody seem to be in today. "It is heard just once or twice and then people forget it. The genuine music (melodious) will always be heard. Melody will come back. It is not music directors are not capable of melodious compositions but they are forced to give in to the commercial aspect."

Life was a struggle for the playback singers (at least in the initial phases) some years ago. "Now things are very easy. With techno-music being in, even school children are exposed to music."

Unni Menon was not comfortable in the beginning as he did not have formal training in music. But he did not let this deter him. And he started to learn under the late Dr. S. Ramanathan. His music education continued under Babu Shankar and Neyveli Santanagopalan and he still takes lessons from Jayachandran. "The vocal muscles get trained but when one practices classical music the timbre changes so I don't resort to too much practice," he says. Armed with confidence, Unni Menon plans to give a kutcheri some time. He has judged many competitions at the school level and "the inspiration to learn classical came from children too."

Unni Menon is all praise to A.R. Rahman (considering that he has sung about 30 songs for him). "His knowledge in sound technology is amazing. His skill in composing is incredible too. When we hear the final product we feel we sound better than what we sang for the recording."

Unni Menon has sung for different music directors like Ilayaraja, Vidyasagar, Manisharma besides Rahman. On recording for them he says "each has his own different styles. Ilayaraja is a disciplinarian who is strict on notes. Rahman gives the singer enough freedom and with the youngsters it is fun."

Unni Menon has just acted in an art film Stithi (Malayalam) directed by Sharad . "I composed music, sung and acted in the title role on his insistence. This film is made on a budget of Rs. 13 lakhs. I am representing a family threatened by economic reforms. I am working in a government office not able to cope with the salary."

Unni loves listening to different styles of music. Ghazals are his favourite and he listens to them at night. Jagjit Singh, Hariharan and Ghulam Ali are his preferred ghazal singers. He loves listening to Mohammed Rafi and Yesudas. Today's musical scene is throwing up a number of singers and more opportunities. "It is a healthy trend. Ultimately it is the survival of the fittest." His advice to youngsters: "enter the field as a trained musician. Maintaining quality is important."

For the last few years Unni Menon has been doing live shows. "Earlier I used to avoid as I felt it would affect my voice. Later I felt that there was no contact with the common people. This was necessary. So I started, but I try and space out the live concerts. Enthralling the audience for a few hours is not easy. But now I do quite a few live shows." Unni Menon has an ambition to conduct a show full of Rafi's songs. He has a whole collection of his songs. "I know what it is to record live and the life he gave to each song is remarkable. He was totally committed and involved. So were the other versatile singers Kishore Kumar and Mukesh."

Private albums and videos are the latest trend. Has Unni Menon planned one? "I have planned a Tamil/Malayalam album and a video but I will work on it after a survey as to what people want."

Let us hope that Unni Menon continues to captivate listeners more in the years to come.

RADHIKA RAJAMANI

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