Tuesday, January 23, 2001
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Nightingale of the south 

SULEKHA NAIR  
`Piya Basanti Re...' is a rage all over India. The song has given an identity to the nightingale of the south, Ms K S Chitra. Though Ms Chitra has sung several songs for Hindi films, this is the first song that has catapulted her to the centrestage in Bollywood. The five time National Award singer (incidentally one of them came for the Hindi film Virasat in 1997), has got her due in Piya Basanti Re, an album by Sony Music. And she is immensely pleased with the accolades. "One is thrilled that one's voice is now immediately recognised," she says softly.

Ms Chitra has the distinction of singing for the finest veteran music directors as well as for contemporary stalwarts like Mr A R Rehman. She has built a formidable reputation and repertoire as a playback singer for south Indian as well as Hindi films. Ms Chitra's distinctively melodious voice coupled with her musical expressiveness is both pleasing and intriguing. She has won the National Award for the best playback singer five times. The Kerala government has heaped upon her the best playback singer award as many as 12 times and she has the unique distinction of being the first singer, male or female, in the history of South Indian film playback singing to be honoured by all the four southern state governments as the best playback singer.

Ms Chitra's foray into Hindi film music was with Saathiya, ye tune kya kiya ... for the film Love. Prior to Piya Basanti, she had sung for Sunset Point with Sony Music. The album is in the form of a story narrated by ace lyricist Gulzar interspersed with songs sung by Ms Chitra and Mr Bhupinder Singh. It aptly conveys the emotions of a lover's soul accompanied by the right notes of effervescence and spontaineity.

"Piya Basanti has classical-based songs which I immensely enjoyed singing," reveals Ms Chitra. "I was always in awe of Ustad Sultan Khan. I was spellbound by him and almost could not sing. But he was so nice," she says appreciatively. She is full of praise for Mr Gulzar with whom she did Sunset Point. "He is such a humble man, though he is so gifted and a big name in music. I sang a Punjabi song in the album with Bhupinder Singh. Initially, I was very scared. But he was very cooperative and encouraged me. Every time I sang, both Gulzar saab and Bhupinder would say, wah, wah. One wonders whether one sang really well," she intones.

Born in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala, the earliest influence on Ms Chitra's musical career was her father, late Krishnan Nair, who was himself a well-known singer. Ms Chitra completed her postgraduation in music from Kerala University. She was trained by Professor K Omanakutty under the National Talent Search Scholarship programme.

Ms Chitra came into film music by accident. Professor Omanakutty introduced her to Mr M G Radhakrishnan, the famed Malayalam music director. She sang a song and he used it for a film. "I consciously did not want to sing for films. But after this song, I was called to sing for films. Those days, there were two studios in Thiruvanathapuram itself. And that too facilitated my becoming a singer for films. For, if the studios were elsewhere, I doubt I would have trudged that far to sing while I was still studying." And filmdom would have lost a marvellous voice. "But I would sing, nevertheless," she says. "Singing is my life. I would have taught music or given tuitions." Would she have been happy doing that? "Of course, singing is my first love. It does not matter whether I sing for films or to a class or to a group of students." Though the appreciation for her voice range and versatility spread all through the south and later nationwide, Ms Chitra has not let all this forget her upbringing. "I was raised in afamily where we were never let out alone without a companion. And I, even today, cannot go anywhere without someone accompanying me. So much so that, now for my frequent trips to Mumbai, my husband accompanies me," she says. Does that mean she is not confident? "I am confident about my talent but I understand my limitations," she says. "And I am not ashamed of the fact that I am dependent on my family for everything in my life."

Ms Chitra was very attached to her father. "My father, unfortunately, did not live to see me do well in music. When I got my first National Award in 1986 for the film, Sindhu Bhairavi, he could not come to Delhi to see me receive the award. He was suffering from cancer and was bedridden. And that is my destiny. However, I am a firm believer in God. I do not start my day without a prayer nor do I go to bed without saying my prayers. I pray before every recording. This voice of mine is a gift from Him and I never forget that. But God sees to it that I do not get swept away by adulation by giving me pain at every high I achieve in life. I suppose that helps to maintain the balance," she says philosophically.

After Sunset Point and Piya Basanti, Sony Music is planning to come out with a solo album of Ms Chitra. What does she wish for herself as a singer? "That I should be given a variety of songs to sing."

Copyright © 2001 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.

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