Monsoon Special

Vani Jairam: The monsoon song that made her

Shriya Mohan | Updated on June 08, 2019

Say hello: Fresh screen presence created magic as Vani Jairam and Jaya Bhaduri debuted together in Guddi

Vani Jairam on Bole re papihara, the song that made her a household name

At 73, Vani Jairam remembers dates and events with precision. On December 22, 1970, she entered a studio in Mumbai’s Prabhadevi to record her first ever film song, Hari bin kaise jeeyu (How do I live without Hari). The Meera bhajan was for Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s film Guddi. Music director Vasant Desai had signed her up for three songs in the Jaya Bhaduri-starrer, about a schoolgirl obsessed with the actor Dharmendra.


Bhaduri had just graduated from Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India . Desai, in search of a youthful voice to match her fresh screen presence, zeroed in on Jairam. A few months later, she recorded Hum ko mann ki shakti dena (Give us strength of mind), a prayer that became an instant hit in schools across India. Finally, in the monsoon of July 1971, she recorded Bole re papihara (The songbird sings) — Gulzar’s lyrical composition about falling in love during the monsoon, set to raga Mian ki Malhar by Desai.

She still remembers the applause that followed the recording. The song, the studio crew said, would work its magic for years to come. That evening, when she left Prabhadevi, she realised that everything changed from that minute.

“After Bole re, I became a household name,” she says on the phone from Chennai. As Jairam — in a voice that’s as dulcet as ever — recollects her memories of the song, it sounds like it all happened just the other day.

She went on to win five awards for Bole re, the Tansen Samman (for the best classical-based song in a Hindi film), the All India Cinegoers’ Association award and a host of others. The song also made her one of the most sought after artistes in the cinema industry. Music directors from regional film industries queued up at her live performances to seek collaborations.

She recorded over 8,000 songs in 19 languages — from Odiya, Marathi, Bhojpuri and Tulu to Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and others, spanning the genres of bhajan, ghazal, classical, abhang and folk. Her pronunciations were known to be impeccable.

“In Odisha, people would say: How come you get it right in the first take?” the singer says.

She sang for composers such as OP Nayyar, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Madan Mohan, Jaidev, Naushad, Chitragupt, SN Tripathi and RD Burman. “I sang for all of them,” she exults. More national and state awards followed.

Striking gold: Vani Jairam sang for composers such as OP Nayyar, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Madan Mohan, Jaidev, Naushad, Chitragupt, SN Tripathi and RD Burman   -  THE HINDU/MOHAMMED YOUSUF


Gold rush

Jairam has the rare quality of speaking about her past with exuberant confidence and an almost child-like excitement. “I was a child prodigy who could identify any raga by the age of three. I was taught Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s very tough compositions at age five. By the time I turned 12 I was giving three-hour-long Carnatic concerts. But my mind was always on Hindi film music. I was fascinated by Hindi film songs of the time,” she says.

Born to an orthodox family in Vellore, she had five sisters and three brothers. She would wait for Wednesdays to listen to Hindi hits on the popular Binaca Geetmala programme on Radio Ceylon. “I would tell my mother: Just wait and watch. One day my hit song will be playing here!” she says. Her mother would reply, “Get married first. With your husband’s support, go conquer the world.”

At 25, when Vani got married to Jairam, a sitarist, she found an ally in him. They moved to Mumbai where, on his insistence, she started taking Hindustani music lessons from Ustad Abdul Rehman. The teacher was a close friend of Desai and spoke to him about “a talented south Indian girl” in the city. In 1970, when Desai called her for an audition, it was her husband who convinced her mother to allow Jairam to sing for cinema.

“Vasant-da was a strict disciplinarian,” she recalls, referring to him as “a god and father figure”. In Bole re he coached her to perfection. Did she bring anything of her own to the song? “At that stage, I wouldn’t dare to improvise!” she exclaims.

Old and new

In the earlier live performances available on YouTube, you can see her, eyes lowered, standing in front of the mike and clutching her sari pallu wrapped around her shoulders. She sings with minimal lip movement, without moving a limb or twitching a face muscle as her silken voice flows effortlessly across scales.

She laughs when I point out to her that she sings without facial expressions or gestures — traits of many singers today. She uses a Tamil word, “nocchu” — which roughly means a kind of nag — to describe herself. “I’m very particular about everything when it comes to my music. All my accompanists need to have pitch-perfect instruments,” she says.

A member of a prominent southern orchestra she rehearsed with once told her: “Amma, after having practised with you for a month, we feel as if we’ve graduated from a big music academy.”

“Yes, I’m a tough person to work with, that explains the strict face,” she says with a laugh.

Jairam’s favourite monsoon ragas are Mian ki malhaar and Amritavarshini. Her love for the rain was so intense that after she moved to Chennai, she would fly down to Mumbai every year on the arrival of the monsoon, to watch the torrent from a cherished spot on the balcony of her Breach Candy flat. They sold the flat in 2013, five years before her husband’s death.

“I have missed the rains ever since. In Chennai there are no rains,” she sighs.

Shriya Mohan


Published on June 07, 2019

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