P. Susheela. The very name would evoke memories of many a number rendered in her rich, reverberating and resonant voice to the fans of South Indian movies, be it Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada or even Sinhalese. With her mellifluous voice she has breathed life into thousands of lyrics, bringing out the right emotion lying under each word and making the song waft straight into the listener's heart.
A point to be noted here is the care with which she pronounced the words, though she sang in different languages. That is something we are not able to see in most of our present day singers. Words are the victims of rather constricted rhythms and contorted beats, compacted and deformed between the tongue and the teeth. But it was Susheela's school to render them with effortless ease, as they are pronounced by the people speaking each individual language in which the lyrics are written.
Susheela started way back in 1952. She was the recipient of the national award for best singer in the years 1969, 1971, 1977, 1982 and 1983. At the state level, both Tamil Nadu and Kerala have honoured her with several awards. The Tamil Nadu Government recognised her genius in the years 1968, 1980, 1981, 1989 and 1991 with various titles, prizes and awards.
Born in 1935 in Vijayanagaram in a music-loving family, Susheela had an innate talent in music. The seniors in the family arranged for her training in Carnatic music at a very young age. With a properly nurtured talent, she used to participate any competition in music held in her school or in Vijayanagaram and had always come home with the first prize in each competition. She then went to the Music College in Vijayanagaram and passed her diploma in first class. Her natural taste for music and her voice of gold were finely honed by the training she received and Susheela soon absorbed the finest nuances of giving expression to the verses she rendered.
It was in 1950 that music director Nageswara Rao was looking for new talent and approached the All India Radio with a request to refer to him the good singers who used to participate in their programmes. And the radio station sent five persons to him. Susheela was selected after necessary audition tests.
'Petra Thaai' was being made in 1952 in Tamil (Kanna Thalli in Telugu) with A. Nageswararao and G. Varalakshmi in lead roles. Susheela sang her first song - a duet with A. M. Raja - 'Edhukku azhaithaai' for the movie.
She was then an employee of the AVM Studios, receiving a fixed amount as her monthly salary, for several years after her introduction in Petra Thaai. Meyyappa Chettiar, the demanding perfectionist that he was, appointed a Tamil teacher for Susheela to train her in proper pronunciation of words. (Hmmmm… keep praying for the arrival of another Meyyappa Chettiar to save our ears from jarring crudities of mispronunciation that the present generation of singers subject them to.)
The songs that she sung in 'Kanavane kan kanda dheiyvam' (1955) brought her the popularity that she so well deserved. Especially songs like 'Endhan ullam thulli vilyaaduvadhum,' 'unnaik kan thedudhe' brought out her talent for rendition. Then came 'Missiyamma' in the same year. Susheela became very popular with 'Brindha vanamum Nandha kumaranum' and 'ariyaa paruvamada' set to Karaharapriya. Her name soon spread and was respected among the elite and the masses.
It was a time when several other women had established their talents already and were reigning supreme - like P. Leela who started her career in 1948; Jikki who allured the audience with her lilting voice; the Carnatic music genius M. L. Vasanthakumari; P. A. Periyanaayagi, actress and singer; Jamuna Rani, A. P. Komala; R. Balasaraswati, Sulamangalam Rajalakshmi and Jayalakshmi, K. Rani, A. Rathnamala, S. J. Kantha among others. Each had a unique and distinct character and quality and had a large number of admirers.
Susheela made her entry when so many singers were displaying their talents and were very popular. But her entry in 1952 outshone others and soon pushed all of them to the background. Right from 1955 there was not a single movie - for a very very long time - that did not have a song in her voice. Her career was at its best in the 60s and the early 70s. Whoever be the music director, whoever be the lyricist, whoever be the co-singer, the song became popular with her finesse. Her popularity among the masses was just unprecedented in the annals of Tamil cinema.
After her splendid performance in Kalyana Parisu, melody itself assumed a new dimension and soon a trend was set in motion that placed equal emphasis on songs on par with story, scenes and sequence. Susheela's contribution to this trend was considerable. She has given hundreds of golden melodies under the direction of stalwarts Viswanathan - Ramamurthy. That her name is well known and is remembered with feelings of joy for more than 50 years now goes to her credit. She continues to rule supreme in the hearts of her fans through the thousands of numbers she has rendered in a very long and enviable career.