Gayaka Chakravarthy Ghantasala
It is possible that someone else was accorded more recognition, better paid, more in demand (hardly any),won more awards or titles. But for generations of Telugu people born between 1940 and 1985, Venkateswara Rao, popularly known as Ghantasala was numero uno and no one else stood a chance for this special place in their hearts. Before Ghantasala found himself in the spotlight of public attention, through the media of films and gramophone records, he was an accomplished singer with impeccable training in Carnatic and Hindustani music. He composed music in in several Telugu and Tamil movies and sang in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalm movies. According to V.A.K. Ranagarao “the most majestic voice”, Ghantasala helped Telugu film music develop its own distinct character which remains unparalleled.
Ghantasala was born on 4 December 1922 in Choutupalle near Gudivada into an ordinary family. His father Surayya was an itinerant singer of Narayana Teertha’s tarangas; he also played the mridanga. He was the first teacher of Venkateswara Rao since childhood. Ghantasala would dance, as a child of six to his father’s singing of taranga-s and this earned him the title of Bala Bharata. Surayya, who was always more into music and musing than looking after the family fortunes, died when Ghantasala was 11 years old. The family was then taken care of by his maternal uncle Ryali Pichiramaiah. Ghantasala was interested in music but had no opportunity to improve himself. At this time, someone made fun of him when he gave a concert. Stung to the quick, he solemnly vowed to himself that he would seek proper and systematic training and silence his critics.
In those days proper coaching was available (in Andhra) only in Vizianagaram (Visakhapatnam district then). As family circumstances did not permit him to go there for further study, he decided to sell his gold ring and get there surreptitiously. When he reached Vizianagaram, however, the MusicCollege was closed for the summer. There seemed to be little chance of getting admission when it reopened. Into this darkness came a ray of light through Paatrayani Sitarama Sastry of Salur who taught singing at the college. (P. Sangeetha Rao, the asthana composer of Vempati Chinna Satyam is his illustrious son; he also assisted Ghantasala for many years in films).Through his kindness and as per the decision of the Principal Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu, a very famous Violinist, who auditioned him, Ghantasala found himself a student of vocal music.
Before gaining admission, and with it the eligibility for eating free at the Maharaja’s choultry, he had to fend for himself. He did that by eating once a day through the week at different houses (aayavaram) or even by madhukaram (begging for food as a brahmin student). Around this time, a lady from a family of traditional entertainers, Saride Lakshmi Narasamma, a singer, recording (gramaphone) artist, dancer and harikatha kalakaar as well as a woman famed for her charity, showered kindness on the eager student. This, he recalled fondly and gratefully even 45 years later. After getting his degree, Ghantasala went home and eked out a living by giving wedding concerts mostly classical music with a large sprinkling of taranga-s, keertana-s, of Ramadas, etc.- apart from singing at nine-day festivities associated with Sree Rama Navami, Dasara and Vinayaka Chaturthi. As a matter of fact, even after settling in Madras, Ghantasala’s early broadcasts from AlR were strictly classical music.
Finding it difficult to make ends meet, he dabbled in traditional drama, starting his own company and sometimes sharing the stage with the stalwarts of the time. Inspired and incited by the revolutionary fumes that enveloped the country in 1942, he joined the Quit India movement; as a consequence he was sentenced to Eighteen months’ rigorous imprisonment. After he came out of the jail, however, he found that there was no residue of the political fever in him.He got married to Savitri of Pedapulivarru. It was in this village that he met Samudrala Raghavacharya who was responsible for his induction into the film industry in Madras.
Ghantasala got his first break as a singer from All India Radio. Later on, Peketi Siva Ram from HMV studios recorded his private songs. Ghantasala debuted as a chorus singer and for a character role in Seetarama Jananam(1942) by Pratibha Films. After this, he worked with famous music directors like Gali Penchala and C. R. Subbaraman. By 1944, he was hanging around the periphery, by singing in choruses, doing bit roles. He was seen fleetingly and heard distantly in Nagaiah’s ‘Tyagaiah’ (1946), as part of the disciple band. In ‘Yogi Vemana’ (1947), thanks to Nagaiah again, he was both seen and heard as a nattuvanar in the beautiful song and dance sequence (Aparani taapamaayera, Sreeranjani/Adi) featuring a multilingual artiste M.V. Rajamma. Then child actress, heroine, singing star and producer C. Krishnaveni took him on as an individual composer for her film ‘Manadesam’ (1949). ‘Keelugurram(1949)‘, released the same year and established him once for all as a composer- Star singer, the most prolific till the seventies in Telugu cinema.
Many of Ghantasala’s compositions were raga-pure in the early days. He was less fastidious later, realising that, for films, this was not necessary. Surprisingly, he never sang a Tyagaraja Kriti in a film, though he can be heard singing Marugelara (Marga Hindolam / Adi) on the LP he made on his only visit to the United States. It is not very well known that Ghantasala wrote some lyrics too at one time. He sang many of them on AIR-Madras. One, Bahudoorapu batasari, was recorded by Gramco and he was neither paid for it nor given credit. These lyrics, seven of which have been collected in the book titled Bhuvanavijayam published on his triumphant return from the U.S., are simple and philosophical in nature or about rustic love that lost its way. He had a great regard for Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry who was associating himself with Samudrala’s films output at that time. The substance of Malladi’s mellifluent lyrics, if not the style, must have influenced him. This is particularly discernible in Bhoomi pommannadi, aakasam rammannadi (The earth bids goodbye, the sky says welcome).
His way with the Telugu padyam (verse) was incomparable. Padyam was a part of the performing arts of Andhra, mostly through mythological dramas, for 50 years. The intent was primarily musical- with what intricate curlicues, what breath control the singer managed being more important than characterisation or serving the needs of the moment in the play. Ghantasala changed all this with his sophisticated interpretation (not on stage but on 78 rpm gramophone records) of the author’s intent, the character’s intent, the character’s turmoil being at once musical and accessible. These verses were rendered without tala (rhythm) as before but he generally had a short, metrical musical interlude doing what background music does in films, setting the stage and emphasising the mental stage of the character. Poets Karunasri and Gurram Jashuva enjoyed great regard amongst the literatteurs, but it was Ghantasala who rendered their songs and introduced their work to the man on the street.
Long before singers got on to the TTD/Annamacharya bandwagon, Ghantasala recorded at least a dozen sides singing the praise of Venkateswara (not through Annamayya songs though, only the US LP had Kolani dopariki, alas the pallavi wrongly split!) Ashtapadi-s on a Super Seven disc, Bhagavad Gita on an LP were the other assets he created. Seshasailavasa, the beautiful composition of Pendyala in Reetigaula in ‘Sree Venkateswara Mahatyam’ (1960). This will continue to introduce to the future generations the physical attributes of Ghantasala. The musical ones are forever enshrined in the musical scores of ‘Shavukaru’ (1950), ‘Chiranjeevulu’ (1956) , Mayabazar(1957), Lavakusha (1963) and the songs in ‘Rahasyam’ (1967) that won wah-wahs from Chittoor Subramania Pillai, a strict traditionalist. It is no rahasyam that Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry’s lyrics inspired him to this sublime level.
Ghanatsala composed music for more than 100 films. He was one of the top music director in those days. Manadesam(1949), Keelu Gurram(1949), Shavukaru (1950), Pathala Bhairavai (1951), Chandraharam(1953),Chiaranjevulu(1956) Mayabazar(1957), Gundammakatha (1962), Lavakusaha (1963) , Pandava Vanavasam (1966) and Rahasyam (1967) some of the mile stones as musician in his career.
Ghantasala has given performances in America, England, and Germany, and had the distinction of performing for the UNO. The government of Andhra Pradesh felicitated him on the occasion of 25 years of his film career as Silver Jubilee Celebrations of Ghantasala in Hyderabad on 1 February 1970. More than 30,000 people attended the function celebrated at the Lal Bahadur Stadium, Hyderabad.
He passed away on 14th Feb 1974 due to illness at the age of 51 years. The Indian express dt. 14 February 1974 paid a glorious tribute to Ghantasala on his death stating that: Tributes paid to Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao, on his death, praised his “Melodious Voice”, but these not only sound inadequate, but also fail to grasp the truth of the matter, since he was “no mere singer” but a “true poet” who could comprehend and did give expression to the deepest feelings of love, pity, joy, suffering, piety, happiness and bitterness in a manner no one else could, or did. One cannot help feeling that it would have been hardly possible for him to sing on all those varied themes with such intensity of fervor and likeness to reality, and precision in apprehension, had he not himself lived and experienced these basic emotions inwardly, in as great a manner as any of the great poets ever had. Enlightened listeners to his songs could not help feelings that he had a mature and distinctive “philosophy of life”, which he reflected in his songs, and tried to express in a way that words and phrases themselves can never. No wonder many of his songs though sung as part of a film story, have however, managed to acquire an independent stature and meaning of their own, tearing themselves free from the original cinematographic context, in which they were sung. And the people too recognizing the fact, did not tire of listening to him more often outside the theatres than inside them. His impact on both the educated and uneducated Telugu people had been so much, and had brought about such qualitative changes in the day to day “inward” life of the people here, that we can safely assert that life in Andhra today would have been much less exciting and somewhat “drab”, but for him, for with him had begun a new era in the emotional life of the Telugu people, opening up as he did to them hidden treasures in their range of feelings, which lay either dormant or unperceived till then. New vistas of imaginative experience were laid bare to the Telugu people who were till then looking up to Hindi film music to provide it.
Ghantasala lived like a ‘Karma Yogi’ and died like a ‘Karma Sanyasa Yogi (Yoga of renunciation)’ for his glory, name and fame spread far and wide with the release of his records. Alas he was not alive to see all that creditworthy emotional exuberance of his fans all over the state of Andhra Pradesh and for that matter the whole nation, Bharat. It was like that he was bound by a divine dispensation to sing and not live to enjoy or get enthused by the applause of his admirers everywhere.
Source Courtesy:Various Websites.