Shanta P Nair Kerala’s Nightingale

Thumbi Thumbi va va…Picture a scene - a song from 1956, K Raghavan master’s music and Vayalar’s lyrics. The nervous Vayalar Rama Varma would have been sitting and listening to his very first lyrics for the movie ‘Koodapirappu’ being sung by Shanta Nair. After the opening lines, he would have finally relaxed, and allowed the magic of the experienced singers voice to take over. Or switch to another scene – The great MB Sreenivasan is tuning a song for Kalpaadukal. He asks ‘Shanta, do you think you can do a duet with a young newcomer’? Shanta says (a time when stalwarts usually refused to sing with newcomers) – ‘of course, why not’ – thus introducing Yesudas into the singing scene, singing the chirpy song ‘Attention penne’. Or the great Baburaj doing his very first movie ‘Minnaminungu’ with Shanta singing ‘Vallittu Kannezhuthanam’…or some years later, enthralling Salilda with her own composition for a ‘Salilda movie’.

Sadly, yet another great singer of yesteryears passed away recently (July 28th 2008), after prolonged illness. I had been collecting information on Shanta P Nair even before her demise and it was a blog entry by Cris and Jo’s gentle prod for a music related blog that finally got me to finish this. The collection of information that I have on this great singer, other than having listened to her songs comes from the archives of our fine ‘Hindu’ newspaper, namely the articles by K Pradeep, Jayakumar and Ambika Varma and various comments from music enthusiasts of Entelokam, a fine Malayalam music site.

Calicut, a city of the arts & trade, yet again figures in this fine singer’s story. I remember the hallowed recording rooms of the AIR station across the Arabian Sea waters, right on the beach. The air conditioned interiors smelled different where as a child I had gone there many times to participate in some programs. This was also the place where my wife used to sing some years ago. Abdul Khader worked there, so did Shanta P Nair as an announcer, initially. Then the two became popular with their ‘lalitha ganam’ programs. It was here that Shanta Nair met drama writer & program director Padmanabhan Nair, married him and settled down into the routines of family life and away from the recording rooms. (However Saraswathy Amma in a recent article stated that Shanta Nair also worked at the Trivandrum AIR later).

Born 1930, she spent 79 years in this world and her 200 odd songs (I could list only about 50) for some 100 films are now a testament to fine music, if only in posterity. They were songs from an era when melody was queen and when Malayalam music and films were only just taking shape and form. In a group of singers with a heavy Tamil and classical base, she stood out with her lovely clear voice. It was in 1952 that she started in the film world singing for the movie Tiramala. She had studied Carnatic music from the age of eight under Chertala Gopalan nair and Ramanattu Krishnan and went on to complete her intermediate at Women’s college Trivandrum, later finishing her BA at Queen Mary’s Madras. Subsequently she joined AIR Calicut as an announcer and after a stint of 3 years there and a courtship with Padmanabhaan Nair culminating in wedlock, left the job to continue in the film music world. Under Cherthala Gopalan Nair she gained confidence in performing on stage. In a Hindu interview, Shanta Nair remembered how at the age of 10 she sang a Swati Tirunal Adathala varnam before the famous Muthiah Bhagavathar. "When I finished, he said `belle belle nalla padara."'

Quoting Hindu from an Interview - Gentle, gracious and reticent. A singer who never knew how to market herself, a sense of nervousness was palpable when you talked to her. Her sister and her daughter, Latha Raju, who were there with her in the room that evening, intervened. They revealed that Shanta had always been like that; she needed to be persuaded to sing, or even to talk. There was something in Shanta’s voice that endeared her to a generation of listeners. It was a voice that was as smooth as the serene backwaters, lively as the monsoon showers. It was a voice that gelled with the Malayali psyche Shanta had the unique honour of having sung for stalwarts like K. Raghavan, Vayalar Rama Varma, G. Devarajan, O.N.V. Kurup and Baburaj in their first film and with many singers who recorded for a film for the first time. Among those singers was K. J. Yesudas

And once in the absence of Salilda, she composed a tune for Ramu Kariat. Salilda after hearing it insisted that it be retained without changes in the final release. Shantha remembers how she was persuaded by Ramu Kariat to compose music for that song in his film `Ezhu Rathrikal.' The music director Salil Choudhury was away in Mumbai. The song was `Makkathu poi varum maanathe.' "When Salilda heard it, he complimented me profusely. It is such a simple and nice tune and sung by her daughter Latha Raju. She also did the chorus for Salilda later in the Chemmen songs.

Her last song was in 1961/5 for V Chidambaranath’s Murapennu `Kadavathu thoni aduthapol' in the film `Murapennu' along with S. Janaki. The song remains a hit to this day, and it was Shanta's last screen song (You can get a flavour of her “kadavathu thoni’ when you hear the Ousepachan song ‘Ormakal odi’ from Mukundetta sumitra vilikkunnu). She recalls with pride how thrilled she was when she got an opportunity to sing `Vande Mataram' before Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. ‘Unarunaroo Unnikanna...’ a solo by Shanta P. Nair, based on Bilahari raga, is still one of the best devotionals in the language.

Shanta P. Nair immortalized many film songs with her mellifluous voice in a career spanning from 1951 to 1967. She was equally proficient in Carnatic music and held many concerts, which she used to end with light music. She is no more, but her music and sweet voice will remain in our hearts.

Singing Highlights of her career
Yesudas first duet (Attention penne, Kaalpadukal)
Vayalar ‘s first movie (Thumbi thumbi vaa vaa, Koodapirappu)
Vayalar & Devarajan combination first movie (Janani, Chaturangam)
Baburaj’s first compositon (Vaalittu Kannezhuthanam, Minnaminungu)
Raghavan Master’s first (released) movie song(Unarunaroo, Neelakuyil)
Her first song (Amma than thankakudame, Thiramala)

She sang for the following movies
Thiramala, Balyakalasakhi, Neelakuyil, Aniyathi, Koodapirappu, Manthravadi, Rarichan Enna Pouran, Newspaper boy, Kaalam Marannu, Achanum Makanum, Jailpulli, Minnaminungu, Padatha Painkili, Lilly, Mariakutty, Chaturangam, Krishnakuchela, Mudiyanaya puthran, Sabarimala Ayappan, Baghyajathakam, Kalpadukal, Laila majnu, Palattu koman, Swarga rajyam, Veluthambi Dalawa, Vidhi thanna vilakku, Moodupadam, kalanju kittiya thankam, Tacholi othenan, Murapennu, Chemeen, Ramanan, Dantha gopuram, Ezhu rathrikal.

More Bio
Wife of late Padmanabhan Nair, daughter of R Vasudeva Poduval and Lakshmikutty Amma, hailing from the Ambady Family Trichur. Survived by Latha Raju also a singer (AIR Chennai Deputy Director) and son in law JM Raju a music director and singer himself. Shanta Nair won the Sangeet Natak Accademy award in1987.

My Favorites
Thumpi Thumpi Va Va
Valittu Kannezhuthanam
Tengidalle Tengidalle
Kadavathu Thoni
Unaru Unnikanna
Poove Nalla Poove (with P Leela)
Poomuttathoru mulla virinju
Makkathu Poivarum (Music by Shanta - sung by Latha Raju)

References & Photographs – Thanks to Hindu
A voice from yesteryear – G Jayakumar
Yesterday Once more – Ambika Varma
Unforgettable Voice – K Pradeep
Neelakuyil – The movie
Entelokam – The confluence of Malayalam music enthusiasts

My Blogs on other Malayalam singer’s & MD’s
Kozhikode Abdul Khader
MB Sreenivasan


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