If you ask any Telugu cinema lover to name their favourite actors and singers, they will easily reel off a few current names. More seasoned film goers will take names from the 1970s and earlier. Old timers will go directly to the 50s and 60s which was considered the golden era of Telugu cinema.
Long before Telugu cinema became a mishmash of bad direction, slapstick comedy, banal lyrics set to cheap tunes and churned out endless films that could easily be forgotten, there was a golden era.
An era where screen heroes were taught to be real life gods for the characters they portrayed, where films were produced by the best of talented crews in every aspect, including cinematography, editing and more.
The one voice that rang through decades of Telugu cinema and gave the greatest hits was that of Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao. Fondly addressed as ‘Ghantasala’, his family ancestral village in the coastal districts of Andhra, his voice became synonymous with Telugu cinema.
No other playback singer’s voice tracked the history of the Telugu industry like his did.
Born on December 4, 1922 to Surya Narayana and Rattamma in the village of Chowtapalli in the Krishna district of erstwhile Madras presidency, his father’s family side came from a little village called Tekupalli where they served as priests in a little Shiva temple.
Ghantasala’s grandfather and father too took up that traditional profession.
Ghantasala was one of six children. The father, fondly addressed as Soorayya by locals was already known for his mastery over Carnatic music in addition to playing the Mridangam. He traveled from village to village, taking part in local temple festivals and fairs. He wanted his children to also take up music. But Ghantasala was swept by the freedom struggle at a young age.
As a boy of twenty, he actively participated in the Quit India Movement. He was jailed for eighteen months. After being released, he came in touch with Samudrala Raghavacharya who introduced him to the film world.
Ghantasala began his career as a music director. Over time, he also began singing in films. From then on, there was no looking back. In the next few decades, Ghantasala had sung over ten thousand songs and gave music direction for over two hundred films!
In the 1960 film ‘Sri Venkateshwara Mahatmyam’ Ghantasala sang and acted as a singer on screen. This was probably the first and last time that any film unit was allowed so close into the sanctum sanctorum of the famous Balaji temple in Tirupati.
The song ‘Shesha shaila vasa’ became a rage among music lovers. You can see a video of it here :
He became the voice of every big screen hero of the times, from N T Rama Rao to Akkineni Nageshwar Rao, and from S V Ranga Rao to Gummadi and Kantha Rao. There was hardly a movie without his songs at one point.
In addition to Telugu, he also sang in Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Tulu and Hindi. Ghantasala was likened to Mohammad Rafi of Hindi cinema. His contemporaries and fellow playback singers were P Suseela and S Janaki. With these three voices, Telugu cinema music saw a golden era with immortal melodies that are sung till date.
The poetry of several great poets was immortalized in the voice of Ghantasala. The next generation playback singers like S P Balasubramanyam and P B Srinivos found a godfather and inspiration in Ghantasala. He predicted they would be the next big names on the scene and that prediction came true decades later.
In addition to film songs, he also recorded several private albums of songs, Telugu poetry and the Bhagawad Gita. All these sold out in no time.
In 1970 he was honoured with the title of Padma Shri from the President of India V V Giri. Ghantasala’s health started deteriorating in his mid 40s. All sorts of medical treatment availed no help.
He turned extremely spiritual and became an ardent devotee of Satya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi. He felt that the Baba cured him of his multiple ailments and gave him peace of mind. He also sang a number of songs in praise of the Baba.
The end came on February 11, 1974 in Madras. He was only fifty-one years old at the time of his death. Had he lived longer, he would have ruled the scene for another two decades at least.
However, the Telugu film lovers and music lovers couldn’t come to terms with this loss. They continued to broadcast his songs, play records of his Bhagawad Gita and more across the region. They erected statues in his honour in Hyderabad and Vijayawada. A college of music was named after him.
Ghantasala’s name became synonymous with the golden era of Telugu cinema. In 2003, the postage and stamps department of the Government of India released a special postage stamp and first day cover in his honour.
Andhra and Telangana have split for political reasons. But the Telugu film industry remains united. Their love for Ghantasala can never be overcome, however strong their political differences and ideologies are. In that sense Ghantasala remains a genuine artiste who continues to bridge gaps with the sheer power of his voice, his songs and his art.
This weekend as we celebrate yet another birthday of his on the 4th of December, it is a good time to remember this musical genius. He was given the title of ‘Gaana Gandharva’ early in his life. That title stays on and he lives on through the countless immortal melodies he rendered.
(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Images courtesy: Annavaram Srinivasa Rao, Vijayawada