In an orthodox Carnatic music class in Bengaluru, the teacher was explaining who a Vaggeyakara is. Students in Class 5, studying in CBSE and ICSE syllabi, who had no idea about writing and reading in Kannada, were forced by their mothers sitting on a sofa to listen to the old Kannada readings about Vaggeyakara. But, a state syllabus young girl, unaccompanied by her mother listened through the teacher’s definition about Vaggeyakaras and simply put her hand up and said “Miss, I know a new Vaggeyakara, his name is Hamsalekha. He sings, he writes and composes. His famous songs are 'Jenina goodu naavella' (We are a honeycomb), 'b’anTu banTu currentu bantu' (There comes electricity)”. The teacher warned the girl to stop saying that, she was thrown out of the class for a day and was asked to stop listening to FM stations and to only listen to MS (MS Subbulakshmi). She further said, “You are also called MS, now start behaving like that, idiot!”
Well, that MS who was thrown out of the music class because she quoted Hamsalekha was me, Meghana Sudhindra. For the average Kannadiga children in Bengaluru who studied in state syllabus schools, Hamsalekha was a hero. His songs were part of group songs in school, dance performances and also played a role in healing heartbreaks.
The best part about him was he wrote the songs, composed music for them and sometimes sang them too, though the singer part is a little hard to digest. If the combination was Hamsalekha, SPB and S Janaki or Chitra, the cassettes were a superhit, clearly ignoring the heroes or heroines. The old cassettes in my home still have the front cover, with large images of Hamsalekha holding a mandolin, SPB in front of the microphone. Again, his cassettes were exchanged by the old lovers at home, writing beautiful messages copied from his songs.
Recently during a college reunion, all of us only sang “KaLeyithu aa besige, araLithu hoo mellage, hogoNa college ige”(Summer is over, flowers have bloomed, let’s go to college). This is a song from the legendary movie Prema Loka which released in the ’80s; we went to college in 2009 but that was our anthem because everything was still so relevant. Someone in a family function would sing “Aparaadhi naanalla”, a classical composition from Hamsalekha and get away with the ajjis saying “entha saMskaara”(what a samskaara) though the girl sang a film song but it was mistaken for a song by the holy trinity of Carnatic music. I would lovingly say, “Oh that’s Hamsalekha daasaru” and wink.
A while ago, a friend and I were discussing that Hams is a man for songs from birth to death. Every news channel in Kannada celebrates the birthday of a celebrity with the song “Naguta naguta baaLu neenu nooru varusha”(May you live happily for 100 years) or if someone dies, it would be “Kuchiku Kuchiku - Sad Version”(Crying about friend’s death). If you are in love, you will sing all the songs he composed for his dear friend V Ravichandran, and probably credit him for your marriage.
From disco to devaranaama, he was a master. He could compose songs in Raaga Maalika and at the same time write a disco song (hate to call it an item song). In Gadibidi Ganda, in a song written as a face-off between Taayi Nagesh, playing a vidwaan in the movie, and a street musician, Ravichandran, he composed a song in Raaga Maalika consisting of raagas Shanmukha Priya, HindoLa and Darbari KaanaDa and made SPB sing it beautifully. At the same time he wrote “Bantu Bantu current Bantu”, made Mano sing it with the local boys and added a little bit of philosophy through S Janaki’s voice: ”Jaathi Jaathi seralla, Bhaashe bhaashe seralla, huDugi Andre mandi, jaathi geethi chindi”(Men don’t mingle with different castes, different language but looking at a beautiful girl they forget all these biases). He attacked the bias of men and also the prevailing opposition to inter-caste marriages. Every average Kannadiga swears by his songs, be it a birthday, funeral or a religious function.
Born Gangaraju and working in his father’s printing press in Mandya, his guru Lavani Neelakantappa gifted him a swan (hamsa) pen, and named him Hamsalekha. From the early 1980s to mid-2000, he was the king of lyrics and music in Karnataka. In fact, he took a sabbatical to start an institute to encourage children to learn the indigenous art forms of Karnataka. He composed serious Hindustani classical songs in Gaanayogi Panchakshari Gavaayi, a movie about a blind saint from Karnataka. SPB won a National Award for his singing in this movie and Hamsalekha was awarded the Best Music Director.
He turned 68 on June 23. Today, he sits in a reality show guiding small children to sing better. Every child’s grandparents would have probably sung his songs. He remembers every composing session and explains it with the same enthusiasm as a child. All the co-judges, musicians in the show were all his disciples who worked with him briefly in a movie/show. He has built such an aura that he can be considered equivalent to Dr Rajkumar who was loved immensely, and who tried imitating him too.
I have not come across a composer of our generation equaling him in writing a song for a woman who feels happy in love and is blushing. For eg: "YaarivaLu YaarivaLusooji malli kaNNavaLu" (who is that girl with an eye as beautiful as soojimallige, a type of jasmine) or the line in the song, "Yaavodo ee bombe yaavodo" which goes "Aa taare minuguttiddaru ee kanne bere, hello nee yaare" (She has eyes brighter than the brightest star in the sky) or "Bangaaradinda baNNaana taNda, saaraNgadinda nayanaana taNda, maNdaaravannu heNNaagu enda" (The girl who has inherited the colour from gold, the eyes from the deer, asked the beautiful mandaara to become a girl). Such lines probably made every woman look at her own intricate beauty. He also had a different take in praising a woman's beauty in a song where he doesn't compare her to objects but writes "BaaDo mallige hoovyaake, shileya baalike avLyaake holike" (Do not compare the girl to a flower which dies and to marble, she is beyond that).
I’m assuming my grandparents were his fans, my parents were definitely and I will forever be his fan. Like the typical Kannadiga, he is not loud, not hungry for promotions and does not jump to a different language for popularity. Would he have been more popular if he had jumped across to different states and composed music in different languages? Yes, he would. But Kannada may have lost a gem. The next time you listen to his songs, pay attention to the chorus voices and orchestration. This makes him more special than all the composers in the state. I probably can sing the song with the chorus, pallavi, anupallavi, charana and ending. Such is his impact on the listener.
So dear Hamsalekha fans, which is your favourite song?