Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao (1922–1974) was a legendary and distinguished Indian playback singer and music composer of Telugu films and other languages such as Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Tulu and Hindi. He was the recipient of the Padmashree award, India's fourth highest civilian award. For nearly more than a quarter of a century, he was the distinguished voice of Telugu films. He composed exemplary music for more than 100 movies in Telugu, Tamil and Kannada films. He composed and sang the Bhagavad Gita just before his death in 1974, (he died of throat cancer, which effected his rendering of famous Gita sloka, as evident from voice failing due to throat cancer can be noted between Part-1 & II of the Bhagavad Gita) a rendition which became highly acclaimed and continues to be as popular as ever. On 11 February 2003, a stamp was released in honor of Ghantasala at Telugu Lalita Kala Toranam, Public Gardens, Hyderabad.
"Gifted with what V. A. K. Ranga Rao called "the most majestic voice", Ghantasala helped Telugu film music develop its own distinct character which remains unparalleled". According to "The Hindu" dt. 11 February 2003 and "The Indian Express" dt. 14 February 1974 the articles sums up Ghantasala as: Such a Divine Talent, who with his songs, could move the hearts of the people. "Ghantasala's blending of classical improvisations to the art of light music combined with his virtuosity and sensitivity puts him a class apart, above all others in the field of playback singing". Ghantasala was "no mere singer" but also a "true poet" who with his melodious voice 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. The "Melody King" legendary Ghantasala continues to hold sway over millions of music lovers, crossing generation barriers, with the mellifluous magic spell of his golden voice.
Ghantasala was born to Soorayya, who was a local singer, in a traditional Yanadi family in 1922. During his childhood, Ghantasala used to dance to his father's Tarangams. He lost his father when he was a child, and was brought up by his maternal uncle Ryali Pitchi Ramaiah. He took formal music training from Patrayani Sitarama Sastry, also known as Saluru China Guruvu Garu, and he joined Maharajah's Government College of Music and Dance in Vijayanagram without informing his family. He went through a number of hardships to learn music and went on to become a "Sangeeta Vidhwan". Ghantasala participated in the Quit India Movement of 1942, for which he was arrested and imprisoned for 18 months at the Alipore (Allipura) Jail, Bellary. After coming out of jail, he met "Senior Samudrala", who advised him to try his luck in the film industry as a singer. Upon release from prison, he got married to Savitri of Pedapulivarru. It was in this village that he met Samudrala Raghavacharya, the famous lyricist, who recognised the powerful melodious voice ghantasala was gifted with and inducted him into the film industry in Madras and which changed the course of southern film music history over the next three decades. 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 music.
Ghantasala went through a number of hardships before becoming a trained vidwaan in carnatic music. 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 Seeta Rama Jananam by Pratibha Films. After this, he worked with famous music directors like Gali Penchala and C. R. Subbaraman. His first movie as a music director was Laxmamma. He introduced the technique of changing the voice pitch and diction to suit the actor singing the songs on the screen. People were so enamoured by this that they started imagining the actor singing on the screen just by hearing the song. Ghantasala was a master & peerless at padyam renderings, a unique genre in the Telugu films.
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 and in films) 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 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 Lord Venkateswara (not through Annamayya 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.
Producer Krishnaveni gave him first chance as full music director for her film Mana Desam, which incidentally was N. T. Rama Rao's first film & which established him once for all as a music composer-cum-versatile playback singer, the most prolific till the mid seventies in Telugu cinema. He later composed music for many popular Telugu movies like Patala Bhairavi, Gundamma Katha, Paramanandayya Shishyula Katha, Pelli Chesi Chudu, Mayabazar, Lava Kusa, Rahasyam, & Pandava Vanavasam and also for popular Tamil & Kannada movies in 50's & 60's wherein each and every rendition was a great hit. Ghantasala also music directed a Hindi Film Jhandaa ooncha Rahe Hamara in 1964 and sang for the film. He lent his voice to many popular heroes of the Telugu film industry and in a career period spanning around 30 years, has sung over 13,000 songs in Telugu, Tamil & Kannada films each being as melodious as the other. The classic film "Lava Kusa" was the biggest block buster in Telugu film history, had a continuous run for 175 days in the year 1963 and each of the rendition in the film was exemplary gem and the film continues to be a favourite of Andhra People even today. The Classic Film Mayabazar (1957) was another film which had a 100-day run in 15 centres and which is widely acclaimed even today. "Mayabazar" was remade in colour in 2010 and the colour version too successfully ran for 100 days in the year 2010.
The song "Siva Sankari" from the film Jagadeka Veeruni Katha (1961) sung by ghantasala in only one take and composed by popular music director Pendyala Nageswara Rao in Darbari Kannada raga with the mixture of Hindusthani and Carnatic classical shades, is believed to be a difficult composition ever composed in film songs. The song continues to receive wide acclaim by music lovers/musicians even today. The famous Hindi Film Singer Mohammad Rafi, who was a contemporary to Ghantasala, had great appreciations for the wonder song Siva Sankari and also for the song Payaninche O Chiluka of ghantasala in film "Kuladaivam" which was sung by Mohammad Rafi as Chal ud Ja re Panchi in Hindi film bhabhi, wherein Mohammad rafi with pure heart made a public statement that the ending raga/alaap in the song, he was not able to do justice similar to ghantasala. This is one of the exemplary testimonies coming from a famous Hindi singer on the genius skills of the legendary ghantasala.
Ghantasala was gifted with a "most majestic voice" that had a rare richness of both quality and quantity. Cultured innovatively, it could actuate the entire diapason of melody from the very sedate to the vivacious and with radiant repose. He could felicitously articulate a wide range of pitch (sruthi), traverse over two and half octaves and amazingly with the same vigour emanate an amalgam of nectarine sweetness and silken stentor. Meticulous clarity, an ingenious twist in punctuation, modulation and intoning, coupled with an import of soulful meditation on every syllable, both lyrical and musical, marked his singing. Backed up by the in-depth knoweldge accrued through intense training and hence the skill in the exposition of Carnatic vocal music, his rendering was paradigmatic of an aesthetically evocative offering of the infinite ramifications of human emotions, the `navarasas'. That was the play-back singer par excellence, Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao, the melody imperial. While he set exquisite music for more than 100 films, he sang more than 13,000 songs in Telugu and Tamil, in addition to many more for the gramaphone companies. He lent voice for almost all the actors in the main and the supporting cast constituting a variety of heroes, anti-heroes, commedians, other charecters of young, middle-aged and old donned by stalwarts in mythological, historical, folk and social films. Such was Ghantasala's versatility. He not only sang with an affected modulation imparting an effect of the tonal qualities of the particular actor to whom he sang play-back but also enchantingly captured the mood along with the special attributes of the character relevant in the particular situation. With passionate urgency in his rendering, he stirred the very souls of all categories of listeners and their unfathomable yearnings alike by his picturesqe visualisation of the lyrical content in the sound medium.
Ghantasala's contribution to telugu film music remains unparalleled. Ghantasala, was undoubtedly, the most difficult act to follow. When the meters of the music and the beauty within the lyrics were reaching their crescendo from the 1940s well into the early 70s, Ghantasala moved alongside them, lending his voice to the most mellifluous tunes and tones that Telugu film industry had ever had the fortune of witnessing. His voice became so intertwined with the familiar faces on the screen that it sounded absurd and incongruous watching the familiar face mime to a different playback. "Vaalmiki" was Ghantasala, "RaamuDu" was Ghantasala, "LakshmanuDu" was Ghantasala, and so was "Chaakali vaaDu" who HAD to be Ghantasala. No matter the character that was portrayed on the screen, be it mythological, social, romantic, devotional, comedy, tragedy etc. when the prose gave way to poetry and background music came to fore, all was excellent with the world, when the characters started mouthing to Ghantasala's playback. Situation was no question, emotion was no problem, pitch was never an issue and tempo played along to his tune - the film industry was truly lucky to have such a consummate singer who had the enormous ability to evoke any emotion, suit to any situation and fit to just any character - hero, villain, comedian, character actor and such. It is no exaggeration to say that Ghantasala probably touched every human emotion that could be visited within the purview of film music, lent his voice to probably every possible situation that could be captured with the 24 frames, swam the breadths and covered the depths of what stands as Telugu film music. His popularity and his wide acceptance were such that it became impossible for anybody to imagine any other voice resonating in the background while the characters in the foreground went through their motions. True, Ghantasala was indeed the toughest act to follow. Ghantasala had the unique distinction of being the torch-bearer of the early revolution in playback singing, continuing with a great aplomb as the Telugu song broke the shackles of traditional/classical artistry while finally embracing and settling with the lighter lilting brethren. He had the marked distinctive advantage of having proved himself of his classical chops very early on in his career, that the detour he took with light music wasn't much of an aberration in his distinguished career. Interspersing a "madi Saaradaa daevi mandiramae" with many "malliyalaaraa maalikalaaraa mounamugaa unnaaraa"s, mixing "haayi haayi gaa aamani saage" with plenty of "khushee khushee gaa navvutoo"s, blending "Siva Sankari Sivaanandalaharee" with a plethora of "Siva Siva moorthivi gaNanaadhaa"s, Ghantasala sailed on both the boats without ever being questioned or looked down upon for his dual loyalties. Ghantasala had the unique advantage of entering the filmdom as both a reputed singer and an established music director, having churned a number of private records - devotional, patriotic, classical and light vocal during the early era of the industry. "Emanenae chinnaari emanenae", "nee kOsame nae jeevinchunadi", "mounamugaa nee manasu paaDina", "oohalu gusa gusa laaDae", "kanupaapa karavaina kanulendukO" " Raave naa Cheliya" and many such sweet melodies made it into Ghantasala's very illustrious repertoire. Of all the 100 or so movies that Ghantasala scripted the tunes for, many of them went on to become chartbusters and most of them remained memorable etching their place permanently in history. Howevermuch restricted context-based and parametric music composition remains, composers, particularly the ones doubling duties, find a way to stamp the tunes with their signatures that is unique by being an amalgamation of the influences of all the composers that they worked under. Moreover there remains at least one album in the singer-composer's career that essentially defines his taste, branding his music along the way. "Lava Kusa" remains one such quintessential work as a composer in Ghantasala's illustrious career. When the journey becomes an intensely personal one involving stirring of the soul, the music rises above the plane of regular and a normal composition and becomes a full blown score, in that, the movie becomes identified with the music, the music becomes the very signature of the movie. Ballads such as "Sree ramnuni charitamunu telipedamammaa", "jagadabhi raamuDu Sree ramuDae", "sandaehinchaku mamma raghu raamu praemanu seetammaa" poems/padyams such as "idi mana aaSramamu echata neevu vasinchu lOka paavani", "navaratnOjwala kAntivantamidi", "stree bAla vRuddhula tega vaeya boonuTa" nicely sum up Ghantasala's richly rewarding illustrious career. The Telugu film music in the mellifluous voice of ghantasala witnessed its unique golden age in playback singing ever known.
The famed heroes of Telugu film industry in the 50's & 60's - N T Rama Rao and Akkineni Nageswara Rao, greatly benefitted by the peerless voice of ghantasala. He served as the Aaasthana Gaayaka (court musician) for the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams. The famous & much acclaimed renderings of Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao include private albums, like Bhagawad Gita, Patriotic Songs, Padyalu (a unique genre of Telugu - singing the verses in dramatic style), Pushpa Vilapam, Devotional and folk songs. His recording of "Bhagawad Gita" can now be heard daily in the Tirumala temple. The "Bhagawad Gita" music directed and sung by Ghantasala continues to be as popular as ever even today. Ghantasala breathed life into his rendition of the Bhagavad-Gita and left it adorned as a spiritual treat. His endeavour in bringing the essence of the Gita unto the lay and the learned on the wings of poesy in a mellifluous musical strain left an everlasting imprint on the minds of generations of its listeners. It is one thing for the maestro to render musically more than 10,000 songs in all in general and quite another to import the essence of about 700 hymns of the Bhagavad-Gita in just 100. There have been many who sang the hymns of the song celestial but could not match with Ghantasala. It was amply testified by the endless flow of records and the craze of the connoisseurs who go in for them. No other singer enjoyed such a luxuriant patronge in the contemporary clan of musicians. Ghantasala could captivate his listeners of the 'Bhagavad Gita' through his own style and that of the inherent divine force of the classic.
Gifted with what V. A. K. Ranga Rao called "the most majestic voice", he helped Telugu film music develop its own distinct character which remains unparalleled. He won the "best singer award" in the Telugu film industry every year for three decades, a feat perhaps unachieved by any other playback singer. In the words of popular music director of the south Pendyala Nageswara Rao & noted playback singer P Suseela "Ghantasala alone is the foremost among playback singers who had a full fledged melodious powerful voice range which could accommodate in uniformity, all the three octaves in music quite comfortably". The navarasas of music explicitly found full favour in ghantasala's voice and renditions. The magical influence and spell of melodious music as ghantasala has cast on the Telugu masses and culture with his melodious voice and distinct pronunciation, perhaps cannot be found elsewhere and in any other culture. Popular music director, Pendyala Nageswara Rao channelising his classical musical knowledge, fully utilised ghantasala's great skills in classical renditions and introduced some of the greatest evergreen gems in traditional classical/filmy style in telugu films viz., siva sankari from film jagadekaveeruni katha, Rasika Raja taguvaramu kama from film Jayabheri, Syamala Dandakam - Manikya Veena from film Mahakavi Kalidasu etc. In the words of Pendyala himself, these great renditions have been recorded only in one take by ghantasala. It is not an exaggeration to say that, there has been no singer on par with ghantasala in terms of such classical skills and majestic voice, till date in the film industry after ghantasala's demise.
He has given performances in America, England, and Germany, and had the distinction of performing for the United Nations Organisation. 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, an event perhaps unparalleled. His illustrious/distinguished and successful career came to end on 11 February 1974, the day he passed away.
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, praise 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 Andhras, 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.
The Legendary Ghantasala continues to be as popular as ever. His statutes have been installed across Andhra Pradesh. No other cine/film singer enjoys such honour. Every year his birth/death anniversaries are celebrated with great importance, in Andhra pradesh, India as well as overseas countries. Ghantasala was honoured only with the "Padmashri" by the Government of India though he was worth to be "Bharatharathna".