Singer Vani Jai Ram epitomised the image of an artiste, full of devotion, sacrifice and dedication
ani Jai Ram, who did recently, was one of the leading vocalists in India.
She shot to fame when she sang for Ravi Shanker in the film Meera, made in the 1970s. Meera Bai, one of the most enigmatic of persons in the cultural amalgam, exists as much in history as in legend. Her representation in whatever form has had great cultural reverberation and fortifies the basis of the foundation of the Indian society. Playing the character is seen as more than a superficial act. Similarly, lending the voice for the leading cultural icon of the subcontinent, too, embeds the echoes of the supernatural and the divine to it.
Lata Mangeshkar must have been the first choice as she had been a playback singer since the early 1950s. For reasons not fully disclosed, she did not lend her voice to the legendary Meera Bai in the film. The music composer of the film was none other than Ravi Shanker. The dice then rolled in favour of Vani Jai Ram.
She was not well known back then as she hailed from southern India. There does exist a divide: a cultural, visual and artistic one between the northern and southern parts of the subcontinent. There is an integral link but the way it has developed in two different directions is identifiable. There is always a conscious effort to bring the two together and the two do come together more often than not. The two musical systems, too, have developed independently as have the two cinemas, the southern one being bigger. Vani Jai Ram’s venturing out in the territory perceived to have been abdicated by Lata Mangeshkar was daring. It may be said in the same breath that the film, other than the music, was a bit of a damp squib and did not do well at the box office. The bhajans were lauded and she appeared on the north Indian horizon for quite some time to come.
She came from a family of musicians. Most of her family members were well known musicians in varying capacities. They included the leading violinist N Rajam. She was also a very well decorated artiste and received many of the leading awards of music and show business industries. She was much respected as a person and epitomised the image of a self-sacrificing artiste, one given to a bhagat –of devotion, sacrifice and dedication. She was a lot like Meera Bai in her personal conduct as well.
Many films have been made on Meera Bai and many vocalists have attempted to recreate her musically, and as an individual on screen and stage. One of the leading figures was MS Subbhalakshami whose Meera’s bhajans became very famous and was seen as an example of how these ought to be sung. So Vani Jai Ram was not just battling Lata Mangeshkar but also a myth against which it was difficult to prove herself. The definition of myth always being bigger than the individual reduces the myth’s personalisation as one aspect, as in one phase of history with emphasis only on some singular aspect of it for the entirety of it is impossible to match.
Since music could not be retained in its musical form in history but only in words or the anecdotes revolving round personalities it was also the reason for adding on to it and presenting it as a lore. The personalities whether Shiv, Krishan, Tansen, Gopal Naik or Baiju Bawara have all this extra real about them with strange miraculous powers attached to their recreation of the naad or saut-i-sarmadi.
Vani Jai Ram also visited Pakistan. As she was not that big a name then in show business, her interaction was limited to the musical circles and did not spill over into the public arena where stardom glosses over true artistic merit. She was generally well liked and appreciated by the many who take a lot of convincing just in giving a passing grade to a performer.
The writer is a culture critic based in Lahore.