When K.S. Chithra walked up to the microphone on stage, she was a bit overwhelmed by the crowd. She started singing, as perfect as ever, but kept glancing at the accordion player standing next to her. The man would nod approvingly, reassuring the singer she hadn’t slipped on the pitch and was on the right track.
The venue was a temple ground in Thiruvananthapuram. The year was 1974. Chithra, who went on to become the greatest Malayalee female playback singer, was performing before such a large gathering for the first time. Decades later, the legendary singer herself recalled the moments when she met the accordion player, B. Venugopalan Nair, at another concert in the city. Chithra walked up to him, touched his feet and then started speaking about Nair for the next ten minutes or so, much to the surprise of the audience, who had barely noticed the old man on the stage until that moment.
Nair, 76, is a part of the golden era of music in Kerala. It was the sizzling 70s. Music had little electronics, orchestras had an array of instruments and performances were live – not pre-recorded and lip-synced like today. Nair was the most sought–after accordionist in Thiruvananthapuram, then a hub of orchestras. "Accordion was the star attraction of orchestras in those days, thanks mainly to Raj Kapoor films," Nair recalls. "It was advertised before programs that the orchestra includes accordion."
K.S. Chithra on stage
In his musical journey of more than four decades, Nair has performed in more than 2,000 stages across Kerala. He has played accordion for the live performances of virtually the who’s who of the Malayalam film music, including K.J. Yesudas, K.P. Udayabhanu, S. Janaky, P. Jayachandran and M.G. Sreekumar. In his home at Karamana, an eastern suburb of Thiruvananthapuram, Nair keeps a rare collection of photographs of his professional life. Chithra and Sujatha as toddlers on the stage, Nedumudi Venu and Venu Nagavally singing together, Yesudas, Jayachandran, P. Leela and V. Dakshinamoorthy all sitting on the floor practicing... the photographs are a music historian's delight.
Nair used to play harmonium and a stringed instrument called 'bul-bul' before switching to accordion. He first saw the instrument at a Mohammed Rafi concert in Thiruvananthapuram in 1965. Nair was mesmerized by the music, and eventually bought an old accordion from a Christian missionary. After learning the basics from a luthier in the city, Nair mastered accordion by years of practice. From early 70's, he began playing accordion professionally, accompanying well-known singers such as Kamukara Purushothaman.
A group practice of Yesudas, Jayachandran, P. Leela & Dakshinamoorthy
He soon joined Thunderbirds, the leading orchestra in the city. In the next one decade, Nair was performing across the state and shared the stage with some of the master performers of that era. Raveendran (who passed away in 2005,) and Mohan Sithara were two of them who subsequently made their mark in film music as composers.
Thunderbirds, formed by guitarist S.A. Swami and S. Sivarajan (who was later known as Thunderbirds Babu), pioneered many a trend in the 'ganamela' scene in the state, including letting singers stand on the stage and croon as against the practice of singing from a sitting position. Thunderbirds also picked singers whose voices were similar to that of playback singers Yesudas, Rafi, Kishore Kumar and S. Janaki. Men singing in female voices was also a trend for some time, Nair recalls. The orchestra would also perform English pop songs during the 'ganamela.'
"The music was pristine then," Nair says. "There was no compromise. You had to do thorough practice and there was no room for any mistake. There was no help from technology like you have today."
Raveendran, who was then known as Kulathooppuzha Ravi, singing live
The arrival of digital keyboards obviated musicians such as Nair. A couple of keyboards were all that needed to recreate an entire orchestra. Instruments such as accordion, mandolin, Hawaiian guitar and clarinet disappeared from stages and recording studios. Nair had stopped playing accordion a few years ago, and even sold the two instruments he had, until his son Anil Kumar gifted him a new one.
Nair straps on the red accordion on his chest, walks to the balcony of his room, and starts playing 'nee madhu pakaroo' on my request. His thin fingers run through the keyboard as the right hand opens and closes the bellows. The musician is lost in thoughts as he keeps playing. May be he is reliving a 70’s evening.