Seventy-eight-year-old Yesudas, white bearded and bare chested, stood in the sannidhanam of the Sabarimala temple singing the 'Harivarshanam' lullaby to Swami Ayyappa. He was surrounded by rapt devotees. As I watched the scene on my TV screen and heard the sound of his golden voice, I remembered that he had been doing this every year for over 40 years. And Sabarimala had always welcomed him. In fact, last year I had seen a picture of him with his wife Prabha also clad in black with the irrrumuddikettu on her head, standing inside the sannidhanam.
The preceding days had seen some ugly scenes. The usually peaceful temple had turned into a fortress with police presence everywhere. But at that moment, peace prevailed inside the temple as the aging singer poured his heart into his lullaby for the Lord.
The 'Harivarshanam', composed in the 50s, was sung traditionally by the chief priest or Melsanthi while doing the closing rituals. But for many years now, a recorded version of Yesudas's evocative rendering is the lullaby which puts Ayyappa to sleep. Whenever he is there in the temple, he makes it a point to sing himself.
Yesudas had visited the Sabarimala temple for the first time in the late 70s after his first son was born. It was his thanksgiving visit as he and his wife Prabha had been blessed with a son after being childless for eight years. Though Yesudas was born a Christian and was baptised and married in the church, he had always also had a deep connect with Hindu gods and temples through his music. And so to him it seemed logical to visit Ayyappa, the deity to whom he had sung many songs and whom other childless couples also visited when they conceived after many years.
By this time he was already a rock star singer of wealth and consequence. He had recorded around 3000 songs in Malayalam, another 500 or so in Tamil about 200 in Hindi and over 50 in other languages. The 40-year-old singer toured the world, giving concerts and getting showered with gifts and praise. A friend from Bahrain told me then about how an Arab sheikh got so overwhelmed when Yesudas sang in Arabic that he pulled a diamond ring off his finger and thrust it on him. Such was his connect with his audiences.
Yesudas actually grew up under ordinary cirumstances. His father Augustine Joseph who was a stage actor was also a trained Carnatic musician. In fact he was the one who sowed the seeds of devotion to all faiths in his son, as he too sang devotional songs in temples as well as churches. Having recognised his boy's nascent musical talent, he got him trained in Carnatic music from the age of eight.
After high school, Yesudas studied in the Thripunithura Music School and later went to Trivandrum and got himself enrolled in the famous Swathi Thirunal Music Academy. Like all the other students there at that time, he studied under the famous Carnatic vocalist Semmangudi Sreenivas Iyer, who was the principal of the college. He passed out with a first rank and got an offer to sing for a film. The rest is history. But later on, he continued his learning under the renowned vocalist Chembai Vaidyanath Bhagvathar.
In the late 70s, although Yesudas observed all the rituals, including the one-month vratham of fasting and celibacy and carried the irumuddi kettu on his head, some people did question why a Christian should be allowed into the temple. However nothing came of it.
Those were more tolerant and peaceful times, and the singer continued to make his annual pilgrimage every November. He was always welcomed into the temple.
In 1981, the Archbishop of Trivandrum refused to baptise Yesudas's second son because "the father visited Hindu shrines". A hurt Yesudas snapped back, asking the Archbishop how he had baptised his first son, when he had been visiting Sabarimala even then.
I remember speaking to him then in Trivandrum about this controversy. He was deeply pained by it all. He said he was brought up in a traditional Christian family and was taught by his father to love all religions. As we spoke, he came across as a man with an almost childlike faith. He spoke of singing songs from all religious books and visiting shrines of different faiths because he believed God did not live in any particular shrine but was omnipresent. Although he was hurt then by the Archbishop's stand, he said he had decided to allow his son to grow up and decide for himself whether he wanted to be baptised or not. Vijay Yesudas, the son in question, is a very well-known singer in his own right today, and I heard later on that Yesudas's wife Prabha made peace with the Archbishop and got her son baptised.
Around the same time, when Yesudas went along with his guru Chembai to Guruvayoor, he was not allowed into the temple. An upset Chembai refused to sing inside the temple which had closed its doors to his favourite disciple. So he held an all-night long concert outside. Sadly, although Yesudas's most beautiful and famous songs are sung in praise of Guruvayoorappan, he has still not been allowed entry. Once he commented that even if he had been a cockroach or an insect, he would have been allowed in.
The Sabarimala temple, on the other hand, has always given Yesudas a warm welcome. So has the Mookamibka temple in Kollur, Karnataka. In fact every year, the singer visits the Mookambika temple with his entire family and sings after having his darshan. He even paid his respects to Mookambika on completing his 50th year in the music industry in 2012. This year too, in January, he celebrated his 78th birthday quietly at the temple.
In 2017, the Ananthapadmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum, which had also initially refused him entry, opened its doors to him after he gave the Devaswom Board an affidavit declaring he was a follower of Hinduism. The actual request to grant him entry was started by an online petition in 2014, which was signed by around 700 people. It said Yesudas had sung thousands of devotional songs on Lord Krishna and he visited the Sabarimala and Mookambika temples every year and nothing dire had happened to the temples or to the devotees. It also went on to say, "Sri Krishna has never ever mentioned anywhere in the scriptures that he will not accept the prayers of non-Hindus.''
However, although permission was given to him to visit the Ananthapadmanabhaswamy temple on Vijayadasami day last year and all his followers were waiting eagerly to hear his voice from the sannidhanam, the singer himself chose not to go. He did not give any specific explanation beyond saying ,"There is no use in rushing. When God calls, I will visit him. For this, none of you should hold your breath and lose your life." Perhaps he realised that in these troubled times there may be opportunists waiting in the side lines to use his entry for their own political ends.
Today, Yesudas has recorded more than 80,000 songs in almost all Indian languages. He has also sung in Arabic, English, Latin, and Russian. He won the National Award for the Best Male Playback Singer a record number of eight times. He has been awarded the Padma Shri in 1977, the Padma Bhushan in 2002, and the Padma Vibhushan in 2017.
But it all sits lightly on him as he continues to do his annual pilgrimages to the places he loves best " the Sabarimala and Mookambika temples and Tiruvaiyur. He is a man who has found his own peace. And more importantly, his music and faith are matters of his own personal comfort which give him the strength to continue. He has no political agenda, and that is rare in these times.
On that day, Yesudas's singing was like a comforting breath of fresh air. It gave hope that peace would prevail once more in the temple on the hill.