Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao (4 December 1922 – 11 February 1974) was a Legendary Indian playback singer and music composer of Telugu films and many other languages such as Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Tulu and Hindi. He was a recipient of the Padmashree award, India’s fourth highest civilian award.
He composed 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. On 11 February 2003, a stamp was released by the Govt. of India in honor of Ghantasala at Telugu Lalita Kala Toranam, Public Gardens, Hyderabad. The US Postal Department has released a postal stamp on Ghantasala on 6 October 2014. The postal stamp was jointly released by the North American Telugu Society (NATS) in collaboration with Telugu Literary and Cultural Association (TLCA) in New York.
He is referred to as the “Gaana Gandharva” for his mesmerising voice and musical skills.
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 and with his songs he 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, a Telugu Brahmin and a local singer, in 1922 in Chowtapalli, a village in Gudivada taluk of Krishna District.During his childhood, Ghantasala used to dance to his father’s Tarangams. His father died when Ghantasala was a child, and he was brought up by his maternal uncle. He took formal music training from Patrayani Sitarama Sastry, and 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 leaving jail, he met Senior Samudrala, who advised him to try his luck in the film industry as a singer. Ghantasala married Savitri, who lived in a village called Pedapulivarru. In that village, Ghantasala met lyricist Samudrala Raghavacharya, who was impressed with his voice and inducted him into the Madras film industry. Before Ghantasala found fame, he was already an accomplished Carnatic music singer.
Ghantasala’s first break as a singer came from All India Radio. Later on, Peketi Siva Ram from HMV studios recorded Ghantasala’s 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 well-known music directors Gali Penchala and C. R. Subbaraman. Ghantasala’s first film as a music director was Laxmamma. He introduced the technique of changing the vocal pitch and diction to suit the actor singing the songs. Ghantasala was peerless at Padyam renderings and his way with the Telugu padyam was incomparable.
Producer Krishnaveni gave Ghantasala his first job as full-time music director for her film Mana Desam, which was N. T. Rama Rao’s first film. It established Ghantasala as a music composer-cum-playback singer. He was the most prolific film composer and playback singer in Telugu cinema until the mid-1970s. He composed music for many popular Telugu movies, including Patala Bhairavi, Mayabazaar, Lava Kusa, Pandava Vanavasam, Rahasyam,Gundamma Katha, Paramanandayya Shishyula Katha and Pelli Chesi Chudu, and also for popular Tamil and Kannada films in the 1950s and 1960s. Ghantasala sang for and directed the music for a Hindi film Jhandaa ooncha Rahe Hamara (1964).
The song “Siva Sankari” from the film Jagadeka Veeruni Katha (1961) was sung by Ghantasala in a single take; it was composed by music director Pendyala Nageswara Rao in Darbari Kannada raga with the mixture of Hindusthani and Carnatic classical styles and is believed to be the most 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. While recording the Hindi song Kuhu Kuhu Bole Koyaliya in Hindi film suvarna sundari the singers Mohd rafi and Lata Mangeshkar, (the original of which was sung by ghantasala and jikki in Telugu film suvarna sundari as hayi hayigaa aamani saage) Mohd. Rafi out of humble respect had great appreciations for skills of ghantasala and lata mangeshkar expressed a wish to sing the song with ghantasala, who politely refused to do it. This is one of the exemplary testimonies coming from famous Hindi singers 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 gramophone companies. He lent voice for almost all the actors in the main and the supporting cast constituting a variety of heroes, anti-heroes, comedians, other characters 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 picturesque visualisation of the lyrical content in the sound medium. The period from about 1947 till he died on February 11, 1974, was a saga of Ghantasala’s colossal contribution to the contemporary cultural scene which set an exemplary trend of exposition of both semi-classical and ‘desi’ (music of the common people) on one hand and the rendering of Telugu Padyam (prosodial verse) on the other. The voice remains indeciduously haunting for ever.
Ghantasala served as the Aaasthana Gaayaka (court musician) for the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams. He recorded private albums, including 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”, which he directed and sang, can now be heard daily in the Tirumala temple.
According to music director Pendyala Nageswara Rao and 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”.
Pendyala Nageswara Rao channelled Ghantasala’s classical musical knowledge and skills in classical renditions and in Telugu films including siva sankari from film Jagadekaveeruni Katha, Rasika Raja taguvaramu kama from film Jayabheri, “Syamala Dandakam – Manikya Veena” from film Mahakavi Kalidasu. Pendyala said these renditions were recorded only in one take by Ghantasala.
Ghantasala performed in the United States, England and Germany, and had the distinction for performing for the United Nations Organisation. The government of Andhra Pradesh marked 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 held at the Lal Bahadur Stadium, Hyderabad.
Ghantasala died on 11 February 1974, two months after his 51st birthday. According to his son Ratna Kumar, Ghantasala died of cardiac arrest at a hospital in Chennai. The last song he recorded was for a documentary – Bhadrachala Ramadasu Vaibhavam (music by Master Venu) from the hospital bed the day before his death.
The Indian government released a postage stamp and first day cover to celebrate Ghantasala’s work on 11 February 2003. He is the first movie singer-composer of the south to be accorded this honour.
The US Postal Department has released a postal stamp on Ghantasala on 6 October 2014. The postal stamp was jointly released by the North American Telugu Society (NATS) in collaboration with Telugu Literary and Cultural Association (TLCA) in New York.
Ghantasala continues to be popular. Statutes of his likeness have been installed across Andhra Pradesh. Every year, the anniversaries of his birth and death are celebrated in India and overseas.
Various awards named after Ghantasala are given every year, including the “Ghantasala melody king award”. Recipients of this award include playback singers K J Yesudas and P Suseela, and Indian Idol Sri Ramachandra.
Ghantasala Arts Academy has instituted the “Ghantasala National Award”; the first winner was playback singer S. P. Balasubrahmanyam.
The Ghantasala Puraskar Award 2014, given every year by Sharan Incorporation, has been conferred on Rao Bala Saraswathi Devi, who was the first Telugu playback singer.
The Government music college in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh, is named after Ghantasala. Ghantasala Sangeetha Kalasala college in Hyderabad and Vizag offers six-month and one-year diploma courses on Ghantasala’s light music, songs and music.
Ghantasala was honoured with the “Padmashri” by the Government of India in the year 1970. He won the best playback singer award in Andhra Pradesh every year for nearly 30 years, a feat unachieved by any other playback singer.
After the saint poet Annamacharya in the 15th century, Ghantasala has been the only singer to perform devotional songs inside the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple near the Lord Moola Virat.
The late singer remains an inspiration for many aspiring singers even to this day. A lot of books based on the life of Ghantasala have been published over the years. As a tribute, CH Rama Rao has written the script for the telefilm based on the life and time of the great singer, to be directed by award winning documentary filmmaker Karri Balaji. The film will be based on the discography of the legendary singer titled, “Ghantasala Patasala”, that comprises 555 songs sung by Ghantasala.
Sri Challa Subbarayudu (Kanigiri) has done a great service to Ghantasaala fans everywhere by collecting together all known songs of Ghantasala in his compilation, “Ghantasaala Gaana Charitha”. Since its publication, some omissions and errors have come to light; neverthless, this book remains a “bible”.
Sri K.V.Rao garu and Sri Prabhakar Nukala garu have been compiling the audio of these songs, using this book for reference. It is through their great generosity that http://ghantasala.info/allsongs/index.html have the collection of songs.
“It is an honour to be directing the film based on Ghantasala. We will begin shooting for the film on December 4, which happens to be the 92nd birth anniversary of the great singer. The film will cover all aspects of the great man’s life,” said Karri Balaji.
In 2015, Sri Challa Subbarayudu (Kanigiri) has compiled another book named ‘Ghantasala Swarayugam’ which is released across 94 centers on the occation of 94th birth anniversary of the great singer and have got an entry into India book of records for releasing a book at same time across 94 centers. Book is compiled with lyrics of each and every song composed by Ghantasala in telugu. It is like Wikipedia for Ghantasala’s composition in telugu industry.
Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao was married to Late Sarala Devi. and Savithri. Ghantasala had eight children, four sons (Vijaya Kumar, Ravi Kumar, Shankar Kumar and Ratna Kumar) and four daughters (Syamala, Suguna,Meera and Shanti).
Reliable sources state that Ghantasala composed music for around 125 films and sang more than 13000 songs. A few of the films for which he composed music are highlighted hereunder