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Sishtla Sreeramamurthy Janaki, commonly known as S. Janaki, is an Indian playback singer. Janaki has sung nearly 20,000 songs, encompassing most of the languages of South India, during a career that has lasted over 50 years. She has won four National Film Awards and 31 different State Film Awards. Her association with singer S. P. Balasubramanyam and composer Ilaiyaraaja is among the most popular musical combinations in South India.
She is known as, "The Nightingale of the South". She is a recipient of a Honorary doctorate from the University of Mysore and the Kalaimamani award from Tamil Nadu State Government. In 2013, she refused the offer of a Padma Bhushan award by the Government of India, saying that it had come too late and that South Indian artists were not given their due recognition.
S. Janaki was born in a Telugu-speaking Brahmin family in Pallapatla, Repalle Town, in Guntur, Andhra Pradesh. Her father, Sishtla Sreeramamurthy, was a teacher and an Ayurveda doctor. She was interested in music from an early age and performed at the age of three. She was taught music by Sree Paidiswamy, a Nadaswaram Vidwan for a year and also learned a few songs from Varanasi Balaramayya. She was inspired from film music and used to render the songs of Lata Mangeshkar, P. Leela, Jikki and P. Susheela on stage before entering films.
The first movie recording made by Janaki in Tamil was for the film Vidhiyin Vilaiyattu but was not released. Later in that year she duetted with P. B. Sreenivas to sing Kannukku Nere for use in Magadhal Naattu Mary. This was released and 1957 became her breakthrough year as she obtained work in other languages also.
During the 1960s, Janaki worked as a playback singer mainly in the Kannada and Malayalam cinema industries. Music directors such as S. M. Subbaiah Naidu, G. K. Venkatesh and M. S. Viswanathan provided songs specifically with her in mind.
Through her work with Venkatesh, Janaki came to the notice of Ilayaraja, who had been an assistant music director under Venkatesh for several years. Ilayaraja used Janaki’s singing skills in his first movie, Annakilli, and that turned out to be a hit. Thereafter the two collaborated in numerous successful productions over the next two decades, with Ilayaraja not only composing for Janaki but also sometimes duetting with her.
She was also increasingly given work by other music directors. For example, from M. S. Viswanathan in Avargal, from K. V. Mahadevan in Mazhai Megham), Sankar Ganesh in Aasai Manaivi and from V. Kumar in Oruvanukku Oruthi.
After 20 years of working in the industry, she won her first National award, given for her performance in Sendhoorappoovey, and in 1977 was also awarded by the Tamil Nadu government.
Malaysia Vasudevan began singing Tamil in the late 1970s and duetted with Janaki in a song from Padinaru Vayadinile and in Kovil Maniyosai from the movie Kizhakke Pogum Rail. Other collaborations with Janaki included in Muthal Mariyadhai. They sang every variety of songs, though their village and folk kind of duets are more in number. This singing pair who rendered absolute melodies like Agaya Gangai rendered several hit sensuous songs like "Nilakayithu" also and their evergreen duets cover variety of songs from melody, classical, pathos to pop, sensous and fun-filled songs for movies during period of the mid 1970s to mid 1990s.
Janaki worked with A. R. Rahman, beginning with the album Fantasy and then later in films such as Gentleman, Kathalan, Uyire and Jodi. She received a Tamil Nadu State Film Award for her work with him in Sangamam and has said that
I have sung several beautiful songs for Ilayaraja, which were real gems. After IR’s songs and before people started forgetting me, Rahman gave me beautiful songs so that new generation also gets connected to my songs.
Her songs with him include:
It was really in Malayalam films that she gained momentum. After her first song ‘Irul moodukayo vaanil....the eminent music directors like V. Dakshinamurthy, K. Raghavan, B. A. Chidambaranath , G. Devarajan , M. S. Baburaj and particularly M. B. Srinivasan all focused on her and started developing her career.In the early '60s, she was already very well established in Malayala films.Then the other composers like Johnson, Ravindran, M K Arjunan, A T Ummer, Shyam , Shekar etc too followed later. She won awards almost every year for a decade in Malayalam.
Her turning point in Tamil films too came about the same time.The veteran composer S. M. Subbaiah Naidu had already composed music for the song " Singara velane vaa vaa...," in 1959 for the film " Konjum Salangai" and had already recorded the Nagaswaram piece of Karaikurichi Arunachalam and was trying many female playback singers for the song that should be sung matching it note for note. When he approached P. Leela, she strongly recommended that he should try S. Janaki. The song became a sensational hit when the film was released in 1961. In the same year, Singer-composer, A. M. Rajah gave her a major break by getting her to sing two beautiful songs, "Oho Enthan Baby" and "Kalaiyum Neeye, Maalaiyum Neeye" with him in the film Then Nilavu(Producer: C. V. Sridhar), that too her singing for Vyjayanthimala which became big hits . Rajah had already sung a few songs with her in the Malayala films and was impressed by her. Thereafter, she sang for some lovely songs for the music of the Viswanathan Ramamoorthy Duo also pairing with P.B. Srinivas in the films, Policekaran Mahal, Sumaithangi, Pasam, etc. However, she was still not really a regular singer in the Tamil films, but she was always there singing a few songs from time to time.
Them came the year 1976 when an unknown composer then, Ilaya Raja, composed music for his first film "Annakkikli".He chose S. Janaki to sing all the songs in this film − which became big hits. After his instant success that was followed by many films coming his way, Ilaya Raja decided to exploit her voice which had a wide range, good voice control with "melting, soft high notes", and the vocal acrobatics it was capable of, equally as a soloist as well as in duets. All the songs became top hits. It was the time, Vani Jayaram was the rising star, pushing P. Susheela almost to second place. But thence onward S. Janaki surged ahead as the Queen of the South Indian film music world.
She sang in almost every major South Indian movie in from 1976−1999. She won several awards from government and private institutions during this period. She has a record of maximum singing compared to any other female singer in the Malayalam and Kannada film industry and she also holds the record of singing the most difficult song in South Films i.e. Shiva Shiva Ennada from the Kannada movie Hemavathi.
She was present in almost every album of G K Venkatesh and Rajan Nagendran. M Rangarao, Upendrakumar, Vijayabhaskar. Hamslekha used her singing talent in several albums.
Though she was singing from late 1950s and delivering in these languages, other music directors like Chakravarthy, Sathyam, Ramesh Naidu, M S Viswanathan, K V Mahadevan, Shankar Ganesh in the 1980s to give some of their career best melodies to Janaki. She rendered several semi-classical numbers also with lots of ease during this period. She delivered several songs with SP Balasubramanyam, Malaysia Vasudevan, K J Yesudas, Jayachandran, Mano, Arunmozhi in Tamil. Unfortunately P. B. Srinivas has faded away during this period, losing the magic in his voice. She also sang duets with actors like Kamalahasan, Rajnikanth etc. She continued to deliver songs with the younger generation of music directors like Madhavapeddi Suresh, Vandemataram Srinivas, Raj-Koti, Deva, S A Rajkumar, Yuvan Shankar Raja etc. in the 1990s and after 2000. She also sang few songs in music of A R Rahman.
She was invited to Hindi film industry by Bappi Lahiri for the 1985 movie Saheb, where she delivered "Yaar Bina Chain Kahan Re". She sang around 100 songs in the music of Jaidev, Lakshmikant Pyarelal, R D Burman, Ravindra Jain, O P Nayyar, Bappi Lahiri, Anu Malik and others. She recorded duets with Mohd Rafi (in Telugu movies), Kishore Kumar, Manna Dey, Bhupinder, Manhar Udas, Amit Kumar, Suresh Wadkar, Mohd Aziz, Udit Narayan, Shankar Mahadevan and others. But she personally preferred singing south Indian songs as she was getting melodious songs with better quality at that time than in Hindi.
She also penned many songs for Tamil and Telugu albums as she was extremely good in both the languages. She has also sung in Sinhalese, Bengali, Oriya, English, Sanskrit, Konkani, Tulu, Saurashtra, Baduga, Japanese and German.
She has also recorded devotional music of Meera. She released albums with songs of Meera, Tulsidas, Surdas and Kabir Das. She released 3 classical albums with songs of Thyagaraja Swamy, Muthuswamy Deekshithar and Swathi Thirunal. She has sung Devaranamas of Purandara Dasa and worked for restoring Ramadasa Keertanalu. She worked with Balakrishna Prasad and sang anamacharya keerthanas for him. She rendered several devotional albums apart from these classic albums. She has sung for television and radio programs as well and won awards for best playback from Andhra Pradesh state government for TV Serials.
S. Janaki was married to V. Ramaprasad. Ramaprasad died in the mid-1990s, and after his death, Janaki began to concentrate more on devotional songs. She is now settled in Chennai with her son, Murali Krishna, who acted in a few films and has an audio business of his own, and his family.