P Susheela is undoubtedly the greatest female playback singer ever in the history of South Indian filmdom. Since 1952, she has sung some of the most memorable songs of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada and even Sinhalese cinemas.
Susheela was born on November 13, 1935 in Vijayanagaram into a music loving family. She began training in Carnatic music at a very young age, repeatedly winning the top prize in several music competitions. She then attended the Music collge at Vijayanagaram, passing her diploma with first class. Music Director Nageswara Rao was scouting for new singers in 1950 and approached All India Radio (AIR) to reccomend promising singers from their programmes. Susheela was among the five singers that AIR sent Nageswara Rao. Needless to say that after the round of auditions, it was Susheela who was chosen.
Susheela made her playback singing debut with the Tamil/ Telugu bilingual Petra Thaai/Kanna Thalli in 1952. Her first song was a duet with AM Raja – Edhukku Azhaithaai. AV Meiyyappan, the owner of AVM Studios where Susheela was employed, appointed a Tamil teacher for her to perfect her pronunciation in Tamil. With this help, Susheela’s strong point ,apart from her immense musical talent and uniqely gifted voice, became her clear pronunciation of every word in each language she sang, very much like Lata Mangeshkar. And like Lata Mangeshkar who pushed most singers into oblivion once she arrived, so too did Susheela render other voices then in vogue in Tamil cinema obselete and by the mid to late 1950s, with the phenomenal success of her songs in Kanavane Kan Kanda Dheiyvam (1955), Missiamma (1955) and in particular Kalyana Parisu (1959), Susheela became the undisputed queen of Tamil cinema playback singing.
The 1960s and early 70s were the peak years in Susheela’s career as she was most sought after by every Music Director who mattered in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada cinema to do justice to their compositions. Needless to say, Susheela delivered and more! In fact, it is said that every Tamil film made in this period had Susheela singing for it!
With changing trends in film music, P Susheela gracefully retired from the playback scene. Quoting her in an interview given to The Hindu, “Everyone wants excitement these days in films – murder, fights, romance and the like. Nobody has time for story values. in my days the songs were simple and sweet. But it is not so now. The same excitement is expected in music too. The emphas is ismore on music and the lyrics these days most often have double meanings. I feel, not just music directors but writers as well as producers are to be blamed for this as well.”
Apart from film songs, Susheela has also recorded several devotional songs and private albums, all of which have proved to be most popular.
Besides her phenomenal popularity with both the masses and the critics, it speaks volumes for Susheela’s talent that she has won the National Award for Best Singer 5 times, various State Awards in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradhesh and Kerala besides a spate of Lifetime Achievement Awards and Honory Doctorates. To cap it all, she has also been awarded the Padma Bhushan by the Government of India for her contribution to music.