It is possible that someone else was accorded more recognition, better paid, more in demand (hardly), more titled. But for generations of Andhras born between 1940 and 1985, Venkateswara Rao, popularly known as Ghantasala was numero uno and no one else stood a chance for this special place in their hearts.
Before Ghantasala found himself in the spotlight of public attention, through the media of films and gramophone records, he was an accomplished singer with impeccable training in Carnatic music.
He was born on 4 December 1922 in Choutupalle near Gudivada into an ordinary family. His father Surayya was an itinerant singer of Narayana Teertha's tarangas; he also played the mridanga. He was the first teacher of little Venkateswara Rao. Ghantasala would dance, as a child of six to his father's singing of taranga-s and this earned him the title of Bala Bharata.
Surayya, who was always more into music and musing than looking after the family fortunes, died when Ghantasala was 11. The family was then taken care of by maternal uncle Ryali Pichiramaiah. Ghantasala was interested in music but had no opportunity to improve himself. At this time, someone made fun of him when he gave a concert. Stung to the quick, he solemnly vowed to himself that he would seek proper and systematic training and silence his critics.
In those days, proper coaching was available (in Andhra) only in Vizianagaram (then in Visakhapatnam district). As family circumstances did not permit him to go there for further study, he decided to sell his gold ring and get there surreptitiously.
When he reached Vizianagaram, however, the Music College was closed for the summer. And there seemed to be little chance of getting admission when it opened. Into this darkness came a ray of light through Paatrayani Sitarama Sastry of Salur who taught singing at the college. (P. Sangeetha Rao, the asthana composer of Vempati Chinna Satyam is his illustrious son; he also assisted Ghantasala for many years in films). Through his kindness and as per the decision of the principal Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu, who auditioned him, Ghantasala found himself a student of vocal music.
Before gaining admission, and with it the eligibility for eating free at the Maharaja's choultry, he had to fend for himself. He did that by eating once a day through the week at different houses (aayavaram) or even by madhukaram (begging for food as a brahmin student).
Around this time, a lady from a family of traditional entertainers, Kalavar Ring aka Saride Lakshmi Narasamma, a singer, recording (gramaphone) artist, dancer and harikathaka, as well as a woman famed for her charity, showered kindness on the eager student. This he recalled fondly and gratefully even 45 years later.
After getting his degree, Ghantasala got home and eked out a living by giving wedding concerts mostly classical music with a large sprinkling of taranga-s, keertana-s, of Ramadas, etc.- apart from singing at nine-day festivities associated with Sree Rama Navami, Dasara and Vinayaka Chaturthi. As a matter of fact, even after settling in Madras, Ghantasala's early broadcasts from AlR were strictly classical music.
Finding it difficult to make ends meet, he dabbled in traditional drama, starting his own company and sometimes sharing the stage with the stalwarts of the time. Inspired and incited by the revolutionary fumes that enveloped the country in 1942, he joined the Quit India movement; as a consequence he was sentenced to Eighteen months' rigorous imprisonment. Once he came out, however, he found that there was no residue of the political fever in him.
He got married to Savitri of Pedapulivarru. It was in this village that he met Samudrala Raghavacharya who was responsible for his induction into the film industry in Madras.
By 1944, he was hanging around the periphery, by singing in choruses, doing bit roles. He was seen fleetingly and heard distantly in Nagaiah's 'Tyagaiah' (1946), as part of the disciple band. In 'Yogi Vemana' (1947), thanks to Nagaiah again, he was both seen and heard as a nattuvanar in the beautiful song and dance sequence (Aparani taparnayera, Sreeranjani/Adi) featuring M.V. Rajamma.
Then child actress, heroine, singing star and producer C. Krishnaveni took him on as an individual composer for her film 'Manadesam' (1949). 'Keelugurram', released the same year, established him once for all as a composer-cum-singer, the most prolific till the seventies in Telugu cinema.
Many of Ghantasala's compositions were ragapure in the early days. He was less fastidious later, realising that, for films, this was not necessary. Surprisingly, he never sang a Tyagaraja Kriti in a film, though he can be heard singing Marugelara (Marga Hindolam / Adi) on the LP he made on his only visit to the United States.
It is not very well known that Ghantasala wrote some lyrics too at one time. He sang many of them on AIR-Madras. One, Bahudoorapu batasari, was recorded by Gramco and he was neither paid for it nor given credit. These lyrics, seven of which have been collected in the book titled Bhuvanavijayam published on his triumphal return from the U.S., are simple and philosophical in nature. Or about rustic love that lost its way. He had a great regard for Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry who was associating himself with Samudrala's film output at that time. The substance of Malladi's mellifluent lyrics, if not the style, must have influenced him. This is particularly discernible in Bhoomi pommannadi, aakasam rammannadi (The earth bids goodbye, the sky says welcome).
His way with the Telugu padyam (verse) was incomparable. Padyam was a part of the performing arts of Andhra, mostly through mythological dramas, for 50 years. The intent was primarily musical- with what intricate curlicues, what breath control the singer managed being more important than characterisation or serving the needs of the moment in the play.
Ghantasala changed all this with his sophisticated interpretation (not on stage but on 78 rpm gramophone records) of the author's intent, the character's intent, the character's turmoil being at once musical and accessible. These verses were rendered without tala (rhythm) as before but he generally had a short, metrical musical interlude doing what background music does in films, setting the stage and emphasising the mental stage of the character. Poets Karunasri and Jashuva enjoyed great regard amongst the literatteurs, but it was Ghantasala who rendered their songs and introduced their work to the man on the street.
Long before singers got on to the TTD/Annamacharya bandwagon, Ghantasala recorded at least a dozen sides singing the praise of Venkateswara (not through Annamayya though, only the US LP had Kolani dopariki, alas the pallavi wrongly split!) Ashtapadi-s on a Super Seven disc, Bhagavad Gita on an LP were the other assets he created.
Seshasailavasa, the beautiful composition of Pendyala in Reetigaula in 'Sree Venkateswara Mahatyam' (1960). This will continue to introduce to the future generations the physical attributes of Ghantasala. The musical ones are forever enshrined in the musical scores of 'Shavukaru' (1950), 'Chiranjeevulu' (1956) and the songs in 'Rahasyam' (1967) that won wah-wahs from Chittoor Subramania Pillai, a strict traditionalist. It is no rahasyam that Malladi Ramakrishna Sastry's lyrics inspired him to this sublime level.