P. Suseela. The very name would evoke memories of many a number rendered in her ri h, reverberating and resonant voice to the fans of South Indian movies, be it Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada or even Sinhalese. With her mellifluous voice she has breathed life into thousands of lyrics, bringing out the right emotion lying under each word and making the song waft straight into the listener's heart.
Susheela was born in 1935 in Vijayanagaram in a music-loving family. Her father P.Mukunda Rama Rao was a famous criminal lawyer, and her mother was Seshavataram . Susheela had an innate talent in music. The seniors in the family arranged for her training in Carnatic music at a very young age. With a properly nurtured talent, she used to participate any competition in music held in her school or in Vijayanagaram and had always come home with the first prize in each competition. She then went to the Music College in Vijayanagaram, where the famous violinist Dwaram Venkataswami Naidu was the principle, and passed her diploma in first class. Her natural taste for music and her voice of gold were finely honed by the training she received and Susheela soon absorbed the finest nuances of giving expression to the verses she rendered.
It was in 1950 that music director Pendyala Nageswara Rao was looking for new talent and approached the All India Radio with a request to refer to him the good singers who used to participate in their programmes. And the radio station sent five persons to him. Susheela was selected after necessary audition tests 'Petra Thaai' was being made in 1952 in Tamil (Kanna Thalli in Telugu) with A. Nageswararao and G. Varalakshmi in lead roles. Susheela sang her first song - a duet with A. M. Raja - 'Edhukku azhaithaai' for the movie. Her first song in Telugu was for the remake of the same movie, called Kanna Thalli She was then an employee of the AVM Studios, receiving a fixed amount as her monthly salary, for several years after her introduction in Petra Thaai.
It was a time when several other women had established their talents already and were reigning supreme - like P. Leela who started her career in 1948; Jikki who allured the audience with her lilting voice; the Carnatic music genius M. L. Vasanthakumari; Bhanumathi, actress and singer; Jamuna Rani, A. P. Komala; R. Balasaraswati, Sulamangalam Rajalakshmi and Jayalakshmi, K. Rani, A. Rathnamala, S. J. Kantha among others. Each had a unique and distinct character and quality and had a large number of admirers.
Susheela made her entry when so many singers were displaying their talents and were very popular. But her entry in 1952 outshone others and soon pushed all of them to the background. Right from 1955 there was not a single movie - for a very very long time - that did not have a song in her voice. Her career was at its best in the 60s and the early 70s. Whoever be the music director, whoever be the lyricist, whoever be the co-singer, the song became popular with her finesse.
Susheela has continued her stunning career for over 50 years now, with a reputed 25,000 songs sung in all the languages of South India; A point to be noted here is the care with which she pronounced the words, though she sang in different languages (and couldn't speak most of them very well!). But it was Susheela's special talent to render them with effortless ease, so that even native speakers had no difficulty believing that she was one of them, and completely identifying with the song. This is something we are not able to see in most of our present day singers. Words are the victims of rather constricted rhythms and contorted beats, compacted and deformed between the tongue and the teeth.
Governements, music societies, magazines and even universities vied with one another to honor her. She was awarded the National Award five times (1969- uyaru manidan, 1971 savale samali, 1977 – Sirisiri Muvva, 1982 – Meghasandesam, 1983 – M.L.A Edukondalu). She won several State awards, from Andhra Pradesh (1977, 1978, 1982, 1983, 1989), Tamil Nadu, Kerala. She was given lifetime achievement awards from the Andhra Pradesh Govt (Raghupaty Venkayya award, 2004), the Tamil Nadu Govt (Bharati Daasan award, Kalaimamani award,1991), Kerala (Kamukara award) and from several popular magazines like Filmfare, Screen, Cinema Express etc; She has an honorary doctorate from Andhra University, awarded at Washington by the North American Alumni Association. She has also won several other awards too numerous to mention.