It was in 1995 that 30-year-old Carnatic classical singer P Unnikrishnan walked the halls of Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan to receive the National Award for Best Male Playback Singer. He had sung two Tamil songs — Ennavale adi ennavale and Uyirum eeye — composed by AR Rahman in S Shankar’s critically acclaimed Kadhalan. The then President Shankar Dayal Sharma had bestowed the honour through a citation and Rs 10,000.
Exactly 20 years later, Unnikrishnan will be present at the same venue, but this time in the audience. His daughter, 10-year-old Uthara Unnikrishnan, will receive the same award in the female category. Uthara’s song Azhagu in AL Vijay’s Tamil film Saivam lyrically stems from the innocent philosophy in a child’s mind, one that believes that everything around her is beautiful and magical.
The song has also made Uthara one of the youngest playback singers to receive the award in this category. “This is a once in a lifetime moment for us. Parents do not get to hear of achievements such as these every day. It is special in every sense of the word,” said an ecstatic Unnikrishnan, over the phone from Chennai. The award is not the only common factor between the father and the daughter — they have both won the award for their debut songs.
Uthara, a fifth grade student at Lady Andal school in Chennai, hasn’t really realised the magnanimity of the award and the attention that will conjoin along. Since the announcement on Tuesday, she has been going about her usual routine at school, albeit amid congratulatory messages from the staff and her fellow students. “Everyone is really happy and excited at school. At home, the phone hasn’t stopped ringing. It convinces me more about becoming a musician in future,” said Uthara, who wants to straddle Carnatic classical and playback singing.
Created by composer GV Prakash Kumar, Azhagu (Beautiful) is a tune loosely based on raag Darbari Kanada and has a veena and mridangam — pillars of Carnatic classical system — for company through its four-and-a-half minutes. Uthara begins the track with a sargam, a prelude that sets the tone for the rest of the track. “Azhagu is a complicated song. It has quick ascents and descents and Uthara sang it when she was eight. Not only did her voice suit Baby Sara, the actor on whom the song is picturised, I loved the way her soft, innocent voice portrays the philosophical tone of the song,” said Kumar.
At the recording session held in a building near T Nagar, Uthara sang despite high fever and cold, with her mother, Bharatanatyam dancer Priya, by her side. “I learnt the song in 15 minutes and practised it for the next two hours. I think GV uncle liked the third take. I forgot about being unwell,” said Uthara, who is learning Carnatic classical from her teacher Sudha Raja.
“It’s easier for children to not learn from their parents and from a proper guru,” says Unnikrishnan. Uttara is extremely fond of Western classical music and loves singing all the Wizard of the Oz songs with her older brother and pianist Vasudev. “I would like to train in both the forms and sing both the genres,” says Uthara, who has sung two more Tamil songs, which will release this year.