Pulapaka Susheela popularly known as P. Susheela, is an Indian playback singer associated with the South Indian cinema for over six decades. She is the recipient of five National Film Award for Best Female Playback Singer and numerous state awards. Susheela is widely acclaimed as a singer who defined feminism in South Indian Cinema and is well known for her mellifluous vocal performances for 40,000 film songs across South Indian languages. The song and "Paal Polave" from "Uyarndha Manidhan" remain popular today in Tamil Nadu. At the 16th National Film Awards, it won the National Film Award for Best Female Playback Singer for P. Susheela, making it the first Tamil film to win a National Award under that category. She is fondly called as "Gana Kokila", "Gana Saraswathi".she is also considered as one of the rich voiced singers whose pronunciation of the syllables to be more clear and precise in any of the languages she sang. In a career spanning more than six decades, she has recorded numerous songs in various Indian languages including Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Sanskrit, Tulu, Badaga. She has also sung for Sinhalese films. Her mother tongue is Telugu. She can also speak Tamil, Hindi languages fluently .
Susheela was born in Andhra Pradesh, India, as the daughter of Pulapaka Mukunda Rao, a leading advocate in Vizianagaram, Vizianagaram District, Andhra Pradesh State. The noted banker Pulapaka Seethapathi Rao, former managing director of State Bank of Hyderabad, was her father's younger brother along with Pulapaka Ragupathi Rao. She is married to Mohan Rao; they have a son named Jayakrishna and two granddaughters named Jayashree and Subashree. Her daughter-in-law, Sandhya Jayakrishna, is a singer who debuted with A. R. Rahman in Iruvar.
After completion of schooling, Susheela joined in Maharaja's Music College under the tutelage of Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu who was the Principal, Vizianagaram, and completed Diploma in Music from Andhra University in First Class at a very early age.
Born into a music loving family, Susheela had nurtured a formal classical music training at a very young age. She used to participate in all the musical competitions both at her school and the Vizianagaram town events. She developed the crucial nuances in singing songs with apt expressions and modulations through her extensive training during those days. She also sang few songs for the All India Radio (AIR) for their private program telecasts.
In 1950, music director Pendyala Nageswara Rao was on the look out for some fresh voices to sing for his new film compositions. He approached the AIR to help him shortlist some of the finest singers who have performed for the Radio. AIR sent forward five singers of whom Susheela was selected after some thorough audition tests. She was immediately signed on for the Tamil film Petra Thai (1952) for a duet song "Edhuku Azhaithhai" with A. M. Raja.This was subsequently made in Telugu as Kanna Talli for which she recorded the same duet with Ghantasala. This resulted in her long term employment with AVM Studios singing for their productions alone with a fixed monthly salary. The studio owner A. V. Meiyappan hired a Tamil trainer for Susheela to hone her Tamil pronunciation skills. Thus Susheela began her illustrious career gaining abundant knowledge about music and language. She debuted into Kannada language with the film Maadidunno Maaraya in 1954.
It was not easy for a newcomer to foray into the musical scene in the 1950s with the domination of eminent female vocalists like P. Leela, M. L. Vasanthakumari, Jikki among others ruling the playback industry. Yet, Susheela made her own mark with her distinct and clear vocals. The year 1955 saw Susheela raising to popularity with her back to back hit songs both in Tamil and Telugu film industries. Missamma released in 1955 had hugely popular songs backed with strong carnatic classical essence. Susheela created a huge impact among the listeners with her effortless renditions of the toughest notations. The same year released Tamil film Kanavane Kan Kanda Deivam made her a household name in Tamil Nadu.
Thus began a huge legacy of Susheela, who sang in almost all the films produced since 1955 through 1960s and 1970s till 1985. The legendary Tamil musicians Viswanathan – Ramamurthy duo wrote some of the most evergreen songs of Cinema history in the voice of Susheela. Her duets with the acclaimed singers Ghantasala in Telugu, T. M. Soundararajan in Tamil and P. B. Srinivas in Kannada marked a new era of duet songs in the South Indian music industry. She, along with T. M. Soundararajan went on to record more than hundreds of songs with Viswanathan – Ramamurthy.Susheela's blockbuster Kannada song "Viraha novu nooru taraha" for the film Edakallu Guddada Mele is listed as one of the top 10 evergreen songs in Indian cinema. Her combination with actress Jayanthi is very popular in Karnataka.
The early 1960s saw Susheela grow as an undisputed lead female singer across all the south Indian language films putting all the older veteran singers to the background. The year 1960 saw Susheela entering the Malayalam films with the V. Dakshinamurthy compositions for the film Seetha. From then, she went on to record numerous hit songs with all the Malayalam composers like G. Devarajan, M. K. Arjunan among others. She recorded many Malayalam duets with the veteran singer K. J. Yesudas. Her association with M.S. Viswanathan continued even after M.S.V split up with Ramamoorthy in 1965 and under M.S.V her duets with T.M. Sounderrajan and others and her solo songs were too popular with audience and made her first choice singer for every other music composer and film producer from 1960–1985. M.S.V.'s composition fetched her the very first National Film Award for Best Female Playback Singer in 1969 for her prolific rendition of "Naalai Intha Velai Paarthu" for the Tamil film Uyarndha Manidhan. The same song got her the Tamil Nadu State Award as well. Thereby, Susheela became one of the first recipients of the most dignified National awards in India. It was during these years the Nightingale of India, Lata Mangeshkar developed a strong friendship with Susheela and praised all her works frequently. MS Viswanathan is regarded by her as her mentor and in his music direction she has maximum popular hit songs from 1955–1995.
The 1970s also saw Susheela in her prime form winning almost all the awards both nationally and in all the four states of Southern India. She also recorded even Hindi songs during this period with music directors like KV Mahdevan, Laximkant Pyarelal, L. Vaidyanathan and Laxmi Kiran, S.L. Manohar, Ajit merchant, G. Devarajan and S.N. Tripathi. It was in this era that she sang few notable songs for another prolific Indian music director Illayaraja. Though Janaki took over the leading position in the from 1980 with her strong association with M.S.V and Ilayaraja, Susheela continued to be at the top till 1985 and after 1985 was still opted by several music directors for her legendary vocals. After 1986, she became selective about film songs and continued to have hit film songs till 2005.
With S. Janaki and Vani Jayaram taking over the Southern film songs center stage from 1985 and K. S. Chitra beginning her career, Susheela slowly shifted her focus from films to devotionals and light music. But she continued to get to sing melodious film songs from 1984–1999 though she had after 1985 cut down on offers for singing in films. She even won awards for songs in Telugu films – Vishwanatha Nayakudu in 1987, Godavari Pongindi in 1989 and Tamil film Varam in 1989. She sang duets with Kishore Kumar in 1986 for the film Singhasan – "Chalta Hai Do Dilon Ka Kaise Sansaar" and "Tere Liye Maine Janam" which became popular. She also concentrated more on stage shows across the Globe where many associations worldwide invited her to perform for their organised shows. She recorded more than 1000 devotional songs for various audio companies. In 1988, acclaimed music composer Naushad insisted her to sing "Janaki Jaane" for his Malayalam film Dhwani. She also recorded few of her career best songs for Illayaraja, A. R. Rahman and others in the 1990s. "Kannukku Mai Azhagu" from the film Pudhiya Mugam (1993) composed by Rahman was praised all over for its lyrical content and rendition. She had hit songs in Tamil till 2005 and sang many devotional and folk songs from 1986–2005 and did many live shows from 1990 to 2005.
The P Susheela Trust, formed in 2008, has a monthly pension payment scheme and a few musicians in need are being benefited through it. On every 13 November there would be a musical concert during which a senior artist (s) chosen by a panel is conferred with the Lifetime Achievement awards and the P Susheela Trust award. The proceedings of the concert would go towards the Trust maintenance.
The Lifetime achievement awards so far has been conferred upon T. M. Soundararajan and P. B. Srinivas. The recipients of the Trust's awards so far are S. Janaki, Vani Jairam, L.R. Eswari, P. Jayachandran, S. P. Balasubramaniam and K. J. Yesudas.