Hit songs in multiple languages, a popular TV show and live music shows… Singer Mano talks to Sudhish Kamath about his successful journey

The man who interviews a celebrity every week on television isn’t the easiest to catch for an interview himself. He’s constantly shooting or travelling. It takes us three months and considerable guilt-tripping before he gives us a slot on a Sunday morning, the only time he has to spare.

But then, the last five years of his life have been a roller-coaster, thanks to the small screen. His show on TV is becoming popular by the day, and around the world.

Singer Mano, who hosts the chat show Manothodu Mano on Jaya TV and judges Super Singer Junior on Vijay TV, is thrilled with how TV has brought him so much fame. He was in the U.S. recently touring with Ilaiyaraja when people came up to him and called him “Manothodu Mano”. “I just couldn’t believe they identified me with that show in America,” he says excitedly.

“Thanks to the show I get to meet all these talented artistes and listen to their experiences. It’s a God-given opportunity,” the modest singer adds.

Mano has to his credit over 24,000 songs (film and non film) since his debut about three decades ago. “Whenever I go to Andhra, my home state, I am surprised every time I listen to the radio. So many songs I had sung still come on air.”

Born Nagoor Babu, he was named Mano by Ilaiyaraja. In his early days, Mano was often referred to as the poor man’s S.P. Balasubrahmanyam. Mano thinks of it as a compliment. “He is a legend. If I sound anything like him, it’s because of God. He was the most sought-after singer and not everybody could afford him. So many would come to me. They would record one song with him and four songs with me because I was cheaper.”

If Ilaiyaraja gave him a name, A.R. Rahman helped Mano step out of SPB’s shadow with ‘Mukkala, Muqabla’ that was very different from the voice and range that people had come to expect from Mano. “He wanted it to be like R.D. Burman, ‘Muqabla’ and ‘Thillana Thillana’ gave me a new identity,” Mano recalls.

How does he compare them? “M.S. Viswanathan, Ilaiyaraja, and A.R. Rahman, are great in their own ways. Deva, Bharadwaj and Vidyasagar have also done much.”

Mano believes that the secret behind his long career is that he can sing in multiple languages. “That’s how you survive. Singers need to be able to sing in different languages to survive. Today it is becoming more competitive. If one or two singers sang all five songs in a film those days, today there are 4-5 singers singing one song. For good or for worse, that’s how things stand.”

Music brings generations together, he observes. Being a judge for Super Singer Junior, he noticed how young singers bonded with their grandparents to learn more about the songs from yesteryears. “You turn on the radio at night and what do you hear? The slow melodious songs that have truly stood the test of time,” he smiles. “These songs have a timeless appeal that the young singers want to sing them too. So they spend more time with their grandparents.”

Once you have hit songs in different languages, your market for live shows opens up around the world. He has done over 3,000 stage shows and is still one of the most sought-after singers at concerts given the number of hits to his credit. “So no matter which language the concert is in, they call me for the stage shows,” he says.

For someone who started his career as an actor and then ended up being discovered because he could sing like SPB Mano never really took acting seriously after he established himself, except for a rare appearance in Singaravelan.

“My son Shakir is into acting. He’s now working on his third film,” he says.