I have always felt PBS is to Tamil film music, what Rafi is to Hindi music
It was a reality show hosted by S.P. Balasubrahmanyam for aspiring playback singers. One of the participants sang ‘Nilave ennidam nerungade’, and drew a huge round of applause.
But SPB asked him to sing the ‘Kodaiyil orunaal…’ stanza once again. And yet again. He was looking for a particular nuance in the line ‘Yen kolathil inimel ezhil varumo.’ The otherwise competent participant could not achieve that effect.
SPB then told the singer, “Listen to how he (PBS) renders the word kolathil… that effortless glide in the voice is trademark PBS.”
Somehow, one never thought of P.B. Sreenivas as someone from an older generation of artistes. He was often spotted in public — either having a cup of coffee at Woodlands Drive-In, which shut some years ago, or at a concert or function at Narada Gana Sabha, or judging a show on television.
His trademark headgear, shiny shawl, a bag full of books and a bunch of papers he held to his chest — made him stand out. When asked to speak at public functions, he would break into a song, usually penned by him for the occasion. That, for many of us, was PBS in the past 10-15 years. He did not let out too much about the phenomenal artiste he was.
My generation of Tamil film music fans grew up on a generous dose of Ilaiyaraja. Whether it was a classical music-based song, a catchy folk tune, an intense melody or a peppy number, his compositions had them all.
Despite that, there was something about the previous era of film music that repeatedly drew one to TMS, PBS and A.M. Raja. The three singers, along with P. Susheela and Jikki, defined a very crucial era in Tamil film music that was to survive the test of time, technological advancement and phenomenal talent that followed them.
The robustness in TMS’ voice, the melody-rich timbre in PBS’, and the rare finesse in A.M. Raja’s, took care of the entire spectrum of music appetite of listeners.
As a fan of film music, I have always felt PBS is to Tamil film music, what Rafi is to Hindi music. Having closely followed the music of his counterparts in other parts of the country, PBS brought in a contemporary flavour to his singing, which not only enhanced the appeal of his songs, but also made them highly fashionable and stylish in that era and for that matter, even now. The clarity he achieved in delivering the most subtle nuances can only be an outcome of great mastery of technique and a profound understanding of voice modulation.
My playlist of all-time favourites includes many of his songs such as ‘Kaalangalil aval vasantham’, ‘Mouname paarvaiyal’, ‘Roja malarae’, Paadada paattellam’ and ‘Ponnundru Kanden’. But there is one song that haunted me for days after the first time I heard it — ‘Thennankeetru oonjalile’ — penned by writer Jayakanthan. It showed PBS in a new light to me. The intensity with which he sustains a particular kind of lilt, in the very slow-paced song with elements of waltz music, was moving. After many years of listening to that song, I wonder how much thought the man would have put in to that song.
‘Aathoram manaleduthu’, the fantastic PBS-Susheela duet, is also a favourite. In the first instance, it may sound like a simple, cute number to teach children. But PBS packs a lot of emotion in each line of the song. He does so with a clear emphasis on melody, making it one of his most poignant numbers.
When he sang, the singing stood out more than the singer. And that was his biggest success as an artiste. PBS leaves behind a treasure trove of melodies — something fans like me will keep going back to all the time.