The voice that millions are addicted to, was ushering me in: “Please come in, ma’am.” As I pass by a smiling S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, who holds the door open for me, I wonder if chivalry could ever sound better.
Settling down on the couch in the centre of his living room lit by muted yellow lights, SPB gestures me to begin.
Over 36,000 songs in different languages, national awards and a stunning innings that is marked by a remarkable consistency and versatility — SPB’s career as playback singer is way more than “successful”.
“But, when I look back, I feel I could have sung better. I wonder how I got so many chances,” he says, clarifying: “I am not saying this out of humility. It’s a million dollar question that will haunt me for as long as I live.”
Maybe, this was his purpose, he says. “As a teenager, I dreamt of becoming an engineer. One day Janaki amma heard me and felt I was good. She said that I consider taking up singing. I met a few music directors, but nothing happened. There were illustrious seniors around at that time. A few years later, I won a competition and got my break in the Telugu industry.” The rest, of course, is part of some of the most important chapters in the history of Indian playback singing.
Observing that a playback singer’s journey is an eternal corrective process in which one learns to make fewer and fewer mistakes, he says: “There is no perfect musician anyway. There are only very good musicians who make fewer mistakes.” And that, he says, has been his pursuit as well. “I know what I am capable of and more importantly, I know what I cannot do.”
‘I am a good actor’
Although matter of fact about his career spanning four decades, with non-stop hits, SPB is refreshingly candid when he speaks about his strengths. I ask how he manages to emote like he does — it is one SPB in the titillating Thanga tamarai magale, another in the rustic Pothi vecha malliga mottu, and yet another in the dappanguthu Singari sarakku nalla sarakku.
“I think I have an edge over other musicians there — I am a good actor. I can emote very well physically and my ability to emote with voice is only an extension of that. My friends tell me I should have taken acting more seriously, but how many things does one take seriously,” he chuckles.
Also, his love for languages and his obsession with getting the pronunciation right helped a great deal, he says. “I often sit with the lyricists and ask them what they meant to convey so that I get the emotional crux of the song. If I think I cannot pronounce something well, I opt out of the song.”
Fidelity to lyrics and the spirit of the song is, in fact, what makes SPB’s singing special in more ways than one. Yet another important aspect being the tact with which he retains the melodic component of music even in a kuthu pattu. I ask him about Annatha aadurar othikko othikku (Apporva Sagotharargal), a classic example in that genre.
“Oh, you must thank Ilayaraja for that. Whether it was him or MSV or K.V. Mahadevan sir, earlier — all of them have composed kuthu pattu, but none of the compositions ignored melody. Take Atha Athorama vaariya, for instance,” he says, and launches into a verse, giving me goosebumps. “Look at the classicism in these lines. But many songs composed today are more about noise than about music.”
Attributing this to composers’ tendency to use western instruments in excess, he says: “Even composers of earlier times used them. But they made sure they adapted it to our music that the audience could relate to.” Film directors want only a particular kind of music now, and seldom give composers the space and autonomy to make the kind of music they are most comfortable with, he says. “Consequently, the sounds are increasingly unfamiliar and the music, alien. I don't mean to say all songs made today are bad. But a good number is like a rare oasis.”
‘Cut and paste recording’
The nature of recording a song has also changed drastically. Singers don't learn the full song any more. Pointing to the absence of rigour, SPB says: “Stepping into a studio, they put on their headphones, listen to the first four bars of the track, record it, and then listen to the second line, record it and so on.” This “cut and paste” approach to recording film music denies very talented, young singers the opportunity to learn, he says, resting his chin on his palm. They don't get a holistic understanding of the song and tend to forget it soon after they step out of the studio.
Speaking of another phenomenon that works to the disadvantage of talented singers of today, SPB says composers do not make music with the singer in mind. “They compose a song and later ask a singer to come and sing it – not keeping in mind the singer's unique timbre, texture or range.”
“Mukesh, for instance, was not as versatile as Kishore Kumar, Rafi or Manna Dey. But almost all his songs were a hit. And that was because composers made songs to suit his voice and range.” Similarly, A.M. Raja, Sirkazhi Govindarajan or T.R. Mahalingam had a dominant soprano quality in their voices, and music directors composed songs fully aware of the dynamics of their unique voices. “But now I feel composers do not show that kind of sensitivity to singers' voices,” he notes.
Singers now, therefore, not only miss opportunities to learn at the studio, but also have fewer opportunities to maximise their strengths.
Playing to the gallery?
This is one gap that reality shows, including the very popular ones hosted by SPB, seek to address. But some of them, he feels, are simply playing to the gallery almost with a formula – judges being harsh on contestants, making them cry, zooming into their faces and playing those visuals in slow motion with background music.
Having hosted reality shows for the last 13 years, SPB sees them as potential workshops that could help young singers fine-tune their skills. For most part of the month, he travels to shoot for two of them – one in Kannada and another in Telugu. The remaining days are packed with live performances and recordings. Even today, at 66, SPB records at least three songs when he is in Chennai – for films, television serials or albums.
Time with Rafi saab
With such a demanding schedule, if there is one person that SPB makes time for, it is Rafi. “Oh, I can’t stop talking about Rafi saab,” he says, his face beaming with delight. When SPB meets his friends for a couple of drinks occasionally, all they do is listen to Rafi, marvelling at his voice.
“His involvement with a composition, making every song his own, is tremendous. Many great singers have been around and I love their music for different aspects. But I love Rafi for several more aspects. No singer like him,” says the singer, who has dedicated the biggest folder in his phone to Rafi numbers.
Competing with Rafi for SPB’s time are his twin grandchildren Anirudh and Shambhavi. “There is nothing more fulfilling than spending time with them. For the most part of my career, I worked over 12 hours a day, day after day. I have hardly seen my children grow up. I want to make up for that with the next generation,” he says with a content smile.
There are also other things SPB wants to do — give a full-fledged Carnatic music concert and direct an “intelligent, commercial film” sometime soon.
But, clearly, having fun is right at the top of SPB’s priority list now. “I don’t believe in leading the life of a saint. I was a closet smoker for many years after I became a singer, but now I have quit because I want to live longer. I underwent a bariatric surgery recently as I had become very obese. Now I feel healthy and upbeat. Despite hard times, occasionally, life is truly beautiful,” he says, as his grandchildren run up to him to say good bye before they leave. “Give me huggy,” he tells them, and bends for what seems like a customary kiss on both cheeks.
Patting Buddy, his 14 year old pomeranian, seated near his feet, he gets ready to wind up, as I make one final request -- a few lines of Vannamkonda vennilave, his own composition. And I leave with an enviable memento – a few minutes of SPB's singing, live and exclusive.