Swinging sixties

At 63, veteran playback singer S. P. Balasubrahmanyam is busier than ever. He talks about his successful tryst with television

Updated - January 09, 2010 03:03 am IST

Published - January 08, 2010 05:13 pm IST

S. P. Balasubrahmanyam

S. P. Balasubrahmanyam

Talking to seasoned playback singer S. P. Balasubrahmanyam is like catching up with a long-lost friend. He recollects an interview done five years ago with warmth that's become synonymous with his name. Looking relaxed in a simple yellow checked shirt and chappals at his tastefully done up home in Mahalingapuram, he relates how he's found television a perfect pitch. As the conversation flows from morning through noon, the only interruption is his pet pom that plays Peeping Tom.

SPB (as he is widely known) has steered clear of the sonic storm in today's music world. At the same time, he's managed to remain in the groove, thanks to the tube of plenty. With his reality shows for television in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada, the playback singer has reached the apogee of fame. “From a casual ‘Hi Balu,' it's become a revered ‘Namaskaram sir' because of the popularity of these shows,” he quips.

Unlike most judges known for their pat phrases, blunt appraisals or over-the-top judging styles, SPB's speciality lies in his calm and compassionate approach. “It's a two-way medium. While I impart my knowledge to youngsters, I also learn so much from them. Some have fabulous voices and amazing classical training. Why should I run them down? I tell the participants that winning isn't all. And that not all who make it can become sensational singers overnight. Our job is to give them direction and polish their skill. Reality shows are not the ultimate test of one's talent. Sometimes, children who perform well at rehearsals, fail in the finals. They are not used to overpowering lights and a live audience. I crack jokes, relate anecdotes and lighten the mood. I tell them it's like an antakshari played at a family get-together,” says the star attraction of Vaanampaadi (Kalaignar TV) Paadutha Theeyaga (ETV - Telugu) and Edhe Thumbi Haaduvenu (ETV - Kannada). His Ennodu Paatu Paadungal for Jaya TV too was huge hit.

Beyond entertainment

A do-it-yourself craftsman from the 1960s, when he dropped out of an engineering course to test his voice in playback singing, his grounded guidance is certainly a USP for the shows. Having juggled styles, ranges and languages in a repertoire that exceeds 35,000 songs, SPB says reality shows aren't an easy proposition. “It involves plenty of homework. Often, I select the songs myself, because I don't want to bring down the standards. Besides, there are a lot of mails to answer — which I do personally. I want the programmes to go beyond music and entertainment. They have to be academically interesting as well.”

Talk about reality shows turning into nightmares for some, and SPB muses, “It's a disheartening trend. All this happens in the race for TRPs. Like in the West, show producers are throwing in orchestrated drama to lure viewers. Slow motion, black-and-white picturisation, intense music and on-air heated exchanges among the judges are used to heighten the drama. But people aren't foolish.”

SPB's tryst with television started in the 1990s when he was still a versatile studio-hopping singer. “It was filmmaker Ramoji Rao's idea to launch Paadutha Theeyaga. I didn't think it'll make me such a household name. It's helped me stay in touch with music in a big way. The number of film assignments has come down. But I still sing at least two songs a day — either for television or for devotional albums. I've got back-to-back shooting schedules in Chennai, Hyderabad and Bangalore. Home has almost become a weekend destination. My wife's complaining,” he smiles, waving his hands at chirpy kids waiting for their Saturday session with granddad in the adjacent room.

Music, mayhem

Quiz him about opportunities for aspiring singers, and he rues, “There is so much of talent around. Sadly, composers aren't doing justice to the voices. So many singers are packed into one song/film. When the songs are played on TV or radio, the names of the singers are dropped. The musicians are young and so are the singers. So there's no chance to interact with seniors like before. They've created their own grammar of music in which sound rules. The song's situation and the quality of lyric have taken a backseat. If one kuthu becomes a hit, it spawns a wave! The male singing at a high pitch and the female singing at a low pitch is another fad! And composers are jumping on the remix bandwagon. The line between inspiration and imitation has blurred. No doubt composers are talented, but they're looking at the temporary success of a song.”

Talk about creativity and chaos co-existing in this age of raucous rhythms and cold techno music, and SPB sighs, “Where is melody? It surprises me when filmmakers say, ‘There are also two melody numbers in this film,' at audio launches. I'm reminded of what P. B. Sreenivos once said, ‘Remove the M — that's melody from MUSIC, and it becomes U SIC!'”

The singer, whose output as a composer, dubbing artiste and an actor is no less impressive, concludes in an introspective vein, “I never planned my life. But I think there's been a purpose. Music has been my livelihood. And through it I continue to make thousands of people happy. I thank God for this complete and fulfilling life. I'll keep singing as long as I can…”

Full score

*SPB’s friends are now compiling a data bank of his songs. “Easily over 35,000,” he smiles, and recounts how he’s sung up to 23 songs, including 15 duets with P. Susheela, one breathless(!) day in 1976.

*For Kannada composer Upendra Kumar, SPB rendered 16 songs in a day (from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.) “I took a one-hour break in the afternoon and slept. I didn’t eat anything, only drank a glass of buttermilk and continued…It was all about mental preparedness. About focussing your energies into the songs. Most of them were done in single takes!

*For Ram-Lakshman, he rendered six songs between 5 p.m. and 8.30 p.m., leaving actor Dev Anand stunned. “He asked if I was a man or a machine in an awards ceremony.”

*Once for Anand-Milind, he flitted between three recording theatres in Mumbai, rehearsed in the car, and sang 17 songs in a day!

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