‘I know what I don’t know’

Song sung true: S. P. Balasubrahmanyam Photo: Murali Kumar k.  

Even when he talks, he seems to sing. In whatever language you’ve heard him, and whatever kind of song you love him for, there’s no way you wouldn’t have heard an S.P. Balasubrahmanyam song if you’re an Indian, because he’s sung more than 40,000!

“But my goal was not to become a singer at all. It was an accident. I used to sing quite well, yes, I agree. But my goal was to become an engineer; never a filmi guy,” he insists. In Bangalore last week to announce the launch of the 52 annual Bengaluru Ganesh Utsav on, a cultural festival organised by the Shree Vidyaranya Yuvaka Sangha, SPB has been performing at this festival in Bangalore since 1975.

Despite a fabulous musical career spanning 49 years in the Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, and Malayalam film industries, SPB remains down to earth. “I don’t know the ABCD of the theory of music. I don’t know how to write notations even now. I never went to anybody to learn music. But I went to everybody to learn music — by listening to so many people!”

Known for his soft melodious voice, SPB is one of those rare playback singers who also dubbed for actors, especially Kamal Haasan in all his Telugu films. Over the years, he turned actor, producer, and music composer. “Just as playback singing happened to me, these other things too happened. These are all offshoots of my singing. They (people in the film industry) felt I sing with my heart and soul; they thought there’s an actor in me and made me an actor. And being a good singer, they thought I could compose music too! I have done music for about 70 films in different languages. I produced one Telugu film. And because of my music, I have a recording studio too. Because I am a good artist, I started dubbing for so many people… these things happened. When a character is offered to me, if I fit into it, literally, physically (laughs) and character wise I like it, I accept it. But the dates should be ok. My first love is music. Then I check dates for other things; most people reorganise their schedules for me,” he says.

He has sung more than 4,000 songs in Kannada alone. “I remember when in Bangalore I was acting in the Kannada film Baalondu Chaduranga (1982). Those days I was also very busy as a singer. Every morning I would do song recordings from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., then go for a shoot till 6 p.m., then record a song or two till 9 p.m. I was enjoying what I was doing. Otherwise I wouldn’t have done so much. There was a passion to do so many things and I wasn’t looking at the clock. But I kept some time for my private life; but not in the beginning…only after I established myself.”

SPB says that he never thought he would sustain for so long in the music industry. “But after a couple of years when I realised I was going to be here for a while, I felt I should respect this. I should do my own taaleem and I should do justice to the songs given to me. So I even put a comma for my education, which I thought would be comma, but turned out to be a full stop. It was all destined. There was a design by the man up there. I respected it, humbled myself. People say ‘You’re so down to earth.’ I say ‘Yes, because I know what I don’t know’.”

And that, he says, is what helped him grow. He says he could easily accept and admit that he could not sing some songs. “They thought I was very versatile, and I could do anything. When they would give me a difficult composition, I would to listen to it a couple of times and then tell them ‘If you want me to sing this I’ll need to practise this several times’. I sometimes needed a week to 10 days; I had to practise it, assimilate it, own it, and then if felt I was very comfortable, only then would I do it. When they (composers/filmmakers) would say they don’t have time, I would say ‘Then leave me out because I can’t do justice to this song’.”

And that’s what happened to Ganayogi Panchakshari Gavai, the 1995 Kannada musical. “When they first approached me to sing for this biopic of a great maestro who’s composed Hindustani music, I said ‘Forget about it’. The argued saying you have sung for Shankarabharanam (the famous Telugu musical that spiralled SPB to fame in the 80s with its classical Carnatic numbers). But I argued that in Shankarabharanam the songs were made for my comfort, whereas here, I have to sing compositions of a great stalwart, and that too in Hindustani, which I don’t know. I ran away from this project. They completed the project using a dummy voice for the shruti. But five days before it had to be sent to the Sensor Board, director Bangaresh and producer Leelamma, with music director Hamsalekha came to me and said ‘You’ve got to sing this.’ I heard the tracks for a day. I asked them to put me in a studio. I said ‘I’ll go and keep singing till I feel I’ve done justice to the songs and at the end of the day, when I come out, you listen to the songs. If you feel they are ok, keep it. Otherwise treat this as a scratch and go for the other singer’.”

Being seen as the Madrasi in Bombay…

SPB admits that when he was to sing for Ek Duje Ke Liye, his first Hindi film, music director Lakshmikant (of the Lakshmikant-Pyarelal duo) was not happy to use his voice, “because he had not heard me before that. He said ‘This Madrasi boy — for them everybody from the south was a Madrasi — he may not do justice to my Hindi composition. Then director K. Balachander himself pointed out that till the end of the movie, the lead character can’t speak good Hindi, so even if I ‘blemish’ the song (with his accent), it will capture the character.”

But the same SPB also says that it’s a myth that the Hindi industry did not embrace people from the south easily; Yesudas had been there before him. “If you’re talented you’ll definitely be encouraged.” For a decade, SPB went on to record 15 or 16 songs in a day in Bombay; later he became the voice of Salman Khan in almost all his initial films. “Everyone embraced me. I had my glorious days in Mumbai; there’s no second thoughts there,” he stresses. Last year, SPB sang the popular title song for Chennai Express – “Nikal Na Jaaye Chennai Express”, making a Bollywood comeback after 15 years.

“I don’t practise at all,” he declares. “But let the next generation not take me as an idol and do what I did. For 30 years I had been a smoker; I should not have been. And I’m a social drinker till today but people go berserk about the taboos for a playback singer…it’s all in the mind. But you should no do certain things — don’t smoke. It’s not good at all, whether you’re a singer or not. Even now, I at least record a song a day. I don’t even sing at home. For 50 years, I have sung on an average six to eight hours every day. Some days even 17 hours! Now I warm up very fast. But I cannot live without ice water, curd rice, and ice cream, all considered bad for a singer. I want to stop singing the day I feel I cannot.”

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2022 1:16:54 AM |

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