Saluting a Living Legend
Versatility, Thy Name is SPB!A Dr P S Gopalakrishna 'Who is going to succeed you in playback singing?' the...
Versatility, Thy Name is SPB!A
Dr P S Gopalakrishna
"Who is going to succeed you in playback singing?" the question was put to Ghantasala, the legendary musician, when he visited the USA during October 1971. Ghantasala spontaneously replied, "S P Balasubrahmanyam; the boy is singing very well." Ghantasala's assessment proved to be prophetic.
Balasubrahmanyam's film music career started on December 16, 1966, when he recorded his first song 'Emi ee vintha moham' for the film 'Sri Sri Maryada Raamanna' produced by Late B Padmanabham, comedian-turned-film-producer. The song was composed by S P Kodandapani.
It all really began in July 1964, when young Balasubrahmanyam (who was 18 years then) participated in a music competition held at Madras by Madras Social and Cultural Club. The judges at the competition were Ghantasala, Pendyala Nageswara Rao and Susarla Dakshina Murthy. Incidentally the first singer was Balasubrahmanyam and he was given the first prize.
As soon as Balasubrahmanyam returned to his seat after singing, a short stocky gentleman came to him and asked: "Would you like to sing for films?" The gentleman introduced himself. "I am S P Kodandapani, a film music director. You are singing well. You would make a good playback singer." SPB forgot the meeting, but kodandapani did not.
He literally launched a search for youngster who was then studying AMIE at Madras and got him out of the class, to make him sing for 'Sri Sri Maryada Raamanna'. Even on the day of recording, the vehicle sent to pick up the prospective singer broke down and never reached him. SPB almost gave up but ultimately cycled to Vijaya Gardens in Vadapalani, where the recording was to take place, only to be stopped at the gate.
It was quite an effort to get through the security guard but it ended on a positive note. Indian cinema was blessed with a singing phenomenon that day. The SPB era started.Kodandapani used to tell SPB, "Pantuloo, if you keep yourself in shape, you would continue to sing for decades - at least four or five." Forty six years and forty thousand plus songs, SPB continues to sing, in 2013.
The late Pendyala once told this writer that he considered SPB to be a phenomenal and very rare singer of extra-ordinary talent. On a different occasion, Naushad felt that Rafi saab would have taken a little longer time to record a song for him, in comparison to SPB.
Born on June 4, 1946 at Konetampet (now in Tamil Nadu) to harikatha exponent S P Sambamurthy and Sakuntala, SPB wanted to be an engineer. "Technology has been great help to me in singing," SPB said on many occasions. That's how he sums up his rare achievements of recording seventeen songs in Kannada on a single day in 1981, nineteen songs in Tamil in a day and sixteen songs in Hindi, also in the course of a day.
"I am not a trained singer but I am a hard working one. I am focused when I sing and try to give my very best," is all that SPB tells when asked about his success as a singer. He once took his time to record a song-some three and half hours, for a movie in Kannada 'Saagara Gaanayogi Panchakshara Gavai' (released in 1995) and promptly got National Award. His first National Award as a singer was for 'Sankarabharanam' (1979). He won National Awards for his songs in Hindi and Tamil as well.
SPB has rendered songs in all major Indian languages; recently he recorded a few songs in Gujarati. He recorded thousands of songs for Telugu, Tamil and Kannada films and a few hundred for Hindi films. He won innumerable awards from the Governments of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka for his singing. Tamil Nadu awarded him the 'Kalai Mamani' in 1981. Government of India made him a Padmasri in 2001 and Padmabushan two years ago.
Sandow MMA Chinnappa Devar wanted to cast SPB as a hero in a film, while SPB was evolving as a singer. SPB refused politely. But destiny proved otherwise. He did play the role of hero, in more than one film, the recent being 'Mithunam'.
SPB, the actor has also been very successful. It has also been a long journey, starting from his one song appearance in "Mohammad Bin-Tughlak', 'Talai Vaasal', 'Sigaram', 'Manathil Uruthi Vendum', 'Keladi Kanmani' (Dubbed as 'O Papa Laali' into Telugu), 'Kadalan' ('Premikudu' in Telugu) all in Tamil, films such as 'Muddina Maava' in Kannada, 'Mallepandiri', 'Devullu', 'Maya Bazaar' and many others in Telugu have known SPB as an actor of some rare talent.
He has also been a successful music director but SPB the singer has out shadowed SPB, the music director, making his debut as a music director with Dasari Narayana Rao's 'Kanya Kumari' (1977). SPB compose music for many memorable movies such as 'Mayuri', 'Captain Krishna', 'Padamati Sandhyaaraagam' and 'Toorpu Vellerailu'.
SPB has also been a sought after dubbing artiste. He enlivened many hundred roles with his voice. He was the voice of Gandhi when Richard Attenborough's film was dubbed into Telugu. Who can forget 'Dasaavataaram'? (Ten voices for Kamal Haasan)
SPB has produced films. He has been anchoring TV shows. He continues to perform at musical shows. He was part of many musical 'expeditions' of living legend Lata Mangeshkar, who treats him as a member of family. She once called him 'Superstar of South Indian singing'.
SPB considers himself blessed. He remembers all those who have been responsible for the position acquired by him, with great love and reverence. MGR wanted SPB to sing for him in 'Adimaipenn'. But SPB fell ill with Typhoid. MGR postponed the shooting by a few months, waiting for SPB to recover and record. MGR's reasoning was, "If I record the song with someone else, people will think that MGR discarded the singer. It should not happen to a budding singer."
To mark his silver jubilee as a singer, SPB got a statue made for Ghantasala and set it up at Lalitha Kala Toranam. (Moved later to Ravindra Bharathi and now near the entrance of Kala Bhavan in the same premises). He also published a few books, including the biography of Ghantasala, written by this writer. "I still continue to be busy. I still record songs almost every day. But I want talented young people to be encouraged. There are lots of capable people, locally available. Even though music has no language, we should also let the charity begin at home," he says.
"I am thrilled at the thought of being honoured by the writers of the film industry. But for their beautiful lyrics set to tunes by eminent music directors, what would be a singer's contribution?" he remarks in all humility..Kodandapani used to tell SPB, " If you keep yourself in shape, you would continue to sing for decades - at least four or five." Forty six yearsA and forty thousand plus songs, SPB still counting (The writer is the former Station Director, All India Radio.)