A Friend I cannot Forget
A Noted film historian and critic VAK Ranga Rao shares his memories of exemplary playback singer PB Srinivas, who had been his friend for many years....
A Noted film historian and critic VAK Ranga Rao shares his memories of exemplary playback singer PB Srinivas, who had been his friend for many years. He passed away in Chennai on April 14
How many years is it since I have known P B Sreenivas? As a playback singer, 61 years! It was in 1953 that I first noticed a new singer billed as Srinivasachari on the record label; it was 'Moodhatana Vedike' from "Jathakaphala" (Kannada, 1953). Another three years pass and I chance upon 'Sagarameeduta' from "Naagulachaviti" (Telugu, 1956). The voice is the same but now he is P B Srinivas. Incidentally, both the tunes are copied from Hindi hits, Naushad's 'Ye Zindagi ke mele' (Mela) and C Ramchandra's phenomenally popular 'Dekh teri sansar ki halat' (Nastik). The fact did not faze me in those days as many South Indian film songs had used Hindi tunes.
The first song, though a little weepy, impressed me with a fresh voice that did not copy the original singer, a budding Rafi. The second song's vocalisation was more confident. Come to think of it, I noticed this voice right in 1952, singing a Hindi song, with my favourite Geeta Roy-Dutt, 'Itni lambi chowdi duniya' (Mr Sampat), but did not register the name.
This was a Gemini film and he got this opportunity through his mentor, veena maestro Emani Sankara Sastri, the resident music-director of the concern. It was years before he sang again in a straight Hindi film and this time it was a duet with his favourite, Lata.
There were many playback singers in South Indian films at that time. Taking only Telugu into consideration, there were M S Rama Rao, Pithapuram, Ghantasala (in the order of their debuts), to name only the top three. All had voices that could not be mistaken for another, distinct and different they were. And in the early fifties, all were on more or less the same level as far as popularity was concerned, with Ghantasala leading the pack slightly by virtue of his songs in "Devdas" (Telugu, Tamil 1953).
I had no favourites, really. I reacted to each song as it came. Anyway, in a performing art, there is only subjective yardstick. When I heard PBS sing 'Bangarubomma' (Bhale Ramudu, 1956) for comedian Relangi, I started rooting for him. No, I did not think he was the best but I started looking out for his songs. He did not imitate Relangi (who had sung at least twenty songs for himself before calling it a day) but gave it a sheen that sat smooth on the comedian's on-screen persona.
No overtly comic touches, so to speak. He employed the same technique when he sang for the one-and-only Nagaiah in "Bhakta Sabari" (1960); no imitation but an over-all skimming of style.
He had a great respect for my guru Sri Malladi Ramakrishna Sastri, dictated by his own intrinsic feel for literature. So when he sang Malladi's 'Ravayya nandakishora' and 'Evariki vare vintha,' a kind of raillery directed at Krishna only this lyricist was capable of, PBS brought into them a quietly smug glow as called for by the situation.
He sang for the top-most stars, lyric-writers and composers in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada. If I were to name my favourite songs, this would become a catalogue. In Tamil, there is an obscure song from a debutante song-writer whose name I cannot recall. The refrain was 'Poi sonnare, poi sonnare, pulavargalellam poi sonnare.' And in Kannada, for my favourite team of GK Venkatesh and R N Jayagopal, he sang 'Vikasipa Malaro, hasuripa chivuro'. This film, "Nagananda" was shelved but I had a magnificent obsession about this song that I had it brought out on disk years afterwards.
Bapu and Ramana introduced me to him around 1957. We became the 'Sishta Chatusshtayam' the Holy Quartette. Holy because our only fodder for flights of fancy, petty quarrels and quick reconciliations was music we loved in different ways. Yes, Bapu and Ramana were extremely knowledgeable about music, not in the scientific way Sreenivas was, not in the numbers and labels way I was (Columbia GE 32355, HMV N65899 etc.)! We would have involved discussions about composers, lyric-writers, deferring to PBS on matter pertaining to Hindi/Urdu.
I don't know who taught him all those languages, but PBS wrote poetry in Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Urdu, Hindi, Kannada and Sanskrit. His English, even when he wrote prose, was impenetrable. Around half a century age Veena Chittibabu asked me to edit a souvenir about him for which PBS had written a piece. I pride myself about my English but I could not find a single mistake in it. Neither could I make any sense of it. From then, whenever he called me over, then to Garden Woodlands, and in the recent past, to New Woodlands, I'd say, "Not if you are going to read out your English poetry!"
There was a song he sang in Telugu, when his voice was hoarse with a cold, 'Nithyavinodam' (Pelli Thamboolam, 1961). I loved it. It was not originally sent for issue on gramophone records. I met the producer-director ES Ranga through his writer Anisetty, cajoled him into sending this and another left-out song, 'Edari chanuno.' After that, I'd insist that PBS inform me if he were recording a song with a cold.
Like Krishna did for millennia, PBS took raillery, particularly mine, in good spirit. Not once did he take objection to what I wrote or said about his singing. He'd say exceptionally good things about me to people who did not know me at all. So much so that they were eager to meet me. One was C Ramchandra. When he came to Madras to record songs for a Tamil film, "Pattonru Ketten" (1971), he rang me and said 'Sreenivasji told me so much about you that I want to meet you." Can you imagine an idol talking to a fan like that? All because PBS effused about me so sincerely.
The other was the play-back singer from Bombay introduced so gloriously by C Ramchandra in "Navrang" (1959), with 'Shyamal shyamal baran." There was a Hindi film "Zindagi Imtehan Leti Hai" aka "Raam ki Ganga" (1984) and its music was by Hridaynath Mangeshkar. In this, both Lata and Mahendra Kapoor had a solo each. 'Raam hai mahan.' In fact, it was the same song.Writing a fort-nightly column, 'The Sounds Of Music' in Screen Weekly from Bombay, I commented in essence: "Lata is a superior singer yes, but how did it happen, under her brother Hridaynath's direction, that the same sung by Mahendra Kapoor is better?"
A great fan though he was of Lata, PBS noticed this and conveyed it to Mahendra Kapoor. He rang me up from Bombay, asked for a meeting when he was to be in Madras the following week and thanked me profusely. All thanks to PBS.
PBS would have sung a hundred private programmes in many languages mostly for Sangeetha Cassettes. Though not all, I'd have heard many, as its proprietor H M Mahesh was a close friend. The very best of the score or so I recall are the following.
'Mukundamala' is a shining sheaf of Sanskrit poetry addressed to the only God, Krishna, by Kulasekhara. PBS' tuning and singing of these matched the mellifluence of the slokas and caught the gleam of devotion as no one else could. The other is the exemplary poetry of Devulapalli Krishna Sastri tuned by PBS in a manner approved by the author. In these two, PBS did not seek to project himself as a composer or a singer.He just wanted to do the best he could to convey the meaning of the masterly lyrics. Result? C'est magnifique!
One last anecdote. Many years ago, when Vakati Panduranga Rao was the editor of Andhra Prabha Weekly, I suggested to him that, for a Sri Krishna Jayanti, I'd write about various beauties about Krishna by various authors. Kindly soul, he agreed immediately. One of the pieces was written by PBS. It saw the blue firmament as Krishna. I wrote a few lines about it. Vakati was so taken up by the poetry that he gave it a royal treatment, a centre spread with a colour picture. For years PBS continued to thank me for this inspite of my telling him repeatedly that it was Vakati's doing, not mine.
Well, now PBS is a part of that infinite blue, the Goloka. What more could anyone want!