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The master's voice

S.P.Balasubrahmanyam is talent and dedication personified and his versatility has no limits. Today, the country's most respected playback singer is an inspiring and guiding force to many a singer.


RECORD RULE: S.P. Balasubrahmanyam.

FOR MORE than three decades, he has virtually ruled the realm in playback music. His dulcet voice has won him innumerable accolades. It has a tenor that could merge with anything to everything from nature to human tonal variations. From devotional records, to semi classicals, from romantic solos to duets to filmy jazz, he handles the entire range of light music with ease and élan. That is SP (as he is fondly called) for you!

A record number of 35,000 songs to date, SP has a penchant for acting (movies and now in television serials) and has set music to nearly 45 films in all southern languages. With nearly 40 years of experience behind him, Padmashri Dr Sripathi Panditharadhyula Balasubrahmanyam (Balu) has today matured into a music analyst, a philosophist, a guru/guide and above all a principled musician in the field of playback singing. He voices his views on the present day trends and trendsetters, so to say.

Briefly dwelling on his early days, way back in 1966, when he was given his first break in a Telugu film Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna by the then music composer, late S.P. Kodandapani, Balasubrahmanyam says there was no looking back ever since. Success has never gone to his head as is often construed. He is modest at heart and as a gesture of gratitude to his mentor, he has named his modern sound studio in Chennai-Kodandapani Audio Laboratories'.

Excerpts from an interview:

Was music your first love since childhood? Have you a classical grounding?

I cannot say music was my first love since childhood. At that stage and age, there was no serious outlook or aspiration except studies. Later, as a young collegian, graduating as an engineer was my top priority. I did not entertain any serious notions about music, but then without my knowledge, music did play an important role in my life. Listening to recorded songs (like most students of his day) mostly Hindi numbers and Telugu was a sort of habit without which I couldn't pursue my studies! I have no classical grounding, not until now. I'm often told by many a music maestro that I'm immensely talented. May be I am. Sometimes, I am surprised as to how I am able to render even the toughest classical to the satisfaction of the composer. Of course, I put in a lot of hard work and riyaaz. I should say my talent is god's gift.

How do you rate playback singing today as compared to days when you made a start?

Basically, the process of singing is same. But today technology plays a very vital part in playback singing. In fact it has made the whole job too easy. For instance, unlike in earlier times, the singer need not even render the whole song at one go and then wait for corrections. The present day singing artiste walks in at his or her convenience, sings a portion of the song and doesn't have to wait for a co-singer in case of a duet. In our times, it was not so. We were to go for a live recording where a lot of synch was mandatory between the co-singer and the full band of musicians. One slip by anyone in the group would call for an entire retake exercise. Singing then and now is the same; it is the technology that makes all the difference.

Where does such a situation land the present day aspirant? Do you think classical music grounding is mandatory to playback singing?

High tech has its own pros and cons. For one, even a novice is made to feel comfortable rendering his/her first number since it will be a piece by piece recording giving a lot of breathing time and covers up foibles in voice, rendition, etc. Coming to the negative aspects of such a process, the singer loses out on exposure to a live orchestra. It is like an each on his own situation. You needn't know who is singing along with you or who is giving the background music. There is no guidance by a senior hand who sings along and modulates the singers' voice. Another glaring limitation of the system is that once the music track is recorded and later, hitches are detected, like for instance, the pitch may not be right or the tempo may not be apt for the particular singer, etc, nothing can be altered as the recording stands completed! In a live recording, you can feel these deficiencies then and there and can suggest suitable alterations that befit the singers, song and the orchestra.

Coming to classical grounding, in general, I am for a fairly good classical base even if it is playback or light music singing. Of course, too deep a classical foundation is bound to effect the style of film music rendition. Film numbers usually call for light and straight singing. With full-fledged classicists, the influence of traditional vasanaas may interfere which again is not a welcome thing in light music arena. There are some singers who are exceptionally gifted to sing both styles, who are able to bring a perfect match between their classical concerts and film singing without sacrificing one for the other or mixing up both. Such singers are rare.

You have forayed into TV serials. How do you see yourself in this?

Whether it is a film or TV, I see acting as an offshoot of my singing. In my opinion, every singer is a good actor provided he/she is as comfortable before the camera as in front of the microphone. Then, the job is done. Interestingly, I knew there was an intelligent actor within me who waited to be explored. I started acting 25 years ago. My first film was Mohamad bin Tughlak. Of course, it was a song sequence. Later, I acted in 60 films spread across Telugu, Tamil and Kannada languages. Actually, I enjoy acting for different reasons. It gives me a lot of leisure between shoots. I enjoy what I do and so long as I'm comfortable doing I, its fine, isn't it?

Have all the winners of your programme "Paadutha Theeyaga" made it to playback in films? Do you personally help them get a break?

Almost all of them made it, like Usha, Parthasarathy, Ramachary, Ramu, Kausalya Mallikarjun, Gopika Poornima, Nitya Santoshini to name a few. Yeah, I did suggest some of them to music directors. Most of the time, this programme has given them a good exposure to film industry.

Like many a singer of your time, in Hindi field at least, why have you not ventured into Telugu pop?

If at all I want to do a private album, some cassette company should come forward to finance it. All the pop albums you listen to are not produced by singers but by music companies. Down south, the music companies are wary to venture into such an expensive domain when public response is not all that forthcoming. Pop is yet to catch on in these parts. The most popular private albums here are the devotional numbers in all languages and of all religions. They sell like hot cakes. I have done any number of them. Also, modern pop albums are not simple records. A lot of visualisation has to go into making an album, which means big budget. Well, if a music company evinces interest in me, I am game for a pop album too.

Few years from hence, how do you see yourself- as a music director, playback singer or an actor?

I see myself as all these bundled into one. I have composed music for about 50-60 films and did background score to a couple of Hindi films also. I am sorry to say, I do not fit into the present genre of music composers' arena and therefore they do not want to give me an opportunity to do music. In case I'm approached, I agree, but on my own terms like recording it live, based on Indian melodies, etc. I see myself acting out a good role now and then my age and health withstanding, and also singing as long as my lungs permit. I'll be the same, perhaps a little aged, that's all.

What would you like to say about your son?

Charan first sang for Ilayaraaja ( a duet in Tamil film). But it was Alaipaayudey (Sakhi in Telugu) in which he won recognition. As far as I see it, his real break is yet to come. There are reasons for the delay. For one, I don't recommend him to music directors. I believe he should come up on his own effort and talent. So far, whatever credit he bagged was all of his own. Second, the field is highly competitive and survival is tough. He is getting good offers though. Lastly, Charan has to face stringent standards set for him. He being the son of a popular and successful singer like me, is expected to come up to his father's standards. So far Charan has not let himself or his father down. Only time has to tell about his rise. He has a long way to go. He needs to concentrate and practice a lot more, learn a bit of classical music and strengthen his basics. He is seriously into acting and this doesn't give him time to do all that I suggest.

Your comments on film music in south today.

There is a sea change in the film scenario. How far it is going to last is for us to wait and see. Going hi-tech is nothing wrong. But then it should not be to the detriment of music as such. Today, it is painful to say and see that music has fallen into the hands of those who do not even know the rudiments of the art form. Every sincere singer has a character to his voice, a range, a timbre, which has been meticulously cultivated. It is suicidal if such a singer is made to fall in line with high technicalities that call for a gory sacrifice of his talent. It is not as if I am in the sour grapes situation. I am a contented man. I've had my innings and to this day I am able to keep myself occupied and popular. My concern is for the present day playback artiste who is no artiste at all. It has become a fashion to introduce newcomers to sing in a language alien to them to set tunes.

They have no basic knowledge of music, no diligence to learn but are ready for the mike. Some of them go off-key with an equally ignorant director incapable of detection or correction. During our heyday, we too sang in different languages not our own. Yesudas, Janaki, Chitra and myself. But then we make it a point to know what we are singing and learn the language. My fear is that mediocrity might become the order of the future if this trend continues. Creative work is best achieved only in the hands of persons with proper grooming in the field.

Any Tom, Dick and Harry cannot compose and what more, walk away with awards. I sympathise with the present generation of singers who lack guidance and are floundering. I only wish this purple patch will not last long.

RANEE KUMAR

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