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SPB, musically yours

He's a man who gives life to lyrics. S. P. Balasubrahmanyam shares his odyssey with K. JESHI

PHOTO: S. SIVA SARAVANAN

A WINNING COMBINATION Talent and humility.

If listening to him is a delight, an exclusive rendezvous is unforgettable. So, a few minutes of wait for a tête-à-tête after a stage show does not matter. As promised, he walks in and with the trademark smile lighting up his face, says, "Thanks for your patience." That's Padmashree S.P. Balasubrahmanyam for you.

This gifted personality with a God-given voice continues to mesmerise millions with his effortless singing across various genres of Indian music. The Guinness Book of World Records calls him an artist with the maximum number of recorded songs (over 36,000 songs in many languages and counting), six national awards, a successful innings as a dubbing artiste, actor and composer... his phenomenal success is no ordinary feat.

Blessings matter

"Success has come on its own. Achievements and awards have been a part and parcel of my journey. Being part of the industry for three to four generations is due to luck, blessings and hard work," says the singer.

SPB never had classical training. Do the current crop of singers with a base in classical music put him off? "I'm amazed by their knowledge. Often, I have felt that I should have taken music lessons. Training in Carnatic music helps one to grasp tunes quickly. But, there is more to music — the capacity to express, the way you feel the song, and putting your heart and soul into it. In that sense I have learnt my lessons right; I have no regrets."

Becoming a singer, he says, is destiny. "There are very talented people who cannot become singers. And, there are `very ordinary singers' like me who have become singers. What I tell budding singers is, be original. If you try to imitate someone, you will not get any recognition. Have your own style and voice concept and try to improve."

Retain the soul

SPB favours technical advances and says his transition from harmonium days to new technology has been smooth. "Technology makes recording much easier for singers. However, how it is being used matters. There has to be a balance so that it doesn't take away the soul of the song."

Ask him if technology has brought opportunities on a platter for current-day singers, and he says: "I'm happy that singers now get opportunities more easily. Maybe, because of technology. But also because people like A. R. Rahman wanted variety and introduced new voices."

But the problem is too many voices and singers, who "come, sing and are forgotten. I wish them a long career. At least a handful of talented singers should have been nurtured and given more opportunities. With six songs being sung by six persons, they are neither here nor there. It may be healthy for the industry, but we don't even know who is singing." Why do today's songs lack staying power? Even now, it is melodies like Ithu oru ponmaalai, Thogai illamayil, Illaya nila and Tere mere beech mein that continue to top youngster's list of favourites. To this, he flashes his characteristic smile. "I am glad that I am still everybody's favourite."

"Where do you have situational songs in films now? Only such songs stay put in people's memory. Today, songs are used like fillers. Add them or remove them, there is little difference," he says, adding, "I just hope it is a passing phase."

Fans wonder why SPB has cut down on his singing.

"From 500 songs, I now sing 100 a year. And, I am not unhappy for not lending my voice to the kind of songs being composed now," he adds.

As the conversation veers towards today's film music, he says the Western influence is rampant and the craze for loud orchestration and high beats has resulted in cacophony. "Just for the beats, you cannot sacrifice the lyrics," he says.

An actor, too

SPB has a fan following for his acting too. Who can forget the wisecrack doctor in Avvai Shanmughi, the caring father in Kaeladi Kanmani and a number of other character roles?

To this, he points to his sparse whiskers. "This is for a Telugu film. I am now choosy and accept only characters that suit me."

Four decades, and his voice has continued to work magic. How did he manage to change with the times? "Do you think I achieved it? It just happened. I have just been very sincere. I respect my profession but I also love life. So, I enjoyed it. Even today when I face the microphone, I feel it is my first song," he says.

A request for a song and he signs off in style humming, Nilavae vaa. For, he never says no to his fans. Another secret of his success.

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