PBS, the voice of South India

PBS, the voice of  South India

Excerpts:

Your great passion for music - what sparked it all?

It is not passion. It is love for music, something divine. I first owe it to my mother (Mrs. Seshagiri), who was a very good singer.  It was a God-given gift and I imbibed that spirit of singing from her. In 1951, I came to the SS Vasan-fame ‘Gemini Studios’ in old Madras (from my hometown in Andhra Pradesh after graduation) that changed my life.

Hindi Cinema’s Mohammed Rafi was our  icon those days. When I first presented myself before Emami Shankara Shastri, who was the legendary music composer at Gemini those days, I sang a Mohammed Rafi-rendered song from the Hindi film Deedar’ set to music by another legend Naushad. That was my audition song. Shankara Shastri was most impressed with my voice and I joined Gemini Studios as his assistant.

 My first break in Hindi films came later that year in ‘Mr. Sampath’, in which I sang duets and triplets with Ms. Geetha Roy, Shamshad Begum and Jikki (a popular female singer in Tamil cinema those days). My dream was to sing with Latha Mangeshkar which  became a reality when I sung for Dharmendra pairing with Meena Kumari in Mey bi Ladki Hoon, the Hindi version of the Tamil movie, ‘Naanum Oru Penn’.

 I grew up with the great music of Naushad Ali, one of the foremost music directors and composers of ‘Bollywood films’. I also owe a deep debt of gratitude to that fascinating music composer in the South, G.K. Venkatesh, who introduced me to the great musician of Tamil cinema, M.S. Vishwanathan here in Chennai, and also later to the legendary Kannada actor, Dr Raj Kumar, in Bangalore. The rest is history. I must have sung a few thousand songs in almost 14 languages. I have lost count of the numbers now.

What were the high-points of your musical career?

I had the luck of singing for top- heroes of the day, particularly for thespians like Raj Kumar in Kannada and Gemini Ganesh in Tamil. In Kannada it started with a musical film Baktha Kanakadasa, directed by Y. R. Swamy and starring Raj Kumar in the 1960s’. It was a super-hit, after which Raj Kumar said, “let PBS sing for me”. Baktha Kumbhara was a climax in that series of musical treats, its score set by G.K. Venkatesh. It was a very big hit in Kannada. At the end of it, the voice-matching with Raj Kumar was as amazing in Kannada cinema as it was with Gemini Ganesh in Tamil.

These combinations are decided by God. By God’s grace, I could stand in this field to this extent.  Several awards including Tamil Nadu Government’s ‘Kalaimamani’ Award and positions have come my way, the latest being made the ‘Aasthana Vidwan’ of the Shri Ragavendrha Mutt in Manthralaya.  However, when Ms. Jayalalithaa was Chief Minister, she made me an advisor to government music schools and as the President of the ‘Iyal Isai Nataka Mandram (State Sangeet Natak Akademi). That is unforgettable for me.

Your scholarly quest for learning eight languages- A burden or enrichment?

Yes, I am fluent in eight languages- Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu and English-, though I am not in continuous touch with some of them now. While singing, I simultaneously learnt these languages, largely self-taught, and I tell my friends I have a ‘LOL Degree’! ‘Lover of Languages (laughs)’, though some initially thought it was a London Degree! It is certainly enrichment. It has made me universal. Sound and expression is language. I have put together a book of my select Ghazals  in all these eight languages under the title Pranavam. For instance, one of my favourite Ghazals’ in Hindi is, “Bhasha Pul He, Deewar Nahi (Language is a bridge, Not a Wall).” Ms. Jayalalithaa liked this one a lot.  I developed a special taste for Ghazals; it is more a format of poetry than a note system of music. More recently, an album of my Ghazals  sung by that magical musician O.S. Arun has been put together by Mudra Communications. Over decades, I have written some two lakh songs.  

How do you bridge the dichotomy between classical and light music?

Classical music is the most beautiful chaste mother. Her most jubilant, youthful daughter is Light Music. They have their own beauties, but the latter gives variety to life. The mother cares for tradition, but the daughter is modern, and  international. Yet, light music is born out of classical music only. It throws light on the lyrics. Classical music is bound by tradition.

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