‘The Happiness Road’ is a weekly Series on this Blog that appears on Sundays where I share my conversations with people while exploring their idea of happiness!
This Sunday features a beautiful conversation that Vaani and I had with one of India’s most talented and loved singers – S.P.Balasubrahmanyam (simply SPB or Balu Sir to many)!!
What do you do when you meet – finally meet – the man, listening to whose voice you have grown up? A voice that has stirred the most aesthetic, spiritual and romantic emotions in you – every single time that you have heard it?
Well if you are Vaani, you just let go, you melt and dissolve in the magic and beauty of the moment, and you tear up. “I can’t believe this is true….that I am in your presence,” gushed Vaani while shaking SPB’s hands, even as he welcomed us warming into his tastefully done up living room.
I was more reflective. I found a sliver of time between the hellos, welcomes and thank-yous that we exchanged, to let “Manram Vantha Thendrallukku, Manjam Vara Nenjam Ilayo” from Mouna Ragam (1986, Mani Ratnam, Ilayaraja, Vaali) seep through my inner consciousness. It is my absolute, all-time favorite SPB number. And I sent a prayer in gratitude to the Universe, to Life, for creating and nurturing this man, so that his exceptional voice could light up our lives!
|SPB: Picture Courtesy – The Hindu/Internet|
69-year-old SPB will start his 50th year in playback singing on 15thDecember this year – he made his debut in 1966 with a Telugu song in the film Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna. So I ask him the most logical question: Does he feel happy, accomplished…?
He beams his famous, big, adorable smile. He then leans forward and says, “Yes!!! 49 years is a long time. But let me tell you truthfully, I did not come into this industry with any goal. I had no idea. Nor any ideals. I had then thought that I will not last beyond a couple of songs. But I have survived here, somehow pulled along…you can say! So, I often reflect on these past years with a sense of immense gratitude; I am grateful to the Almighty for giving my lifetime a sense of purpose. That my singing has made so many people happy makes me happy. I feel I am blessed.”
SPB adds that he is also grateful for his father’s native wisdom. When he had approached his father, soon after testing the waters in playback singing, not sure if this would be the right career to earn a living, asking if he should go back to leaning on his training in engineering, his father only told him “not to ride two horses at the same time”. “His advice was suggestive, not directive. I chose singing because it made me happy while engineering did not give me that sense of joy. I taught myself to sing better and continue to learn to sing better with every new song and every new music composer I work with. I sing both for my inner joy and to earn a living. It is so humbling when people come to me and tell me that they feel I have sung a song especially for them. Hearing this makes me fulfilled and happy,” explains SPB.
Vaani suggests that he is being very modest, referring to his confession that he is an “untrained singer who is still learning”. “Amma,” he clarifies, “I have only one qualification. I know what I don’t know. I am very happy when I am able to deliver what my captain, the music director, wants out of me. The day I can’t do that, I will quit singing.”
|SPB: Picture Courtesy – The Hindu/Internet|
That’s an exacting standard to live by for anyone. But here’s a man who’s lived by it for half a century – for almost as long as Vaani and I have been on this planet – and is still singing at his peak. How does he do it? What’s the secret of his longevity in the business and of his continued relevance across at least three generations? “I start each day with a simple question – how can I enjoy myself today? I don’t worry and I don’t entertain any insecurities. I work hard when I am I asked to sing. And when I am not singing, I am living my Life fully – hanging out, having fun!” he reveals.
SPB wears his Life on his sleeve. He is disarmingly honest and humble: “I am not a perfect human being. I am just another human being. I had a smoking habit which I gave up some time ago. I am a social drinker. I have never been prudent with my finances – until recently I even had commitments to fulfil. Just because I am a singer, just because I have a public profile, I can’t be a hypocrite. Nor can I be a sanyasi. I don’t want to. I am happy being who I am. And I have no problem with people knowing who I am.”
I am keen to know how SPB remains anchored, grounded – anyone with a Padma Bhushan, 6 National Awards and several Filmfare Awards, with 40,000 songs and with such devotion from an ever-growing fan following can get carried away, right? “I was inspired to take up singing by listening to Mohd. Rafi; I have worked for composers like K.V.Mahadevan, M.S.Viswanathan, Laxmikant Pyarelal, Naushad, O.P.Nayyar, Panchamda, Ilayaraja and A.R.Rahman; I have sung alongside greats like S.Janaki, P.Susheela, Lata Mangeshkar and so many, many more accomplished artistes…how can anyone have an ego if your career has evolved among such legends? In front of them I am a nobody. If I am a somebody it is because of them, their love, their support and encouragement,” he says, playing down my question.
SPB counts the following among some of his Life’s greatest moments:
· Touching Mohd.Rafi’s feet, in a break between takes, during a recording at Prasad studios: “I was recording in the neighboring studio and rushed to try and see him. There was a break in his schedule. I went up to him and touched his feet. He look at me and asked ‘Aap Kaun Hain?’…I was too timid to introduce myself although I was an established singer by then. I said, ‘It doesn’t matter’. Truly, to me, in his presence, who I was really didn’t matter. I smiled gratefully and quickly left the studio.”
· Having O.P.Nayyar over for breakfast at his Kodambakkam home in Chennai: “O.P Sir told me that he never goes to anyone’s house. But he promised to come home provided we served him vadai and sambar. After breakfast, he stayed on…soon he was composing music with me and we spent a couple of hours just singing and making music…isn’t that experience priceless?”
· Featuring in Naushad’s biography, “Naushadnama: The Life and Music of Naushad” (Raju Bharatan, Hay House, 2013): “Naushad loved me for delivering an 8+-minute song in a single take for Teri Payal Mere Geet (1993, Rehman Naushad, Govinda, Meenakshi Seshadri). In his biography, I feature in one para where he talks about me being ‘the most hard-working and professional singer’ he has ever worked with. He lauds me for being ‘self-trained’. To me, that compliment is equal to getting the Bharat Ratna.”
· Knowing R.D.Burman as a friend and as a composer: “I was coming back to Sea Rock Hotel late one evening, after a full day’s recording in Mumbai. As I was entering the hotel, I heard Pancham’s voice call out ‘Balu’. I turned to find him sitting on a ledge outside in the dark. Pancham was out of work in those days and playfully chided me for not calling him when I came into Mumbai. He then pulled out a bottle of Black Label whiskey…we went up to my room and we made music even as we drank. I am blessed to have had his friendship and love in my Life.”
|SPB: Picture Courtesy – The Hindu/Internet|
He’s played many professional roles in his Life: singer, composer, actor, producer, voice-over artist, TV show host…which of these does he love doing the most? “Undoubtedly it is singing that I love. Music is my sacred, divine, Life source. It has given me everything. It has given me work and it has given me the strength to work. It is what makes me happy every single day,” he avers. So, how did he then allow surgeries – twice – for polyps on his vocal cords; didn’t he feel insecure, didn’t he fear losing his precious voice? “Everyone from my family to friends to even Lataji (Mangeshkar) advised me against having ‘metal interface with my vocal cords’. But I decided to go ahead. You have to do what you have to in Life. Honestly, I never felt fearful of the procedure. I just reconciled to the fact that at the end of the surgeries I would either have my voice or I wouldn’t have it. Fortunately, I had my voice intact and within a few days of the last surgery I was back to doing my riyaaz.”
My takeaway from the conversation we had with SPB is this – do what you love doing, do it very well, live in the moment, enjoy each day, fear nothing, worry about nothing and you will be happy all your Life. I guess that’s too simple a way – in a single line – to summarize the Life and work of a man whose voice has stirred and enriched our souls for 49 years! But that’s really who SPB is. Simple, professional, humble, gifted, and above all, blessed.
The first rains of the North-East monsoon drench Chennai as we leave his home. On our ride back in an Uber, an FM station plays a rare SPB number, the title song “Ninaithale Innikkum”, from K.Balachander’s 1979 movie of the same name (M.S.Viswanathan, Kannadasan). I think of the 90-minutes we had just spent with SPB and I exclaim to Vaani, “How serendipitous!” This is one memory which, when we think back at any time in the future, will be among our most precious ones – “Ninaithale Innikkum”!