“That my singing has made so many people happy makes me happy.”

 ‘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”!   

Irrespective of the circumstance you are placed in, play on

Life is a great teacher. She will humble you till you learn your lessons. And then when you are humbled, she will enlighten you.
All of us live through our nightmares before we live our dreams. And if we are living our dreams, know that the peaks will give way to valleys, and then to abysses only to find that when we have hit rock bottom, the only way to go is up. Soon, we will reclaim our lost honor, succeed yet again with our craft and regain our glory __ only, the second time around, on the rebound, we are a lot more fulfilled, a lot less anxious and see each moment of Life, or what remains of this lifetime, as a blessing. This cycle of Life, with its inscrutable up and down patterns or down and up ways, plays itself out, time and again, from person to person, incessantly, ceaselessly.
One such co-voyager in Life, a genius in his own right, an emperor of his craft, is Tamil music composer Ilayaraja. During the 70s, 80s and well into the 90s, Ilayaraja, remained king. His was the music that mesmerized listeners and sold movies. For over a decade, well actually 15 years, no Tamil movie was released that did not have Illayaraja composing music. Such was his genius. Such was his command that he was unbeatable. Not that anyone even tried. And then came along A R Rahman, the prodigal genius, who with Roja, in 1992, swept the world away! His music was different and Ilayaraja’s hold on Tamil cinema was challenged deceptively. One tune at a time, one movie at a time. By 1997, Rahman had become staple in the entertainment business down south and Bollywood filmmakers too were counting on the Mozart of Madras (Rahman) to sell their films.
It was at this time that I met Ilayaraja at his home. A beautiful shrine-like place in T Nagar, in South Chennai, where music, moods, fragrances and floral patterns made the simple white walls and furniture in the house come alive almost surreally. Taking me to his studio on the first floor, Ilayaraja, playing a new tune he had just composed, asked me, “What do you think of it?” And I remember replying: “It’s out of this world.” “What to do,” bemoaned the genius, much to my shock, “the world does not recognize my worth anymore. Everyone wants the new kid, who learnt at my feet and today challenges me.” I was surprised. In fact horrified. I felt Ilayaraja must be proud, not jealous, of his protégé. I felt that the greatest compliment a ‘guru’ can get is when a ‘shishya’ (disciple) outsmarts him at his own craft. But I did not express my opinion; I went on with my meeting and left Ilayaraja’s home-shrine, a tad befuddled.
Kamal Hassan, Sridevi, Ilayaraja, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajnikant
at ‘Shamitabh’s’ music launch
Picture Courtesy: PTI/Hindu/Internet
What began then was, as I came to realize, Ilayaraja’s hibernation, which lasted almost 10+ years. No significant music composition offers, no clamor from interview seekers, no major titles or awards; at least, things were not the same as before! I am not aware how he spent those years. Maybe he sulked. Maybe he grieved. But if that was indeed his state, it well was his own creation. He was, is and will always be a musical genius, to me, and to millions of his fans across the world. That he had to make way for a next generation sensation called Rahman was only a reflection of the way Life is and works, and was no indication of any flaw with his craft. But maybe, just maybe, Ilayaraja missed this point. Until ‘Cheeni Kum’ (2007, directed by Balki and starring Amitabh Bachchan, Tabu) happened, where Ilayaraja made a phenomenal comeback. Balki, a senior professional in Indian advertising (Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of Lowe Lintas), says he got into filmmaking only to work with two of his idols__the Big B and Ilayaraja! And Ilayaraja re-used an old tune of his from the 1986 super, super-hit, Mani Ratnam film, ‘Mouna Ragam’ (follow video link here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b5v1xOQmcQE) in ‘Cheeni Kum’, along with a couple of other unputdownable compositions. And slowly, very slowly, the King of Tamil music, a veteran of 999 (Tamil director Bala’s up-coming ‘Tharai Thappattai’ will be his 1000th!) films, and 5000 songs, is coming into his own again. He is perhaps, hopefully, in his second innings, realizing that he was always a winner. That the music in him never died. In January this year, Amitabh Bachchan, Kamal Hassan and Rajnikanth came together in Mumbai to launch the music for Balki’s latest ‘Shamitabh’, which again was composed by Ilayaraja. Talking at a public event in Chennai, some time ago, Ilayaraja said, “I don’t know how the music comes, if I find out, it will stop!”


This is what is happening to all of us. We are born winners. But we stop seeing our own worth, our own value because we expect Life to give us ideal performance conditions. And despite all the wishing that we__you and I__do, that can never be guaranteed. What can be known for sure though is that there’s a lot, a helluva lot, of talent in each in us. Our craft, our work, is our prayer. Irrespective of the circumstance we are placed in, let us keep playing on. Seasons will come, seasons will go, years will wear on, the body will age and wither away too someday, but eventually we will find that despite all of what has happened to us, the music within each of us remains intact. And all that happened, happened to humble us, to enlighten us, to enrich us, so that our music can light up the world!