P B Srinivas – From the Springtime of Film Music

It was a pleasant afternoon. A comforting breeze was playing on the tree leaves. The wide frontage of Woodlands Drive-in Restaurant was a broad canvas of shadows cast by the trees. While sitting there it felt as if the entire Chennai city was sheathed in peace. I had already dealt with two plates of Channa Baturas and sipped countless cups of steaming filter coffees. But the person I was expecting had not yet arrived. A person who had regularly met him there over the past 45 years assured me: “He always arrives by this time. For some reason he is late today. But he will definitely come.” I kept watching the cars arriving by the road inside. At last, the person I was eagerly waiting for got down from a car and walked towards me in a tired way of walking, typical of the aged. He was playback singer P.B.Srinivas.

Even though his physique and walk betrayed the fatigue of eighty years he was meticulously dressed in a colourful attire. The pocket of his shirt sported almost ten pens of diverse colours. The folded honour scarf with shining zari work in light red and green tossed on his shoulder dropped almost to his white pants. Though his oval face had wrinkled with age the eyes behind his specs were bright. On his head he had a golden coloured Mysore turban. His forehead was almost bifurcated by the saffron mark, starting from between his brows to scalp-line. I walked towards him and touched his feet in respectful salutation. When I introduced myself, he conveyed his regret for being late and making me wait. We sat in a convenient corner and I handed over my book to him.

I had gone there to invite him to be the honoured guest at the release function of my first Tamil book ‘Sollil Adangaadha Isai’ meaning ‘Music beyond words’. As he leafed through the book with his kindly look in his face, PBS made short comments appropriate to every article in the book. “Salil Chowdhury…What a great composer!”. “Mehdi Hassan…Like your caption he is indeed the God of Ghazals.” “Rajkumar…Marvelous singer…Great Man!” “S.Janaki…What can I say about her! Great!” “A.M.Rajah…What an impossibly great singer!” and so on..

As he completed leafing through the book, he said: “It is a great effort.” I felt that there was a tinge of disappointment on his face that there was no article on him in the book. But he readily agreed to come to the function. He graciously said it was enough if someone is sent to escort him to the function from the same Woodlands Drive-in. But the Woodlands Drive-in was closed down for ever on the same day of the function, 12th April 2008, by the order of Court!

When I contacted him over the phone his voice was sad, obviously mourning the demise of Woodlands Drive-in, his home away from home that he used to visit daily for 46 years long years. He regretted that he may not be able to attend the function. But as I kept calling him on the phone requesting his presence, at last he consented to be escorted from another restaurant on the same road.

It was past the time for starting the function. The person who had gone to escort him from the designated place was waiting there patiently. PBS was busy writing something with his multiple pens of diverse colours, ignoring the reminders that it was getting late for the function. In my restlessness to start the function without a huge delay I implored him to come at the earliest. But in his own unflustered fashion he told me that he was writing a personal accolade that he wanted to present to me at the function. This presentation of a personally written accolade is something he does without fail at all the functions he attends.

PBS presented the accolade to me on the stage. He was effusive in his praise of my book. M.S.Viswanathan had graced the function as the Chief Guest. Both the veterans spent their time at the function pleasantly reminiscing on their past. PBS started to leave immediately after delivering his speech. All of a sudden young singer Kartik, who was sitting on the dais, sang a few lines from that eternal PBS song ‘Kaalangalil Aval Vasantham’ in his honour. Enthused by this, he happily left the dais that day.

Many songs like ‘Kaalangalil Aval Vasantham’ sung by P.B.Srinivas are the kind of evergreen feelings that live on in our collective memory as the spring time of our film music. His voice and his singing style are even today an inseparable part of our film music experience. He sang following the North Indian style of light music which placed more emphasis on the little musical details and subtle elaborations than on upfront expressions and emotional heights. He mostly concentrated on bringing out the soft feelings underlined by both the music and the lyrics. That was how P.B.Srinivas emerged as the singer of choice for the many melody numbers of composers like M.S.Viswanathan.

Though born and brought up in a family and an environment steeped in Carnatic music he was always fonder of the Hindusthani light music forms like Ghazal and thumri besides the Hindi film songs of those days sung by Mohammed Rafi, Manna Dey, Talat Mehmood and Lata Mangeshkar. Their influence is reflected in his singing style. Because of this distinctive singing style PBS remained a favourite of South Indian film music fans from 1950s to 1970s. He was an indispensable part of Indian film music during this period, referred to as the Golden Age of our film music.

P.B.Srinivas used to humourously claim that he alone was the true ‘Play Back Singer’ since its abbreviation PBS represents his name P.B.Srinivas. His full name was Pratiwadi Bhayankara Srinivas. He was born on 22nd September of 1930 in Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh. His father Phanindra Swami was a middle class Government servant. His mother Seshagiriyamma was a housewife deeply interested in music. PBS’ interest in music grew steadily as he listened to his mother’s attractive rendering of simple classical ragas and bhajans.

P.B.Srinivas grew to hate Carnatic music form seeing how it was taught mechanically to a girl living in the neighbourhood without any musical sensitivity by a music teacher. The impression that Carnatic music was a mechanical and unemotional form of music stuck to his mind. His mind turned to North Indian music because of this. PBS reverentially treated the many great Hindi film songs of the time as his teachers. He devoutly listened to every one of them with undivided attention and diligently practiced every musical bit from them. He did not receive any tuition or instruction in music beyond his own total diligence. His maternal uncle, Krishnamachari, used to direct dramas and act in them as well. On his encouragement, PBS got his opportunity to sing on stage at the age of 12.

But his father was very concerned about his interest in music. As if to fuel his worries, a famous astrologer predicted after reading his horoscope that PBS’ life will be totally ruined if he takes to music as a career. But irrepressible Srinivas challenged him to confirm that all his astrological predictions had come true. Astrologer was left with no convincing answer. It was a happy coincidence that PBS set off towards the peak of his career in music in later years by singing in a film called Jaathaka Phalam (Result of Horoscope)!

His father had wanted him to become an advocate or a government servant. A few years later he completed his B.Com degree and came to Chennai to join Law College. He paid less attention to his study of law and was more interested in frequenting Gemini Studio where his family friend Emani Shankara Shastri, a Veena exponent was head of the music department. Before completing his first year of study in Law, PBS left his studies to join Emani as his assistant. S.S.Vasan, the owner of Gemini Studio, appreciating the voice and the singing style of Srinivas promised to give him an opportunity to sing. It may be pointed out that it was S.S.Vasan who introduced A.M.Rajah too to film music.

PBS sang a few lines individually and sang in chorus as well for the first time in Mr.Sampat, a Hindi film released by Gemini in 1952. The songs ‘Aji Hum Bharat ki Naari’ and ‘Chalo Pania Baran Ko’ gave importance to female voices but the point to be noted was that he sang in the company of Geeta Dutt, Shamshad Begum and Jikki who were all top star singers of the time. Though he hailed from Andhra which was in no way connected to Hindi language, the Hindi pronunciation of PBS was top notch.

The very next year he got the opportunity of singing two songs in each of the trilingual film released as Jathakam (Tamil), Jathaka Phalam(Telugu) and Jathaka Phala(Kannada). The two songs in Tamil were ‘Sinthanai En Selvame’ and ‘Mooda Nambikkaiyaale’ and through these songs PBS attained the important status of a playback singer.

Next year he got the opportunity to sing the Tamil song ‘Anbodu Inbamaga’ in the film Viduthalai. This song had all the makings of what was to emerge later as his unique style and rendering mode. The same year he entered Malayalam film through the film Puthra Dharmam with music composed by P.S.Diwakar. In no time at all, he was able to create a niche for himself in Malayalam. Some of his songs that stood the test of times and beyond in Malayalam were ‘Mahal Thyagame’ from Harichandra, ‘Katha Parrayaam’ from Umma, ‘Paavana Bharatha’ from Sita, ‘Mannavanaayaalum’ from Satyabhama, ‘Iniyoru Janmamundo’ and ‘Baliyalla Enikku Vaendathu’ from Rebecca, ‘Yaatrakkara Povuka Povuka’ from the film Ayisha which had music by R.K.Shekhar, A.R.Rahman’s father, and his songs for Baburaj, a composer of undying fame, ‘Geethe Hrudhaya Sakhi’ from Poochchakkanni and ‘Inakkuyile Inakkuyile’ from Kaattuthulasi.

The only song sung by PBS under Salil Chowdhury’s baton ‘Raathri Raathri’ in the film Yezhu Raathrigal fully exploited the possibilities of his deep voice. But his most famous song in Malayalam ‘Maamalakalkkappurrathu’ came under Baburaj’s music direction in the film Ninnamanninjna Kaalppadugal. Even today it is practically the anthem of Malayalees living away from their motherland. It is a song on Malayalees living away from Kerala longing to go back and living in dreams contemplating its many graces.

PBS sang his first hit song in Telugu in 1956, in a film world where Ghantasala was reigning unopposed. The song was ‘Bhayamela O Manasa’ for the film Bhale Ramudu with music scored by S.Rajeswara Rao. PBS also sang its Tamil version ‘Avanallaal Puvimele’ in the film Prema Paasam. Rajeswara Rao, who was one of the great composers in Telugu films, had once remarked: “Many asked me why I brought in PBS when Ghantasala is there. I had liked the deep voice of Srinivas and its soft movements. I thought it will be something novel and a great change from Ghantasala.”

But PBS could not achieve any kind of great success in his own mother tongue. He was given very few opportunities to sing there. Still, these songs like ‘Manasuloni Korika’(Bhishma), ‘Oho Ghulaabi Baala’(Manchi Manishi), ‘Bujji Bujji Paappaayi’ (Aada Bharthulu), ‘Vennala Reyi’(Preminchi Choodu), ‘Oho Chittemma’(Asaadhyudu) and ‘Andhaala O Chilaka’(Letha Manasulu) – TMS sang its Tamil version ‘Anbulla Maanvizhiye’ – are popular to this day.

In 1956, PBS sang an important song composed by G.K.Venkatesh for Kannada Superstar Raj Kumar in the film Oahileshwara. Till then Ghantasala was the play back voice of Raj Kumar. Raj Kumar also sang a song in the film. In spite of that, everyone including Raj Kumar considered the voice of PBS matched so well with Raj Kumar’s domination of the screen. After that PBS became the most important play back singer of Kannada screen. In his career PBS was acknowledged as a Superstar Singer only in Kannada films. This status lasted till Raj Kumar started singing full-fledged for himself in 1974. PBS had sung in more or less 200 films for Raj Kumar alone.

If you have not heard the Kannada songs of PBS you have not heard or understood him well as a singer. A few examples of the great Kannada songs sung by PBS are ‘Akashadha Lokadhi Dhoora’ and ‘Aadiuthiruva Modagale’ from Bettadha Huli, ‘Dhoni Saagali’ from Miss Leelavathi, ‘Baara Chandrama’ and ‘Baare Nee Cheluve’ from Swarna Gowri, ‘Apara Keerthi Galisi’ from Vijayanagaradha Veeraputra, ‘Gopura Kandu’ from Arishina Kumkuma, ‘ Bande Nee Bande’ from Gandondu Hennaru, ‘Aha Idhenu Nade’ from Dhoomaketu, ‘Deena Naa Bandiruve’ from Sandhyaa Raaga, ‘Baredhe Neenu Nanna Hesara’ from Seetha, ‘Baagilanu Teredu’ from Kanakadasa, ‘Olumeya Huve’ from Punarjanma, Anuragadhi Nee Paadaleke and Dhina Dhina Olumeyu Kandaaga etc.

In Tamil, the music career of PBS took its first big step in 1957. ‘Gamagamavena’, a duet with Jikki for the film Samaya Sanjeevi, ‘Ondru Sernda Anbu Maaruma’ for the film Makkalai Petra Magaraasi and the song ‘Kannukku Nere Minnidum Thaarai’ for the film Magdalanattu Mary were all released this year. Then in 1959, he sang playback for Gemini Ganesan for the first time. Till then A.M.Rajah was the playback voice for Gemini Ganesan. The credit for this breakthrough went to composer G.Ramanathan who offered him the song ‘Inbam Pongum Vennila Veesuthe’ from the film Veerapandiya Kattabomman.

He sang three very important songs for the composer Aadhinarayana Rao for the film Adutha Veettu Penn released in 1960. While his two songs in the film ‘Vaadaatha Pushpamay (Vanitha Maniye)’ and ‘Kannaale Pesi Pesi’ were immensely liked, my favourite PBS song from this film is the song ‘Maalayil Malarcholaiyil”. However, PBS really became popular in Tamil only after the release of the film Paavamannippu in 1961. It was in this film that he had sung his evergreen number ‘Kaalangalil Aval Vasantham’ composed by Viswanathan-Ramamurty duo.

This is what M.S.Viswanathan said about this: “In those days many believed firmly that only the voice of TMS suited Sivaji and MGR and that A.M.Rajah alone was the voice of Gemini Ganesan. I wanted to change this. I got PBS to sing for Gemini Ganesan. Though he had already sung for me and other composers that was the first time he sang for a big hero. Later, he also sang for Sivaji and MGR. I also made him sing for N.T.Rama Rao in Telugu. Many opposed my move saying that only the voice of Ghantasala suited N.T.Rama Rao. But I resolutely went on to make PBS sing for NTR. The song ‘Bujji Bujji Paappaayi’ was widely appreciated and became very famous.”

M.S.V. went on to add that PBS’ biggest strength was his complete understanding of swaras (notes). “He could sing immediately after listening to the score and the lyrics. He was a much disciplined person and very dignified in his conduct. His deep voice and unique tone easily blends into his songs” were his further comments on PBS.

But PBS attributes his successes entirely to composers. Then he goes on to diplomatically add: “Great shot composition and top notch cinematography are absolutely necessary for a song to become a success. However much a singer renders the song well, however great the lyrics and tunes are, these are not enough for the success of a song.” Since I have not seen most of the films where his songs were picturised and since I have heard his immensely popular songs from badly made films, I can say that these views expressed by him are not correct really.

S.P.Balasubramaniam is on record pouring out his emotions on PBS: “I am a devout fan of PBS. I have had the good fortune of singing his many songs on stage. The first song recording that I ever saw was that of PBS. When I met MSV seeking an opportunity to sing, I sang the PBS song ‘Nilave Ennidam Nerungadhe’ for the voice test. PBS is also a great poet and writer. He has written over two lakh poems in eight languages.”

Fans of PBS have derived much pleasure over the years listening to his great numbers like ‘Udalukku Uyir Kaaval’(Manappandhal), ‘Paadaadha Paattellam Paada Vandhal’(Veerathirumagan), ‘Manidhan Enbhavan Deivamaagalaam’ and ‘Mayakkama Kalakkama’(Sumaithaangi), ‘Mouname Paarvaiyal’(Kodimalar), ‘Indha Mandrathil Oadivarum’(Policekaran Magal), ‘Poojaikku Vandha Malare Vaa’(Paadha Kaannikkai), ‘Kanpadume Pirar Kanpadume’(Kaathirundha Kanngal), ‘Pon Ondru Kannden’(Padithaal Mattum Podhuma), ‘Aval Parandhu Ponaale’(Paar Magale Paar) ‘Anubhavam Pudhumai’(Kaadhalikka Naeramillai) etc.

‘Yaar Sirithal Yenna?’ conveying the sorrow of hopelessness, ‘Kanngale Kanngale’ expressing disappointment, ‘Malarodu Vilaiyaadum’ picturing the soft feelings of love, ‘Nilave Ennidam’ and ‘Thennangeetru Oonjalile’ portraying the sad yearnings, ‘Netruvarai Nee Yaaro’ expressing subtle changes of emotions, ‘Ennai Paarthal Parigaasam’ evoking pity, ‘Mayakkama Kalakkama’, ‘Vellippanathukkum Nalla Gunathukkum’ and ‘Aatru Vellam Ponapinnaley’ so evocative of philosophy, ‘Roja Malarey Rajakumaari’ so expressive of love, ‘Pogappoga Theriyum’ and ‘Thaamaraikkannangal’ that conveys the elation of being in love, ‘Chinna Chinna Kannanukku’ conveying the affection for a child, ‘Yennarugey Neeyirundhal’ and ‘Endhan Paruvathin Kellvikku’ that portrays the finer emotions of longing in love, ‘Kaatru Velliyidai Kannamma’ waxing poetically and ‘Pon Enbaen’ and ‘Paarthaen Sirithaen’ expounding classical music ragas are all extraordinary PBS songs.

PBS generally loves to express only positive comments about others. But I have witnessed an occasion when female singer Anuradha Sriram after a particularly bad performance on stage approached PBS for his comments. But he refused to comment. And he steadfastly remained silent in spite of all pleadings from her. It is certain that he had approached her singing critically. I think the critic in PBS stood up on that occasion.

On a similar note, if we critically approach the singing of P.B.Srinivas, we will find that there were no great magic, endless elation or the mind-blowing heights in his songs. One can say that he diligently reproduced to specifications of composers without getting too seriously involved. It is not far wrong to say that he concentrated on rendering exactly, but with a soft touch, to composer’s notes rather than on exerting to leap to the emotional heights.

This particular aspect of his singing attitude meant that many of his songs sounded clinical more of the same. This may even be attributable to the ordinary and predictable life he lead right from childhood without great highs or searing lows. Artistic expressions of a great artist are often, directly or indirectly, reflective of his life. If his life is ordinary or average in its course with nothing to cause an emotional upheaval, then his artistic expressions too will run a similar average course.

An excellent example of PBS style of calm rendering is the song ‘Kavalaigal Kidakkattum Marrandhuvidu’ which he sang with TMS for the film Bandhapaasam. In the same song TMS is quite upfront about the expressions. Even as TMS was belting out through his songs an entire range of emotions from ferocity to depression, PBS was happy rendering songs expressing love in an underdone style and indirect tone. The song ‘Chithiram Paesudhadi’ in the film Sabhash Meena sung under the baton of T.G.Lingappa is a great illustration of how TMS is very direct and open in his expressions of even subtle love. If further comparison is needed we need to look no further than ‘Andhaala O Chilaka’ sung by PBS in Telugu and its Tamil version ‘Anbulla Maanvizhiye’ sung by TMS.

In terms of flawless rendering, PBS is leagues ahead of Raj Kumar. But there was an emotional richness and liveliness in Raj Kumar’s singing that was lacking in PBS. Many of Raj Kumar’s songs had displayed his knack of expressing diverse emotions with a great finesse. If there is any doubt, just listen to his songs ‘Belathingalaagi Baa’ (Huliya Haalina Mevu) or ‘Baanigondhu Elle Ellidhe’ (Premadha Kaanike). Similarly, PBS had a deeper and more complete voice than A.M.Rajah, but A.M.Rajah’s singing style was more natural and lively. I am sure PBS himself will have no problem in acknowledging this.

However, this critique has to be with the qualification that PBS never attempted or pretended to sing at emotional levels which were not natural to him. Unlike some of the singers who came after him pretending to worship him, he never brought into his rendering style exaggerated expressions of emotions in the name of proving his versatility. Songs of PBS may not have taken us to emotional heights but it did let us feel some of the finer, quieter sensitivities of human life. One can cite his famous number ‘Chanda Se Hoga Woh Pyaara’, his only famous Hindi song, as an example. This song sung by him with Lata Mangeshkar was for the film Main Bhi Ladki Hoon released in 1961. The Tamil version of this song ‘Poopola Poopola Pirakkum’ for the film Naanum Oru Penn was sung by TMS and the Telugu version ‘Chinnari Ponnari Poovvu’ for the film Needi Aada Janma was sung by Ghantasala. On comparison, we will see that PBS’ rendering of the Hindi song is far superior to the Tamil and Telugu versions.

When towards the end of 1970s MSV practically retired, the career of PBS too ended. In 1979 he sang ‘Maalai Mayanginal Iravaagum’ for the film Inikkum Ilamai with Shankar Ganesh duo as the composers. It was a rhythmic song different from the usual PBS styled songs. Ilayaraja did not offer him any remarkable opportunity. All that can be said is that he sang ‘Thendrale Nee Pesu’ for Ilayaraja for the film Kadavul Amaitha Medai released in 1979. A.R.Rahman too ignored him totally. PBS sang two lines in 7G Rainbow Colony in 2004 with Yuvan Shankar Raja scoring the music. Recently he was asked to sing a few lines in the film Aayirathil Oruvan which had music by G.V.Prakash. Probably the director of these two films Selvaraghavan was the reason.

After the singing opportunities dried up, PBS has been introducing himself as a poet and a writer. But here he has not had anything worthy of mention. He has written a few Hindi songs in Ilayaraja’s film Nandu and the Malayalam film Thadaagam. Other than that, it is not clear where his ‘over two lakh poems’ in 8 languages including Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam were used. Apparently he continues to write for his own satisfaction.

Recently, the Government of Karnataka had presented him with a 2500 square feet plot in an important locality in Bangalore in honour of his service to Kannada film music. This must have been the highest recognition PBS ever got in his life. Speaking on this occasion of honouring PBS, Chief Minister of Karnataka had regretfully noted: “This honour is being accorded very late. But it is better late than never.”

The Government of Tamilnadu gave him the worthless Kalai Maamani award and once the Presidency of Iyal Isai Nataka Mandram. Apart from these PBS had never received anything befitting his achievement or standing. Neither of the Governments at the Centre or states considered him for any awards. Leave alone titles like Padmashri or Padmabhushan, he was not even nominated for things like Filmfare award or Cinema Express award. Even as many Universities fell over themselves awarding Doctorates to worthless busybodies in the field of music, nobody noticed P B Srinivas.

Even now, PBS can be seen attending many stage music shows in Chennai. Uninvited, he will attend as ordinary spectator and take leave after, unfailingly, saying a few kind words. It appears to me that he is disregarded and ignored even there. When these ignoramuses come to know that Tamil film music has seen over 1300 singers, will they at least then recognize who P.B.Srinivas is? Tough to say!

Last September, the function of my second Tamil book ‘Isaiyin Thanimai’ (Music of Solitude) was held at Chennai Film Chamber. After the event as I was coming out of Film Chamber, I saw PBS going into the hall all alone with the tremor of old age in his tired walk. A Telugu film was to be screened there as night show. At his ripe old age how is he able to sit through a night show? I felt sad just to think whether he does this because of sleeplessness at nights or because he has nowhere else to go. The new ‘Government Park’ across the road was sleeping in darkness. The once Woodlands Drive-in was located there.