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India Currents recently had the chance to interview the person behind the legend and get to know more about his incredible career where he has sung over 40, 000 songs. A record that is hard to wrap around in one’s head—to sing 40, 000 songs within a lifetime is testament to the intense devotion of an artist to his art. Asked about how he sustains this longevity at the highest levels, SPB replies modestly, “Sincerely, I do not know. I just do my job first to my satisfaction, and next, to that of the creators.”
Starting his musical career after dropping out of engineering college, he took part in music competitions, bagging many prizes. His first break came when music director Kodandapani heard him sing at a music competition, and offered him an opportunity to sing in an upcoming Telugu film in 1966. In three short years following this debut, he had sung in Tamil, Kannada, and Malayalam for actors in leading roles. When asked about his impeccable diction and authentic pronunciation in all languages, he says with characteristic humility, “I am grateful to those who give me opportunities to sing in different languages. The only way to repay that debt is to learn the language, love it and respect it.” He is the only male playback singer to win National Awards in four languages.
Whether it is the lively En Iniya Pon Nilave or the mellifluous Ponmaalai Pozhuthu or the riotous, Namma ooru singari, in Tamil, SPB’s voice conveys the power, melody, and meaning of the song’s narrative in a way that cannot be forgotten. His Telugu songs in Sankarabharanam and Maro Charithra and his Hindi songs for the blockbuster hit—Ek Duje ke Liye firmly established him as a pan-India favorite. He has recorded songs with leading music directors starting from veterans Kondapani and Ilayaraja to AR Rahman and Harris Jeyaraj. Recognizing the immeasurable contribution of this musical legend, the Government of India awarded him the Padma Bhushan in 2011.
When asked for his advice to youngsters in the field, his answer probably gives us a clue to his approach to life as well. He says, “Know what you do not know and if possible try to know that. Do not pamper your vocal chords but at the same time, do not abuse them. Enjoy good music regardless of who the singer or composer is. Enjoy life within a disciplined frame.” SPB says that he enjoys performing in front of Indian-Americans as they shower him with “more love”, given that his frequency of staging concerts here is less than in India. “Choosing songs for a concert,” he adds, “is always tough” considering that they present 25 songs from the many thousands that he has sung. At the end, there is always someone who asks him why he did not sing his or her favorite song.
Listening to him is definitely going to be inspiring experience—his deep, sonorous voice that has left an indelible impression onscreen is sure to move one even more when we see the legend live onstage.n
Kannada: 7:30 p.m., Friday, September 14. www.kknc.org. (510) 305-9285. Telugu: 5:30 p.m. Saturday, September 15. www.bata.org. (510) 421-3535. Tamil: 4 p.m., Sunday, September 16. www.sulekha.com (408) 773-7400.
Chabot College Performing Arts Center, 25555 Hesperian Blvd., Hayward. Tickets: $20, $25, $35, $50, $100.