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Singing his way to the Guinness

The Hindu, Friday Review, March 5, 1999

 

Ace playback singer S.P. Balasubramaniam is all set to enter the Guinness Book of World Records with a mind boggling 32,000 songs to his credit. Getting an interview with this singer-actor-director-distributor-producer and television anchor, all rolled into one is no mean task. This correspondent caught up with the multi-faceted SPB (as he is known to his fans) at his residence in Chennai on a placid afternoon recently. Excerpts from the hour-long interview:

 

What are the initiatives taken by you with regard to the Guinness entry?

 

I have started compiling my songs. I will soon send it to the Guinness authorities for their perusal. As far as my knowledge goes none has recorded this many songs in the world. I would love to make it to the Guinness.

 

You were granted a special audience with the U.S. President Mr. Bill Clinton in 1995. Can you elaborate?

 

The Association of Asian Physicians of Indian Origin (APIO) is a well-known forum in North America. As a mark of graduate to the substantial amount of funds raised during a music show by Lataji and myself, they invited us to a convention, which was presided over by the U.S. President.

Before the convention began, we had a private audience with the President and the First Lady Ms. Hillary Clinton. When Lataji was introduced as the person who had rendered a record number of songs, she quickly pointed out to me, and in an effort to correct the error asked me how many songs I had recorded. At that time the figure was somewhere around 29,000 and I told them that. The President was surprised and Ms. Clinton said, “If we come to India, you may sing for us.” We told them that it would be our privilege. This one-to-one meeting will indeed be cherished as a rare honour.

 

What was your reaction to the conferment of the doctorate on you by the Sri Pottisriramulu Telugu University?

 

I was in Dubai for some shows with K.J. Yesudas and A.R. Rahman, when I got the news over telephone from my secretary. I was extremely thrilled. It was a recognition of my music acumen and was special to me. I only felt sad that my father was not alive to share the happiness, for it was he who first spotted my latent talent. And of course, late music maestro Kothandapani, who was a pillar of strength.

 

Your father was a Harikatha exponent. Did he initiate you into music?

 

My father did not teach me, for he himself was not trained in Carnatic music. A lover of music, he naturally developed a liking for Harikatha and his Sanskrit background came in handy. Never did he think that he would take it up as a profession. He wanted me to pursue education first. But even as a student I got the opportunity to sing under the music direction of Kothandapani. This first move, I thought would not last. But more offers came. Soon I had to choose between studies and music. My father opined that music was god’s gift to me and that I always had my engineering background to fall back on if music as a career failed to click. “But on no occasion, ride two horses”, he said. I was taken aback by his clear thinking.

 

I took the plunge and there has been no looking back since. Even now I remember the days when we purchased a Philips radio for Rs. 265 on installment. My father used to listen only to Carnatic music and enlighten me on it.

I took a liking for percussion instruments and played the ghatam for his Harikatha performances. I even played brief roles in his plays. He was very encouraging.

 

Do you have plans of giving a full-fledged Carnatic music concert?

 

Yes. I hope to perform by the year-end. Yesudas has promised that if I decided to give Carnatic music concerts, he would teach me its nuances in six months.

 

Where does he see himself in the realm of playback singing, now that youngsters have entered the field in droves?

 

When I was trying to gain a foothold in the industry. T.M. Soundarajan and P.B. Srinivas were at their pinnacle. I came, sang and carved a niche for myself. How long can the same person reign supreme? It is nice to see more number of singers taking the plunge. I enjoy listening to them.

 

Regarding acting, I did not want the good artiste in me to languish. It also offers a refreshing change.

 

After a few hits (such as in the films “Ek Duje Ke Liye” and “Hum Aapke Hain Koun?”) you did not pursue Hindi playback singing keenly.

 

At that time I was at my peak in the South. It was not possible to keep shuttling between Mumbai and Chennai. Moreover, after the demise of Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar on the verge of retirement, there was a vacuum. My entry raised a lot of hope. Soon a fresh band of singers from the North emerged and it was natural for music directors to patronize regional talent. But even now, when directors feel that only I can do justice to a particular number, they invite me and I oblige. Naushadji once called me and requested me to render all the songs in the film “Tere Payal Mere Geet”. The film flopped commercially but Naushadji received the “Miya Tansen” award while I bagged the best classical singer award.

 

How do you nurture your voice?

 

I rarely get a “voice problem”. I try to get myself used to all kinds of weather and food. If I suffer, it would be only on account of overuse – some two to three hours nonstop dubbing or singing. I underwent two throat operations. I was advised to put off the second one and take some medicines instead. But I was determined to get operated as I could not abstain from singing for six months.

 

Are there any plans to take up film direction?

 

I did not expect to sing, I became a singer. Likewise I never dreamt of acting, distribution or production. So if I get a chance to direct, I will certainly take it up.

 

What is your wife’s contribution to your success?

 

Her patience is monumental. Ours was a love marriage. Struggling against odds, she took care of not only our two children but also my four sisters and a brother. She has never interfered with my professional life. After a day’s hard work, no one would like to return home to a nagging wife. Now she feels I require rest and suggests that I quit acting. Her stoicism is remarkable. And it is precisely this that has contributed to my success.

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