New Delhi: India's millennial generation of the Internet-digital app age may not be fully aware of the versatility and greatness of multifaceted singer, musician, actor, and TV personality Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam (SPB or simply 'Balu'), but his demise in Chennai on September 25, aged 74, is certain to cause lump-in-the-throat grief to millions of Indians, especially Telugus born in the 1950-1985 period.
That collective lump in India's cultural throat will mark a fitting tribute to the full-throated voice that infused life and meaning into a world record of thousands and thousands of melodies of diverse genres, adding value and depth to the experience of life in human form for hundreds of millions.
To realise the significance of Balu's contributions, or any other great singer or musician for that matter, you merely need to imagine life without relatable music.
In the post-1970s era, unless you were a connoisseur of classical forms, music in India meant film songs for most people.
Child prodigy, pianist, conductor and thinker Daniel Barenboim argues in his 2006 BBC Reith Lectures that the ear, not the eye, is the most 'intelligent' of all organs, and hence, by extension, music is critical to a society's evolution.
He speaks about the 'connection between the inexpressible content of music and in many ways, the inexpressible content of life.'
Barenboim quotes Italian pianist and composer Ferruccio Busoni who said music is sonorous air -- 'it says everything and it says nothing' -- and Neitszche, who said life without music would be a mistake.
Barenboim goes on to argue -- eloquently, convincingly -- that through music, 'we can learn a lot about ourselves, about our society, about the human being, about politics, about society, about anything that you choose to do.'
With Balu's passing, Barenboim's view seems to make more sense now when I look back at the 1975-2000 period, and realise how he bestrode South India's cultural scene in the last quarter of last century like a colossus, with voice as his chief 'weapon'.
Could an illiterate farmer, a tribal construction worker, a vegetable or garland seller, a paan-dabba operator, a cobbler, a nomadic Banjara or even a roaming homeless alms-seeker somehow take a few moments off to allow the mind to transcend the dreary struggle to make both ends meet and enter the realm of the soul, the other dimension, a world of indescribable metaphysical magic, and emerge hopeful, refreshed, stoical or stronger to endure the drudgery of the human condition?
I've seen millions do just that by plugging into the power of Balu's voice in film songs broadcast on All India Radio's Vividh Bharati programme for decades.
Those were the pre-FM days of old-fashioned wooden-box dial-and-needle radios and 'transistors' (portable, battery-powered SW-MW receivers of Philips, Murphy, Jetking, Sony or Sanyo brands in different sizes) that played Balu's songs in the background, in one programme or another across multiple radio channels and stations, almost non-stop, as India's economy grew at the gentle 'Hindu rate of growth'.
I'd argue that of all the fine arts and performance arts, the most accessible and relatable form is music, exemplified by vocals of the Balu kind.
Could there be a living South Indian now who has not hummed a Balu song at one time or another, and emerged recharged, ready to duel and dance with life again, I wonder.
Amid a degenerating democracy, a venal polity and a craven protectionist policy landscape, hundreds of millions of common men, women and youth -- aam aadmi -- put their heads down and ploughed through a difficult life, with only popular film songs as the go-to escapist fantasies, guidance, inspiration, hope, philosophy, how-to life manuals they could afford or access day after day, night after night.
Had they not done so, could India have reached its position today where it aspires to be a multitrillion-dollar economy, a potential superpower, in spite of everything?
Balu's songs were the anchor, the substratum, if you will, upon which life unfolded day after day, decade after decade -- across villages, towns, cities, and regions.
Evolving recording and broadcast technologies amplified Balu's little-recognized impact on the Telugu nation, which has since been bifurcated into Andhra Pradesh and Telangana but continues to resonate as one every time Balu's voice in different dialects fills the airwaves.
His playback singing gave voice to umpteen actors who played numerous roles through their long careers (more about that in a bit).
Imagine a matrix of permutations and combinations of actors and roles.
Weave in different settings and scenarios.
Throw in romantic duets, solos spanning comic, tragic, exuberant, victorious and rebel moods, and group songs, spanning decades. Introduce different genres, raagas, or styles.
What you had back then was an improbable situation where 10-18 of any 20 film songs broadcast/heard would have Balu's voice in them.
Now you understand what I meant by 'non-stop', don't you?
Long before bar codes, HTML/XML codes and QR codes invaded our music and lives, each of his film song had its own unique stamp -- that was Balu's magic.
You could hear a song on AIR, and picture in your mind the face of the actor in that particular song.
We know how Mukesh was Raj Kapoor's voice and how Udit Narayan is Aamir Khan's, but to this day, it is a mystery to me how a single voice (Balu's) could improvise so much as to 'adapt' to the personalities of a range of actors, their on-screen characters, and the different scenarios of the songs, time and again.
Balu did this not just with N T Rama Rao or Akkineni Nageswara Rao but countless others, spanning two to three generations -- Krishna, Krishnam Raju, Sobhan Babu, Chandra Mohan, Ramakrishna, Harinath, Ram Mohan, Murali Mohan, Ranganath, Narasimha Raju, Narayana Murthy, Chalam, Rajnikanth, Kamal Hasan, Mohan, Chiranjeevi, Rajasekhar, Suman, Sudhakar, Naresh, Rajendra Prasad, Balakrishna, Murali aka Karthik, Nagarjuna, Venkatesh, Salman Khan, Jagapati Babu and Arvind Swamy.
Comparisons can be unfair, biased, or plain odious, but in certain respects, Balu, it can be argued, was nonpareil.
I'd still rate Yesudas as the greatest Indian film singer of our times, and I can trot out a million reasons to argue my case. Balu's soul might probably readily concede this point.
What made Balu unique nevertheless was the effortlessness with which he used his ability to win the hearts of not just class and mass but the entire spectrum of music-lovers.
Puritans and conservatives may frown on some of his 'pop' (or seemingly populist, gimmicky) songs but the selfsame music orthodoxy couldn't help but applaud Balu's out-of-this-world rendition of Omkara Naadanu, the title number of culture-revivalist Sankarabharanam that won him the National Award (and, as you will see shortly, my top pick from his lifelong work).
India is the land of long careers.
Till the 'Hey Ram' moment, Gandhiji spent decades pursuing his 'career' as the world's pre-eminent apostle of peace and non-violence. Hindustani gharana maestros and Carnatic music champs perform sadhana and abhyasa (or riyaz -- consistent, sustained, focused practice) for decades to get the notes of a tricky, complicated raaga finally right. A Tendulkar stays the cricketing course for decades despite physical wear and tear and emotional roller-coasters. And singers such as Balu -- he had no formal training in classical music -- and Yesudas tread the singing road less travelled till death does them part.
Yet, being mortals, made of earth, they, too, endure assorted criticisms and allegations.
Balu was no exception.
When his younger sister Sailaja followed in his footsteps and emerged a playback singer (and actress), people hurled the charge of nepotism at him, as if they had never accepted and tolerated hereditary royals, political dynasties, sporting families, family-inherited business empires, and Bollywood and Tollywood (Telugu film industry) clans.
But such charges didn't dissuade Balu's son Charan from tracing the same footsteps all over again.
Another criticism in popular discourse -- the kind people talk about in private conversations -- is that SPB, once he was well established after the passing of the legendary Ghantasala, stymied the progress of his contemporaries and monopolised the market.
As if a Tendulkar could keep out Dravid, Ganguly, Laxman, Sehwag or Gambhir out of the Indian cricket team, even if he had wanted to or had the power to do so.
Can anyone really keep a supremely gifted, disciplined, determined man/woman down forever?
Balu, it is believed, had a fallout with 'superstar' Krishna for reasons that only Tollywood insiders are privy to.
This after Balu, in his inimitable style, lent a distinct voice to Krishna's picturised songs for decades, which, it can be argued, helped the latter to become a superstar in the first place, staving off resistance from then reigning twin kings NTR and ANR.
This quirk of fate led Krishna to prefer Raj Sitaraman over Balu for his 1986 landmark home production Simhasanam (remade in Hindi as Jeetendra-starrer Singhasan).
ANR's son Nagarjuna and Salman Khan also did a Krishna on Balu.
We can only speculate if it was just to encourage a new crop of singers or nudge the oldies toward the exit door.
By the time the likes of A R Rahman started to run away with India's film music scene with high-tech acoustics, electronic instruments and recording and remixing wizardry -- and vocals, it appeared, were now incidental, not central, to a song -- Balu was already running his last lap.
Yet, Rahman's compositions for Roja, Bombay, Bharateeyudu and Prema Desam are a testament to Balu's great ability to reinvent himself and his voice, in order to adapt to change -- for good or for worse.
In the Rahman-composed song Andamaina Premarani for the Prabhu Deva starrer Premikudu, Balu's voice appears briefly -- he also does an on-screen cameo (more about his acting prowess in a bit) -- but that's enough to 'burn' the number onto your inner auditory 'hard-drive'.
Decades later, upon hearing the first notes of the song, Balu's Satthu Reku Kooda Swarnamaylay and Chinna Motima Kooda Muthyamaylay lines pop up in the mind, just like that.
Long before, Balu may have sensed he had to be practical, and true to his living legend status. Thus followed his attempts to leave a legacy.
Acting career beckoned, and Balu converted his portly frame, happy-go-lucky demeanor and natural effervescence into his strengths, bringing to life comic characters like the music teacher in Pakkinti Ammayi (a role that Kishore Kumar played in Padosan) and the cameo in Premikudu.
Riding his celebrityhood and without the ubiquitous crassness (which helped enhance his stature and dignity), he hosted the hugely popular TV singing-talent show Paadutha Theeyaga.
It was perhaps fitting because Balu's career took off from a similar talent competition in Chennai where he was spotted and picked up by music director Kodandapani.
Besides performing as a dubbing artist and even producing feature films, he evolved into a music director and composed for as many as 45 films, experimenting with new styles and techniques that created different, and memorable, tunes. For instance, in the 1985 Telugu film Jaakie, Balu used the sound of quick, short blows of a whistle continuously in the background for the song Alaa Mandi Padake Jaabilee, sung by S Janaki.
The latter was to compliment Balu profusely later for pulling off the musical novelty.
There's more to Balu than films.
His so-called private or non-film devotional albums are legendary in the Telugu Land, with Siva Sthuti as the flagship, a runaway commercial hit.
He was not just the lyricist's, producer's, director's, composer's or actor's delight. Music-lovers were his gods, and he was their god in the Telugu Land.
"Desha bhaasha-landhu Telugu Lessa" (among the world's languages, Telugu is the sweetest) -- so goes a famous line attributed to both Sri Krishnadevaraya and Vinukonda Vallabharaya. "Telugu is the Italian of the East" is another well-known saying. Telugus and non-Telugus familiar with Balu's songs will probably readily agree.
Telugu as used in lyrics, poems, film dialogue, official communications, speeches and literature tends to be grand and chaste, rich in rhyme, metaphor, simile, alliteration, hyperbole and other figures of speech, and far removed from colloquial language.
So many of Balu's songs are full of words whose literal deep meaning, melancholic philosophy, or naughty euphemisms may elude ordinary minds but whose sense even brutes could grasp and savor somehow.
But some songs do use colloquial words, even tribal or rural lingo, particularly to indicate some of the unpolished dialects of Telangana, which Balu ensured shone as brightly as pure Telugu.
I'd like to theorise that great singers such as Balu may be responsible for two little-recognised accomplishments:
i) they give confidence to both lyricists and music directors to give out their best, attempt the ultimate, or boldly transcend the frontiers, secure in the knowledge that the singer will carry the day for them;
ii) they nourish and sustain a language and preempt its demise through sheer flair -- even unpronounceable, tongue-twisting, mind-bending complex or compound words rolled off Balu's tongue as if they were butter... smooth, soft, delicious, melting... leaving the listener craving for some more of the nectar.
When I grew up in the 1970-1990 period in a cosmopolitan city like Hyderabad where Hindi and Urdu are common, when the medium of instruction at most educational institutions was English, and when the vernacular press every day published content that dumbed down, it was Balu's film songs, their superb lyrics in particular, that sensitized me to the greatness and natural musicality of my mother tongue Telugu.
My picks from the unique aspects of Balu's songs would be the flourish with which he would end certain phrases or lines, particularly in English, the sudden switch to lower or higher emotional gears or pitch in the same song, and the 'la la la', 'ho ho', 'a-ha', 'ra ra re re', 'hey hey, jhu-jhu zhoo', type of riffs and fills.
Balu injected energy, beauty and, I daresay, meaning into even these meaningless syllables, non-lexical vocables, or fillers.
His round, cherubic face, and genial, jovial visage perhaps masked the fact that he, too, can get angry and upset.
In November 2019, Balu had no second thoughts about making his displeasure public when he was not allowed to carry his mobile phone to the meeting of cultural icons convened by Prime Minister Modi.
He was upset because film stars and starlets carried their smartphones into the venue, and happily clicked away selfies with the PM.
To me, singing greatness is that which makes the voice fall on your ears naturally, without drawing the mind's attention, and the melody and the lyric's meaning 'seep in' unnoticed, as if they knew the right passcode to get through the permeable membrane that is the eardrum.
You take that top standard for granted, and don't even realise it, until you hear the voices of the smug younger generation now masquerading as playback singers and successors to Ghantasala, A M Raja, P B Srinivas, Ramakrishna and Balu.
Could someone tell this younger crop of self-styled singers that 'different' isn't always 'better'?
Emulating or even imitating a great could also mean showing respect and paying homage as well as continuing a great tradition and upholding its spirit.
How I wish Balu had sung in more than 14 languages, and gone global, enriching different genres, cultures and styles across the planet with his voice.
That perceived dearth does not in any way diminish Balu's staggering achievements though. For non-Telugus, perhaps an analogy might help to fully appreciate his significance. If Ghantasala Venkateswara Rao was the Sunil Gavaskar of Telugu film music, then Balu was its Sachin Tendulkar.
In Andhra and Telangana, film music-lovers have a mental pantheon of playback singers, wherein local heroes have corresponding Bollywood equivalents. So: Rafi+Mukesh+Manna Dey+Talat Mahmood=Ghantasala. Lata = Suseela. Asha = Janaki. Alka = Sailaja. And Kishore = ?
In a sense, Balu's lifetime work as a playback singer is a testament to the idea of India as one nation, and the sheer magic it can produce if Indians work as one, transcending regional identities.
The music directors who brought out the best in Balu the singer are not Telugus but non-Telugus -- Nadeem-Shravan, K V Mahadevan, M S Viswanathan, Rajan-Nagendra, G K Venkatesh, Ilaiyaraaja, and A R Rahman. (Although Venkatesh is a born Telugu, he is considered more of a Kannadiga, in terms of his musical contributions.)
That four generations of music directors in the mentor-protégé tradition -- MSV, GKV, Ilaiyaraaja and ARR -- swore by Balu is also a testimony to the timeless quality of his voice.
Another aside: the sweetest of Balu's songs were picturised not on superstars but second or even third-rung heroes -- some of them were extremely talented or popular actors of their time -- such as Ramakrishna, Haranath, Chalam, Chandra Mohan, Ranganath, Hari Prasad, Vijay Chander, Narasimha Raju, Murali, Bhanu Chander, and Viswas.
It's as though some cosmic force had willed that their memory should remain alive through Balu's songs picturised on them.
SPB has pleased different kinds of hearts, offered pleasure, entertainment, inspiration and hope to millions over a long period of time, besides contributing to business and industry, and thereby to larger economic activity. His fans even run a charitable foundation in his name.
Balu's has been a fine, arty life of public service worthy of a Bharat Ratna.