P.B. Sreenivas (1930-2013) was a playback singer who could effortlessly bring a range of emotions into the songs he sang. By B. KOLAPPAN
IN the past, Prathivathi Bhayangaram (P.B.) was a title given to Vaishnavite scholars who were regularly engaged in philosophical and literary debates; and their names evoked trepidation in their rivals. In the case of P.B. Sreenivas, the playback singer, who died on April 14, it is a different story. While Sreenivas’ ancestors were scholars of great merit, he belonged to the field of film music and the title evoked pleasant feelings instead of fear. He was a singer with a very soft voice, a voice that traversed a whole range of human emotions, ranging from romance to melancholy.
PBS, as he was better known, gave voice to many great heroes of south Indian films. But he began his musical journey by singing a few lines of a Hindi song in the 1952 film Mr Sampath, based on R.K. Narayan’s novel Mr Sampath: The Printer of Malgudi. Playback singers Shamshad Begum, Geeta Roy (Dutt) and P.G. Krishnaveni alias Jikki were the others who sang along with him in the film, which was produced by S.S. Vasan, the owner of Gemini Studios.
PBS got the opportunity to sing the lines through his father’s friend Eemani Sankara Shastry, a great veena player and the music director of Gemini Studios. When his father, Paninthiraswamy introduced PBS to Sankara Shastry, the latter asked him to sing a few lines. The young PBS moved the music director by rendering Mohammed Rafi’s “Huye Hum Jinke Liye Barbad”.
“He has a lively bass voice. He has a great future,” Sankara Shastry told Paninthiraswamy. By living up to his words, PBS proved wrong the prediction of an astrologer that he was unlikely to succeed in the world of music or any other field related to art.
PBS’s love for music began at a very young age. His mother, Seshagiri Ammal, sang devotional songs well. His uncle, Kidambi Krishnamachari, a theatre personality, encouraged his musically inclined nephew. PBS spent his days singing the Hindi numbers of Talat Mahmood, Rafi, Manna Dey, Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar. His familiarity with Hindi film songs came in handy when he sang for Mr Sampath. His next chance came from the Kannada music director R. Nagendra Rao in the Kannada remake of the Tamil film Jathagam. His career graph gradually moved up after this. His first major break came in 1959 when he was roped in to sing playback for Gemini Ganesan in Veerapandia Kattabomman, a film on the life of the Poligar or Palayagar who challenged the East India Company and was hanged to death. The music director of the film was G. Ramanathan.
The song “Inbam Pongum Vennila” in the filmannounced the arrival of PBS in Tamil filmdom. It happened at a time when Tamil cinema was dominated by mega stars M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan, with T.M. Soundararajan (TMS) as their permanent playback singer.
“But PBS’ voice perfectly suited heroes such as Gemini Ganesan, K. Balaji, Muthuraman and Ravichandran. He became the TMS of these heroes,” said Vamanan, historian of Tamil film music.
However, only in 1960, when Adhi Narayana Rao gave him a chance, did PBS secure a permanent place in Tamil film music. Of the four songs in Adutha Veetu Pen, three became mega hits—“Kannaley Pesi Pesi Kollathey”, “Vanitha Maniey” and “Malayil Malarcholayil”.
In Kappalottiya Tamizhan,a film on the life of the freedom fighter V.O. Chidambaram Pillai who launched a swadeshi shipping company, PBS rendered the song “Kaatruveliyidai Kannamma” for Gemini Ganesan. This song was penned by the nationalist poet Subramanya Bharathi.
“It was a hit number, but it took another year for PBS to establish himself as the permanent playback singer for Gemini Ganesan in the place of A.M. Raja. The song “Kalangalil Aval Vasantham” in Pavamannippudid the magic,” recalled Vamanan.
Even PBS used to say that the song changed his life. He went on to sing some of the outstanding songs in the music of the famous M.S. Viswanathan-T.K. Ramamurthy team.
If duets found a new expression in the voice of PBS, he also excelled in rendering melancholic songs with a philosophical touch. When he became part of the Tamil film music trio of himself, music directors Viswanathan-Ramamurthy, and lyricist Kannadasan, cinema songs reached new heights.
“He could sing effortlessly and pronounce the words perfectly; few could evoke pathos the way PBS did,” said Vamanan.
“Ninaipathellam Nadanthu Vittal”, “Mayakkama Kalakkama”, “Manithan Yenbavan Theivamagalam” and “Yetho Manithan Piranthu Vittan” are songs that haunt music lovers even after four decades.
PBS also excelled in singing Carnatic raga-based film songs. “Nilavey yenndidam” in Ramu, “Partheyn Siritheyn” in Sahana and a virutham in Hamsananthi in the film Karnanbore testimony to his talents.
“In a few seconds he brought out all the beauty of Hamsananthi, while it may take some time for a professional Carnatic musician to produce a similar effect,” said Lalitha Ram, the biographer of Carnatic stalwarts such as G.N. Balasubramaniam and Pazhani Subramania Pillai.
Though his mother tongue was Telugu, PBS could not replicate his success in Tamil and Kannada in the Telugu film world. Kannada film icon Rajkumar once said PBS was his shaareera (voice) while he himself was a mere shareera (body).
“However, opportunities for him in the Kannada film industry became few and far between after Rajkumar, encouraged by music director G.K. Venkatesh, became his own playback singer,” said Vamanan.
The arrival of new singing talents such as K.J. Yesudas, S.P. Balasubrahmanyam and Malaysia Vasudevan and music directors like Ilaiyaraja transformed the film industry altogether. SPB and Yesudas became the playback singers for MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, and even Gemini Ganesan, who earlier could not find a perfect playback singer other than PBS. The latter half of the 1960s changed the film career of PBS, who found himself painted into a corner of the tinsel world. In 1986, he was given the opportunity to sing the song “Tholvi Nilaiyena Ninaithal” in the film Oomai Vizhigal.
“He never complained about the lack of singing opportunities. He was dignity personified,” said Vamanan.
PBS was a familiar face at the erstwhile Drive-in Woodlands Hotel in Chennai, and one could spot him there with his turban, a pocket full of pens, and a file of lyrics.
When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, PBS penned the song “Man to Moon; Moon to God”, recorded it with singer S. Janaki and sent the recording to Armstrong and the then United States President Richard Nixon. Both promptly acknowledged it and wrote back to him.