(Part 1 of a tribute to PB Srinivas)
He first sought distinctiveness in appearance by wearing a fur cap. In recent years, the cap made way for an even more colourful turban. This was his second coming in the wake of a media boom, a wave of nostalgia and some institutional recognition. He was president of the Tamil Nadu Iyal Isai Mandram for a few years. With his zari-embroidered orange headgear, P. B. Sreenivos (that was how he spelt his name) made the Woodlands Drive-in, and after its acquisition by the government for a public park, the Krishna restaurant of New Woodlands, both busy spaces frequented by the public, his haunt. Down the decades, he would also barge into Carnatic music cutcheris and public functions to lavish his warm poetic praise on up and coming artistes. One memory is of his paeans to the just-then rising ‘Mandolin’ U Shrinivas. Even competitors who eclipsed his career received a good share of his plaudits!
And as he lay in the pandal outside his house for members of the public and friends and admirers to pay their last respects, you couldn’t miss the curious lifelike expression on his face. Peering at him for the last glimpse of his visage, you could hear an inner voice mutter, ‘‘PBS, enough! Now get up and let’s hear you starting off on your pieces of philosophical wisdom, such as “Music without melody makes you sick,” or Gane gane par likha hai gane valon ka naam (On every song is writ the name of its singer).
Vocalist Madurai G. S. Mani rushes in from Coimbatore to bid adieu to a dear friend of more than half a century and leaves with the words, ‘‘It’s difficult to find another like him. He was such a great rasika.’’ Janaki, who had become the singer’s wife when he was just 19, is calm in the face of her bereavement and calls his passing auspicious. ‘He lived a carefree man; he has departed just as he lived’. The singer who had had close brushes with death – he once described to me with glee how he was catapulted from behind by a cow with fierce horns on the busy Mada street in Mylapore – but the final leavetaking was the closest that life, or death could come to any man. He had just sat at the dining table before taking his last breath. He had achieved effortless death, anayaasa maranam.
Born to P.B.V.L. Phanindraswami, an inspector of cooperatives and Seshagiriamma, in coastal Kakinada, Srinivas grew up in the sprawling house of his maternal grandparents. He was in his early teens when Naushad Ali bowled people over with a new wave of film music with Rattan (1944) and Anmol Ghadi (1946). The young Srinivas, who used to tear up posters and sell them to waste paper buyers to see films, was intoxicated by Naushad’s ditties. In the early fifties, along with G.K. Venkatesh, a gifted sitarist and Kannada film composer and music director M.S. Viswanathan, who brought out Srinivas’s best in Tamil cinema, Srinivas made a trio of musicians who swore by Naushad as their god of music. Even as he lapped up the songs of Muhammad Rafi, Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar, Srinivas dreamt of becoming a playback singer himself, his artistic ambitions fuelled by maternal uncle Kidambi Krishnamacharya, a drama actor and director.
His disciplinarian father would have none of it, and set academic goalposts like a degree even after he tripped twice in his school finals, and was experiencing nightmares over his Mercantile law paper in his B.Com. Thanks to tutorials in Madras, PBS finally cleared it only to have his father demand a law degree! Taking that as another opportunity to be in the home of all four southern film industries, he capped the (year in which he scarcely attended law college) by winning an inter-collegiate music competition there. When his father came up with an astrological card to thwart his singing ambitions Srinivas quietly questioned the success rate of astrological predictions and gained the green signal from the astrologer and his father.
Enter Emani Sankara Sastri, veena virtuoso and one of the music directors of Gemini Studios in charge of Hindi films. Just about eight years elder to the 20-year-old Srinivas then, he was a family friend who hailed from a small temple town near Kakinada. Recognising Srinivas’s lovely voice and yen for Hindi and Hindi film music, Emani started employing Srinivas as an assistant. Emani proved a loving benefactor who tended to the younger friend like a father, showering him with warmth and affection. At the famous Gemini canteen, “Emani would eat just a little but lovingly watch me gorge myself’! Though Srinivas learnt no classical music from the veena exponent, Emani encouraged the musical flowering of Srinivas without insisting on purity of genre. A few decades hence, Emani was to witness the mature Srinivas compose and sing a ragamalika tribute to Tyagaraja. Srinivas even stumbled upon a new raga, which he named Navaneeta Sumasudha and a ‘diamond key’ to identify the swaras of melakarta ragas.
Srinivas got to sing a few snatches of song in ‘Mr. Sampath’, Gemini Studios’ Hindi remake of ‘Miss Malini’, with Shamshad Begum, Geeta Roy and Jikki.
When veteran Kannada film personality made ‘Jathakam’ in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada, he had P.B.S. singing, ‘Mooda nambikkaiyaale’ in the tune of Muhammad Rafi’s ‘Ye zindagi ke mele’ (from the film ‘Mela’). Srinivas’s way with languages began to work for him from the start, and he sang two songs in all three versions of Jathakam.
Those where times when Kodambakkam resounded to all the Dravidian tongues and a dash of Hindi if you like, and films switched languages with ease (dubbing from language to another being a busy secondary industry), and Srinivas was not short of opportunities though recognition was in short supply. Srinivas had a mellifluous bass voice, soft and staid but capable of subtle inflections (savour the ‘malligai’ in the later career-making hit, ‘Kaalangalil Aval Vasantham’, which sails so softly along G-R-S- R - G - R- S, like a closely woven string of jasmine buds. The king of Carnatic music in films, G. Ramanathan more than understood this aspect of the singer’s art and gave him some dainty songs. Inbam pongum vennila in which the clarinet and strings shimmer with Srinivas and Susila in Veerapandiya Kattabomman, Kaniyo pago karkando in which Srinivas and MLV played melodic mesmers and of course the Subramanya Bharati winner in Kappaloattiya Thamizhan, Kaatruveliyidai Kannamma (which starts off from Mohanam and woos the suddha madhyamam and kakali nishadam in winning romantic strains).
M.B. Srinivasan came up with a winsome melody from the Harikambhoji scale in the communist-powered debacle Paadai Teriyidu Paar, pitching Srinivas and S. Janaki to a bewitching melody based on Gnanpeeth award winner Jayakanthan’s rare lyric, Tennankeetru olaiyile. We may no more be able to witness the sparrow cradling on the coconut frond, but here is one ditty that will rock melody lovers for all time to time. Adi Narayana Rao, known for his predilection for the Hindusthani idiom, came up with winsome light melodies in Adutta Veettu Penn, a storyline that came to Tamil from the original Bengali (Paasher Baadi) through Telugu (Pakkinti Ammaai). But none of all this made much difference to the singer’s career! Not until Kaalangalil aval vasantam (Paava Mannippu), with its awesome pauses and lovely interludes on the harmonica, and an unforgettable lyric (Kannadasan taking off from Krishna’s assertion in the Gita that he is Margazhi among the months and concluding it with the reason for the hero’s enthusiastic song – ‘She has made me a poet’!). The song rode on the wings of success and the musical wave of a new ‘light music’ and made a hundred flowers bloom for PBS.