By V Ramnarayan
Visitors to Chennai’s iconic Woodlands drive-in restaurant near the Gemini flyover during the 1990s and the first decade of the new millennium came to expect the presence there of another icon of the city—PB Srinivas, the man with a mellifluous voice who had entertained film music listeners for decades earlier. Srinivas was already a senior citizen but with his creative instincts intact and his productivity as a composer of semi-classical and devotional songs amazingly high. Grandly attired in traditional south Indian clothes topped by a resplendent zari-bordered turban, he sat through the day at one of the tables of the restaurant surrounded by files and his pocket filled with pens of different hues. Over the years, some of the restaurant’s regular clients picked up the courage to go up to him and engage him in conversation, discovering in the process that his voice was still as strong and resonant as when he sang his immortal melodies in films.
When the drive-in restaurant was taken over by the state government in 2008, not only were residents of Chennai deprived of a popular meeting place where students, salesmen, entrepreneurs and executives wove their dreams and planned their projects, they were also denied the pleasure of running into a much-loved celebrity of the city. Srinivas shifted his informal office to other Woodlands cafeterias in the city, but it was never the same again.
Srinivas, popularly known as PBS, was arguably the most versatile, cerebral and well-read musician in the film world for the six decades he was part of it. He was a fluent linguist, for one thing, with mastery over the enunciation of lyrics in Tamil. Telugu, Malayalam. Kannada and Hindi, among other languages. For those not familiar with Indian films, they often have songs in them (six to ten songs in a movie was par for the course for several decades until recently), with the actor lip-syncing with the recorded voices of ‘playback’ singers. Tamil cinema was dominated by a handful of stars when PBS entered the scene, and singers like TM Soundararajan lent their voices to the leading stars of the day, like Sivaji Ganesan and MG Ramachandran. PBS’s voice was not a good match for those of these stars, but fortunately for him, it suited the voices of some other actors like Gemini Ganesan and Muthuraman, for whom PBS sang some of the most memorable melodies in southern cinema.
Born to P.B.V.L. Phanindraswami, an inspector of cooperatives, and Seshagiriamma, in coastal Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh, Srinivas grew up in a sprawling house belonging to his grandparents. He was in his early teens when he fell in love with Hindi film songs composed by such wizards as Naushad.
In the early 1950s, PBS and film music composers GK Venkatesh and M.S. Viswanathan—who brought out Srinivas’s best in Tamil cinema—made a trio of musicians who swore by Naushad. Encouraged by maternal uncle Kidambi Krishnamacharya, a theatre actor and director, Srinivas dreamt of becoming a playback singer like the famous Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar of Hindi cinema.
His disciplinarian father discouraged him, even tried to forbid him, and insisted he obtain a degree even after he tripped twice in his school finals. Thanks to tutorials in Madras, PBS finally earned a BCom degree, but his father now wanted him to study for a law degree. Moving to Madras to join the Government Law College, PBS spent more time on music practice than law classes, even winning inter-collegiate singing competitions in the process. He enlisted the services of an astrologer to convince his father that his future lay in film music rather than a conventional job!
Veena virtuoso Emani Sankara Sastri, one of the music directors of Gemini Studios in charge of Hindi films, and a family friend, recognised merit in Srinivas’s lovely voice, and started employing Srinivas as his assistant. Emani proved a loving benefactor who tended to the younger friend like a father, showering him with warmth and affection. Sastri mentored him in growing into a sensitive purveyor of raga-based songs. (“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,” says film music expert Vamanan in his obituary).
Adinarayana Rao, G Ramanathan and MB Srinivasan, great composers of film songs with a classical touch to them, were some of the music directors to spot the talent in PBS and give him early breaks in Tamil and other southern cinema.
Through the 1960s and seventies, PBS enjoyed success as the most delicate and sensitive voice in Tamil cinema, with his duets with woman singers of the calibre of P Susila winning him a sizable number of admirers, but without the fanatical following of the likes of TM Soundararajan. He was at his evocative best while rendering sad or philosophical songs. He became part of a popular trio that included the music directorsViswanathan-Ramamurthy and lyricist Kannadasan, and delivered some of the most tuneful and emotive songs of the era.
Competition soon caught up with PBS, with some brilliant new voices in KJ Yesudas and SP Balasubramaniam and music directors like Ilaiyaraja transformed the film industry altogether with a predominance of SPB and Yesudas songs. Fading away from the playback-singing world, PBS reinvented himself as a composer of semi-classical and devotional music, exploiting his proficiency in languages, poetry and compositional ability. Though no longer a star singer in the films, he continued in the music field almost till his death in April 2013.
A man of many interests, PBS was a regular at many classical music concerts in the city, Hindustani music in particular, and invariably made it a point at the end of a performance to applaud the artists with some choice phrases of praise, including verses he composed on the spot. This writer was among those who marvelled at his devotion to music that made him nonchalantly climb a steep spiral staircase to attend a Hindustani vocal recital at a suburban venue one evening just a couple of months before his death.
Among some of the quirky sidelights of PBS’s life was a song he composed when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, PBS sent a recording of the song to Armstrong and Richard Nixon, then president of the US. He treasured their replies to him.
According to his devoted wife Janaki, ‘He lived a carefree man; he has departed just as he lived’. The singer had had close brushes with death earlier, once butted by a cow with fierce horns on a busy Chennai street. When the end came, however, he had just sat at the dining table and passed away peacefully.
First published in Matrix, the house journal of The Sanmar Group