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Velugu Needalu
SP Bala Subramanyam

Here is the the series that focuses on the many greats who lurk in the shadows behind the silver screen bringing out the best in them, to radiate and redirect their brilliance onto the silver medium. We hope that these articles would focus our attention and applause to these true "stars" to whom limelight and spot lights do not usually beckon upon.
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Part 1

naa paaTa panchaamRtam
naa gaanaana geervaaNi snaanalu saagincha
naa paaTa panchaamRtam

Ghantalasa, was undoubtedly, the most difficult act to follow. When the meters of the music and the beauty within the lyrics were reaching their crescendo from the 1940s well into the early 70s, Ghantasala moved alongside them, lending his voice to the most mellifluous tunes and tones that Telugu film industry had ever had the fortune of witnessing. His voice became so intertwined with the familiar faces on the screen that it sounded absurd and incongruous watching the familiar face mime to a different playback. "vaalmiki" was Ghantasala, "raamuDu" was Ghantasala, "lakshmanuDu" was Ghantasala, and so was "chaakali vaaDu" who HAD to be Ghantasala. No matter the character that was protrayed on the screen, when the prose gave way to poetry and background music came to fore, all seemed well with the world, when the characters started mouthing to Ghantasala's playback. Situation was no question, emotion was no problem, pitch was never an issue and tempo played along to his tune - the film industry was truly lucky to have such a consummate singer who had the enormous ability to evoke any emotion, suit to any situation and fit just any character - hero, villain, comedian, character actor and such. It is no exaggeration that Ghantasala probably touched every human emotion that could be visited within the purview of film music, lent his voice to probably every possible situation that could be captured with the 24 frames, swam the breadths and covered the depths of what stands as Telugu film music. His popularity and his wide acceptance were such that it totally eclipsed the question that was as eventual as it was inevitable - after Ghantasala, who? It became impossible for anybody to imagine any other voice resonating in the background while the characters in the foreground went through their motions. True, Ghantasala was indeed the toughest act to follow.

vallaki meeTaga pallava paaNi
anguLi chaeyana pallavinee
Saarada swaramula sanchaaraaniki
charaNamu landinchanaa

Time slid a couple of decades along the scale. Commerciality crept into all possible corners of film music; beats replaced melody, synchronized singing gave way to tracks, the word meaning lost its meaning, emotions in a song merely meant touching the higher notes. At this painful juncture stood the last singer who could categorically be termed as an icon, whose prolificness paralleled the other great singer who passed on the baton a few decades ago. In the period between the times when film music was at its zenith and when film music has been reduced to cuts and pastes, borrows and steals, mixes and tracks, where it had the fluctuating fortunes of touching the absolute peaks in a handful of movies and tumbling to its abysmal depths in more than handful of movies, this singer had great fortunes associating himself with the best while having the misfortune of lending his voice to the mundane and mediocre at the same time. Nevertheless, when the books on Telugu film music are finally closed, he would have as much praise and as many pages devoted to his achievements, glories and paens as his predecessor Ghantasala, for the sheer variety in the output, the quality in the same, and the driving force of all, the passion with which he dedicated himself to a lifetime of singing. Setting comparisons aside, he had a tougher challenge adjusting to the fast changing cultures that defined film music over the past few decades - from melody to foot-tap, from foot-tap to fast, from fast to beat, from beat to the eventual rock bottom, the track. He transcended technologies, he rose above the inane lyrics, he made the insipid interesting, he added pep, he gave character, in all he breathed life to the song. The singer who made his name a home for clarity, vivacity, and quality had homes in places more than one - Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Tulu, Malayalam, Hindi, the singer who can categorically be called as the last man standing - S.P.Bala Subramanyam, or Balu in short.

gaLamu kolanu kaagaa
prati paaTa padmamaegaa
padamu vellivirisi raagaa
girisati paada peeTHi kaadaa

For a man whose career has spawned generations, genres, forms and types of music, Balu has redefined the art of playback singing for the new age, which isn't merely the conveying of the emotions of the characters played on the screen, but elevating the art by adding all the new and the necessary ingredients that became a part of the art at the turn of the decades and at the turn of the century. Mayor Rayudu has a deep voice, husky is tone and gruff in tenor. He sounds as though his voice comes down from the deepest valleys resonating upwards through the walls of his speech system. Balu steps into the shoes of Rayudu and becomes Rayudu while rendering "nacchina fuDDoo vecchani beDDoo siddam raa frenDoo takkina vannee pakkana peTTi paTTara O paTToo". Mada Venkateswara Rao has a high pitch and a light in weight voice. It just floats above the normal sounding quite high. Balu imitates it pitch perfectly while rendering "sooDu pinnamma paaDu pillaaDoo paina paina paData nanTaaDoo". The thousands of commercial songs that Balu has sung throughout his career bear a testament to his amazing adapatability of moulding his voice to a variety of actors, imitating, mimicking, sounding just like the playing parts, making himself disappear in the process. Towards the latter part of the 80s, continuing in the 90s and into the new millennium, when songs that could remembered and cherished for a long time were very far and quite few between, Balu constantly reinvented himself, finding the zeal, inspiration and the motivation, whenever he stepped in front of the microphone. While it is quite easy to ride on the high wave singing one great song after another, hogging the limelights and the laurels, the true mettle of the singer comes to full fore, while making the ordinary sound extra-ordinary, transforming the mundane into much interesting and infusing life into the insipid.

sruti layalu mangaLahaaratulai
swara saraLi swaagata geetikalai
prati kshaNam sumaarchanam
sarasvatee samarpaNam

Before it got a lot worse, it was a lot better. The era of the early to late 70s which saw the infusion of new talent in all departments, taking the cue and clue from their illustrious predecessors, ushered a new era of new voices - lyricists, singers, music directors directors and above all, tasteful producers. The glut of small budget movies from the production houses of Yuva Chitra, Navatha, Gopi Krishna, Taraka Prabhu and the like, allowed the lyricists to be at their literary best, thus giving the music directors enough to play with and play against, thereby contributing the phenomenal rise of Balu. Chakravarthy, Satyam, Ramesh Naidu, Rajen-Nagendra, Illayaraja and such talented music directors who started their careers alongside Balu, gave him just the right work to earn him enough recognition and build up on it. The easing of the voice of lead playback from the Ghantasala into Ramakrishna, from Ramakrishna into Balu, also marked the slow transition of the telugu song which centered heavily around the classical structure into a more lighter and lilting in mood and tone. But for the occasional "SankaraabhraNam" and such classical purist's delights, Balu's career sailed smoothly on the sails of light music, where he carved a niche for himself. For a self-declared novice in traditional classical music, Balu's grasp of the structure of seven notes, it's many variations, combinations and intonations pars anyone trained in classical, evident amply in quite a few songs as "sri tumbura naarada naadaamrutam" (bhairava dweepam), "maanasa veeNa madhugeetam" (pantulamma), "sa ri ga ma pa da ni swara dhaara" (sree vaariki praema laekha) and the like. As much as it is impossible to cover all the facets of the tens of thousands of his renditions, a worthy start would be observing his career by his handling of the nava rasas.

Click here for Part - 2

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