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P.B. Sreenivas and S. Janaki: Evergreen film songs of an endearing singer duo

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Tamil film music has been enriched over the years by the immense contribution of non-Tamil music composers and playback singers of South Indian origin. 

Some of the notable non-Tamil music composers are M.S. Viswanathan, S.M. Subbiah Nayudu, T.G. Lingappa, S. Dakshinamurthi, S. Rajeswara Rao, T. Chalapathy Rao, P. Adinarayana Rao, V. Kumar, R. Vidyasagar and M.M. Keeravani. Some of the renowned singers are T.M. Soundararajan, P. Susheela, V. Ghantasala, A.M. Rajah, Jikki, S. Janaki, P.B. Sreenivas, P. Leela, Jamuna Rani, R. Balasaraswathidevi, Chitra, Sujatha, S.P. Balasubramanyam and K.J. Yesuthas.

In recent times North Indian artistes including Shreya Goshal, Sunidhi Chauhan and Sadhana Sargham have also made their mark in South Indian films in general and Tamil films in particular. This film music heritage cutting across linguistic and regional boundaries provides new meaning to the saying “music has no language”.

An indispensable feature

An indispensable feature of Indian language films are the song sequences. The songs are usually picturised on actors or actresses who lip-synch them on screen. The voices we hear belong to off-screen singers known generally as playback singers. The songs sung by these playback singers are pre-recorded for movies.

Fortunately for these playback singers they are given credit in the film titles as well as the soundtrack albums. Film songs therefore are identified by the singer who actually sings them and not the actor who lip synchs on screen. Indian movie playback singers have gained much popularity and many, many fans over the years by their singing.

Among the talented non-Tamil vocalists who mesmerised Tamil film ‘rasikas’ in the past are playback singers who paired off with each other and made names for themselves as singers of enchanting duets in Tamil film music. 

Some of the well-known singer duos of yesteryear are V. Ghantasala and P. Leela, T.M. Soundararajan and P. Susheela, A.M. Rajah and Jikki, and P. B. Sreenivas and S. Janaki. This column has in the past written about singers like P. Leela and P. Susheela and also on the music composer duo M.S. Viswanathan and T.K. Ramamoorthy. ‘Spotlight’ this week focuses on the singing duo P.B. Sreenivas and S. Janaki and some of their captivating duets. An important reason for doing so is due to this month being April.

The current month of April has a “connection” with both these singers. S. Janaki was born on 23 April 1938 and celebrated her 80th birthday last week. She announced her retirement from singing last year. Sadly P.B. Sreenivas passed away five years ago on 14 April 2013. 

This article therefore is both a tribute to and a celebration of the two singers on the occasion of two significant dates in April namely the fifth death anniversary of P.B. Sreenivas and the 80th birthday of S. Janaki.

S. Janaki

Let me begin on a joyful note felicitating Janaki who became an octogenarian last week. Sishtla Sreeramamurthy Janaki is popularly known as S. Janaki. This well-known Indian singer of film songs who is praised as the “Nightingale of the South” was born on 23 April 1938 during the British colonial period at Pallapatla in Repalle. The Repalle town is located in the Guntur District of present day Aandhra Pradesh state.

Janaki hails from a Telugu Brahmin family. Her father Sishtla Sreeramamurthy was a teacher and native physician. In a splendid career spanning 60 years Janaki has sung over 20,000 songs for films made in 16 different languages. The languages are Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malyalam, Tulu, Konkani, Baduga, Hindi, Bengali, Oriya, Sanskrit, Urdu, English, Japanese, German and Sinhala. 

The ‘Southern Nightingale’ has won four national awards and 31 State Government awards in India during her illustrious career. The 31 State award breakdown is 14 – Kerala, 10 – Andhra Pradesh and seven – Tamil Nadu. 

Her songs ‘Sindhoora Poove’ in ‘16 Vayadhinile’ (Tamil), ‘Ettumanoorambalathil’ in ‘Oppol’ (Malayalam), ‘Vennello Godhaari Andham’ in ‘Sithara’ (Telugu) and ‘Inji Iduppazhaga…’ in ‘Thevar Magan’ (Tamil) fetched her the National Award for Best Female Playback Singer four times.

S. Janaki’s first song in a Tamil film was from ‘Mahathala Naattu Mary’ (Mary from Magdalene).The film released on 20 December 1957 was produced by M.L. Pathi and directed by S.S. Rajan. The song which she sung together with P.B. Sreenivas in the film was ‘Kannukku Nerae, Minnidum Thaarai’. The music composer was Rengasamy Parthasarathy who later migrated to the USA and ran a successful business in music records and cassettes.

A perennial favourite

The solo which catapulted Janaki to fame overnight was in the film ‘Konjum Salangai’ released in January 1962. Although she had no formal training in Carnatic or Hindustani music, Janaki rendered the classical ‘Singara Velanae Deva’ song magnificiently. She reached the upper octaves admirably for the soulful song based on the Carnatic raga Abheri. In Hindustani music the raga Bhimpalasi is said to resemble Abheri closely.

Though Janaki has sung thousands of songs and won numerous awards, it is ‘Singara Velane Deva’ sung more than five decades ago that remains as high watermark of her brilliant career. It remains a perennial favourite tugging at the heartstrings of young and old transcending time and age boundaries. Even aspiring young singers of the current modern age often turn to this song as the ultimate test of singing talent and prowess.

It was my good fortune to hear Janaki sing this number on stage at a music show in Toronto some years ago. A ‘Vidwaan’ from Jaffna accompanied her on the Naadhaswaram. He was seated on a mat playing the instrument while Janaki sang seated on a chair.

I recall Janaki apologising profusely to the Naadaswaram vidwaan and the audience for sitting on a chair as she could not sit cross-legged on the floor due to arthritis. Janaki also lavished praise on the Vidwaan (whose name I forget now) for his performance, saying it was truly a great accomplishment.

P.B. Sreenivas

Let me turn to P.B. Sreenivas now. The full name of P.B. Sreenivas was Prathivadi Bayankara Sreenivas. He was widely known by his initials PBS. Sreenivas himself often quipped that his initials PBS denoted “Play Back Singer”.

P.B. Sreenivas was a Telugu by ethnicity. However he sang over 3,000 songs in several Indian languages inclusive of Tamil in a career that spanned many decades. It was in Kannada films that Sreenivas had the greatest impact. He used to voice for the great Kannadiga actor Rajkumar who himself remarked that he (Rajkumar) was the “sareeram” (body) and Sreenivas the “saareeram” (voice).

PBS who lived in Chennai sang many songs in Tamil films. As in the case of Rajkumar in Kannada films, PBS achieved much recognition as the singing voice of ‘Kaadhal Mannan’ (Romance King) Gemini Ganesan. He also sang for actors like Balaji, Aananthan, Sreeram, Ravichandran, Jaishankar, Muthuraman, Kalyanakumar, etc. He sang very few songs on screen for M.G. Ramachandram, Sivaji Ganesan or S.S. Rajendran.

P.B. Sreenivas has often been described as a “crooner” of film songs. Usually crooners sing slowly and softly in a captivating manner. The songs are generally of a romantic flavour. This sentimental singing style tugs the emotional heartstrings of the listeners. PBS excelled in crooning during his halcyon days. The love songs were both sad and happy. He was also praised for rendering philosophical and inspirational songs on screen. 

The Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy duo provided a lot of opportunities for PBS. After they broke up M.S. Viswanathan gave PBS a lot of chances. PBS sang many solos and duets for Tamil films. He was paired with singers like Jikki, P. Susheela, S. Janaki, Jamuna Rani, Soolamangalam Rajalakshmi and L.R. Eeaswari in singing Tamil film songs. 

A class of their own

Though PBS’s songs with Susheela are greater in quantity, it is his duets with Janaki that are great in quality. The Sreenivas-Sushila pair has sung many perennial favourites like ‘Kaatru Veliyidai Kannamaa,’ ‘Inbam Pongum Vennilaa,’ ‘Paarthaaen, Sirithaen’ and ‘Nenjam Marappathillai’. Yet the limited number of duets sung by the Sreenivas-Janaki duo in a class of their own. This is my personal opinion which I know is shared by many. Who can forget the immortal ‘Thennankeetru Oonjalilaey’?

S. Janaki’s first song in Tamil films was with PB Sreenivas. As stated earlier, both these Brahmin singers hailing from Telugu land made their marks in Tamil cinema by rendering memorable duets. Though PBS sang softly and pitched it low and medium, his voice was a deep bass. Janaki singing high pitch was a soprano who was capable of getting away with falsettos. Both were singers without formal training in Carnatic music.

Sreenivas and Janaki complemented each other in singing. PBS had a bass voice while Janaki’s was that of a soprano. More importantly, there was a personal chemistry between them. Both respected each other and got on famously.

P.B. Sreenivas who wrote poems in many languages penned several in praise of Janaki. She framed some and hung them on her wall. Once while celebrating her birthday, PBS delivered an impromptu speech and spontaneously shouted out “Janakikku Jay” (Victory to Janaki) in a heart-warming gesture.

When PBS passed away in 2013 there were many tributes from contemporaries and fellow artistes. A most touching and heartfelt comment was from Janaki. “We have lost the most humble singer I have ever come across in my life. He was so humble that he spent most of his time appreciating the work of fellow singers. He would even take time to write poems praising their work,” Janaki, who sang several chartbusters with him over the years, told IANS.

“He was known for his simplicity and very welcoming attitude. Even when he was at the pinnacle of his career, he never grew greedy of his position and always respected fellow artists,” she added. “My first song in Tamil ‘Magadhal Naattu Mary’ was with PBSji. We sang so many duets together. I can’t exactly remember how many songs, but most of them were quite popular,” she said.

PBS-Janaki duets

The song which she sung together with P.B. Sreenivas in the film was ‘Kannukku Nerae, Minnidum Thaarai’. Since the film itself had a Christian ethos the song too had Western music connotations. It is easy on the ear. The words were written by M.P. Sivan. I think it was picturised on Sreeram and Kumari Thangam. This was the first of the PBS-Janaki Tamil duets on screen. Then came the film ‘Deivabalam’ (Divine Strength) in 1959 made in Tamil and Telugu simultaneously. P.B. Sreenivas and Janaki sang a soulful duet, ‘Malaroadu Villaiyaadum Thendralae Vaaraai,’ with several nuances in that film. The music composer was G. Aswathama who was none other than the father of renowned Veena artiste Echampati Gayathri generally referred to as “Veena Gayathri”.

The following year 1960 saw the film ‘Paathai Theriyuthu Paar’ (Look the path is visible) being released. The music was composed by the creative genius M.B. Sreenivasan whose abilities and potential was never utilised properly or realised fully in Tamil film songs.

Among the many immortal songs in the film was ‘Thennankeetru Oonjalilaey’. This is a song that I like very much. It was the favourite Tamil film song of my classmate and friend Shanthi who is no more. I always think of her when I listen to this song.

The film was path-breaking in its own way. The director-cinematographer was the famous Bengali, Nemai Ghosh. This love song was picturised on K. Vijayan and L. Vijayalakshmi. Vijayan later developed into a film editor and director. Vijayalakshmi became popular acting as heroine in the ‘James Bond type’ films made by Modern Theatres in Salem, Tamil Nadu. The song is exquisitely filmed amidst rural scenic beauty.

The simple poetic words were written by the great Tamil novelist and short story writer Jayakanthan. Incidentally Jayakanthan himself went on to make films based on his writings. M.B. Sreenivasan utilises instruments such as the flute, violin and piano for the song. They blend harmoniously jointly as well as separately in the song.

The flute is played by maestro “Maali” (T.R. Mahalingam).The sound of the flute invokes the call of the cuckoo and chirping of sparrows. One feels the blowing and emotionally swings and sways to the Thendral or southern breeze when listening to the song. As the song and music progress to a slow beat and tempo, time stands still and then moves on.

This eternal favourite was one which made P.B. Sreenivas immensely popular among listeners. Sreenivas himself told the film historian Vaamanan later: “Oreay oru paattuthaan. Aanaal ennmaadhiri paattu athu” (just one song, but what a great song) It is a pity that no visual copy of this song sequence is available now.

An unexpected boost

The Tamil film song realm however continued to be dominated by the T.M. Soundararajan and P. Susheela duo. Even if music directors were willing to give chances to others, the big star actors and actresses wanted to lip-synch only for TMS and Susheela on the silver screen.

This tendency prevented P.B. Sreenivas and Janaki from getting the opportunities they deserved. At least Sreenivas got many chances due to his voicing for Gemini Ganesan but Janaki suffered in the early decades because star actresses like Padmini, Savithri, Saroja Devi, Vijaya Kumari and Devika insisted upon Susheela and nobody else to sing for them.

Actually Janaki came into her own professionally only after the advent of Illayarajah in 1976. She had a cinematic re-birth with Illayarajah’s maiden film ‘Annakkili’. Thereafter her career was on the ascendant for three decades.

The Sreenivas-Janaki duo got an unexpected boost from ace filmmaker C.V. Sridhar who ushered in a refreshing change to the world of Tamil cinema. The legendary director was miffed with Susheela for drastically increasing her fee for singing on account of her rising popularity. In a bid to counter the TMS-Susheela monopoly, Sridhar thought of promoting an alternative.

Sridhar chose Janaki whose classic number ‘Singara Velanae Deva’ in ‘Konjum Salangai’ had captured the hearts of many. Likewise P.B. Sreenivas too had grabbed attention by his ‘Kaalangalil Aval Vasantham’ in ‘Paava Mannippu’. Both songs had become widely popular even before the films were released thanks to the airwaves of Radio Ceylon. PBS and Janaki had together captivated many a heart including that of Sridhar through ‘Thennankeetru Oonjalilaey’.

So C.V. Sridhar signed up the P.B. Sreenivas-S. Janaki duo for some of his films. Two films directed by Sridhar, ‘Policekaaran Magal’ and ‘Sumai Thaangi,’ were released within months of each other in 1962. ‘Policekaaran Magal’ had three duets for PBS and Janaki besides solos for both. The words were written by Kannadasan while music was composed by Viswanathan-Ramamoorthy.

One duet between PBS and Janaki was ‘Intha Mandrathil Oadi varum Ilanthendralaik Kaetkindren’. It was picturised on the brother and sister played by Muthuraman and Vijayakumari. Another was ‘Ponnenbaen Siru Poovenbaen’ picturised on the lovers Balaji and Vijayakumari. The latter song based on the Kaanadaa Raga with shades of Darbari Kaanada is a film song classic that brings out the best in both singers.

‘Sumai Thangi’ starring Gemini Ganesan, Devika and L. Vijayalalkshmi had two duets. One was picturised on Gemini and Devika – ‘Enthan Paarvayin Kaelvikku Pathilenach Cholvathu’.The song begins with Sreenivas melodiously chanting “Radha, Radhaa”. The other ‘Oh Oh Oh Maambalathu Vandu’ is a song picturised on L. Vijayalakshmi acting as Gemini’s sister and her lover played by Haranath a.k.a. A. Raja.

Sridhar’s supplanting of Susheela by Janaki was an experiment that did not last long. The pressure of top actresses and distributors financing the film production could not be resisted. So Susheela came back into Sridhar films again. ‘Nenjam Marappathillai’ saw PBS and Susheela singing together the unforgettable ‘Nenjam Marappathillai – Athu Ninaivai Ilappathillai’ for Kalyanakumar and Devika.

The last Tamil film song duet

Music Maestro K.V. Mahadevan affectionately referred to as “Maamaa” in the film industry wanted to use P.B. Sreenivas and Janaki in the duet ‘Sinnanchiriya Vannap Paravai, Ennathaich Cholluthammaa’ for ‘Kungumam’. This however did not materialise as Sivaji Ganesan insisted upon T.M. Soundararajan voicing for him. Sivaji was not willing to let even Seergali Govindarajan sing for that number. The song was a hit for Janaki sans PBS.

Thereafter the twin tones of P.B. Sreenivas and Janaki became increasingly inaudible on the Tamil screen. There were however a few rare duets by both in films. One was ‘En Aaruyire Nal Vaanamuthey’ in the film ‘Theivathin Theivam’.This film was the last film for which music was totally composed by the late G. Ramanathan.

Another duet with a classical background was sung by PBS and Janaki in ‘Thiruvillaiaadal’. The song ‘Pothigai Malai Uchhiyile Purappadum Thendral’ was picturised on Muthuraman playing the Pandyan King and Devika his queen. The words were by Kannadasan and music by K.V. Mahadevan. For many years after ‘Thiruvilaiaadal’ in 1965 the P.B. Sreenivas-Janaki duo was not heard of in Tamil films though both did render solos and sing separately with others.

Finally after eight years the duo sang together again in 1973 for B.R. Bhanthulu’s ‘Ganga Gowri’. The song was ‘Antharangam Naan Arivaen’ based on the Hindustani Bhageshri raga. M.S. Viswanathan who composed the music using a wide range of instruments had both PBS and Janaki render the song with soulful passion. Janaki was given the high pitch notes and PBS the medium range notes in order to make both give off their best. It is a song that echoes with music that reverberates.

This was the last Tamil film song duet by P.B. Sreenivas and Janaki. It was most fitting perhaps that the swansong duet by this mellifluous duo should have been composed by M.S. Viswanathan who together with T.K. Ramamoorthy made PBS-Janaki a household word in Tamil homes listening to Radio Ceylon more than 50 years ago.

The PBS-Janaki duo gave us some memorable songs. The bass Sreenivas and soprano Janaki rendered wonderful songs for the Tamil silver screen. It is a great pity that more songs could not be sung together by both in Tamil films though there are many in Telugu films. However their songs though few in number brought immense pleasure to me and those of my generation who grew up with their songs. 

The endearing duo of P.B. Sreenivas-Janaki is unforgettable and thanks to audio and video cassettes, their songs remain evergreen in our memory.


(The writer can be reached via dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com.)

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