Saturday, June 6, 2015

S P Balasubrahmanyam (SPB or SP Balu): Seven Leadership Lessons from the Superstar of Sapta Swaras

Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam (popularly called SPB or SP Balu), born on June 4, 1946, is a legendary singer of South Indian Cinema (Telugu and Tamil, especially).  SPB is, however, a truly national singer having sung over 40,000 songs (a Guinness Book record) in various Indian languages including Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Assamese, Hindi and Sanskrit. He is also the only singer to have received four national awards for his songs in four different languages. He won the National Film Award from the Government of India six times and Nandi Film Award from the Government of Award twenty five times. He is the recipient of high civilian honours from the Government of India; Padma Shri in 2001 and Padma Bhushan in 2011. SPB is truly multifaceted with additional capabilities as music director, dubbing artiste (including for superstars such as Kamal Hassan and Rajinikanth), film maker, movie actor, and television artiste. He is fondly referred to as Gana Gandharva by connoisseurs of music.

SPB is probably the only singer whose voice powered the superstars of Indian Cinema from the 1960s to date. His voice moulded itself mellifluously and perfectly to diverse stars such as M G Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan, N T Rama Rao, A Nageswara Rao, Krishna, Sobhan Babu, Chiranjeevi, Balakrishna, Nagarjuna, Ajith and Vijay (just to quote a few names) as well as a host of new age actors. The way he sang (and would still sing) for each of the actors showed amazing versatility besides imbuing the songs with the vocal expressions and intonations unique to each actor. He was comfortable in songs of all genres; be it of the purest religious serenity or the wildest romantic sensuality. His voice rendered songs of heart-touching pathos as well as rib-tickling comedy, with equal felicity. While there have been great male singing legends in India – Saigal, Rafi, Kishore, Mukesh, Talat, Ghantasala, Sreenivas, Soundararajan, Hariharan and Shankar – no one had, and has, his ability to express the Bhava with feel in songs. 

Tide of music

Another unique feature of his versatility is his constant reinvention of voice to scale new highs in melody and purity. His rendering of classical songs in Sankarabharanam catapulted him to international fame while his rendering of devotional songs in Annamayya and Sri Ramadasu got him new accolades as the King of Bhakti and Bhava. Although never trained in classical music, SPB has an amazing grasp of the Sapta Swaras. All of his romantic songs in Telugu, Tamil and Kannada have a natural and spontaneous verve and vibrancy, unmatched by any other singer. His Hindi songs for Kamal Hassan in Ek Duje Ke Liye and his songs for Salman Khan (Maine Pyar Kiya and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, for example) provided a unique velvety feel to the Hindi romantic movies. Age could do nothing to reduce the quality of his voice. Yet, unfortunately, his voice is no longer heard in recent generation film songs. What started as a specific mission by A R Rahman to bring new voices to the screen became a trend to hire any and every instrumentalist as a music director and field any and every voice as a singer, to the detriment of quality and melody. Changing trends in music that drifted towards youthful banality, rhythmic excitement and non-nativity also led to erosion of melody oriented musical mountings.

In addition to the above, a package system by which a music director is paid a consolidated amount to cover the total cost of music including costs of music composition, musicians, orchestra, recording studio and singers has led to music directors economizing by deploying low cost new singers instead of high cost established singers like SPB. With young as well as aging heroes seeking freshness through new voices even at the cost of clarity of expression, established singers like SPB and K J Yesudas, another incomparable masterly singer, were becoming incompatible with the new film music ecosystem. SPB also became outspoken against the disturbing trends in film music including loss of melody and import of non-native singers unmindful of linguistic errors. As a result, as opposed to yesteryears when a music disk was full of SPB songs, one would be lucky to see SPB on any music album. All this has not deterred SPB from remaining as a leader in contemporary singing. SPB, the Superstar of Sapta Swaras, offers seven valuable lessons to young and old alike as to how a leader can always be a leader.  

Professional passion

The fundamental foundation of any leadership development is passion for a profession. The roots one develops in a profession determine the core competencies of a leader. It is said that as a first year student of College of Engineering at Anantapur, SPB’s passion was displayed in constant singing. Although he had to move to Madras to pursue the alternative of AMIE, the passion for music never ebbed in him; from being a singing lead in IliayaRaja and Gangai Amaran music band to calling on music directors until the entry success, SPB’s passion to make a career in singing was unflinching. This commitment is the foundation for all successful professionals. Youngsters would do well to be passionate about their interests. Being passionate needs, of course, to be supplemented by being expressive and executive.

Maximal accomplishment

Just as time waits for no one, accomplishments do not wait for time. When one can achieve one must. SPB never got deterred by the attributed inadequacies of young age such as nascent and light voice nor the competition induced by others. He chose to drive home each advantage provided by his linguistic capabilities, voice modulation and emotional expression to keep singing. He is said to hold the record for recording as many as nineteen songs in a day and working for minimum of twelve hours at a stretch. It is said that in his heydays recording of twelve to sixteen songs per day was the norm. By lending his voice to all actors and for all situations and with all music directors, including maestros and stalwarts like M S Viswanathan, K V Mahadevan, Pendyala Nageswara Rao, S Rajeswara Rao, Rajan-Nagendra, Satyam, Keeravani, Ilaiyaraaja, A R Rahman, Lakshmikant-Pyarelal and Anand-Milind  he has not only achieved maximal singing, in both quantity and quality, but created for himself a rich music bank which can inspire others.

Continuous learning

While a young Rafi and a young Mukesh were probably the same in their respective range and depth at the beginning and end of careers, SPB kept on learning and improvising. He demonstrated exceptional grit to learn informally what he did not get trained in formally (like classical music) and to get mentored by music composers of exceptional standing. As a result, the voice of Balu continued to feel fresh and unique each year. An essential feature of leadership development is learning not only through experience but also through scaling new heights and willing to be mentored. Interestingly, even the best tend to pause at some point(s) in their carriers. He observed and absorbed (and remembers and recounts) each and every musical episode of his life thus becoming a living encyclopaedia of Indian music. If only SPB was willing to apply his continuous learning methodology to the new genre of music, he would have probably continued to offer meaningful additions for music lovers and even reformed the cacophony of the new generation music.

Self- mentoring

Over the last few years, mentoring has come to be seen as distinct from performance, and in fact as the prerequisite for leadership. Not all can have the advantage of being gifted or provided with mentors; self-mentoring is an effective pathway. SPB’s competitive spirit took him to music competitions where his talent was spotted by a select group of film celebrities including S Janaki, an accomplished singer and S P Kodandapani a versatile music director. The latter gave SPB the first break in film songs and continued to mentor in a creative and caring manner in his formative years. SPB, thereafter, developed himself through observation and experimentation. SPB was the first choice for master directors like K Viswanath, K Balachandar, K Raghavendra Rao and Bapu which gave repetitive opportunities for out-of-the-world songs, which he fully leveraged.  Youngsters have role models all around who are not necessarily their teachers or students; self-mentoring through observation is a viable approach.   

Sowing the seeds

One must do something different when one is fully busy and not when one has nothing else to do. This helps the individual sow the seeds of a new wave of growth for the future whether or not the chips are down for the person in later stage life. When SPB was at the peak of his singing career in the 1990s, he collaborated with E-TV to launch the first native singing talent show called Padutha Theeyaga in 1996. The pioneering show in which SPB donned the role of both judge and mentor for all aspirant musical talent, children, adolescents and adults, became a trendsetter and has completed more than 500 episodes. Many participants and winners of the programme went on to become ace singers in their own right. The seeds which SPB had sown two decades ago has now given him a continuing platform to leverage his musical knowledge and reputation to reformat Padutha Theeyaga and re-launch it in different geographies including USA. It is amazing as to how kids who cannot speak Telugu are able to sing the most complex Telugu songs with perfection in the programme. The power of a programme launched when SPB was busy continues to remain as his iconic mainstay in a generation of changing musical values!

Setting own standards

An important hallmark of leadership is setting of standards. An aspirant leader in his or her formative years tries to meet or exceed the standards set by other leaders in his or her field but quickly goes about setting his or her own standards. SPB became a legend because he set his own differentiated standards even from his very early times when colossuses strode the musical scene. Even today, he is uncompromising in his standards, correcting and coaching youngsters to make them follow the correct Telugu diction, express the correct emotion and follow the correct swara sangathulu, even though he is aware that they are born as Indian Americans! A leader faces a dilemma when the standards expected by the environment become lax. That is when the message of the supreme raga-bhava songs of the yesteryears sung so powerfully by SPB in the musical masterpieces such as Shankarabharanam (of K Viswanath – K V Mahadevan) and Annamayya (of K Raghavendra Rao – M M Keeravani) teaches us the immortality of uncompromising standards.

Staying relevant

Times change, leaderships mellow and legacies remain. As SPB says in many a public forum he would continue to sing as long as his human faculties permit and in the event the choice of rebirth is given to him, he would like to be reborn as SPB regaling millions of listeners. He had many avenues built through his artistic career to stay relevant; as an ace singer, music composer, dubbing artiste, character actor and of course as a lead singer (in the last case, even if more choosy than he was earlier). For a leader to be missed and wanted, the leader must stay relevant through his or her own creativity and passion, and not necessarily mimic others in an effort to change with the times. SPB with his fresh and adaptive voice, evocative and expressive emotion, versatile range and depth became relevant as a leader for changing times, at all times. As the contemporary times globalized further, he continued to be relevant and possibly busier than ever by discovering new young talent through programmes such as Padutha Theeyaga, reconnecting with the millions through programmes such as Swarabhishekam, reviving musical culture through programmes such as America-lo Raga Sagarika and supporting charities through live stage shows of music.

Legendary leadership

SPB on stage or in a show is not merely a musical delight to experience; he is also a leader to appreciate and absorb the nuances of leadership. The nuances of leadership are that knowledge must be reinforced with erudition, achievement with humility, professional leadership with emotional connect and core competencies with related adjacencies. Shows of arts and sports as well as consummate artistic performance and scintillating sportsmanship add thrill and joy to everyday lives. The sportsmen and artistes make the world a better place to live in and make life a little more joyous and a little less stressful. However, behind and leading to each event and each legend there are lessons of management and leadership that also need to be brought out, discussed and absorbed.

As the life of the prolific and melodious singer S P Balasubrahmanyam, the king of swapta swaras with his multi-faceted talent, demonstrates, legendary leadership is possible with seven principles. These are (i) seeking excellence in chosen profession with passion, (ii) accomplishing to the fullest potential to create a legacy, (iii) continuous learning with changing times and mellowing age, (iv) self-mentoring alongside inspired performance, (v) sowing the seeds for future even when busy, (vi) setting increasingly high standards for oneself and others, and (vii) staying relevant to times through creative rediscovery and perceptive connectivity. All music lovers, including the author, would love SPB’s voice as melodious, vibrant, versatile and energetic as ever but the author would still like to see the next phase of artistic leadership in SPB that would make his inimitable talent to reignite the music tracks of films of all genres in all languages, once again!

Posted by Dr CB Rao on June 6, 2015


Unknown said...

Sir, I came to your blog through a referral for nice blogs on strategy, leadership, etc., and I stumbled upon this on my favorite singer, one more thing that I would like to add is, how easily he adjusts himself with new-age singers and make them comfortable. In a team environment, it is required as, usually there will be initial reluctance of a new comer to meet & gel with seniors. If the group seniors / experienced take time to gel with the juniors, the team can produce miracles.

Sagar said...

Sir, Superb write up on SPB. You have immortalized SPB in your own way by highlighting all that is great about the singer . You have brought up his persona in its true form as only an ardent fan and admirer could do. SPB ,
amongst other things is also very fortunate to have admirers like you who not only understand the nuances of music but also appreciate the true spirit of the values attached to the art and talent of music. Long live SPB and long live the fan's love for such a great talent.

Unknown said...

Superbly written and explained in greater detail about the great SPB, your blog deserves a standing ovation!