Prativaadi Bhayankara Sreenivas

When he stepped out of the white Ambassador on a decidedly harsh and sunny late morning, the first words he spoke were, “simmering summer.”

The alliteration was lost on me then but the dozen or so pens in his pocket - a seemingly unnecessary load for a fragile man like him - caught my attention. He inched his way onto the dais amidst the usual applause he must have gotten widely used to by then.

It was 2003 and I’m quite forgetful of time counted in months or days. I was in Std IX and a violinist of the school - or truth be told, the only guy who decided to boast his violin skills - petty and less-than-average as they were and continue to be - to the school which, in its usually aura of encouragement, allowed us to bask in a greater glory. Kendriya Vidyala (I think the Anna Nagar branch but again, I’m not sure of this) was hosting a Sangathan communion related to music and on the inaugural day P.B.Sreenivas was the guest of honor.

His “simmering summer” quip was true. Summers in Madras are as pitiless as they’re sultry. But a dozen pens? Really? Why? I never got to the bottom of that.

For a lad of fourteen years, a collaborative stage performance with his genuinely-talented flautist classmate, Sharad, must be followed by a general chatter with the other instrumentalists from the band that performed on that day. One cannot really expect a student - much less a secondary school student - to listen in rapt attention to the stories of an old man who appeared to be - with much respect to the legend - in the darkening dusk of his lifetime already.

P.B.S would continue to live a decade before news of his death would reach me on an uncomfortable late evening; fatefully, I was playing the violin when dear mother’s call announced his demise.

However, on that particular afternoon, about four/five rows behind the first, hands folded in an unconscious surrender, ears oblivious to any possible ruckus in my neighborhood, eyes transfixed on the wrinkled face and the large spectacles and the larger turban and the traditional forehead smear of kumkum (kungumam), I was listening to a legend pick pages from his life and recount them genuinely.

Under the shamiana, a subtly disturbing warm draft was forgotten when he sang the first verse of Kaalangalil Aval Vasantham. The intricacies within the tune were lost to time and age but it stilled me in that conclave of prattling music teachers and a few other participants. My ears were, in those glorious old days, drawing nectar from old melodies of the bygone era: Viswanathan-Ramamurthy’s compositions rendered soulfully by the likes of P.B.S, T.M.S and the then-young-and-honey-throated S.P.B.

Since that episode, I began learning a little more about P.B.S. To this day, I have no clue as to how a man could dabble in poetry as varied in language as genre. At times, his artistic prowess appears superhuman and purely magical.

His renditions for the Thamizh acting legend Gemini Ganesan are well-known. My mom, my grandma and I would watch the telly as the melodious voice of Sreenivas was broadcast, now crooning Kaalangalil Aval Vasantham, then singing Mayakkama Kalakkama and then a little later, instilling strength through Manidhan Enbavan.

I remember how, on one lazy morning of bunked classes, I had to seek the support of my grandmother - whose knowledge and understanding of old songs supersedes that of my mother - to prove that although PBS sang more songs for Gemini than others, the befitting voice that could almost disguise itself as Ganesan’s was that of A M Raja and not Sreenivas.

Now that I look around, PBS is almost everywhere. In some of my most favorite songs. In some of my most favorite people. In some of my most cherished memories.

To this day, one particular phrase keeps me afloat amidst tumultuous times: unakkum keezhe, iruppavar kodi, ninaithu paarthu, nimmadhi naadu. For folks that have little or no outlet to share the innards of their souls, this is but one line that pacifies an otherwise perennially solitary and occasionally anxious livelihood.

That Indha Mandrathil Odi Varum from Policekaaran Magazh has the ability to load my eyes with water - it’s not often that a cherished relationship meets a fate as melancholy as the movie itself.

The turban has a human residence no more. The dozen or so pens would no longer protrude almost as if they were about to tumble out of his pocket.

And yet, a mildly-inebriating Nilavukku En Mel would continue to mesmerize this writer.

Thank you, sir.

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