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Interview with Nagur Babu (Mano)
Date: June 11, 2008, Hyderabad
Nagur Babu (Mano)

Playback singer turned music director Mano alias Nagur Babu is unhappy with the prevailing conditions in South Indian film industry. “If you any music director really wants to introduce a creative tune, he has to beg the producer for a ‘single song chance’. Package system is fast catching up with the industry. If this continues, a day will come when our Telugu people don’t listen to our songs at all,” says Mano. He says his debut venture as music director brought him satisfaction. “The audience liked the variety in tunes, lyrics and music. But for the freedom given to me by the producer, this wouldn’t have been possible.” Mano speaks about his guru Ilayaraja, well-wisher AR Rehman and the worst-prevalent copycat menace. Excerpts from an exclusive interview to Idlebrain.

Tell us about your early life and career?
My original name is Nagur Bbau. Maestro Ilayaraja changed it as Mano to avoid clash of names in Tamilnadu. Already there was a popular singer called Nagur Hanifa. I learnt Carnatic music from vocalist Nedanuri Krishna Murthy. I am thankful to my mother for all the support and love that helped me withstand many ups and down in my career.

I acted in a number of stage plays before making my entry as an actor in the South. I did about 15 films. Rangoon Rowdy is one among them. I made my debut as playback singer in 1979. One day, everybody was waiting for SP Balasubramanyam. Suddenly, an assistant of Music director MS Viswanathan asked me to sing. I sang a few ghazals. MS Viswanathan very much liked my voice and presentation. Based on his suggestion, I went to Chennai and joined MSV. As an assistant, I worked for him for about three years. That was the golden period of learning in my life.

In 1982, I joined music director Chakravarthy. I used to produce the dummy versions of the songs before the singers finally did their job. In 1984, I got an opportunity to sing a song along with SPB, Susheela. It was for the film Karpoora Deepam. My entry was just accidental. A third voice very much required that time for that particular song. In 1985, I sang for the hit film Hamsalekha in Kannada. Followed by it, for the first time, I sang for Ilayaraja in a Tamil film. My independent career as a singer began from that point. In 1994, I sang Muqabla Muqabla song composed by AR Rehman for Premikudu (Kadhalan in Tamil). It brought me instant fame. Till now, I sang more than 22,000 songs in 14 Indian languages. I did more than 3000 live shows all over the world.

I cherish good relation with Jonnavittula Ramalingeswara Rao (director of Sombheri). There is a good patronage from its producer Yerramilli Venkata Rao. I got an opportunity to become a music director. Certainly, I have done my best. The response is thoroughly encouraging. This is what all had happened since three decades.

The nativity factor in South is put to hard times these days. Even for a hardcore South film Dasavataram, Bollywood music director Himmesh Reshmiyya was roped in. What is your opinion about this?
In the name of variety and freshness, nativity is pushed to a red zone. But, Dasavataram has its own problems. I understand the tough times experienced by the producers. It got shelved for good many times. Production cost went up by leaps and bounds. Imagine the stress on them for four long years. In a situation like this, Himmesh Reshmiyya’s name for a Southern project will sure have a wide response all over India. It can have a national color. Anyways, the music is good. But, if this trend continues, it might prove critical for many of the upcoming technicians here.

What is your comment on the working style of our Tollywood’s music directors?
This is my personal opinion. Not all, but many music directors say their work style is in tune with the modern trend. They want their music to suit the taste of the audience. But, I seriously observed this. The audience has never changed. They always liked their own native music, away from the drone of western beats. Our people here are doing gimmicks. With the scope of the music segment expanding each day, they find it convenient to dupe the music lovers. In olden days, groups of villagers used to enjoy music played at a Karanam or Munsif’s house, the only music corner. Slowly, the touring talkies came to their rescue. Their interest for music got more and more sharpened. The audio revolution flourished well. But, still in village, you find that people are fondly in love with those small books containing film lyrics. The audio revolution, thanks to the technology, brought music at the doorsteps of the audience. They can listen to any song of any country – just in a couple of minutes. Wherever you go, the youth are forced to keep their ears busy. Take it in multiplexes, pizza centers, theme parks, coffee shops and restaurants. All these factors worked to the advantage of the music directors. They are daydreaming that they would bring in a new culture. But, you can’t undermine the audience and their taste for nativity. Most of them are turning into copycats. Just listen to five songs of different countries. Make one out of them. Claim it your original creation. That’s the trend now.

Songsters have lost their glamour compared to the DJs. Do you agree?
Definitely. When there is no stuff in our music and punch in the lyrics, DJs are far better than our kind of stuff. When there is no content in our films, it definitely reflects on the songs. The playback singer and music director have no freedom at all. It is an age – where you find domination for nothing – from everyone, hero, director and producer. They want saruku (stuff) from Mumbai and London. They say: “We want five songs. Or six songs. Everything is yours. RR is also yours. That music director said he would do for Rs. 19 lakh. What is your quotation?” With a condition like this, how can you expect our songsters to compete with a DJ’s glamour?

What is your opinion about package system?
Package system is a shame to our film industry. The originality is completely washed out. The music becomes hundred percent commercial. Though we get money, there is no longevity to music. In a package system, everybody wants to be economical. Rotten or pale stuff comes into play. Budding music directors are at grave risk if they go for innovative trends. Who will encourage them? He too has to accept the package system. The director or producer will dictate the situation and according to that we have to compose the music. Of course, everybody wants to live for himself and his family. There is compromise.

Is there anything like professional ethics in its true sense in Tollywood’s music area?
If you search for complete guidelines, it is like searching for Mars without a telescope. In a narrow sense, we have. We accept the package system. We do deliver the goods according to the requirement. Neither the producer nor the music director cares for the audience taste. But, the album gets released, branded as the one to suit the audience taste. It is happening everywhere. We have little or no time to think of it.

Your experience working with Maestro Ilayaraja?
A great memoir. A living memoir. To talk about Ilayaraja is like a discourse on God. It was he who gave me life as a singer. I sang more than 2000 songs for his films. To see Ilayaraja is a gift. To sing a song under his music direction is a boon. To sing more than 2000 songs is bliss. He is the fastest musical mind I ever found in my career. He himself is a treasure of musical instruments. Just in twenty minutes, he can compose the native and original tune. I challenge, none can compete with him, even today.

How important is background music in a film? Who is the Number One in this field?
Background score (RR) is the lifeline of a movie. Even in this area, you don’t have much freedom. You are made to do it as fast as you could. Everybody wants the film to release soon. The quality is always lost. Definitely, Ilayaraja is the best and No. 1 in the area of background music.

What about AR Rehman? Your response to his music in Sivaji and now Ada?
He has his own strategy and power to create magic tunes. I heard Sivaji songs. I thought AR Rehman could have done even a finer job. He got great minds like Shankar and Manirathnam. He had the opportunity to give full play to his imagination. He had direct involvement in the script. All these factors have placed him at a cutting edge. How many people, despite highly talented, enjoy this? Coming to Ada, I liked them.

Your response to the remix trend?
It is a good genre that gives some variety feel to the audience. But, in the name of remixes, we are foolishly trying to remix an MS Subba Lakshmi devotional with the voice of a Michael Jackson. When we see a live man, we say Namaste. If it is a dead body, we immediately say, it’s a dead body. Whoever it may be – rich or poor, famous or layman! Our remix trend is like that, without life in it. You need ultimate creativity to impress on this particular genre. History is live. You don’t have a single hit in this area. Film or lyric!

Your reaction to criticism that your voice resembled that of SPB?
Yes. I take it sportive. Initially, it was a curse on my career. The same thing proved lucky later. The producers who couldn’t afford to big payments to SPB preferred me to do each song for just a thousand or a couple of it.

What is your suggestion to youth, who love music?
These days, music-loving youth are prone to some addictions. His surroundings drag him to booze. My suggestion to them: Do take liquor. But not too much. Just take one peg. Now, you are just 19 or 20. Let you live for longer; enjoy music more in good health.

We have countless definitions to music? What is yours?
My definition comes from the deep layers of my heart, having seen the worst and the best. Music is meditation and music is yoga.

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