For many of us who were born in the 1980s and 1990s — christened on the Indian internet as ‘80s kids’ and ‘90s kids’ — SP Balasubrahmanyam (lovingly called SPB) was a point of bonding between us and our parents. Songs, across multiple languages, played off stacks of cassettes were the baby steps we took into the world that was SP Balasubrahmanyam. Perhaps it is this comfort and warmth that his songs brought, akin to that which only a childhood friend can provide, that has made lakhs mourn his tragic passing.
SPB passed away on September 25. He was admitted to hospital after testing positive for the novel coronavirus on August 5, 2020. His sudden death has left lakhs of music-lovers heartbroken and several thousands in denial.
A legendary singer who has to his credit at least 40,000 songs in various Indian languages, SPB was an inevitable part of at least two generations. Many have since taken to social media to share their favourite moments and works of the singer as a mark of their eternal love and respect for him.
Ganesh Ramachandran, a 31-year-old Product manager based out of Chennai attributes his SPB fandom to his father. “My father was a huge fan himself and he introduced me to SPB’s songs. He used to tape his favourites on cassettes and play it at home,” he recalls with fondness. Considering himself to be ‘blessed’ to be alive amid musical legends like MS Viswanathan, KJ Yesudas and Malaysia Vasudevan, Ganesh says that what set SPB apart was his rendition style.
“I think what made his songs special for me was that slight giggle he used to add in the song. His songs mostly had a small tinge of melancholy, which made it linger on for a longer time in our memory. SPB is my go-to singer irrespective of my mood. When SPB sings sad songs, more than sadness, I feel peace,” he explains, adding that the song ‘Nalam vaazha ennaalum en vaazhthukal’ from the movie Marupadiyum is among his top favourites sung by SPB.
“When I listen to the trademark giggle in his songs, I always feel happier despite any problem that might have been occupying my mind. I always think, ‘Forget it, there are better things in life like this’,” Ganesh says.
What made SPB’s songs garner massive popularity is the way in which a common man could relate to the songs. He thrived in an era when his contemporaries were the likes of KJ Yesudas.
“When KJ Yesudas sings, there is a possibility of it being too hard to comprehend for someone who has no knowledge of music. But anybody and everybody could relate to SPB's songs,” points out Ekambaram Raveendran. The 28-year-old Mumbai-based journalist too credits his father for having walked him into the world of SPB.
“Nobody can forget these songs. SPB's songs appeal a lot more to a common man than KJ Yesudas’. SPB is everyone's singer,” Ekambaram says.
Enosh, a 29-year-old journalist from Hyderabad, remembers SPB more as a voice artist than a singer. “If he had to sing for Nagarjuna, he would modulate the voice to suit Nagarjuna's voice, and make these variations according to the artists he was singing for. He was very smart who knew how to understand music and understand the microphone dynamics,” he says, adding that SPB’s music embodies a spirit and not a physical body and hence will live on.
For 54-year-old Suresh, SPB’s songs come with a rush of nostalgia.
“I grew up in Hyderabad and it was a time when SPB was entering the world of music. His voice was a big contrast to Ghantasala (Venkateswara Rao), who was the reigning composer-singer at that time,” he recollects. Suresh still remembers the time when Sankarabharanam released and took the industry by storm. His songs like ‘Aayiram nilave vaa’ (Adimai Penn) and ‘Iyarkai ennum’ (Shantinilayam) were fresh to listen to.
“It was an era of radios and tapes. When we used to go to college, we walked slowly on purpose if any of these songs were playing nearby. We loved it,” he reminisces. Pointing out that SPB’s songs were staple numbers at music competitions and cultural events, Suresh says that the work SPB did with KV Mahadevan and Rajan-Nagendra would always be special for him.
Balu sir songs aren't just songs but memories, says Sahitya Karra, a content writer from Hyderabad. “Everytime his songs come up it's like a flashback of memories. Whether a mother is singing a lullaby to her baby, or a lover is missing their love, or just a group of friends having fun together, his songs are a treasure we will all keep it close to our hearts. We miss him!," she adds.
Chennai-based standup comedian Praveen Kumar, however, swears his allegiance to SPB’s live concerts rather than recorded songs.
“If you ask me my all time top ten favourite songs, it would all be by SPB,” says the 39-year-old artiste. He adds that apart from the songs being soothing, they have been the biggest avenue of comfort in bad times.
SPB’s role as a music director was probably the shortest in his long career and it baffles Praveen to no end.
“I actually like him as a music composer also. I have no idea why he didn't continue on that path. There is nothing to beat ‘Vannam konda vennilave’ (Sigaram) yet,” he declares.
The most popular content on video related to SPB’s songs in recent times belong to Alexander Babu, the Chennai-based standup comedian. His show ‘Alex in Wonderland’, a musical-tribute of sorts to a range of composers and singers in Tamil cinema, earned accolades from various quarters. A self-confessed SPB fan, Alex says that the singer’s voice has given a lot to his generation.
“His songs were comfortingly connecting,” Alex points out, adding that his favourites include ‘Idhayam oru kovil’ (Idhaya Kovil) and ‘Kaadhalin deepam ondru’ (Thambikku Entha Ooru). “I grew up in a cassette-era and the three or four cassettes we had at home were beaten to death by repetition,” he adds.
27-year-old Deekshith R from Godavarikhani, a die-hard fan of SPB says that he will continue to be with his fans. "Listening to his voice is a wonderful experience, that has some magic in it . He is just going away from us physically but he will be with us in our home theatres ,phones and as ring tone,” he adds.
The debate around whether SPB’s best came from Ilaiyaraaja’s composition or AR Rahman’s composition is a never-ending one between fans. Many of SPB’s die-hard fans bat for the evergreen Ilaiyaraaja-SPB combo when it comes to the best of film songs.
“It is just that the orchestration was lesser in Raaja’s compositions which allowed us to listen to SPB’s voice. Nothing against AR Rahman though. In AR Rahman’s compositions, it became a contest between the orchestration and SPB’s voice,” Ganesh says.