Designing sound for an auditorium is a specialized field of work. I know very little about the interiors of microphones, speakers, mixers or the multi-dimensional possibilities of acoustic technology. But among the many simple ways of testing an auditorium’s acoustics is by asking this question. Where is the sound coming from? In an ideal space, irrespective of the positions and roles of the various speakers, you will hear the music directly from the singers or musicians on stage. You will be unable to point to any specific speaker placed on the wall or ceiling as the emanating source. Something similar needs to happen with the playback singer. The identity of the singer must disappear and we should hear Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan, Salman Khan, Prem Nazir, Ambareesh, Ananth Nag, Chiranjeevi or Nagarjuna sing. Since the tragic passing away of SP Balasubrahmanyam (SPB), many have spoken about his ability to get his listeners to suspend disbelief and trust that the actor is indeed the singer, much like the old days when actors did really sing.
But what does this really mean?
SPB’s voice did not really change; he did not mimic the actor. We knew that it was SPB, yet we heard MGR. Hidden between these multiple truths lies his magic. Through a period of time, as audiences, we imbibe every aspect of an actor’s stage persona. It is not just the tone of the voice or physicality that is etched in our mind; we get to know the actor’s emotional and non-temporal being. As the roles played by an actor expand, the emotional bandwidth of our association extends and consecrates a bond between the rasika (engaged viewer) and the actor. The cumulative of the characters played by the actor then allows us to imagine and interpret his or her emotionality far beyond gesticulations and body language.
SPB captured this interrelationship in his voice. When he sang for Rajini, he tapped into the emotionality of Rajini that we have internalized. Once that was achieved, Rajini and SPB were interchangeable as long as we remained in the universe created by that film. In this alternative reality, knowing that SPB is the singer did not disturb the experience of Rajini singing. Usually a film singer is able to pull this off only for one actor, and that is how actor-singer pairings happen. But SPB had the uncanny ability to connect to actors across film industries, cultures and generations. What was spectacular was that even when we heard just the audio track of songs rendered by SPB, the actor and he merged. Creating and sustaining these illusions is sheer genius.
SPB brought forth another possibility, one that is rarely witnessed in the film world — of a singer giving the actor his cinematic presence. In an inversion of sorts, the voice of the singer becomes the vehicle through which the viewer maps the emotional-scape of the actor. This was indeed the case with SPB and actor Mohan. I do not mean to diminish Mohan, but it is indeed undeniable that his onscreen emotional-self that we identify with was largely a creation of SPB. The storylines and screenplays gave Mohan his cinema identity, but the emotional transference to the audience was curated by SPB’s voice. Even when we recollect Mohan’s most popular films, it is the singing voice that comes to our mind, not specific acting scenes. We recognize Mohan the actor through the songs that he did not sing!
I have avoided the music director from this discussion because more often than not the director receives all the ideational credit, while the singer, though appreciated, is seen as a mere tool of expression. The mind of the singer is not taken into consideration; it is in fact ignored. Of course, the music director creates the song, but the song really ‘happens’ in the hands of the singer. This is neither an accidental occurrence nor is it just skill. Which is why we need to understand SPB as a thinker.
A thinking singer is not one who necessarily constructs a conscious intellectual process but someone whose mind enters the core of the song, instinctively analyses and deconstructs its graph, internalises every movement and captures its lyrical and musical import. Above all, he brings this comprehension together at the moment of rendition, making it his own. This was quintessential SPB. The song underwent a rebirth in his hands and this can only happen if the singer is acutely aware. Even if the background score was recorded separately or, in the case of duets, each voice recorded independently; SPB’s singing gave us the feeling that he knew every nook and corner of the entire composition, not just the parts that featured him. The musical interludes became extensions of his musicality and vice versa. This came from his capacity to imagine the whole from the primary melody and infuse into his singing that expanse. At times he probably gave us much more than what the music director envisioned! He had a grasp of the larger picture and, therefore, his was never just a great rendition. He became the architect of the song. The song was re-carved and its final form revealed. Even when he followed the instructions of the composer to the tee, the song was finally his own retelling.
Whenever SPB spoke about music, musicians or music directors, he almost always dealt with specifics. There were no generalities or superficial platitudes. He pointed to a quality with great care and, to elucidate his point, offered us brilliant examples. You immediately knew that this was a man who thought deeply about everything he heard and sang. He would speak of just one note, a little melodic curvature, a specific drop in the decibel in a line, connections between the lyrical and melodic or the way a word needed to be musically pronounced. These were all sophisticated articulations. People often claim that too much thinking depletes the music’s emotional impact. But SPB stands before us as proof that singers need to receive with openness and think with depth. And when they remain in that state, their music becomes our every emotion.
With his passing, we have lost a profound musical mind.
TM Krishna is a musician, author and activist.