I assumed that one year to the date of SP Balasubrahmanyamâ€™s passing, it would be easier to write about him but I still struggle to articulate what this voice meant, a near life-long presence for many. How to honestly register what SPB songs signify personally while keeping in mind that readers must find this relatable? As sentimental as it sounds, the emotional range of his voice can scrape me off the floor from a miserable pool I may have sunk into and (attempt) to dance instead or has been, at times, the only salve during extreme despair. His death coincided with a particularly trying personal crisis. Through separating the sadness from my own problem and grief for his passing while also trying to file an obituary for a different publication, it was unsurprisingly SPB songs that made it possible to stay functional.
For someone who fights an anxiety cycle, a heavily repeated playlist, primarily featuring SPB songs, provides a sense of stability. Itâ€™s the emotions he poured into his singing that are probably the key reason. He could sound just as heartbroken as the lyrics or equally so, just as joyous or just as playfully romantic. The duo of SPB-Raaja, those glorious '80s numbers that mixed together folk and western music including funk are not only spell-binding, but offer an adrenaline rush both for the sounds Raaja created and for SPB effortlessly slipping into this fusion with an unmatched vigour. Memory fails me, but it must have been when SPB first fell ill with COVID-19, a friend and I traded Raaja-SPB songs all night and she introduced me to the UK record label Finders Keepers. The label has entire records dedicated to Raajaâ€™s funk and electronic pop infused tracksâ€”and in this treasure trove, many sung by SPB.
I may have been writing this article in my head for months now and still find myself at a loss to describe something so soaked into the fabric of being Tamil. I re-read obituaries written last year and discovered a touching aspect of him Iâ€™d not known while he livedâ€”his support for Eelam Tamils. The Tamil Guardian had carried three articles after his death. The first on what SPB was to Tamils across the world; in Sri Lanka â€śhis melodies from across the Palk Straits provided succour to the Tamil youth of the 70s and 80s, then wrestling with pogroms and state brutality, the unfolding armed struggle and mass displacement.â€ť The second described the songs of liberation written by Eelam Tamils and voiced by him.
Nearly every obituary to him mentioned his charm, his vitality and his affable nature. Unsurprising. Any of us who have watched his concert performances even on TV are drawn to the magnetism of his personality in no less degree than to that enthralling voice.
This year with the introduction of Clubhouse, I spent many hours in rooms with SPB and Raaja fans who taught me to listen closer to specific elements from favourite songs that my ears had entirely missed until then. I heard delighted, eager people Iâ€™ll probably never meet in real life share songs important to them, talk about interesting trivia and heard some numbers from his staggeringly prolific career for the first time.
Through lockdowns, cautious gatherings with friends, private upheavals, new found online comraderies, SPBâ€™s voice strung it all together, rich with discoveries while remaining a steadfast solace. As we mourn him today, I end with the same song I concluded his obituary with because we will also celebrate him today: