It must be around the mid ‘70s. On Sundays, our whole family used to crowd around the radio and tune into All India Radio, Trichy, after lunch by 1 pm sharp. Between 1 to 2 pm, the station played the latest Tamil film songs and at the time, it was the only opportunity to catch up with newly released songs. I remember vividly that in that period, for many weeks, almost all of the 10 songs being played were sung by SP Balasubrahmanyam, and that too for different music directors. If our growing up was cheerful and with verve, SPB had a role in it.
Between the ‘70s and ‘90s in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, if budding male singers had an inspiration, it was only SPB. Almost all the orchestras of those days had one singer who tried to sing SPB’s songs in his voice. So “his” voice was all over the air. For all of them, SPB was a role model not just for the music but also for the way he conducted himself with utmost humility. This probably came from the belief SPB had, that he was indeed blessed and gifted.
By his own admission, SPB was not a trained singer. As a child, he did not learn any form of classical music, though he had the opportunity to learn from his father, who was a Harikatha exponent. So, genes did play a role in shaping SPB as a singer. But unless told so, anyone who had the opportunity to listen to the thousands of songs he sang will never believe that he did not have a classical music background and that all his singing was self-made.
Though there are many, if I have to pick one album of SPB to demonstrate his variety and versatility, it will be Payanangal Mudivathillai, a film with a singer as the protagonist. I must add here that Payanangal Mudivathillai is also a film that showcases Ilaiyaraaja’s range as a composer, and it is with him that SPB had the best of partnerships.
Just listen to the songs in that album. On one end, you have the song ‘Raaga Deepam’, a classical number based on the raga Hamsanandi with a grand aalaap right at the beginning. At the other end, you have a song like ‘ ‘Hey Aatha Aathorama’ which falls in the genre of a typical dappankuthu song. In between, you have the evergreen classic ‘Ilaya Nila Pozhigirathu’ which is a melody in the western classical mould. And other gems like ‘Thogai Ilamayil’, ‘Mani Osai Kettu Ezhunthu’, ‘Saalai Oram Solai’ and finally the pathos filled song — ‘Vaigaraiyil Vaigaikariyal’.
All these songs in the album — of which some are solo acts — are of SPB. Not just in terms of genre, even the emotions conveyed in each of the songs are different. The texture of SPB’s voice for each of these songs is different. If one were to use millennial lingo, SPB kills it. To me, Sankarabharanam in 1980 and Payanangal Mudivathillai in 1982 were landmarks in SPB’s career which elevated him from being called a good singer till then, to a great singer.
SPB’s voice may not have been very unique, but his voice quality was. His voice would never waver no matter what pitch he sang in. In live shows, SPB used to do his own improvisations at the end of the song to end with a flourish. In the beginning, I used to have my heart in my mouth when he, on his own, took the song to higher octaves, only to land safely back with the pitch intact, much to my awe. And I am certain that SPB was improvising spontaneously on stage as every time he would do it, he would do so differently even for the same song. Just listen to his different renditions of ‘Sundari Kannal Oru Seydhi’ in stage shows.
“Kamban veetu kattu thariyum kavi paadum” goes a popular saying, meaning “In Kamban’s house, even a loom will pen a poem”. Similarly, SPB paadara paatula irumalum thaala kattukkul irukkum. In SPB’s songs, even his coughing (Remember the songs ‘Dorakuna Ituvanti Seva’ or 'Mani Osai Kettu Ezhunthu') will be on beat and within the time signature. So precise was his singing that he hardly skipped a beat or distorted the pitch.
That SPB could maintain his voice timbre intact for over five decades is a marvel! Even after crossing 70, he could sing romantic duets for stars a third of his age. If there was a silver lining in his passing, it is this. That till he breathed his last, his voice never gave way and remained one that was energetic, mellifluous and more importantly, youthful.
I come back to the emotion. That as a singer, SPB had a great voice is well known. But, inside him there was a great actor too. Probably it’s got to do with his dad’s genes again. Harikatha is one form where the performer needs to sing and act on stage. This was what helped him shape the emotions while singing songs of different moods – from a peppy ‘Oruvan Oruvan Mudhalali’ to a lullaby-like ‘Kana Kaanum Kangal Mella’ with equal elan.
SPB probably loved acting. I heard from one of my friends in the Kavithalayaa unit that director K Balachander used to say, ‘Avan oru bayangara nadigan da’, referring to SPB. Not surprising that KB regularly gave him breaks in films and TV serials, whether it was the hero role in his own production Sigaram, or a doctor’s role in Manathil Uruthi Vendum. The actor in SPB also manifested when he was dubbing for Kamal in Telugu films in the beginning. If actor Kitty’s ‘pasu thol porthiya puli’ type villain portrayal in the film Sathya became a big hit, half the credit goes to SPB, who dubbed for him. Eventually, his acting skills enhanced his style of singing.
Getting the essence of the emotion of the song and delivering it with a pitch-perfect voice consistently, that too cutting across genres, is what made SPB the versatile singer he was. That’s also why he endeared himself from the radio generation to today’s mobile phone generation.
Just the other day, I was watching a clip that was circulating on WhatsApp groups where SPB as a guest in a reality show was holding his own with that peach of a melody song ‘En Kadhale’ from Duet. At the end of the song, almost everyone onstage was in tears, including the celebrity judges, participants and the audience. But, SPB himself, while making everyone else cry, was smiling all through the singing. A similar feeling has dawned today. A whole generation of people feeling sad today on his passing but SPB himself, the happy-go-lucky-type person he was, will be cheerful wherever he is.
Musicians are blessed. They don’t go away. They stay with us through their renderings. So will SPB, who will be with us through ‘Malare Mounama’, through ‘Sankara Nada Sareera’, through ‘Ithu Oru Pon Malai Poluthu’, through ‘Tere Mere Beech Mein’, through the many other hits he has belted.
Should we mourn SPB’s death? Maybe, we should just celebrate. Celebrate his music. The forty thousand-plus long list means a celebration that goes on for long, for us and for many generations to come. For now, thank you SPB, from the bottom of our hearts. For the music and for being the human you were.
Anand Kumar RS is a management professional by week and avid blogger by weekend. He writes on politics, business, and films.