Remembering ‘Sigaram’: SPB’s pride as a music composer

In Sigaram, which falls in the genre of musical drama, SPB perhaps found a way to express his insatiable love for music.
SP Balasubrahmanyam
SP Balasubrahmanyam
A poster of Sigaram (Peak, 1991) on Wikipedia has just two names on it — Ananthu, its director, and SPB (SP Balasubrahmanyam), its music director. The latter also played the lead role in the movie. SPB owned the film as much as Ananthu did. His forte might be singing, but if Sigaram was anything to go by, SPB also revelled in composing and acting. He composed music for 45 films in all, including Rajinikanth’s Thudikkum Karangal and the iconic Telugu film Mayuri. His website says he acted in an equal number of movies.
In Sigaram, which falls in the genre of musical drama, SPB perhaps found a way to express his insatiable love for music. The film had more than a dozen songs. Music should not be composed, it should happen, SPB once said in a Tamil television channel’s musical reality show event while commenting on a particularly difficult song composed by Ilayaraja. In Sigaram, music happened with disarming spontaneity. Sigaram’s album was refreshingly original. 
Sigaram, I had once written elsewhere, is an album where SPB had composed a string of emotions.
The film opens with the typical dilemma of a music director. SPB plays one in Sigaram and effortlessly so. He is not able to place his finger on the exact raga that would bring the right kind of emotion to a song in a particular situation. In this case, a song for a hero awaiting the arrival of his girlfriend. Only that she would die in the plane crash. His wife Sukanya – played by Rekha – comes to the rescue suggesting the Peelu raga – something that would lend a tinge of melancholy in an otherwise feel-good number. ‘Vannam Konda Vennilave’ was the first number SPB composed for the film and director Ananthu ‘never asked for an alternative.’ SPB reveals in the show that a year after composing the song, he realised where he drew the inspiration from – the Hindi number Kabhi Khud Pe composed by Jaidev. “It was accidental, such numbers are entrenched so deep inside that they came out as an inspiration when I composed.”  But the inspiration ‘stops with the first phrase.’
Sharing his experiences about composing background score and music for Sigaram, SPB says: “It is like a stone in the hands of a mad man, there are so many things in mind. It comes so naturally, there was somebody to write down what I sing, I sing like a mad man. It turned out to be beautiful. I got some gifted singers. What else could I ask for? I enjoyed what I did.” 
The enjoyment was contagious. Without any doubt, Sigaram was an eloquent celebration of music. When was the last time you saw a movie that had a soft melody running constantly in the background, without being obtrusive? Sigaram gives you that experience.
SPB’s finesse as a performer and a music director elevates Sigaram to a different level. There is also this sequence in the movie where at a party thrown for an award that he picks up, SPB draws parallels between Thiyagaraja’s ‘Ennadu Jutuno’ and Naushad’s Mohe Bhool (sung by Lata Mangeshkar for the film Baiju Bawra), wondering how geniuses born a century apart could still create the same kind of magic.  SPB as actor and music director brings that classical touch to his character.
A film like Sigaram, complex at many levels, intense and layered, demands equally complex, layered, intense music. There are many stories happening in the film. Music director Damodhar’s (SPB) near-perfect relationship with his wife Sukanya runs in contrasting parallel to his son Krishna’s (played by Anandh Babu) failed love affair with Aparna (Ramya Krishnan) who does not believe in the concept of marriage. Damodhar and Sukanya’s life comes crashing down when Krishna turns an alcoholic. After Sukanya dies in a freak accident leading to Damodhar turning paralytic, Dr Priya (played by Radha), his former lover enters. Interestingly, she is brought in by Gnanam (Nizhalgal Ravi), another music director who is extremely jealous of and is often conflicted by his own emotions towards Damodhar. 
The rest of the film is about how Priya nurses Damodhar back to health and turns him back to music again. To Damodhar, turning back to music is as important as staying alive. “It feels like the touch of a baby,” he says, running his hands through the harmonium, in an expression of gratitude to Priya. She also eventually sets things right between Krishna and Aparna, before finally giving into the demand of Krishna to marry his father. Sigaram has its own set of flaws, Damodhar tells Priya at one point to look at the cracks in the peak without being completely awed by it. But the first time you look at the peak, the music leaves you too awe-struck to look at flaws.
As music director, SPB came up with an album that brilliantly lived up to the challenge posed by the film if not beyond it.
He experimented with voices, he experimented with genres.
From M Balamuralikrishna to KJ Yesudas, from Mano to SN Surender, the diversity of voices added perfection to every emotion in the film. SPB himself had sung a few songs as did his sister SP Sailaja besides KS Chitra.
‘Vannam Konda Vennilave’, which keeps repeating itself throughout the film in different set of voices, is hauntingly melancholic while ‘Jannalil Nilavu Varum Neram’ — a solo by SP Sailaja was mildly erotic. Sailaja interestingly had a divine number too — ‘Petra Thaai Thanai’ — in the film. Along with SN Surender, she manages to pull off another sensual number, ‘Muthama’. Rendered by Balamuralikrishna, ‘Panchali Katharugiral’ is an intense number reflective of Aparna’s confusion, and offers her a somewhat misplaced sense of clarity. 
SPB’s experiment did not stop with voices, he tried different tunes for the same song in the movie. Both versions of ‘Unnai Kanda Pinbu’ — one sung by KS Chitra and another by SPB — would leave your heart aching for more. In ‘Itho Itho Un Pallavi’, the duo would come together to deliver a stunningly mellifluous duet. SP Balasubrahmanyam’s mastery over his art is powerfully expressed in another short number — ‘Pulikku Piranthavane’ — a lullaby for his son.
In at least two songs, SPB uses long pauses to convey the heaviness of the moment to his listeners. In ‘Pulikku Piranthavane’, the silence before breaking into the lullaby conveys the agony of the parents and in ‘Unnai Kanda Pinbu’, the madness after falling in love. In both songs, the stillness was as profound as the music that would follow. 
In ‘Nithiyathil Iruperum’, SPB perhaps conveys what his music could do to our souls (well, he talks about his love though) — that it could transport us beyond the centre of gravity, and make us remain entwined in madness, and in eternity we shall remain dissolved.
‘Agaram Ippo’, arguably the best song in the album, with its philosophical intensity and musical genius, was interestingly sung by KJ Yesudas. The song, featured just before the climax, acts as leveller — as a point where emotions culminate, where tears roll from every pair of eyes, where hearts realise that their fates are intertwined forever.
SPB’s voice has traversed across generations, touching many lives, relieving many souls from pain, putting many minds to gentle sleep, night after night. But if there is one album that stands testimony to his astonishing versatility, it is perhaps Sigaram. In Sigaram, he made us fall in love, writhe our souls in pain and filled our lives at that moment with a sense of calm. Sigaram has a song for every emotion, for every tear and every smile. They could both elevate your mood and sometimes dampen your spirit.  
With him, we will lose a part of ourselves — a part that was nurtured by his voice, a part that found solace in his music.
Sigaram ends with a over a four-minute long portion of instrumental music — a sequence that portrays Damodhar’s remarkable comeback from a near-death situation. 
“The only-music piece in climax,” SPB says in the same reality show, “is pride of my compositions.”
The sequence would end with a long applause from the audience. We are there too, sir. We will stand up and put our hands together every time your voice touches our souls, if not wiping away a secret tear. We are forever grateful for the magic.

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