Farewell SP Balasubrahmanyam: The ever-smiling face and emotive voice
Singer SP Balasubrahmanyam has died. The voice that sang for actors across generations, from MGR, Rajinikanth, Salman Khan, Kamal Haasan to Shah Rukh Khan, has fallen silent.
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For many, it was news that they were dreading for weeks. So, it was no sudden shocker. But the magnitude of it was no less. “SPB no more,” said a message on the journos WhatsApp group. And then confirmation started pouring in.
The ever-smiling golden voice of Indian cinema. (Photo: Instagram/@ispbofficial)
Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam, or SPB as he was popularly known as, has been a part of every Tamilian movie-goer’s life. My association with his music started with the song “Rakkamma Kaiya Thattu" from the movie Thalapathi (1991). As a die-hard Rajini fan, Thalapathi was a must-watch and I remember dancing to the song as a kid in the movie hall, much to the entertainment of my family others seated in the box. What energy that man’s voice had!
And as Thalaivar established himself as a commercial entertainer, it became a routine to hear SPB’s familiar energetic voice that became associated with Rajinikanth’s face in my head. From the high energy and tempo in “Vanthenda Paalkaran” in Annamalai (1992) and “Naan Autokaaran” in Baasha (1995) to the oh-so-romantic-yet-sentimental “Sundari kannal oru seyidhi” in Thalapathi, SPB’s was a golden voice that could emote any and every feeling. From haunting melodies, energetic and peppy dance numbers and the depth of meaning in philosophical songs, to egging his co-singers on in the duets.
For Muthu (1995) he sang, what is according to me, one of the greatest philosophical songs in Tamil cinema — “Oruvan Oruvan Mudhalali”.
Then came Duet in 1994. SPB was Prabhu’s voice and it was very hard to distinguish the actor’s voice from the singer’s. From “Mettuppodu” (which would have been every true-blood Tamilian’s mobile-phone ringtone / caller tune at some point) to “Kulicha Kuthalam” to “Anjali Anjali” — again a testimony to SPB’s greatness that he could bring out every possible emotion through his singing.
With time, I had to learn Carnatic music as per my mother’s wishes. And as I delved deeper into it, I watched Sankarabarnam (1979) that was entirely about a Carnatic musician. I heard a completely different SPB than what I was used to. SPB singing Carnatic classical music was not something I had expected at all. But here he was! The voice of the protagonist —"Sankarabharanam" Sankara Sastri, who was a very popular Carnatic singer. Apparently music director KV Mahadevan trusted SPB’s kelvi gnanam (ability to grasp by listening) implicitly. And the faith was not misplaced. This was also acknowledged by music director MS Viswanathan, who swore by SPB’s echoic memory as far as music went. SPB proved his prowess again when he became Kamal Haasan’s voice in Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981) without knowing Hindi! He made sure he got the pronunciation right.
As a Tamilian raised in Delhi, one of the conversation topics with my Hindi-speaking-Bollywood-buff peer group was music. And SPB and KJ Yesudas being the only two singers from South India that my peer group knew the names of, helped me hold conversations. After all, here was a man who made the world record for recording the highest number of songs — more than 40,000 in 14 Indian languages! So classmates from most regions knew who SPB was as there would be at least one hit song in their native language sung by SPB.
Ever-smiling SPB hosted a lot of music talent shows and brought out plenty of emerging good talent. The beauty of these shows was that the host always had a kind and encouraging word for every participant. I was among the fortunate ones to be encouraged by SPB, albeit not at a talent show. At a friend’s wedding, where SPB was also a guest, he asked me to sing after being told by the hosts that I learn music. I obviously was very hesitant to sing in front of the doyen. He sensed the hesitation, smiled and said that he would sing along. The song was “Kadhal Rojave” from Roja (1992). He sang for the most part, and I tried to mimic Sujatha Menon’s prelude. “That was a difficult aalapanai. I see great potential in you. You need practice more regularly, that’s all,” said the great man, patting my shoulder. Till date, that remains one of the most powerful reasons for me to not lose touch with my music.
In the song “Sangeetha Megam” from Udaya Geetham (1985), SPB sang, “Indha dhegam maraindhaalum isaiyaai malarven (Even when his body ceases to exist, I will bloom as music).”
Never has a truer word been spoken (or sung). You will continue to resonate forever, SPB sir.