From K.V. Mahadevan to M.S.Vishwanathan, Ilayaraja to A.R. Rahman, even to the current icon Anirudh, there hasn’t been a music director whose compositions late SP Balasubrahmanyam hasn’t lent his mellifluous voice to. At a point in time, it was every upcoming actor’s dream to have this maestro sing for them. Such was his stature, that has now fallen silent. A silence that will haunt the industry for years to come.
His demise has not yet quite registered in my mind. I have never once met or interacted with him, and quite unfortunately so. But somehow, his passing hits a very deep, personal note. Knowing that there won’t be a ‘Thalaivar-opening song’ in his voice, laced with equal parts of style and philosophy; no live shows to see him belting out groovy numbers in person; and never again having the chance to await a classy single in his lilting voice- all takes a personal toll.
My earliest memory of revelling in his voice would certainly be listening to the songs ‘Bharathi Kannama’, ‘Ninaithale Inikkum’ and ‘Namma Ooru Singari’ from the 1979 film Ninaithale Inikum. To many, these may seem far too antiquated or maybe even archaic. But there was something about the willowy meandering of those melodies, the way it suddenly made me feel as though I was floating in a gently flowing river.
There was something so effervescent and so evergreen about his tone, that a song you might have heard a hundred times before, would still make you tap your feet to its tunes, if not hum along to every part of the song, including vocalizing its drums, saxophones, violins, and whatnot. And almost every other song would end with his soft characteristic chuckle, beautifully and effortlessly incorporated, usually in the middle or end of the tune.
Something that completely eludes my comprehension, is how it was physically possible for him to have sustained the same youthfulness in his voice and demeanour, for not one, not two years but three generations of actors. From MGR’s Aayiram Nilave Va, Rajinikanth’s Raja Enbar, Kamal Hasan’s Ilamai Itho Itho, Prabhu Ganesan’s Povoma Oorkolam, Arvind Swami’s Kaadhal Rojave - somehow, his untrained genius always magically suited every actor, every emotion and mood.
And while this may sound like hyperbole, SPB’s voice was so dynamic that sometimes it was as though the actor had to match up to the plethora of expressions he rendered in the song, instead of the other way round. Raunchy, romantic, familial love, friendship, devotional – the range of minute embellishments and variations he brought into each song and the life he breathed into every word cannot be comprehended by mere reading. And he also played the role of a doting, gentle and friendly father in iconic films like Kadhalan, Sigaram, and Keladi Kanmani with equal ease and panache as he sang his music.
While I am biased towards using some of my personal favourites as example, that most certainly does not mean his legacy holds true only for Tamil songs. This was a man who had sung over 40,000 songs, with a musical empire spanned across South India and even delivering Hindi hits for stars like Salman Khan.
Sankarabharanam, a film that was released in 1980, was purely based on Carnatic music and classical dance. And the devotion he had, not just spiritually, but to the art form itself, earned him national recognition and fame despite never having a formal education in music. The reason for his continued fame and celebration is irrefutably because of his undying love and respect for his craft.
In the case of SPB, it was never solely about his music. He was a gem of a human being who never looked down upon another individual, had only the kindest words to say, and most importantly, even with people to attend to his every beck and call, there was never an iota of arrogance in him. He was always such an endearing and relatable figure in the cine field, even with the grandeur that surrounded him.
To him, for now and always, thank you.
Thank you SPB sir for the legacy you have left behind. Thank you for being a constant companion through all these years, to millions of unknown faces. For in every emotion your songs came gushing forth to our ears, giving each mood a sensory manifestation and solace. And thank you, for helping us fathom humanity in its truest form – when fully immersed in music. And somehow even while writing this piece, it feels very difficult to write about you in the past tense – a grammatical error that I now wish I had the liberty to make.