A priceless voice

When music legend S P Balasubrahmanyam passed away, leaving behind him a legacy of 42,000-odd songs, different people digested news of this huge loss differently. While some rushed to his house despite the pandemic, others stayed home glued to television to hear the beautiful songs that made up his repertoire. It appeared that there wasn’t a single soul that he hadn’t touched! His greatness lay in his simplicity. A soft-spoken giant who had achieved what would take a normal mortal at least five births to do so.

S P Balasubrahmanyam and music director Ilayaraja, a legendary duo.
S P Balasubrahmanyam and music director Ilayaraja, a legendary duo.

I first heard the name Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam in the late 1960s much before most of the world had heard it. It was a musical evening at the Madras Kerala Samajam where the greats of the time, K J Yesudas, P Jayachandran, P Susheela, S Janaki and B Vasantha were singing. I think the orchestra was led by R K Shekhar (A R Rahman’s father). All the greats sang first and after the interval, it was announced that a new singer would sing a couple of numbers of A M Raja. He was introduced as Balasubrahmanyam, a student of engineering. A mention was also made of his having recorded a song for the one and only MGR.

I learnt later how discerning MGR was when he decided on who would sing for him. His songs played an important role in the success of his movies and there was no way he would allow anyone of lesser calibre to sing for him. The newcomer’s singing was flawless and everyone in the hall predicted a great future for him. To the girl who was just 12, it was a beautiful evening of music where all the songs were those she had heard on the 33 RPM at home. But in the crevices of her grey matter, the name of the new entrant was imprinted.

Within six months of that evening, two movies and two songs were released and a sensation was born. The Tamil music enthusiasts the world over got to know SPB. If Aayirum nilave vaa had MGR serenading a young and vivacious Jayalalithaa, Iyarkaii ennum ilaiyya kanni had Gemini Ganesan romancing the stylish and beautiful Kanchana. The 23-year-old SPB had made his mark in the world of Indian playback singing. K V Mahadevan gave the music for the first and M S Viswanathan for the second. With two greats having used him, there was no looking back for this youngster.

No expert in music, I can share that my working week starts with the Siva Stuthi rendered so soulfully and with immense devotion by him. The bhaavam and bhakthi when he sings song in this genre is unmatched. No god can resist it!

The bhaavam and bhakthi when he sings song in this genre is unmatched. No god can resist it!

In the 54 years he straddled the music industry, the world as well as the film industry changed. But as far as SPB goes, his voice had remained almost the same. He had the capability to modulate his voice to suit the hero for whom he was singing. We had been in awe of TMS when he could change his voice for the two heroes of that era, MGR and Shivaji Ganesan. However when it came to SPB, it didn’t stop with that generation, he continued his skills further down the line to Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan and then Vijay, Ajith and the rest. These are few of the names from the Tamil film industry and then there are the innumerable heroes in all the other industries that he sang for. This kind of versatility is indeed a god given gift.

Forget SPB being a benefactor to others, or philanthropist. Just think of the number of ordinary mortals who became heroes thanks to the beautiful songs he sung for them. There was a period in the late 1980s and early ‘90s when songs played a major role in lifting a movie. It was while watching a video that I got to know the important part SPB played in bringing to the industry the likes of Ilayaraja and his brothers, and veteran director Bharathiraja as well. Of course, they were very talented and proved their mettle. But getting that first break was always the most difficult. When chess wizard Viswanathan Anand acknowledged SPB’s role as the first sponsor for his Chennai Colts team, I was amazed. Here was a man who had gone around quietly encouraging all those in whom he saw the will to perform and excel.

What we will miss is not only a great singer who had earned the moniker Paadum Nila, but also a fine human being who traversed this planet. We are indeed lucky to have lived in his times. He knew how blessed he was when he said “I sing the notes as they are written but it is the Almighty who comes out as my voice.”

As long as there is music in this world, SPB’s voice will be there to enthrall us.

The writer is a member of RC Madras Midtown, RID 3232.

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