Simply SPB: In Fond Remembrance

A tribute to the legendary singer, the late S.P. Balasubramaniam on his 77th birth anniversary.
Simply SPB: In Fond Remembrance

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S.P. BALASUBRAMANIAM WOULD HAVE TURNED 77 yesterday if was still with us. His voice has stilled but his music will outlive the voice. 

Perhaps the greatest difficulty that one encounters while writing a profile of or a tribute to SPB is confronting the bulky pile of autobiographical material he has left behind. What he sadly left unfinished was writing a formal autobiography. A year before he unshackled his mortal coils, he had begun Simply SPB, a quasi autobiography on YouTube. One wistfully wishes that he had begun this video series at least five years ago. Nothing beats the unimpeachable value of a firsthand autobiography. 

Still, the available body of his autobiographical information is a fortune of brilliant anecdotes and priceless insights drawn from a lifetime of experience in film music and beyond.       

In the realm of cinema music or playback singing, SPB is akin to air. He is… everywhere

It is not an exaggeration to claim that there are at least ten SPB songs being played at a given moment throughout the world in multiple languages and genres. For half a century, SPB strode the world of cinema music like a giant. His voracious musical appetite digested and owned languages and forms and delivered the same melodic quality with the unerring consistency of majestic rivers that know exactly which sea they need to merge into. This is something no playback singer before him had done and none will do in the future given that there’s nothing called “music” anymore in Indian filmdom. By itself, this is an unparalleled feat: to rule the entire south Indian film music for half a century like a monarch lording over a highly treacherous territory.

Apart from cinema music, SPB also lent his rich and malleable voice mainly in the genre of Bhakti (devotional) music, singing timeless Stotrams and other poetic compositions. Among others, his Bilvashtakam and Lingashtakam enjoyed the same ubiquitous status and presence as M.S. Subbulakshmi’s Sri Venkatesha Suprabhatam, a staple fare on radio, cassette and CD in middle class homes for almost three full generations.

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S.P. BALASUBRAMANIAM JOINED PLAYBACK SINGING at a Sandhi Kala, or crossroads in South Indian film history. He learned the nuances of playback singing from the best of the past masters, adapted himself to the fast-changing present, and influenced and inspired countless future singers and music directors. In his own words, which he has recounted on countless occasions, he emotionally narrates how his “seniors” personally guided and mentored him, and “put my mistakes in their stomach without anger, without scolding me.” He mentions with great reverence how the legendary Ghantasala Venkateshwara Rao sat on the pavement opposite SPB’s house, waiting for him for more than two hours just to inform him that he had a recording scheduled. This was at a time when Ghantasala was at the peak of his career. Such anecdotes are also mirrors of the culture of refinement, affection, and humanity that existed in the cinema industry of that era. They also reveal an intrinsic truth about stalwarts who have attained eminence in their own fields. Thus, in SPB’s case too, the man was also the method, his Sangita was inseparable from his Samskara

His humility was unostentatious, his confidence in his musical abilities wasn’t discoloured by insolence, and his awareness of his own limitations became a source of his strength. And a combination of all these made him an unsullied professional in the sense that playback singing is primarily a profession. 

From the legendary music director K.V. Mahadevan all the way up to Aniruddh Ravichander, from S. Rajeshwara Rao to Manisharma, and from G.K. Venkatesh to Arjun Janya, SPB exhibited the same grace, obedience, and professionalism throughout his musical career. While SPB’s vastly older music directors praised his humility and Samskara, the younger music directors unfailingly mention about “cultivating at least one percent of his character and conduct.” Small wonder that he became the most sought-after playback singer cutting across generations.

The other striking quality of SPB’s musical repertoire is its freshness. His most acclaimed body of work has an evergreen quality. He is among the few singers whose voice quality surprisingly remained uniform and melodious till the very end. Without making comparisons, even the iconic Lata Mangeshkar’s voice had lost its edge after Ek Duje Liye, in which SPB made his Hindi debut. Nature had indeed been kind to him.   

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SPB’S LASTING REGRET was the fact that he had never formally learnt Classical music. His permanent refrain: “one day, I hope I will actually perform a full-fledged Carnatic concert.” Yet, he could effortlessly sing tough Carnatic compositions with the felicity of accomplished classical musicians. The songs in his life-altering Sankarabharanam obviously come to mind first followed by the Kritis in Tyagayya. These apart, difficult compositions like Sri Tumburu Narada Nadamrutam, Sangita Sahitya Samalankrute, Sangita Jatimullai, Shilegalu Sangitava Hadive, Pavadisu Paramatma… also belong to this classical playlist. 

In the same breath, SPB could also hoot and whistle and howl and cackle and introduce bestial noises in his mind-numbing numbers of mindless masala films of Chiranjeevi, Balakrishna, Rajinikanth, Kamal Hassan, Ambarish, and Shankar Nag. 

He could also wheeze and cough like a terminal tuberculosis patient, and his voice could weep the tears of a jilted lover in a mind-boggling number of “sad” songs. Indeed, we suspect that many of SPB’s “sad” songs have singlehandedly rescued hundreds of “cancer” films which were the staple diet of our cinema made in the mid 1970s up to the early 1990s. 

SPB’s unbeatable collaboration with that other musical stalwart S. Janaki is legendary. Together, they belted out hundreds of “love” songs which were liberally infused with maddening strains of erotic sounds and gross sighs. Some of these are truly cringeworthy but all of them were chartbusters. 

SPB’s patented singing brilliance also revealed itself in how he could effortlessly render folk songs in Kannada and Tamil in their respective dialects with the natural felicity of a native speaker. Especially, Kannada folk songs set in the raw and rustic dialect of Old Mysore, which is hard for even urban Kannadigas to speak, much less sing. 

When we listen to these songs, it becomes nearly impossible to make out that SPB’s mother tongue is Telugu. We don’t detect even the slightest hint of his Telugu accent in these non-Telugu songs. In the history of Indian cinema, few singers have achieved this feat of which SPB is still the unquestionable Master. This owes to his insistence on owning the entire lyric and its bhava (emotion). Bhasha follows Bhava like the calf follows the cow. On hundreds of occasions, SPB has  recommended this method — rooted in our ancient tradition of classical poetry and music —  to younger singers. 

To be continued

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