“And so, dear friends, you’ll just have to carry on”: John Lennon, ‘God’.

There are times when we take certain things for granted and assume that they will be a part of our lives forever. For many South Indians, SP Balasubrahmanyam, the legendary playback singer, was certainly one of those things.

SPB, as he was fondly called, died on Friday in Chennai. He had tested positive for Covid-19 on August 5. Despite eventually testing negative for the virus, he had remained in hospital because of poor health.

Balasubrahmanyam had been such a constant presence in the lives of the people of southern states for over 50 years that even the mere thought of a time without him would have struck many as absurd. The credit goes to the consistency he displayed through his long career. In the over 40,000 songs he sang, he became the voice of different generations of actors and music directors and thereby travelled with different generations of fans as well.

Unfortunately, a virus doesn’t differentiate. Perhaps that is why humans fear the microscopic being, which straddles animate and inanimate forms. As the coronavirus gets to your throat, there is no evidence to suggest it can recognise a voice box that has given such joy to millions for over half a century. Perhaps if it did, one wonders if the virus may have called off its attack.

Also read:

SP Balasubrahmanyam’s staggering achievement: 40,000 tracks, 50 years later, numerous languages

A constant melody

Merely listing the landmarks in SPB’s career does not do justice to what he meant to people. In fact, what indeed would do justice to a career of this sort is unclear.

As the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put it, our hearts are beating muffled drums in our march to the grave. In SPB’s case, the drum of his heart was a constant melody. His immeasurable talent reflected in free-spirited improvisation and the fleshing out of emotions that made you laugh, cry, love and kill. His singing constantly reminded us that our hearts pump emotions, not just blood.

There are many who argue that his voice was not special. Perhaps he had stagnated in the later years of his career, when that legendary improvisation gave way to a mechanical finish, exposing the regression of film music itself in a world dominated by technology. His presence was needed because aging stars like Rajinikanth won’t retire, and people expected SPB to sing for them. He was, in the later years, more often than not used for the flutter that the nostalgia of such actor-singer created. In millennial language, he was # worthy.

But at his peak – and that peak was a long and glorious 30 years – SPB animated every note he sang with the same exuberance with which he led his life, the same chirpiness to which so many of his fellow artists will attest. He sustained it until a few days before his death.

SP Balasubrahmanyam after being diagnosed with Covid-19.

Balasubrahmanyam was fortunate to have had three great music directors across generations creating one classic after another for him. This, however, is the clay-and-potter story of the musical world. Was it the music director or the singer who made the song what it was? In SPB’s association with MS Viswanathan, Ilaiyaraaja and AR Rahman, the genius of the composer and the singer were so fused together that to differentiate would be to wash the clay away before the wheel was spun.

Maybe one way to pay tribute would be to listen to Balasubrahmanyam’s singing. Millions who swayed to his music every day had never met him. But that deep spiritual connect with SPB, the feeling of proximity, the feeling of knowing someone so well without having ever spoken a word to him, comes from the familiarity with his art. That art was freely available. Market logic did not apply to it. In abundance, SPB was still precious.

SP Balasubrahmanyam songs for Ilaiyaraaja.

I am a 1990s kid. We started on the precipice of a technological revolution and then fell headfirst into it. We moved from radio and television to Mp3 players, iPods and smart phones. SPB was in it all. His voice boomed from the black-and-white screen on Doordarshan every Friday in the programme Olium Olium (Sound and Light) as we shook the antennae furiously to receive clear signals. When FM radio was privatised in the 2000s, the new generation learnt of the joys of the Ilaiyaraaja-SPB combination of the 1980s. In fact, these stations sustained on their music. And today, he is even closer to us through a simple search on YouTube or the numerous music apps that drain our savings every month.

I try here to recollect some of SPB’s gems in reverse. I start with the 1990s and end in 1980, knowing well that the arrow of time moves forward and not backward, though such a reversal would bestow upon us the miracle of having him back.

The master of the sad song

SPB was a master of emotions. He imbibed and then recreated the emotional context of a song through his voice better than most singers. In cinema, this is important. You don’t want to be in a situation in which the actor on the screen is crying but the singer’s voice somehow sounds happy about it.

Balasubrahmanyam mostly knew the line that separated emotional singing from slipping into total melodrama. With Rahman in the 1990s, SPB was a master of this expression of sadness. By this time, he was a veteran but still carried shades of a youthful voice. Of course, he has sung similar songs previously. But somehow, the clarity of the sound that Rahman produced accentuated the emotion.

In K Balachander’s Duet (1994), two brothers fall in love with the same woman. In En Kadhale, Rahman creates a wonder. The setting is the desperation of the character, a singer himself, to find out whether the woman will reciprocate his feelings. Did SPB deliver! Every inflection, every note transition, is filled to the brim with emotions. It was a pity that the filming was pathetic and the acting came nowhere close to SPB’s effort.

En Kadhale, Duet (1994).

Another stupendous exhibition of sadness came in Venus Balu’s May Madham (1994), scored by Rahman. After being separated from his lover, the hero yearns for her company. Most of us would have faced situations when words fail us and our voices crack. At the end of the first charanam in Minnale Nee Vanthathenadi, SPB’s voice almost chokes as he delves deep into the character, holding a perfect pitch.

Minnale Nee Vanthathenadi, May Madham (1994).

Rahman benefited hugely from the experience that SPB had gained singing for Ilaiyaraaja. In 1993 Bharathiraja, known for his rural themes, roped in Rahman for Kizhakku Cheemayile. Many wondered if the tech-savvy young composer who grew up in a big city could produce the sounds of the villages.

The title song Maanoothu Mandhayile settled that debate once and for all, carried by SPB’s voice that brought out the flavours of the paddy fields. Born into a Telugu-speaking family, SPB initially found it difficult to break into the Tamil film world given his flawed Tamil pronunciation. From such a position in the 1960s to giving an almost flawless rendition in a Tamil regional dialect, he had indeed come a long way.

Maanoothu Mandhayile, Kizhakku Cheemayile (1993).

The gods of the 1980s

South Indian film music in the 1980s belonged to the awesome foursome of Ilaiyaraaja, Yesudas, SPB and Janaki. Chitra came in a bit later. Ilaiyaraaja used Yesudas sparingly in Tamil. But one will be hard-pressed to find films without either SPB or Janaki singing.

When news of SPB’s deteriorating health condition emerged, Ilaiyaraaja put out an emotional video message, exhorting his friend to rage against the dying light. He said their friendship went beyond cinema to the days when they were both in amateur light music bands in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Some will argue that it was this friendship that made Ilaiyaraaja use SPB thousands of times in hundreds of movies. But Ilaiyaraaja, as many singers have often said, is not the one to settle for the ordinary. The music composer was obsessed with perfection and innovation and to think that he would somehow compromise over his musical quality for the sake of friendship is unbelievable. That Ilaiyaraaja’s go-to male playback singer in both Tamil and Telugu was SPB is a testament to the latter’s genius.

Ilaiyaraaja was also a prolific composer, sometimes recording for multiple films in a day. This speed with such high-quality music required singers who could match the pace and the depth of the compositions. SPB was that match made in musical heaven. As Rahman once pointed out, SPB would take hardly any time to understand a song and recordings with him were very rarely dragged out.

Here is a video of a music session in which the composer is teaching the singer one of his compositions.

Ilaiyaraaja and SP Balasubrahmanyam.

It is an impossible task to objectively analyse and pick one or two songs by this duo and present it as their best. Any such pick would be deeply personal, subject to time and mood. But it can be argued that both Ilaiyaraaja and SPB were at their absolute peak between 1985 and 1990, when there was nothing that they could not do.

In terms of the quality of the voice, Enna Satham in K Balachander’s Punnagai Mannan (1986) has very few parallels in SPB’s career. The subtle modulations or sangatis, especially in the pallavi between charanams, is one for the gods. When he goes “adadaa” in that reverberating flow, our minds also exclaim “adadaa” with him.

Enna Saththam, Punnagai Mannan (1986).

SPB’s duets with Janaki are in a class of their own. It was a chemistry of superlative consistency, but one also felt there was a friendly tug-of-war going on whenever they took the microphone together. The powerful dynamics of their voices were complementary and they tried to outmatch each other in showcasing their repertoire.

Duets are, in a way, dialogues in musical form. In the song, parts are interchanged, in the sense that the portions of the tune that the male singer sings in the first charanam are mostly taken over by the female singer in the second charanam and vice versa. This gives us a chance to compare the embellishments a singer brings to the composition. In Penn Maane from Naan Sigappu Manithan (1986), the famed chemistry of this combination is at its best.

Listeners often point out subtle differences in the manner in which Balasubrahmanyam sang for Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, the leading stars of his era, even though the singer denied the comparison. Whether the difference is real or imagined, there is no denying that his voice fit both stars organically.

Penn Maane, Naan Sigappu Manithan (1986).

In Mani Ratnam’s Telugu-language Geethanjali (1989), SPB’s rendition of O Papa Lali brings out the frustration and pain of the terminally ill hero goes through as he watches time pummel the prospects of his love. But there is a gentleness too in what the hero feels, something SPB nails in the pallavi.

When the movie was dubbed into Tamil as Idayathai Thirudathe, SPB had undergone a serious surgery to his throat, risking his very career. The Tamil version of this song was sung by Mano, and it is not difficult to notice the missing subtleties.

O Papa Lali, Geethanjali (1989).

Lightning-fast modulations

The legendary playback singer P Suseela and SPB’s contemporary Malaysia Vasudevan had more than once mentioned SPB’s control over modulations in the notes or sangatis as his greatest strength. This came through superbly in his early years, especially in songs with MS Viswanathan.

Balasubrahmanyam had mentioned in an interview some years ago that Viswanathan often made quick changes to the songs during the course of the recording, which made life hard for the singers. The changes were not always minor. One such song was Ragangal Pathinaru in Rajinikanth’s comedy Thillu Mullu (1981). It was vocal gymnastics that only SPB could have pulled off.

Ragangal Pathinaru, Thillu Mullu (1981).

SPB did not formally train in the classical vocal style – which he described in several interviews as a handicap of sorts. A criticism against him was that he wasn’t good enough with heavy classical numbers, but this isn’t entirely true.

In Viswathulasi (2004), MS Viswanathan returned as a composer after a long gap. The song Kannama Kanavillaya carries a strong Hindustani flavour with a charanam that is as complex in its structure as it can get for a film song. SPB aced the nuances with ease.

Kannama Kanavillaya, Viswathulasi (2004).

When he was hospitalitalised in early August, SPB put out a video saying his symptoms were mild and he would be discharged in a couple of days. Things did not turn out that way. India has lost one of its greatest singers to a pandemic that has wreaked havoc across the globe.

Balasubrahmanyam’s failure to keep up his promise to return reminds one of a stunning gem he sang for Viswanathan in Varumayin Niram Sivappu (1980). The setting, yet again, was failed love. The great Tamil poet Subramania Bharathi’s lyrics chide the lover for failing to turn up as promised. This short masterpiece is everything that SP Balasubrahmanyam offered.

Vaarthai thavarivittai, adi kannama, maarbu thudikuthadi: you broke your word, kannama! My heart weeps.

Vaarthai Thavarivittai, Varumayin Niram Sivappu (1980).