I think it was in 2013 that I first got roped into playing with him on stage. It was a momentous occasion for me, as this was the “Voice of God” that we had all grown up with. His was the voice that accompanied our attempts at our first courtships, our balm during stormy weather and the anchor for our lives. To imagine that I was going to perform on stage with him was making me giddy.
Events so transpired that he could not be present physically for the rehearsal before the show and decided instead to call me, without warning, on the phone – and sing to me as I played him the notes and sequences in accompaniment. To this date, it is perhaps one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. To have the great SP Balasubramanyam sing only to me, in preparation for a concert.
To millions around the globe who have grown up with South Indian cinema or music, he needs absolutely no introduction. He is music. He has vocalised our emotions to such an extent that we have learnt to “feel” through SPB. No other singer has had that ability to etch something special and personal into every single listener, at least in South India, as he has been able to.
A conversation with some of my friends in the North today revealed that they associate him the most with the early Salman Khan films, and some older films like Saagar and many others. Many of them do not realise that he has sung a whopping 40,000 songs or more across at least 14-15 languages. To anyone growing up in the South of India in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and even the 2000s, the voice of SPB is the definitive introduction to music and singing. It becomes the crucible on which everyone else’s vocalisation is then placed, compared and sometimes found wanting. His voice is internal to us, and deeply customised.
To the unaccustomed, SPB is a Padma Bhushan awardee, has six or so National Awards, and innumerable honours and accolades. He has perhaps sung more blockbuster hits in South Indian cinema (all four languages) than everyone else put together. His is the voice that is heard in places of pilgrimage (from Tirupati to Tiruvannamalai, take your pick) and when you least expect it to, all over the world.
His career graph, spanning over 50 years, saw him work with the greatest geniuses of Indian film music – MS Viswanathan, KV Mahadevan, AR Rahman and even younger composers. He was of course, perhaps the most prolific singer in maestro Ilaiyaraaja’s treasury of songs. The IR-SPB combo, as they are popularly referred to all over the globe, perhaps saw the coming together of two of South India’s biggest musical influences for several generations of listeners. He was the voice of choice to provide “playback” to the biggest stars for over five decades, and it would be very tough to imagine anyone else filling those shoes. Perhaps the idea of such filmmaking itself may soon transform.
Lesser known is his incredible generosity to varied causes. Through the SPB Fans Association, he has donated crores to various deserving entities, most recently helping migrant labour and needy musicians during the pandemic.
To me, and to several independent or younger musicians, he was a father figure. Unerringly generous, supportive and humble to a fault – he would set the standard for collaborative ventures and the art of mentoring. He had the ability to give advice without ever enforcing his opinion and that gentlemanly composure that seems to be a relic of a bygone age. To have been able to work with him on and off the stage is perhaps a singular honor in the lives of many, including me.
With his passing, an epoch ends. Luckily he has left us this incredible collection of songs in varied styles, moods, languages and genres to enjoy. To musicians like myself, he has left us unforgettable personal memories, advice and of course his signature wit and humour.
This has been a very tough article to write, as creative people leave a huge void when they go. In the case of SPB, it is too vast to be articulated simply with a few well-chosen words. I picked three of his songs that perhaps made my early youth and ten years. I am sure every reader would have their own personal tracklist, and fighting over why this one was left out or that one was included is how he will forever remain with us. After all, there are 40,000 to choose from!
SPB was a consummate actor, witty and spontaneous and capable of a wide range of emotional display on screen as well. I have therefore picked songs where he is the protagonist himself.
For someone like SPB, there is no death. He is already so much a part of us. There is only an enduring legacy that will live long after even we have passed. Such is his artistry, and such is the gift he has bestowed us with.
Mannil Indha Kadha
Keladi Kanmani (1990, music by Ilaiyaraaja) was an emotional family drama. This song was a “viral” hit of its day as there is a tricky passage that SPB has sung without exhaling, a feat that is attempted by amateur singers at various events to this day. The score, the acting, SPB’s presence and of course his singing make it a masterpiece in Tamil cinema.
A fun song from a fun-filled film (Kadhalan, 1994, music by AR Rahman), where SPB acts as a progressive father to a lovestruck Prabhudeva. Only SPB could sing such a rambunctious song and dance with none other than Prabhudeva in the video with his own adorable charm.
Sigaram (1991, music by SPB) was a film in which SPB plays a music director and singer and the incidents in his life. SPB also lined up a stellar list of singers for the project, choosing not to sing all the numbers himself. The soundtrack ranges from songs by doyen M Balamuralikrishna to the legendary Yesudas. This song is set in Piloo, a classical raga and is highly evocative.
Anil Srinivasan is a well-known pianist, music educator and writer.