The amusing thing about tributes and eulogies written about phenomenal artists is that they end up being more about what the artist meant to the writer than the artist themselves. So when I think about SPB (S P Balasubrahmanyam), I am reminded of my first strong memory of his songs from my own childhood. It was during a hot Diwali afternoon of 1991 and some of us kids from the neighbourhood were busy bursting crackers. But we stopped it for a while in the middle of the day to rush home to watch a special edition of Oliyum Oliyum on Doordarshan.
It turned out to be an extra delightful episode since the broadcaster played both Rakkama Kaiya Thattu from Rajinikanth’s Thalapathi (1991) and Kanmani Anboda from Kamal Hassan’s Gunaa (1991). After the episode, we gave up on the crackers and were busy debating on which of the two songs was the better one. No clear verdict was humanly possible on that Diwali day since the house was divided equally between aggressive fans of both stars. But only after a decade or so, it dawned on us that the Telugu versions of both these songs were sung by the inimitable SPB. We were kind of disappointed that our high decibel territorial quarrels from childhood turned out to be about the same man’s voice.
So when fans might be fighting over their favourite stars or musicians or films, SPB continued to remain a constant in all of them.
He rose to fame in the MS Viswanathan era, reached an all-time peak with Ilaiyaraaja and continued to hold fort even after AR Rahman and others had arrived. In the perennially polarized Tamil music fans world, SPB remained a constant benchmark. It is very common to observe fans debating over the singing prowess between SPB and KJ Yesudas or SPB and Malaysia Vasudevan or SPB and Mano or even SPB and Hariharan. But you can hardly notice a fan debating about the singing qualities of any other duo in this list. Because it has been taken for granted that SPB shall remain a constant.
The default male vocalist
Singing over 40,000 songs in 16 languages, but predominantly in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi, SPB’s voice has come to represent the default male voice of the songs made from the southern states. There was something really youthful and energetic about his voice and it remained consistent throughout his singing career. His voice often symbolized hope and life and it never failed to lift the listener’s mood. This was true for not only the happy, upbeat songs like Idhu Oru Ponmalai Pozhudhu from Nizhalgal (1980), but true to even melancholic ones like Mandram Vandha Thendralukku from Mouna Ragam (1986).
Tenma, music composer and the leader and music producer of The Casteless Collective mentions that, “SPB had a majestic male voice that has an assuring quality’. And that is why he naturally fit into songs made for superstars like Rajinikanth, Kamal Hassan or even Salman Khan. This is indeed true because, SPB was the go to person for Rajinikanth’s opening songs since the 90s. So much so that, it was believed that SPB singing them was auspicious to the film’s box office collection. So when Rajinikanth’s film Baba (2002) experimented with Shankar Mahadevan, the movie’s loss was rumoured to be the absence of SBP singing the opening song. And SPB was brought back again in the next film Chandramukhi (2005).
Wholesome and accessible voice
But beyond the actors and composers desiring to lipsync to SPB’s singing, SPB remains an artist who has inspired generations of aspiring singers to mimic him. While his singing abilities were impeccable and extraordinary, there was something accessible about his voice that made every aspiring singer or fan to replicate his voice or techniques. Even today in social media apps like Smule, the songs of SPB remain the most sung by his fans. Kavin Malar, a journalist and an ardent fan of SPB said that the legend’s singing was perfect, yet not intimidating, leading people to try to imitate him.
Tenma too agrees that SPB mainstreamed ‘light music singing’. The major chunk of his songs were neither too drenched in Carnatic music nor in rural folk. But of course, SPB did excel in both these extremes. However, because most of his songs fall in the middle, in the light music category, they became easily relatable to a vast number of aspiring singers and fans.
Harmony between Ilaiyaraaja and SPB
While SPB has been an active playback singer for over 50 years, the peak of his career clearly coincides with that of Ilaiyaraaja’s. The composer and singer beautifully complemented each other and were extremely prolific in the 80s and early 90s. While Ilaiyaraaja did opt for others singers like Yesudas, Malaysia Vasudevan or Mano at times, SPB was the one he repeatedly went back to. The other singers were chosen whenever Ilaiyaraaja wanted a strong Carnatic flavour or a rustic rural quality. Or simply when SPB wasn’t available. Stand-up comic Alexander Babu parodies this pattern in his show Alex in Wonderland and claims how Malaysia Vasudevan had to hurry to the studio every time SPB wasn’t available.
Dharmaraj Thamburaj, professor and head, department of Folklore and Culture Studies at Madurai Kamaraj University explains this collaboration between the composer and singer with the analogy of an ocean’s depth and the flowing waves.
If Ilaiyaraaja’s music represented the ocean’s depth which was inaccessible to an average listener, it was SPB’s vocals with oozing life that represented the frothing bubbles of the waves that the listener found accessible.
Thamburaj credits SPB for making Ilaiyaraaja’s music more accessible. He adds that the various vocal plays that SPB often indulged in, that was considered over the top by some critics, only made him more relatable.
A charming and affable actor
If one has to point to a shortcoming of his glorious singing career is in how it overshadowed his interesting acting performances. Whether it was the senior doctor in Manathil Uruthi Vendum (1987), the friendly father in Kadhalan (1994) or the CBI officer in Thiruda Thiruda (1993), SPB was extremely affable and charming in all these characters. Interestingly, these characters’ overlap with his very likable, clean and non-controversial public personality. He brought out a certain gentleness to these ordinary middle-class characters. The restrained way his character flirts with actor Radhika Sarathkumar’s in Keladi Kanmani (1990) or the father-son duo who share a beer in Kadhalan were all relatable and aspirational at the same time.
That also reminds us that SPB frequently played the likable, sensitive father characters. From Sigaram (1991) to Ullaasam (1997) to Priyamaanavale (2000), one could recollect several interesting portrayals.
Symbol of life
It might sound ironic to state this immediately after the singer’s demise, but if there is something that SPB represents, then it has to be the youthful energy that consistently appears in his songs. His songs were a sheer force of energy that there was no way any listener could escape it. And if you are someone who grew up in the last five decades, then every important moment from your life would invariably have an SPB song associated with it.
While fan would list out their own personal favourites, this particularly energetic song from Enakkul Oruvan (1984) brilliantly and accurately encapsulates SPB’s entire career. As the lyrics claim, come rain, storm, thunder or lightning, the song would go on forever as long as the fans are willing.