Half-century old SPB-Ilayaraja combo is unique in world music

Half-century old SPB-Ilayaraja combo is unique in world music
S P Balasubramanyam, Ilayaraja

“Ilayaraja was born for me, and I was born for Ilayaraja,” said S P Balasubramanyam while speaking at the ‘Ilayaraja 1000’ live event organised to mark Ilayaraja’s completion of 1,000 films.

The statement hardly surprised us because we have always accepted the combo as the most natural one to have. If it’s Ilayaraja, the male voice almost always has to be SPB’s. This is not to imply that other singers did not do justice to Ilayaraja’s music. The Raja songs that we used to hum from the radio age until today prove that Ilayaraja always saved the best for his friend.

Whenever the morning radio aired the melodies Kaathalin Deepam Onru, Mandram Vandha Thendralukku, Poondhalir Aada, Sundari, and Andhi Mazhai Pozhigirathu or the fast numbers Naan Thaan Sagalakala Vallavan, My Name Is Billa and Ilamai Idho Idho, we could not imagine any other singer of the time would have given us the same experience.

One of the difficult requests to fulfil in this column has been to list out the top songs of the Ilayaraja-SPB combo and rightly so. Their ‘library’ of songs will blow your mind that you cannot do justice to their partnership by attempting to make such a list.

Friendship, the invisible note in every song

SPB broke into the music scene when TM Soundarrajan and PB Sreenivas ruled the Tamil music scene and Ghantasala dominated the Telugu industry. The engineer-aspirant who turned to music out of passion and to help his father financially with the 150 or 200 that a recorded song could fetch him, never imagined such a long run.

The ‘Paavalar Brothers Orchestra’ that young Balu had organised with Ilayaraja and his brothers Gangai Amaran and Daniel Bhaskar began it all. Balu, the only one from outside the Paavalar family, was the ‘elder brother’ in the group who would fetch Ilayaraja from his music class on his scooter for concerts. Ilayaraja played the harmonium and Amaran played the guitar to the popular film songs sung by SPB. SPB found his mentor in films soon enough and started singing playback, but Raja had to wait longer for his film debut. As a proud friend, SPB had said that he is amazed and proud that his friend who did not know how to write notations worked so hard and became a maestro whom the world respects. SPB said Raja need not write down anything, he had every detail required in his brain, neatly organised.

True friends need not be physically close and they don’t need long conversations. When the friend of a famous singer makes his debut as music director, you would expect both to come together. However, it did not happen when Ilayaraja composed for Annakkili or for the next few movies. SPB sang in many films after making his Tamil debut by singing the evergreen duet Iyarkai Ennum Ilayakanni with P Susheela for composer M S Viswanathan in Shanti Nilayam. Legend has it that SPB bumped into Raja in a recording studio and told him that he was also a singer and why is he not being called to sing any of his compositions. Raja responded saying he will record a song with him the next morning.

The royalty fight and reunion

Fights do not last long in friendships. You bitterly argue, make mistakes and accuse the other but all it takes to bring a truce is a phone call or a warm hug. After a bitter legal spat between the two over royalty when SPB was in the middle of a world tour, which saw him avoiding Ilayaraja’s compositions altogether on stage for about two years, SPB got a call from his friend saying “Unnai kattippidikkanum pola irukkuda…” (I feel like hugging you...). SPB said he immediately drove down to Raja’s residence and both hugged each other warmly to announce to the world that the royalty issue was settled.

The grapevine is that SPB asked how much does Raja want as loyalty for performing his songs on stage and the latter asked how much money does SPB carry in his pocket. He responded saying a thousand rupees or so. He asked him to give all that and consider the issue as settled.

Their families share a deep bond of friendship that extends to the next generation. SPB Charan, Yuvan Shankar Raja and a few others from both the families partner in film production, music and events. It was Ilayaraja who made SPB Charan sing playback for the first time, and he had many successful compositions with Yuvan Shankar Raja including Mankatha, the film directed by Venkat Prabhu, Ilayaraja’s nephew and Gangai Amaran’s son.

A playlist of evergreen songs

It’s not that we did not have other successful combos. All composers had their favourite singers. Ilayaraja’s longtime friend R D Burman had composed many beautiful songs with Kishore Kumar in the ’60s and ’70s. In Malayalam, Raveendran had always worked with Yesudas and Chithra. Raveendran used to say that he wouldn’t have composed songs if he didn’t have Yesudas to sing them. But working together in over 2,000 songs, making a large number of the all-time greats? That’s a one-of-its-kind achievement in the music scene worldwide.

In interviews, he had fondly recollected the stories of how some of the greatest hits were born: the songs that Raja the taskmaster had forced him to sing despite his lack of self-confidence after hearing the tune and the composer’s expectations. It’s an uphill task to satisfy Raja, he had said. Raja insists that the singer and musicians deliver every note and variations as he had noted down. However, with his friend, Raja could just explain the situation and the kind of mood that he wants in the song.

SPB loves to improvise and turn a song into a performance by adding a subtle signature of the actor who is going to present it on screen and lacing it with the right emotions and variations required. According to him, he had Raja who knew every strength and weakness in him to make sure that nothing is overdone. The song Idhayam Oru Kovil has the lines “paadaalgal oru kodi, ethuvum puthuthillai” (there are a crore songs, nothing is new). The factor that made even the average songs sound fresh and extraordinary is the chemistry between them.

Even after 50 years, SPB never really ‘aged’ as a singer. Who wants a copy when they have the original?, said SPB Charan jokingly explaining why he does not get many singing opportunities despite sounding so much like SPB. For a long time, how many of us had thought SPB had sung Nagila Nagila in Alaipayuthe?

We last saw the friends together in a candid video shot at the Prasad studio when they were recording music for a new Tamil film. In that, the friends were seen singing old classics together and reliving memories. One of the lines was “Kanavugal nanavaagum, karpanai kidayathu” (our dreams will come true, it’s not a mere imagination).

The warmth of their friendship was also seen in the video message that Ilayaraja had released when SPB was in the hospital battling for life. “Balu, seekram ezhundhu vaa…” (get well and come back soon), he said suppressing a sea of emotions. His message after SPB’s passing was “Ulagame sooniyama pochu…” (the world has become empty). One can only imagine how tormenting a friend’s passing away can be, especially when you have grown up, worked and lived together for all your life. And when you have a lot of tunes that you wish to hear in his voice.

(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here)

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