Puthu raagam padaippathaale naanum iraivane… (as someone who creates new melodies, I too am God). The hit number Madai Thiranthu from Nizhalgal says what SP Balasubrahmanyam, popularly known as SPB, was to millions of his fans, especially those who have been following him through the golden years of 80’s and 90’s.
The 1980 Telugu film Sankarabharanam catapulted SPB to international glory and earned him his first national award. In a rare feat, nine out of 10 songs in the Carnatic music-themed film were sung by the singer who was not trained in Carnatic or any other form of classical music.
Well-known classical vocalist Balamuralikrishna was the first choice for the male voice, but composer K. V. Mahadevan’s trust on SPB and his guts to experiment made him replace BMK with SPB. The result was phenomenal. Semi-classical compositions ruled south Indian film music for years to come, thanks to SPB who applied film music aesthetic to classical compositions to give them a universal appeal.
Thread that connected generations
Balu's (as SPB was fondly called) father, a Harikatha exponent, used to sing Carnatic music without any training. Young Balu took inspiration from his father and sang from his heart even without any means to undergo formal training. He used to say that they did not even have a radio at home.
Unsure of the prospects of making a career in music, Balu was enrolled in an engineering college, from which he had to eventually drop out. In his student years, participating in music competitions was his favourite hobby. His participation in a singing competition judged by composer S. P. Kodandapani and Ghantasala opened the doors of cinema for him. He won the best singer prize in the competition following which Kodandapani became his mentor and eventually introduced SPB as a playback singer in the 1966 Telugu film Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna.
SPB had put together a troupe that was singing popular songs all over south India. Ilayaraja used to be the troupe’s harmonium player and Gangai Amaran used to play guitar. Ilayaraja debuted as a composer almost a decade after Balu’s first film song was released. SPB could not sing in his lifetime friend Ilayaraja’s debut album but he made it up for the loss by becoming a part of the next big musical debut in Tamil cinema—by singing Kaadhal Rojaave and Rukkumani Rukkumani in A.R.Rahman’s Roja in 1992.
A veteran of 40,000 songs in 16 Indian languages, SPB loved Carnatic music like any South Indian singer. His Harikatha artiste father passed on his penchant for music to his children Balu and his sister SP Sailaja.
SPB too made sure that the thread is intact. He named his daughter 'Pallavi' - the very thematic, starting line of a Carnatic composition - and his son 'Charan' - the end section of a Carnatic composition.
Charan is an accomplished singer and producer and SP Sailaja too had sung over 4,000 songs. Sailaja acted with Kamal Hasan in Sagara Sangamam, that remains the only film of her as an actress. Apart from signing, she also dubbed for various heroines.
Unconventional singer who loved life as much as music
Singers of all generations take pride in the strict regimen that they follow to preserve their vocal chords. SPB who equally loved his music and the pleasures of life, did everything that he liked defying the customs. The singer who cannot think of a day without drinking chilled water and eating ice cream, followed no particular diet and was also a smoker for over 20 years.
Admitting that he loves to live like a normal human being and not as a ‘sanyasi’, he revealed that he use to smoke secretly during recording intervals when he was at the peak of his career.
SPB was probably the only south Indian singer who endured in Bollywood for decades. After K.Balachander introduced him to Bollywood in Ek Duje Ke Liye. SPB never had to look back. The song Tere Mere Beech Mein in the film gave him his second national award.
Sooraj Barjatya’s 1989 musical blockbuster Maine Pyar Kiya made Salman Khan a superstar and SPB his favourite voice for years to come. After Dil Deewana from the film ruled the playlist for many years, the duo had many superhit films together that include Saajan and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun.
A complete ‘voice artist’
Balu had composed music for 45 films in Telugu, Kannada, Tamil and Hindi and acted as a character artiste in approximately the same number of films, including Kaadhalan, Keladi Kanmani, Sigaram and Thiruda Thiruda.
His skills to mimic came in handy in many songs, such as En Jodi Manja Kuruvi in Vikram.
He had lent his deep voice to popular stars in as many as 100 films as a dubbing artiste. He had won the best dubbing artiste award for Annamayya for lending his voice to Suman, who had played Lord Balaji in the movie.
In more than one ways, SP Balasubramaniam has been synonymous with good commercial cinema.
As good filmmakers make their films more accessible by adding aesthetical elements that would appeal to everyone alike, the singer learnt only those tropes of Carnatic music that are essential to render a song and delivered exactly what the composers wanted and the mass audience loved to hum.
SPB lived like a free bird who followed his heart and used his years of glory in front of the microphone to entertain the masses.
That explains why almost all of us have a memory or two that we associate with an SPB song.
The lines from his song in Salangai Oli resembles his philosophy to music and life: Thaalamingu thappavillai, yaar meedhum thappu illai, kaalgal pona paadhai endhan ellai (the rhythm did not go wrong; nobody is at fault; my limits are the paths through which my feet traveled.)
The musical jasmine won’t be around but the fragrance will remain in the air. “Sangeetha Jaathimullai, Kaanavillai…”
(The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast)