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27 September 2020

Remembering a Gentle Giant

04.06.1946 - 25.09.2020

Source: Twitter/airnewsalerts

I have never met SP Balasubrahmanyam. Yet, when I woke up to the news of his passing on the 25th of this month, the news hit me hard. I am still grieving a very personal loss, and the doyen’s death – on top of everything else – seemed to be the universe’s way of giving me the middle finger.

I don’t know why the loss felt so personal. Unlike a lot of my contemporaries in South India, I cannot even say that I grew up listening to his songs. I mean, I did, but not to the extent that I listened to Mohammed Rafi or Kishore Kumar or Manna Dey or Mukesh or even Yesudas, for instance. In fact, I only began to seriously ‘know’ SPB (as he was fondly known) when Sankarabharanam (1980) released. Listening to him sing Sankara, I was enthralled. Then, it was my brother, who was a huge Kamalahasan and Madhavi fan, who introduced me to Raja Paarvai and Andhi mazhai pozhigirudu.
 
Then, as my exposure to Tamil films grew, he became more familiar to me. It was around this time that Ninaivellam Nithya released – the 1982 film starred a young Karthik, who had become a heartthrob with his debut film, Alaigal Oyivathaillai, opposite another debutante, Radha. We still didn’t have TV at home, but my cousins, a couple of years younger than me, recorded Panivizhum malar vanam for me. 
By the time I was in college and seriously watching Tamil films, my friends and I were arguing amicably over whether SPB or Yesudas was the greater singer. Unlike the Rafi/Kishore fights on the internet today, our discussions usually ended with everyone agreeing that both men were superlative singers, and preferences being expressed for one or the other song that either of the men had sung that the other may not have done as well. Many hours were spent over quickly cooling teas and plates of medu vadas in our college canteen, analysing why a particular song could only have been performed by SPB (or Yesudas).

And then came Apoorva Sagodhargal, Kamal Haasan’s (the name change had happened by then) experiment with what could have been a usual revenge saga. I loved the film, and the songs. I fell in love with the pathos in Unnai ninachen paatu padichen. And was completely blown away by the playfulness in the same singer’s rendition for the other brother, also played by Kamal – Annaatha aduraar.

 

With Roja, a sensation called AR Rehman swept the country and broke the barriers of language. My husband’s Maharashtrian colleague was busy humming Chinna china aasai. Which is a great song but listen to SPB croon Kaadhal rojaave. It’s romantic and poignant at the same time – the grief and longing as SPB extends ‘soll’ is heart-rending.

 

So, when a friend forwarded me a tweet that said “SPB – best remembered for lending Salman Khan the voice that made him the heartthrob in 90s”, I felt a cold fury grip me. Not just because of the sheer tone deafness of the tweet – because no one has an excuse for ignorance in today’s times; Google is your friend! – but also because of the sheer ‘North Indian’ view of the world.

That a legend like SPB could be reduced to being ‘Salman Khan’s voice’ is an insult to the man’s talent and the sheer body of work that he had behind him. SPB was a six-time National Award winner – for his work in four different languages, including Hindi. By the late 80s, which is when he playbacked for Salman for the first time, SPB had already been singing for nearly as many years as his hero had been alive! (SPB recorded his first song in 1966. Salman Khan was born in 1965.) By the mid-70s, his voice was ruling the airwaves, and by 1989, which is when Maine Pyaar Kiya released, SPB had already cemented his legacy as one of the living greats.

In fact, the MPK songs weren’t even SPB’s first foray into Hindi cinema. In 1981, he had ‘crossed over’ to sing for Kamalahasan in Ek Duuje Ke Liye, a remake of director K Balachander’s Maro Charitra (1978). While Tere mere beech mein won him a National Award, my favourite song from the film is actually the frothy Mere jeevan saathi, where lyricist Anand Bakshi skilfully combined various Hindi film titles to make up a song.

The sheer joy and exuberance in SPB’s voice fit Kamal’s antics on screen to a T. 

I remember the first time I actually fell ‘in love’ with SPB – I watched him in Keladi Kanmani, a 1990 Tamil film about a single father and his unconditional love for his daughter. In the sensitively handled father-daughter relationship and ‘older’ love story, SPB was a revelation as an actor.

It helped that his off-screen persona was also similar. Friends who had met the singer raved about his approachability and his down-to-earth nature. Everyone raved about his simplicity and his gentle goodness, and it is telling that that reputation never wavered for a minute.

Whenever I think of SPB, that’s how I will remember him – as a loveable teddy bear. The sort of man who, if you were related to him, would have been your favourite uncle; or a sensible, kind-hearted friend who would always be there for you. I realise I’m transposing perhaps-imaginary personality traits onto a celebrity, whom I have never even seen from a distance, let alone met or known. But that’s the impression he gave me, that’s the impression I’ll cleave to.

And in the meantime, I will listen to his songs… as Baradwaj Rangan said in his tribute,  what’s left of my lifetime will not be enough to explore the rich legacy that he has left behind.

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