SPB – Thank you!

This piece was written for the News site – The News Minute and was carried on 26th Sep 2020. It can be read here:


It must be around the mid ‘70s. On Sundays, our whole family used to crowd around the radio and tune into All India Radio, Trichy, after lunch by 1 pm sharp.  Between 1 to 2 pm, the station played the latest Tamil film songs and at the time, it was the only opportunity to catch up with newly released songs. I remember vividly that in that period, for many weeks, almost all of the 10 songs being played were sung by SP Balasubrahmanyam, and that too for different music directors. If our growing up was cheerful and with verve, SPB had a role in it.

Between the ‘70s and ‘90s in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, if budding male singers had an inspiration, it was only SPB. Almost all the orchestras of those days had one singer who tried to sing SPB’s songs in his voice. So “his” voice was all over the air. For all of them, SPB was a role model not just for the music but also for the way he conducted himself with utmost humility. This probably came from the belief SPB had, that he was indeed blessed and gifted.

By his own admission, SPB was not a trained singer. As a child, he did not learn any form of classical music, though he had the opportunity to learn from his father, who was a Harikatha exponent. So, genes did play a role in shaping SPB as a singer. But unless told so, anyone who had the opportunity to listen to the thousands of songs he sang will never believe that he did not have a classical music background and that all his singing was self-made.

Though there are many, if I have to pick one album of SPB to demonstrate his variety and versatility, it will be Payanangal Mudivathillai, a film with a singer as the protagonist.  I must add here that Payanangal Mudivathillai is also a film that showcases Ilaiyaraaja’s range as a composer, and it is with him that SPB had the best of partnerships.

Just listen to the songs in that album. On one end, you have the song ‘Raaga Deepam’, a classical number based on the raga Hamsanandi with a grand aalaap right at the beginning. At the other end, you have a song like ‘ ‘Hey Aatha Aathorama’ which falls in the genre of a typical dappankuthu song. In between, you have the evergreen classic ‘Ilaya Nila Pozhigirathu’ which is a melody in the western classical mould. And other gems like ‘Thogai Ilamayil’, ‘Mani Osai Kettu Ezhunthu’, ‘Saalai Oram Solai’ and finally the pathos filled song —  ‘Vaigaraiyil Vaigaikariyal’.

All these songs in the album — of which some are solo acts — are of SPB. Not just in terms of genre, even the emotions conveyed in each of the songs are different. The texture of SPB’s voice for each of these songs is different. If one were to use millennial lingo, SPB kills it. To me, Sankarabharanam in 1980 and Payanangal Mudivathillai in 1982 were landmarks in SPB’s career which elevated him from being called a good singer till then, to a great singer.

SPB’s voice may not have been very unique, but his voice quality was. His voice would never waver no matter what pitch he sang in. In live shows, SPB used to do his own improvisations at the end of the song to end with a flourish. In the beginning, I used to have my heart in my mouth when he, on his own, took the song to higher octaves, only to land safely back with the pitch intact, much to my awe. And I am certain that SPB was improvising spontaneously on stage as every time he would do it, he would do so differently even for the same song. Just listen to his different renditions of ‘Sundari Kannal Oru Seydhi’ in stage shows.

Kamban veetu kattu thariyum kavi paadum” goes a popular saying, meaning “In Kamban’s house, even a loom will pen a poem”. Similarly, SPB paadara paatula irumalum thaala kattukkul irukkum. In SPB’s songs, even his coughing (Remember the songs ‘Dorakuna Ituvanti Seva’ or ‘Mani Osai Kettu Ezhunthu’) will be on beat and within the time signature. So precise was his singing that he hardly skipped a beat or distorted the pitch.

That SPB could maintain his voice timbre intact for over five decades is a marvel! Even after crossing 70, he could sing romantic duets for stars a third of his age. If there was a silver lining in his passing, it is this. That till he breathed his last, his voice never gave way and remained one that was energetic, mellifluous and more importantly, youthful.

I come back to the emotion. That as a singer, SPB had a great voice is well known. But, inside him there was a great actor too. Probably it’s got to do with his dad’s genes again. Harikatha is one form where the performer needs to sing and act on stage.  This was what helped him shape the emotions while singing songs of different moods – from a peppy ‘Oruvan Oruvan Mudhalali’ to a lullaby-like ‘Kana Kaanum Kangal Mella’ with equal elan.

SPB probably loved acting. I heard from one of my friends in the Kavithalayaa unit that director K Balachander used to say, ‘Avan oru bayangara nadigan da’, referring to SPB.  Not surprising that KB regularly gave him breaks in films and TV serials, whether it was the hero role in his own production Sigaram, or a doctor’s role in Manathil Uruthi Vendum. The actor in SPB also manifested when he was dubbing for Kamal in Telugu films in the beginning. If actor Kitty’s ‘pasu thol porthiya puli’ type villain portrayal in the film Sathya became a big hit, half the credit goes to SPB, who dubbed for him. Eventually, his acting skills enhanced his style of singing.

Getting the essence of the emotion of the song and delivering it with a pitch-perfect voice consistently, that too cutting across genres, is what made SPB the versatile singer he was. That’s also why he endeared himself from the radio generation to today’s mobile phone generation.

Just the other day, I was watching a clip that was circulating on WhatsApp groups where SPB as a guest in a reality show was holding his own with that peach of a melody song ‘En Kadhale’ from Duet. At the end of the song, almost everyone onstage was in tears, including the celebrity judges, participants and the audience. But, SPB himself, while making everyone else cry, was smiling all through the singing. A similar feeling has dawned today. A whole generation of people feeling sad today on his passing but SPB himself, the happy-go-lucky-type person he was, will be cheerful wherever he is.

Musicians are blessed. They don’t go away. They stay with us through their renderings. So will SPB, who will be with us through ‘Malare Mounama’, through ‘Sankara Nada Sareera’, through ‘Ithu Oru Pon Malai Pozhuthu’, through ‘Tere Mere Beech Mein’, through the many other hits he has belted.

Should we mourn SPB’s death? Maybe, we should just celebrate. Celebrate his music.  The forty thousand-plus long list means a celebration that goes on for long, for us and for many generations to come. For now, thank you SPB, from the bottom of our hearts. For the music and for being the human you were.

0 thoughts on “SPB – Thank you!”

  1. Superb. Very nicely written. Sure we should celebrate his music and be happy that he left singing for Us till last with the same voice.

  2. SPB Ji will be eternal. Generations will be inspired and celebrate his achievements. Well written anna and I guess you could go on and on writing about him. I have had his blessings personally and am so lucky to be of the many who have interacted with him

  3. Excellent Anand. The blog has a right blend of info, details, coverage and meaningful trivia reflecting SPB’s exhaustive body of work. Hats off to you 👏👏
    SPB was also someone who encouraged youngsters (singers n also others) and helped them. A well known example is drummer Sivamani, who doesn’t miss a chance to talk abt how SPB helped him

  4. Vivekanandan Kumar

    Excellent RASA.
    As you said it is a time to celebrate his music and he will live for generations through his music. Not many are blessed like this!

  5. Padma Narayana swamy

    Whether to celebrate his music or mourn his death, not sure.Still haven’t come to terms with the loss.What a great human being he was

  6. RSA great tribute in your own style of writing.. Very nice one 👏.. One blog certainly not enough to describe greatness of SPB.. Urge to write next week “SPB Thank you again” covering his Hindi journey and his humility (whatever we have seen n heard)..

    His Hindi journey would have gone far ahead after his success in Ek Tuje keliye and subsequent songs for Salman.. There were rumors that Bwood gang never allowed the southern people to go beyond a point. Must be true.. Same happened to Vani Jayaram (courtesy Latha sisters), Kamal and many more.. Anyhow it is a blessing in disguise for us that SPB focussed on Southern industry mainly… Also I noticed that barring Salman, NO other big Bwood stars posted condolence msg in social media including Amithab which is disappointing..

    Also SPB is known for his grounded personality apart from his singing.. That is another reason for his long n successful journey.. I can’t forget to mention about Kumar Sanu here, who once said “I am the one n only versatile singer in India” after his successful stints with Nadeen Sharvan, Kulshan Kumar, Anu Malik types (of course there are lot of good songs).. After this statement he gradually faded away.. Once success goes into one’s head his or her’s behavior changes and there are consequences for that.. Apart from his skills the main reason for SPB’s long successful career is also becos of humility.. It automatically translates into action when you have to work with multifaceted personalities..

    Very good one RSA 👏

    1. Very good points, MSP. Agree with you on how Bollywood treats talent from South!
      I had still a lot of points to write but edited out due to length. May be will write later.
      Thanks for your detailed comments, MSP!

  7. இராமானுசன்

    ஆனந்த் குமார்

    இறைவன் இன்னருளோடு தந்த வாழ்க்கையின்

    ஒவ்வொரு தருணத்தையும் ஒரு குழந்தையின் குதூகலத்துடன் கொண்டாடி,

    ஒரு இசைக் கலைஞனாய் தனது கம்பீரமான வசீகரிக்கும், குழையும் குரலால்,

    படத்தின் கதையோட்டம், பாடலின் பொருள், பாடலின் சூழல், படத்தில் பாடிய நடிகர்கள்

    என எல்லாவற்றையும் உள்வாங்கிக் கொண்டு,

    பாடலுக்குத் தேவையான உணர்வுகளை தனது குரலில் வெளிப்படுத்தி,

    கடவுள் தந்த வரத்தால் தனது கற்பனையில் விளைந்த அற்புதமான அசைவுகளை, நளினங்களை

    தன்னையும் அறியாமலேயே பாடல் வரிகளில் புகுத்தி,

    கேட்பவர்கள் அனைவரின் உள்ளங்களைக் கவர்ந்து, கொள்ளை கொண்டு

    உருகும் உள்ளங்களில் ராஜ‌ சிம்மாமசனமிட்டு இசையின் கடவுளைப் போலே நம் நெஞ்சில் என்றென்றும் குடி கொண்டு,

    பாடும் வானம்பாடியாய் தனது குரல் வளத்தால்

    இறையின்பத்தை இனிதே இடையறாது இறுதி வரை

    தானும் அனுபவித்து, கேட்பவர்களுக்கும் வாரி வழங்கி

    இசைக்கென அர்ப்பணித்து வாழ்ந்த தவ வாழ்வில் பழகிய அனைவரிடத்திலும்,

    பகைமை பாராட்டாது, அன்புடனும், பண்புடனும் பழகி,

    தனது போற்றுதலுக்குரிய மனித நேயப் பண்பை

    வெளிப்படுத்தி மறைந்த

    பாடும் நிலா பாலுவின் பல்லாயிரக்கணக்கான பாடல்களில் சிலவற்றை,

    குறிப்பாக பயணங்கள் முடிவதில்லை படத்தில் வந்த ஏழு பாடல்களை

    எடுத்து அலசி, ஆராய்ந்து அவற்றில் பாலு செய்த ஜாலங்களை,

    வெளிப்படுத்திய வெவ்வேறு மனித உணர்வுகளைப் பாராட்டிப் புகழ்ந்து,

    தன்னுள் தீராத தாகத்தோடு தவிக்கும் நடிகனையும் தனது குரல் மூலமே வெளிப்படுத்தி

    பாடும் பாடல்களுக்கு மேலும் மெருகேற்றிய

    பாடும் நிலா பாலுவுக்கு இறுதி அஞ்சலி செய்து,

    தங்களது வசீகரிக்கும், ஆன்மாவைத் தொடும் குரலால் என்றுமே ரசிகர்களின் உள்ளங்களில்

    அவர்கள் உயிர் உள்ளளவும் பாடகர்கள் வாழ்ந்து கொண்டிருப்பார்கள்

    இது இவர்களுக்கு இறைவன் வழங்கியிருக்கும் வரப்பிரசாதம்,

    அதனால், பூரண அருளுடன், இறுதி வரை சந்தோஷமாக வாழ்ந்து மறைந்த

    பாலுவின் வாழ்க்கை கொண்டாடப்பட வேண்டிய ஒன்றுதான், வருந்தத் தேவையில்லை

    என்ற முத்தாய்ப்புடன்

    ஆருயிர் அண்ணனின் மறைவால் வாடும் அனைவரது உணர்வுகளையும்

    ஒரு சேரப் பிரதிபலிக்கும் வண்ணம் முடித்து

    உங்களின் தனித்துவமான பாணியில்

    ஆங்கிலத்தில் அற்புதமாக எழுதி உங்களது வலைப் பதிவில்,

    ‘ SPB – Thank You ‘

    என்ற தலைப்போடு

    பதிவிட்டிருக்கும் பாராட்டுரைக்கு, அழகான அஞ்சலிக்கு மனமார்ந்த பாராட்டுக்கள்.

    What SPB said of Rafi Saab,

    ‘ When Rafi sings, tears roll down from your eyes on its own,

    and after hearing him you feel thoroughly cleansed.

    Its nothing but Bhagavan himself singing, Bhagavath Geetha – Song of the Lord ‘

    equally applies to our beloved Balu also.

  8. Excellent piece about our beloved singer. Very aptly highlighted his best songs. Sangeetha jathi mullai…kanavillai…song is another best one that I love. He was also a brilliant composer..thudikkum karangal and sigaram. I personally feel so happy every time I hear his songs in Ninaithalae inikkum.
    Good work Anand

  9. For me Sankarabaranam was the turning point.
    Of course, it may be a sweeping statement but this movie put him on a pedestal that very few can even attempt to equal.
    In this song ‘Sundari Kannal Oru Seydhi’ the nuances/ variations between ‘naan’ and ‘unnai neenga matten’ is something that is once in a lifetime achievement.
    Everytime I hear this song I get goosebumps and just freeze.
    I can go on forever, but thankyou Anand, a fitting tribute to a person we were fortunate to see performing live !!

  10. Nicely written Anand,
    Forty thousand+ songs in span of 50 Years . An average of 3 Songs every day for 50 years . Its phenomenal.

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