As S.P. Balasubrahmanyam’s health stabilizes, a look at what makes him a singing star across geographies
In the life of India’s film music, there have been several star singers. They have ruled the film industry for decades, capturing the imagination of Indians. Many have held on to their fame for two to three decades, sometimes more. For instance in the case of Mohammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar — they remained superstars for almost forty years. Consumers of this music have reclaimed their voices and songs, they have resignified them in their daily lives with fondness and passion. It is a phenomenon that hasn’t faded even after most of these voices have departed from the mortal world.
One could easily list six to seven voices that have lived on as singing sensations from the late forties to now. Curiously, among them, you will not find any from the southern bastions. More interesting is the fact that musicians like Hemant Kumar and Kishore Kumar, who produced a good body of work in their home territories, earned the coveted national status only when they came to sing for Hindi films, or Bollywood. It is also true that P.B. Sreenivos, S. Janaki, P. Susheela and others from the south did not earn national popularity though they were phenomenal musicians, on par with the “national” standards, at times even surpassing it. Because of the location of the Hindi film industry, its size, reach and impact, other industries were considered less significant, as also those who were a part of it. So what constituted the “national” was clearly Hindi, but ironically, the Hindi itself was largely made up of rich, regional talent. From the Burman to Mangeshkar to Khyyam.
If someone managed to bust the “Madrasi” image in Bollywood and become a pan Indian phenomenon it is S.P. Balasubrahmanyam. No regional singer before him, achieved what he did. Yesudas and Vani Jayaram, had already made their presence in Hindi films, but their journeys were limited. SPB sang across 16 languages, over 40,000 songs, and also made it big in Hindi cinema. He sang for Naushad, Kalyanji-Anandji, RD Burman…, and became the voice of all the top heroes, Rajesh Khanna to Dharmendra to Anil Kapoor to Salman Khan. When SPB was brought to sing for Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981), nearly a decade after Vani Jayaram’s stellar success with “Bole Re Papi Hara” (Guddi, 1971), composers Lakshmikant-Pyarelal expressed unhappiness over this unknown “Madrasi” singer. Director K. Balachander refused to relent, and with it he ushered the beginning of glorious days in Mumbai for SPB, even as he was among the busiest playback singers in the South.
It is not that Bollywood bestows validation to a singer, and it is not that regional success is inferior. It is not even that these musicians craved for such recognition, they were stars in their own regional film industries. But it is to understand what makes a musician a national phenomenon. What constitutes SPB’s music that made him one of the most sought after voices across film industries? There could be multiple reasons, and this is a mere sample. Firstly, the resemblance he bears to the musical persona of Mohammad Rafi. Throughout his life as a musician, SPB has held the iconic Mohammad Rafi close to his heart. He hero-worships him and sees him as guru. He admits to being deeply moved by the music of the legendary singer, as he also acknowledges that he emulated Rafi’s style to the point of overdoing it. Citing Rafi’s rendition of “Eh Mera Patra Padkhar” from the film Sangam as example, he says: “The camera first captures the beautiful flowering trees and then focusses on the hero. From an external landscape it gradually moves towards the internal landscape. If a singer cannot capture the beauty of that inner emotion which is as grand as the external, what’s the point? Just listen to how Rafi saab articulates the word ‘zindagi’, it’s to die for!” SPB explains with poetic intensity.
In his 2008 book, “Bollywood Melodies”, Ganesh Anantharaman captures what SPB narrates. With a voice that “defined melody and success in film music”, Rafi created “superstars out of ordinary stars with his vocal virtuosity.” He could, theorists say, make subtle modifications to his voice to become one with the on-screen persona. In fact, Rafi’s voice made many careers, and actors hoped that he would sing for them. This, serendipitously, was not only something that SPB deeply admired, he was capable of it too. In fact, several stars of the South, have admitted to this, one such is the late Kannada actor Vishnuvardhan. Like Rafi, SPB could leave the fictional state of ‘being’ to flow towards transformation, that is to ‘become’ the other. This, in SPBs case, happened both musically and philosophically. He could get the language and its inflections right, he also had an instant grasp on the musical spirit. This is of importance, for, even when singers like Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar sang for the south, the manner in which they handled language was a sure giveaway.
SPB’s singing busted the myth of formal education too. He had no training in music. As he commonly declares, he knows no theory of music and neither is his music an outcome of rigorous sadhana of the classical forms. SPB speaks of learning from several gurus and from each, different aspects of music. With an expressive, flexible light baritone, SPB has effortlessly matched acoustic parameters that a cinematic situation needed. However, there were challenges for SPB. When director K. Vishwanath asked him to sing for a Carnatic classical musician in the Telugu film, Sankarabharanam (1980), SPB straightaway refused to take up the offer as he was not a trained musician. But Vishwanath coerced him, and SPB went on to win his first national award for Sankarabharanam. Even in the case of Ganayogi Panchakshari Gawai (1995), the Kannada film based on the life of the blind Hindustani music visionary Panchakshari Gawai, he “ran away from the project”. Eventually, he did sing and won the national award for this too. A trained listener can easily tell that SPBs rendition of the Carnatic or Hindustani classical is far from authentic, but he celebrates his imperfections by capturing the essence of the genres. He gives them a dramatic impetus and what he actually does is a “performance” of the classical and not the classical itself.
There’s the joy of music in SPB’s body language. There’s a happiness, he can’t hide his emotions or hold back his appreciation for the magnificent. Each time he sings a song that he has sung a hundred times before, he renders it with the excitement of the first time. He ensures that you experience what he is experiencing. His versatility is evident from the sheer variety he has sung. “Vedam Anuvanuvuna Nadam”, the Telugu song from Sagara Sangamam is so spectacularly different from the upswings of “Ene Kelu Koduve Ninage” from the Kannada film Geeta. Listen to the boisterous “Ilamai Itho Itho” from the Tamil film, Sakala Kala Vallavan and the mellifluous “Palnilavile” from the Malyalam film Butterflies or the romantic “Dil Deewana” from Maine Pyar Kiya, each of these songs have a different personality.
SPB’s music is a defence of the imaginative playful. Music is not merely a presentation of technique or style, but the quintessence of life itself. It is not just beautiful and ornate, it is a conversation. Playfulness therefore, is not the absence of rules, but a creative perception of it. In SPB’s singing there is a curiosity for the inner motions of life and living. SPB is his own, but he also has the richness of Rafi, the ebullience of Kishore Kumar, the plaintiveness of Mukesh, the seriousness of Manna De, the romance of PB Sreenivos, and the expressiveness of Janaki. He can symbolize the watershed moments of cinematic music as it was in M.S. Vishwanathan and the contemporary outlook of Rahman as well. In his music that has spanned over five decades there is the glimpse of several consummate thoughts on Indian film music. It embodies the grand journey of this genre.