Madurai’s musical troupes of the 1980s thrived on SPB songs. Apart from entertaining people, it helped the artists earn a decent living
Four decades ago, the temple town of Madurai saw several local and small orchestras create big waves. With limited entertainment options available in the region, the musical troupes grabbed the spotlight at political rallies, wedding receptions, annual religious festivals and temple functions.
There were at least two dozen bands, according to J S M Jeevanraj, who toured southern Tamil Nadu extensively. While a few, including his Jeevan Superstars Musical Troupe, were the most in demand, the other bands got a lot of play too. “The common thread that made each troupe’s music worth the attention was the legendary singer S P Balasubrahmanyam,” he says adding, “We were like the poor man’s SPB doling out his songs with joy for all those who could not attend the maestro’s concerts.”
The city’s old timers recall that SPB spent time discussing music with many Madurai youngsters who had a passion for music. While SPB sailed through stage shows with consummate elegance, there were others who lived off his popularity and created a niche in the cultural landscape.
S K Subramanian, reminisces the day he faced the Selection board of Pandyan Roadways Corporation, for a job under sports and extra-curricular activities quota. “During the interview I was asked to prove my talent and I sang Sankarabharanam. It not only got me the job but I also became the lead singer of PRC’s 25-member orchestra team, ” says the 64-year-old, adding that he will always be grateful to SPB as he continues to live off his genius and draw a Government pension. “Unfortunately, the one who touched so many lives is gone. I wish it was me in his place,” he says, his voice tinged with sadness.
The troupes played from the repertoire of MSV, Sankar Ganesh, Vidyasagar, Keeravani, Deva and Gangai Amaran as well but the late 1970s to mid-1990s was the time when SPB’s voice and Illayaraja’s compositions were immensely successful and the local orchestras could not escape this influence. “He was the new singing sensation and the uniqueness of the pair catapulted us to a new high as audiences loved hearing their songs,” says Subramanian.
Oliver, the bass guitarist with Jeevan Superstars, recalls that the money came in easily those days; orchestras were paid between ₹2,000-₹3,000 per show depending on the troupe’s popularity, the event’s importance and the playlist. “The team members earned between ₹ 50 to ₹250 each per show and in the later years it went up to ₹3,000 each per show.” Lead singers earned the highest followed by the guitarist; key board and the rhythm pad player were treated on par. The rest of the team’s pay was equal.
Several orchestra members met SPB in January when he came to Madurai for what turned out to be his last live programme. “It was SPB’s humility and habit to meet old friends, relive old conversations and appreciate and encourage novices and amateurs in whom he sensed passion,” says Subramanian.
The musical troupes started fading by the mid-90s with the advent of new age recording systems and advanced technology-driven sound-and-light shows. SPB often helped the teams with fund raising programmes and addressed their election meetings.
Jeevanraj remembers his first show in 1982 when he and his nine-member team set the stage on fire with Engeyum Eppodhum from Ninaithale Inikkum in 1982. Invitations to play SPB songs still come to him and he informs he is booked for two functions this month.
“I can’t believe that SPB is gone. To nobodies like us, he was a friend, mentor and guide. There was always so much to learn from him,” says the 59-year-old drummer.
The subtle tutor
Oliver says he started with Western music but changed his genre inspired by SPB’s light music. “It was pure pleasur palying SPB songs and wherever we took them, we were showered with love and applause. SPB endeared himself to us and us to the audiences. Such was the magic of his voice and power of his presence,” he adds.
Despite his stature, SPB was gentle and sans ego, says Chella Muthiah, the owner of Dindigul-based Angu Ingu the highest paid orchestra in the region today. Irrespective of age, expertise or knowledge, SPB treated every orchestra member equally, he says. “I had enjoyable sessions with him talking about everything from folk and choir music to rock and roll, Bach and Beethoven.”
The versatile, SPB smoked up a stage with his singing that teased, moaned, roared, laughed and yodelled. “To watch SPB perform was a musical delight and to learn from him was a blessing,” says Oliver. Orchestras of the time such as White Rose, Skylark, Challengers, Red Rose, Bluebird, Friends of Melody gained from SPB’s knack of spotting and nurturing talent. “He subtly taught us the finer nuances of music,” says Subramanian. “His loss is a blow worse than the pandemic.”