SPB — A Gandharva In A Human Form
All music learned on the spot and quickly rendered with an astounding diction — and this without any formal training in music.
It takes an extraordinary musical mind to achieve what SPB did.
It takes superhuman capabilities to delight millions of humans with a golden voice for over half a century — the apt Indian word for such a person is ‘gandharva’.
S P Balasubrahmanyam (SPB) was more than an exponent of the ‘gandharva veda’, the knowledge of the fine arts.
His was an atma that showcased this uncanny skill to absorb and render millions of melodies effortlessly and delight hundreds of music makers from Raviji (Pandit Ravishankar) to Illayaraja and A R Rahman and millions of listeners — rasikas all over the world. His musical output would never stop.
Apart from the superhuman discography of more than 40,000 recorded songs, the number of live shows and the number of hours of music rendered by the twentieth century gandharva is yet to be determined.
It takes an extraordinary musical mind to achieve what SPB achieved. Twenty-one songs (that is about 60 minutes of new music) learned and recorded with perfection in a 12 hour call! No ‘auto tune’! No ‘pitch correction’!
All music learned on the spot and quickly rendered! And all this without any formal training in music in this life! ‘Carried over training’ from past lives? And the astounding perfection in diction! His ‘sung Tamil’ is something to be emulated.
The twenty-first century has begun to see the fast disappearing distinctions between ‘la’ and ‘La’ and ‘na’ and ‘Na’ and has even begun to celebrate an assumed ‘cuteness’ of incorrect diction.
Even some of the singers of yesteryear did not get their ‘kutriyalugaram’ right (not to speak of some native Tamil speaking singers of today).
As a rule, one can never guess that SPB wasn't a native Tamil speaker. Each of his songs whether in the romantic genre like ‘pani vizhum malarvanam’ or the vibrant ‘Kutthu’ songs such as ‘Ei aatha’ or “sad/situation songs”such as ‘vaigaraiyil’ is a master class in diction and ‘emoting’.
What was it that enabled him to emote? With each song he sang, his voice, his singing assumed the role of the character being played. All this, in a remote recording booth — all in a matter of a few minutes that he took to record.
Film songs apart, his ‘Ayarpaadi maaligaiyil’, where he croons in his sterling voice and lulls baby Krishna to sleep invokes vistas of Krishna in his cradle in the palace of Vrajadesha.
Such exceptional expressive-ness, this abundance of ‘bhava’ is never taught; you just had it if you were SPB. And this unbelievable talent resided on balanced shoulders. A body that showed that was living proof that a gandharva could be human. What a personality!
Every conversation he had with a stranger was again a masterclass in ‘humility’; he is the personification of the Tamil word ‘panivu’. He doesn't hesitate to pose for pictures with his yearning fans. Is never stingy with greetings and is totally generous with compliments.
I have seen incredulous situations, where he animatedly interacts with audiences in non-stop conversations prior to a long performance, suddenly materialises on stage and starts ‘Shankara’ and holds a note in the upper register for a good portion of a minute (I was blown away by this back in 1994 in Columbus OH).
No warm-ups needed. No ‘nakhra’; no fights with ‘monitors’, no ‘diva tantrums’ — or simply in Tamil, ‘no banda’. No sarcasm, no pontification. Only a profusion of acknowledgement, unmitigated gratitude and unabashed encouragement.
In the 1990s, he even picked up his telephone and answered calls; the characteristic ‘SPB voice’ which boomed its “hello” on the other end of the phone never failed to send that wave of exhilaration through me, especially when he went on to inquire about the family’s well being and then wished you a Happy Deepavali.
Despite his busy schedule he even replied in writing to greetings, long before the days of WhatsApp. To the non film going audience, his Lingashtakam recorded in the 1970s set the de facto standard tune for this first millennium Sanskrit work in praise of Shiva.
So much so that this repetitive tune is actually played four whole times by today’s nadaswaram artists in Shiva temples in Chennai alongside SPB’s Telugu blockbuster 1979 hit ‘Shankara’ in the raga madhyamavati from the film Sankarabharanam.
To the Tamil speaking audience, he was our own; rather he is our own. It doesn't matter that he was a native Telugu speaker or that he had sung more songs in Telugu. We claim him as ours. He was everyone’s of course.
He has crooned for every possible actor; he has brought life to montages. He has brought words from Bharatiyar to Vairamuthu to life. His legendary musical presence will live on long after his time.
His memorial shrine (nadu kal) is bound to transform into a temple of music, a perceived presence of unlimited musical energy; where everyone could connect with that spirit of oneness and journey into that musical space (vetta veLi) and experience that ‘nada bhrahmam’.
Here is a set of playlists that I created (thank you YouTube); these playlists are my ‘nostalgia moments’; each song in here brings back memories of the first time that I had heard these songs, and the various instances in life associated with them.
Whether it was ‘Aayiram nilave va’ in the 1960s that I remember listening to on a large radio receiver in my grandmother’s house, or ‘ballelakka’ in 2007 in a theatre in another part of the world, I am sure each one of us has such a ‘nostalgia playlist’.
I am filled with gratitude at the many hours of joy that this voice has brought to me over the past 50 years. Let me share this gratitude with one and all with these four playlists. Three of the lists feature songs created by MSV, A R Rahman — and other music directors.
The longest of these four (one, two, three and four) lists is the one featuring Illayaraja as it is this special association that filled a good chunk of my life, a set of songs that have created special memories in the lives of millions of rasikas.
The author Dr Kanniks Kannikeswaran is a music composer, educator and scholar and is regarded as a pioneer of Indian American choral music.
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