Malare Mounama ?
It was a humid Friday afternoon on September 25th, when my maid tells me that she is not coming to work for the next few days.... now that is a crisis for me, so I jumped and asked her the reason. Pat comes the answer, ‘Amma don’t you know that SPB died? My husband & I are devastated and depressed.’ Now, this is the magic of SPB with which most of us have grown up with and this is the same magic we can never outgrow!
This has become a personal loss for millions of people and the Indian film music world for he is truly irreplaceable!!
They call him a legend and how else can they describe a man who made his debut in playback singing in a 1966 Telugu film ‘Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramana’, and last for 54 years in the most dynamic & competitive film music industry.
Who would think that a boy from Konnetammapet, Nellore with a surname Sripathi Panditaradhyula, will also through his remarkably expressive singing make us love,laugh, cry and live with an entire range of emotions. Today he gave us emotion which he never given before, that of a feeling of helplessness and feeling of emptiness. I know scores of people who have used his songs as their emotional crutches. The man who made us rich with his music leaves this world poor by no small measure.
It is very common to have really long surnames among Telugu people, so Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam became Balu to people close to him and the one & only S.P.B. to the world.
I am not here to give the list of innumerable awards he received, the number of songs he sang, the number of languages in sang in etc,etc. That would be mere statistics and there are some who are above statistics & the number game. His undeniable talent & his success were there for everyone to see. He and Yesudas were the only singers popular beyond their home states and that is what we call beyond boundaries. He had an emotional appeal and probably that contributed to the now existing palpable grief among people . He was one of the most versatile singers Pan India.
Now there could be many to counter this statement with names of wonderful singers such as Rafi, Kishore, TMS, PBS and more. I repeat, that he was easily one of the most versatile singers, and one who was never intimidated to sing in any unfamiliar language or a new genre. The proof is in the fact that, one of the most listened to classical based songs in AP and TN were not from Carnatic stalwarts,but from a single Telugu movie ‘Shankarabharanam’ and these were sung by a classically untrained singer SPB. To take the challenge of singing all Carnatic based songs and to deliver them fabulously is no small feat. I used to often wonder, when the central character of the film was a famous Carnatic Music exponent, then why would the music director K.V. Mahadevan choose to risk using a classically untrained singer like SPB, when he could have used any other acknowledged, recognised Carnatic vocalist. Like always, I answer my own questions (I know that sounds crazy)... I felt K.V. Mahadevan must have made this choice because when it comes to emoting and giving that extra feeling to a song, there is almost none who can come close to him. His trademark was that little laugh or call it chuckle which was so very real & lovable that certainly was in favour of Kamalahasan’s romantic roles.
I think this was possible because of 2 things, one was he totally enjoyed every song he sang and another is he was quite a cute actor himself. He has played significant roles in several films and some in the lead role where he was sensible enough to choose what suited him rather than running around trees or fighting a dozen goons. Both onscreen and in real life, he handled himself with dignity and humility. I am convinced that SPB was a die-hard romantic himself (have the same feeling about Swati Tirunal). How else can one explain the ability SPB had to make romance, love, yearning all so tangible & bodied ? He must have been a sincere lover who was passionate about his singing...all this giving him the power to make already romantic people like me, dreamy & idealistic deluding myself that pure love is still out there waiting for me!
Much of this has been attributed to the Illyaraja SPB combination. Much has been spoken about their partnership and their split. They were definitely a winning combination like Leander Paes & Mahesh Bhupathi or like Bollywood writers Salim-Javed or better example for Carnatic Music lovers is Ranjani- Gayatri. Sadly like the first two pairs, Illyaraja- SPB had differences, where SPB was more graceful. When Paes & Bhupathi broke up neither did well individually, same was the case after Salim Khan & Javed Akhtar broke up(of course RaGa are still together & will remain so) but in the Ilayaraja & SPB split, only one of them was affected, SPB was still wanted across South India by other music directors. Ilayaraja no doubt used SPB & S.Janaki extensively, both these Telugu speaking singers were complementing each other.
It’s unthinkable that the succulent voice which sang for Vidyasagar”s music direction ‘Malare Mounama’ from the Arjun Sarja’s film Karna has fallen silent. Many film songs have been based on Kaanada Ragam and one of my favourites is this one, incidentally a non Illyaraja song.
SPB was matchless with his little laughter, a stifled sob, those inflections were his USP.
It is common knowledge that MGR wanted to replace TMS, since MGR was a megalomaniac who is reputed to be unforgiving to anyone who doesn’t suck up to him. But,TMS was too valuable because it was his voice & the curated lyrics which played a catalyst in MGR’s political career. So, the search for a good replacement was not easy. It was then that MGR who was sitting outside a recording studio in the garden, to beat the heat inside(there were no air conditioners those days) hears SPB singing a Telugu song and seeks him out. But, on the day of the recording SPB was unwell and couldn’t sing, so he thought he had lost a chance not having turned up at the recording, that too for an MGR song. But, MGR waited till SPB got better & recorded the song ... probably MGR could identify talent & skill, like he did in the case of mentoring Jayalalitha to be his heir.
That was how SPB sang ‘Ayiram Nilave Vaa’ under the music direction of K.V. Mahadevan for MGR’s film ‘Adimai Penn’ .... and rest is history ! After this song, there was no looking back for him and he was the busiest singer in the whole Indian film industry, for the many decades to come.TMS ‘s loss was SPB’s gain. SPB had arrived !
How many know that, he had recorded the most songs on a single day by any singer? A whopping 21 songs in Kannada for the composer Upendra Kumar in Bangalore from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm on 8 February 1981. Can anyone beat that ?
And in all this, what stands out is that every single person who has met him is amazed by his humility & simplicity ...this is something no one has contradicted. If he was pretending to humble & simple it would be difficult to be consistent and sometime, somewhere his arrogance would have been exposed but that never ever happened. We have lost a wonderful singer with some exemplary qualities which many other artistes in every field can emulate.
People loved working with him not just because of his immeasurable talent and success rate but also his goodness.
It happened when K. Balachander wanted to remake his Telugu hit film ‘Marocharitra’ in Hindi as ‘Ek Dujje Ke Liye’ he realised that he has to make a few changes in order to reach out to the Hindi audience and therefore cannot dub the film in Hindi, which would have been a cheaper option and it is a well known fact that K.B. always worked on a shoe string budget. During the remake there were two things K.B was adamant about not changing and that was the hero Kamalahasan & the male singer SPB. He had to fight to have his way, with the music directors Lakshmikant Pyarelal who were not excited about using a non Hindi speaking SPB. KB was clear that both Kamal & SPB were irreplaceable. And boy, did it pay off... SPB went on to win the National Award for the song ‘Tere Mere Beech Mein’. It is important to note that the same song is sung by Lata Mangeshkar in the same film both being solo versions. If it is the music direction which was the winner or Raag Shivaranjini then Lata could have won the award. But it was SPB who had everyone crying with the pathos in his voice. After this movie, the Kamalahasan’s acting coupled SPB singing almost convinced me,that true love means jumping of the cliff together. And the film ‘Punnangai Mannan’ completely convinced me !!
I even found the cliff to jump from and am still waiting for somebody to join me on the top of the cliff !
I am a loyal fan of Lata but I have to admit that SPB made Lata’s singing appear mediocre and made Lakshmikant Pyarelal eat humble pie for doubting his talent. I still maintain one has to be a romantic to act like Kamal and romantic to both sing that song like SPB and to enjoy it too ! And Lata’s life was devoid of romance except for some stray rumours.
His debut in Hindi which got him a National award had him singing for Salman Khan. My candid assessment is that, this helped Salman’s films to be successful because by himself Salman was no Kamalahasan to carry the films with his wooden acting. I was amused to see channels saying that SPB was better known as Salman Khan’s voice... I am sure SPB himself would have been amused, the confident humorous man that he was ! My opinion is that it is Salman who owes his early success to SPB‘s singing for ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’, ‘ Saajan’ and ofcourse ’Hum Aapke Hai Kaun’, in which Madhuri Dixit contributed along with SPB to give Salman another hit.
SPB was not better known as Salman’s voice, he could be anyone’s voice.... it can be Vijayakanth, Ramarajan or even Mohan. Remember Mohan of ‘Payanangal Mudivathilai’? Would anyone watch Mohan’s films for his acting, if it was not for SPB giving him some of the best songs? It was not only a genius like Illyaraja who made super hit songs with SPB, but even music directors like the plagiarist Bappi Lahiri who benefitted that extra thing that was the magic of SPB, who could transform any song because he just loved to sing and being a linguist helped immensely. Rest of the singers were only cloning him, yet didn’t try to imitate his humility.
His acting in Guna, Avvai Shanmughi, Keladi Kanmani, Minsara Kanavu,Priyamanavale, Kadhalan & some other Telugu films were definitely as effortless as his singing.
In a field, where almost everyone has had clandestine or brazen relationships, and almost everyone is accusing everyone in the #Metoo campaign, to remain spotless and dignified is so respectable. I am glad, I lived in an era of his music and also had the taste to enjoy them.
He has often mentioned that Rafi was his idol, his inspiration and like him, he understood the mood of the song, relished the lyrics, studied the actor in the scene, the context, the entire package and there was no song which was too difficult for him yet he didn’t take any song lightly and do a half hearted job.
Many are paying lengthy tributes while many others are speechless. I could keep writing so much more because this is not about an ordinary man but a ‘Gentle Giant’, whose life and million anecdotes to go with it, can never be uninteresting. If a person has rendered more than 40,000 songs, and all of them are brilliant and each one has a story to go with it, then imagine how much more can be written. Probably, I should write as a serial and give it the detailing that it deserves.
I am guilty of quoting my grandmother, who was an ardent devotee of Lord Rama. She used to tell us stories from Ramayana and when she fell short of words to describe Rama, she used to say that there is no simile, no metaphor, no synonym, no example to describe Rama ... one doesn’t say Rama was like this or that or like someone, because there was no one like him before him or after him. We can only say someone is ‘almost’ like Rama,even that is difficult. He is his own example !
I say that there was nobody like SPB before him, and there will be none ever after !!
Sandhya Shankar belongs to a well respected business family in Chennai. She is a Life Skills & Corporate Trainer by profession. She is an avid reader and a natural writer, who has written several poems and articles. She even presented her poems as a reading at the British council. She has keen interest in all art forms and has explored many different forms of painting like stained glass and Tanjore being among them.
Music being her first passion, she had her formal training under Terakotti Chandrasekharaiah at Bangalore and later briefly under Mrs Champa Kumar. She is a regular visitor of concerts, theatre and other live performances. Her witty reviews have gained a loyal and interactive readership for their sound technical commentary and relevance for every kind of melophile, from the casual-goer to the ragam expert, frequenting Chennai’s rich music scene.
(*The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of Music of Madras.)