A tribute to SP Balasubrahmanyam (4 June 1946 – 25 September 2020)

This has been a post that has been long overdue and has been extremely difficult for me to write. The demise of S.P. Balasubrahmanyam on 25 September, even though not unexpected, considering his condition the days before, still came as a major shock. It was painful, to put it bluntly.

A.R. Rahman’s heartfelt tribute to the singer kind of summed it up – “Growing up in south India, SPB is part of our culture, our victories, love, devotion and joy.”

I may have grown up in Delhi but Tamil, Kannada music were constant staples at home. If at all there was one voice I was acquainted with right from my childhood (Sankarabharanam was the first movie I ever watched), it was SPB’s. So much so that it was a given and something that was taken for as granted – like MS Subbulakshmi’s Suprabhatam or Carnatic kritis. While I would go ga ga appreciating and listening to old Hindi film music, whenever down and tired, it was to the Tamil songs (of the late 70s and 80s) that I turned. Even without realising it consciously. And in those, specifically SPB/ Ilayaraja. Comfort music really. The news, therefore, of SPB’s being critically ill since August and then passing away in end September. hurt much more than expected. His loss felt almost deeply personal.

So much has been written about his contributions as a playback singer who ruled Telugu, Tamil, and Kannada movies: a much loved playback singer, a mentor and guide to many (in the South), a loved, cuddly, actor in his later days.

Where do I even begin? How does one pay a tribute to someone whose songs (Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Hindi) have had so many personal memories and associations linked to them? The meaning his music has brought into thousands of lives over the past 5 decades cannot really be summed up. Someone who has sung 41K songs in more than 16 languages for over five decades?

One of the greatest singers ever, Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam was born on June 4, 1946 in an orthodox Telugu family in Nellore, Andhra Pradesh. Not going to sum up his life here, but it is incredible that this incredibly gifted artiste achieved what he did, with zilch training in classical music! Those achievements are mind-boggling: 6 National Awards in 4 different languages; numerous State Awards (Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka); a number of Filmfare awards and national distinctions such as Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan. Long before Hindi film going audiences recognised him as being Salman Khan’s voice, he was the voice of so many South Indian heroes – Rajinikanth, Kamalahasan, Mohan, Karthik! An opening track in his voice was almost a must in a Rajini movie!

When you listen to SPB’s songs, what comes across is not just the mellifluousness of his voice, but his sheer range and versatility. He felt all those emotions – pain, sorrow, joy, happiness, love, romance when he sang. That laughter, that one sigh, inserted so fluently lend his renditions that unique touch.

What follows then is a list of 20 songs primarily in Tamil, with a few in Kannada, Telugu and Hindi included; these are the first songs that came to my mind; songs that I have listened to and loved over the years (and still listen to) and with which so many memories of my childhood are associated with – the South Indian songs more than the Hindi ones. I haven’t watched most of these films, and in certain cases, I saw the songs on Youtube only while making this list. Since these songs are special for the singing and music (Ilayaraja is God – but that is a topic for another time), I will list only the song and post a link to it on YouTube.

So here goes:

  1. Pani Vizhum Malar Vanam (Ninaivellam Nithya, Tamil, 1981, Ilaiyaraja): In my opinion, this song is one of the best SPB-Ilaiyaraja collaboration. Much has been written about this legendary astonishing collaboration which defined the music of South Indian cinema from the 1970s to 1990s. This melodious song was picturised on a very young Karthik and Jiji (one of Gemini Ganesan’s children). The picturisation, fashion, dance steps now seem outdated – but the one thing that hasnt gotten outdated four decades later is the music, orchestration and the soulful singing. Listen to that little laugh when he croons Kaalai yelludha parihasam. Brilliant!
  2. Ilaya nila pozhigarathu (Payanangal Mudivathillai, Tamil, 1982, Ilayaraja): Any list of SPB-Ilayaraja best songs will definitely feature this beautiful number. Hindi audiences are also familiar with this tune, after all it had been adapted by Kalyanji Anandji the very next year for the Kunal Goswami-Sridevi starrer, Kalakar (1983): Neele neele ambar par, crooned by Kishore Kumar. Sorry, but this was not a patch on the original. Neither the music, nor the singing! One of SPB’s best in my opinion. Soulful and mellifluous.
  3. Jotheyali jothe jotheyali (Geetha, Kannada, 1981, With S Janaki, Music- Ilayaraja): Another of Ilayaraja’s superb tunes sung flawlessly by SPB. What is amazing is that no matter what the language he sang in, SPB’s pronunciation was perfect – and he got the feeling just right. This tune was used by Ilayaraja in Tamil a few years later – in the film Noorathu Naal (1984) with the same singers at the mike: Vizhiyile en Vizhiyile. Ilayaraja again reused the same tune much later at R. Balki’s request for the 2007 film Cheeni Kum.
  4. Poonthalir Ada (Panneer Pushpangal, Tamil, 1981, With S. Janaki, Music: Ilayaraja): Another superhit by the Ilayaraja-SPB-S Janaki. Through the 1980s, this combo created so many masterpieces – this superb composition from one of Tamil cinema’s first teeny-bopper love stories is just one of them. The music, guitar and the fine singing render it an evergreen classic.
  5. Oru Naal unnodu Oru Naal (Uravaadum Nenjam, Tamil, 1976, With S. Janaki, Music: Ilayaraja)
  6. Andhi Mazhai (Raaja Paarvai, Tamil, 1982, With S.Janaki, Music: Ilayaraja)
  7. Sippi irukkodu (Varumayin Niram Sivappu, 1980, With S.Janaki, Music: Ilayaraja): Sridevi and Kamal Haasan were quite the onscreen pair of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Tamil cinema. And a whole number of lovely songs are picturised on them, such as this.
  8. Nilave Vaa Selladhe vaa (Mouna Ragam, 1986, Music: Ilayaraja): A masterpiece from one of Mani Ratnam’s finest movies that starred a super cute Karthik (in a guest appearance). This one is picturised however on Mohan, who is the main hero of the movie.
  9. Sundari Kannal Oru Sethi (Dalapathi, Tamil, 1990, With S. Janaki, Music: Ilayaraja): A memorable movie, starring the Thalaiva along with Mammooty and a young Arvind Swamy, made by Mani Ratnam. It was Ratnam’s version of the Mahabharata, with Rajnikanth playing Soorya aka Karna, abandoned at birth. Shobana stars as the woman he loves but who ends up marrying Arjun (Arvind Swamy). The music by Ilayaraja is remarkable – probably one of his best scores with hits such as Rakamma Kaiyya thattu and Yamunai Aatrile. But this romantic SPB-S.Janaki duet is my pick for this list.
  10. Ilamai enum poongatram (Pagalil Oru Iravu, 1979, Music: Ilayaraja)
  11. Ee Sambhashane (Dharmasere, 1979, Kannada, With S.Janaki, Music: Upendra Kumar)
  12. Aamani Paadave (Geetanjali, 1989, Telugu, Ilayaraja)
  13. Kannukkul Noor Nilava (Vedham Pudhidu, 1987, With S. Janaki, Music: Ilayaraja)
  14. En veetu thottathil (Gentleman, 1993, With Chitra, Music: A.R. Rahman)
  15. Oruvan oruvan mudhalali (Muthu, 1996, Music: A.R. Rahman): A SPB song in every Rajini film, especially the entry song, was said to be a must. This one is one such number. What an entry Rajini makes. What a song! And what music! This was quite a rage in the 1990s.
  16. Manusukkal Oru Puyal (Star, Tamil, 2001, With Sadhana Sargam, Music: AR.Rahman): Not sure whether AR Rehman used this mellifluous tune in Hindi first (Boondon se baatein from Thakshak (1999)) or in this duet in Tamil. It is a beautiful composition and the execution is perfect!
  17. Naguva Nayana Madhura Mouna (Pallavi Anupallavi, 1984, Kannada, With S. Janaki, Music: Ilayaraja): A sweet song from a Kannada movie directed by Mani Ratnam and music by Ilayaraja. This was Mani Ratnam’s debut film that starred Anil Kapoor, Lakshmi and Kiran Vairale in the main roles.
  18. Saathiya tune kya kiya (Love, 1990, Hindi, With Chitra, Music:Anand-Milind)
  19. Sach mere yaar hai (Saagar, 1985, Hindi, Music: R.D. Burman): A superb SPB song picturised on Kamal Haasan but in Hindi!
  20. Sankara nadasarirapara (Shankarabharanam, 1980, Telugu. Music: K.V. Mahadevan): Ending this list with a song from this classic K.Vishwanath movie, which has been listed in the ‘100 greatest Indian films of all time,’ It is said that KV Mahadevan wanted the great Carnatic classical musician, Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna to sing the songs for this film. He could not, due to his schedule. SPB was then asked to sing these classical songs ! And sing he did and how. He won the National Award for playback singing for the songs of this film.

Six months may have passed since SPB’s demise but he continues to live on through his music. Thank you Balu Sir for the music! Om Shanti!

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