Posted in Indian Art Culture Music

An Emotion Called SPB

There are very few memories that I carry from my parents’ times to this day…. I mean, most common things I shared with them are already lost… very few are surviving today but are running out fast into oblivion… so why I like SPB, Ilayaraja etc., is for an entirely different reason. SPB was one of the connecting dots to me with my parents. Whenever I would listen to his old songs of late 1970s, i would be transported back to my happy home when i was carefree kid like everyone else… In my teens, SPB became synonymous with unforgettable melodies, that being the Mike Mohan era ! In my middle age I continued to be drawn to SPB’s versatility with his glitzy chartbursters! Throughout my memorable part of life, SPB remained a steady component, taken for granted. Where will those like me find this comfort level ever. I liked his consistency. His soothing voice. His adaptability. I viewed him as a mature artist who cut through generations. Most importantly I saw him in a paternal role. May be never did I get to meet him but he was always there singing to my ears. I have drawn inspiration and happiness from him. And peace. I wish I had attended his Doha concert. Tickets were there. Mostly we skip these events never having the curiosity to get to know or see celebrities in person. However SPB is one enigmatic genius i wish I hadn’t missed out on…

It must have been the year 1980. The picture ‘Raja Parvai’ was entirely filmed in my mother’s school. Kamal Hassan was the hero, Madhavi the heroine. While my mom taught the deaf and the dumb kids (we used no euphemism in those days to mask the stark truth. truth was spoken straight to one’s eyes and ears), the film was shot in the blind section. Everyday my mother would come back with stories about the cast and the crew. When the film was released, ‘andhi mazhai’ became my mom’s top fave song that she got recorded in a sony cassette. After she passed away, for over 10 years i held on to the cassette and replayed her selections. There were those like ‘aaghaya gangai’, ‘sippi irukkudhu muthum irukkudhu’ all in the mellifluous tone of SPB as if soaked in honey. He was already a star by then.

My personal favourites became his ‘nandha en nila’ and ‘kamban emandhan’ and ‘ilakkanam maarudho’ that were not from Ilayaraja stable. MS Viswanathan was equally a legend in those days preceding Ilayaraja. However, I discovered these gems much later in life when I had the time to reminisce the 80s filmy music. By now I was addicted to Azhagan songs ‘sangeetha swarangal’ , ‘mazhaiyum neeye’ and ‘saathi malli poocharame’ – these remain my lifetime faves, gems from music director Maragatha Mani (who recently scored music for Bahubali when I thought he was lost and forgotten). The 80s were peppered with Mike Mohan’s sweetest melodies that were given gentlest treatment by SPB sir, with Ilayaraja scoring the music. 80s teens must know. Every single number by SPB from ‘ilaya nila pozhigiradhu’ to ‘nilave vaa’ balmed my heart in those years when I going through a personal crisis.

The unending saga of SPB superhits through late 70s to mid 90s upto the time of Roja with AR Rehman was golden period for us girls who went through school and college in those times. ‘Pani vizhum malar vanam’ oh my god! SPB-Ilayaraja-Vairamuthu combo was nothing short of fireworks starting with ‘idhu oru pon maalai pozhudhu’ to ‘vaa vennila’ just to name a couple. My bosom buddy from school Shobi would regale us by singing ‘vandanam en vandanam’ and ‘devi sri devi’ during our free classes and school excursions. By college time she graduated to ‘mandram vandha thendralukku.’ To this day for our school friends, these numbers are etched in heart in SPB and Shobi’s voices! Again for me, all these eased pain. Life became bearable.

Sweet Mylapore childhood memories include crooning of such numbers as ‘singari sarakku’ and ‘ilamai idho idho’ in our terrace. I recall these incredibly funfilled moments with my friend Rupa’s bro Satish, father of 2 kids now hahaha. Those were his faves as he also danced like Kamal to the songs!

One day in the year 1989 or whatever I am not sure, my father’s side relatives were asking me to watch the picture ‘Keladi Kanmani.’ They said it was made for those girls like me. I didn’t quite understand. It was a heavy subject as I found out. SP Balasubramanyam played the rare hero role in the film as a widower. He sings nonstop a song holding his breath for over a minute in the movie, which became a record in those days. His daughter in the picture stops him from remarrying. Obviously this is what my relatives were trying to relay to me. The film hurt me immensely but SPB’s offbeat romance with Radhika showed to me how love can be so mature. SPB turned out to be a natural actor fitting the role perfectly.

Post marriage, I happened to see repeat of this picture many times. Over years, my take on life too has changed. From confused angry teenager/young woman, I have also aged to accept things as they are and grow more tolerant and accommodating. One more SPB picture ‘Sigaram’ was like Part II of ‘Keladi Kanmani.’ For this one, SPB scored the music himself. Class. A very mature storyline. I always wondered why SPB chose to act in these two pictures. They were out of the ordinary no doubt. Of course the compelling script and story telling must have been the reasons.

In the year 1993, SPB numbers were superhit in ARR musical Roja which was dubbed into Hindi. The same year before I got married, I watched the first picture ‘Marupadiyum’ with my would be-hubby in cinemas. A remake of ‘Arth’ from Hindi. ‘Nalam vaazha ennalum’ was a beautiful meloncholy but with that one, we left the theatre. So much for watching a film for the first time as a couple! Wrong choice but the music made it worthwhile. Around this period I believe SPB peaked in his career as the threshold to Tamil cinema music was broken open and we had more aspiring playback singers flooding and trying their luck in Indian film industry. However to my knowledge, none has been able to breach SPB’s top spot to this day. I could detect some copycats of SPB in fact who would not focus on originality! SPB went on with his musical odyssey unperturbed by new developments but learning to adapt to new technology and new producers (people) and new audience. That is something we all have to learn from him. In the process he antagonized none. The more successful he proved, the more humble and down to earth he transformed into.

I loved SPB’s ‘Saajan’ songs that I knew by heart and sang to myself in the 90s. His ‘Ek duje ke liya’ did not impress me much probably because I didn’t feel at ease with his hindi. In Saajan he had turned around. But i love to bits his ‘valaiyosai galagalavena’ that he sung with Latha Mangeshkar in Tamil. His another beautiful number is ‘pallavi illamal paadugiren’ for Laxmikanth Pyarelal. In ‘Shankarabharanam’ from late 1970s SPB proved to us that mastering classical music need not have to be a qualifying criteria for aspiring musicians. You can be a natural without cultivated practice. Sometimes I think may be this is the secret formula for his success. ‘Kaadu madhiri control pannadha valarchi.’ As someone who was not a trained singer, SPB knew no bounds and had nothing to hold him back. His ‘Kaadhal oviyam’ renditions for instance. Every single one in this album keeps reverberating in the background of my mind pretty often, decades after it was composed and recorded.

Even until very recently SPB enthralled us with his sunny ‘sahana saaral thoovudho’ and ‘ballelakka’ lending voice for Rajni Kanth. Ballelakka especially with its tongue twisting lyrics used to amaze me. His trademark was that he was much emotive vocally, laughing and crying and rejoicing as the lyrics/verses and situation demanded. Voice modulation was his greatest asset.

In this middle age, I also play SPB’s ‘Lingashtakam’ and other devotionals every other day. SPB’s Arunalachala renderings move me to tears along with Ilayaraja’s own. We started going to Thiruvannamalai in the year 1997 before my husband took up his first foreign posting. Roads were crude then. One lane. And the temple town used to be empty for Pournamis! Throughout the trip in that eerie quiet and dark of the night when we would return, this is what we heard. Until today for temple visits etc., we play mostly this kind of music over slokas during long drives. Mantras demand concentration. SPB and Ilayaraja devotions are as breezy. Some verses can touch a chord in you as you weave your way through that spiritual journey…

A few years back when my aunt was admitted in a hospital for knee replacement, i got to learn that the adjacent suite was SPB’s for months, vacated only days earlier. I was attending to my aunt for 3 days. Apparently SPB had had his bariatric surgery. For those 3 days I tried to quiz the nursing staff as much as possible for any info on SPB the legend. They told me, in the hospital he was just like any other patient. Fair enough. I wanted to see the suite by myself and actually walked through it hahaha! I pictured him there and came back to tell my aunt about it! My aunt wished SPB had waited until her knee surgery so that both of us could have shaken hands with him. My hubby as usual teased me that i narrowly missed the photo opp and the chance to update my profile pic in FB with SPB! I don’t have the celebrity craze but SPB was different. For him, I had respect and reverence. I was in awe of him. It was not his star value that attracted me but his s0-called gentle manners, his sweet bubbly persona. He was my mother’s generation and that somehow mattered to me.

In every phase of my life, this man had a presence like in most of my girls’ – the 70s & 80s teens… we can’t put it into words how exactly we felt then… but we realize now that SPB is an emotion for us… We connect him with so many, many happy memories…

Dear SPB sir, you are leaving us with a very sweet lingering aftertaste you know. Will there ever be anyone like you again? I even loved your first one ‘aayiram nilave vaa’ for MGR. I used to wonder what kind of young man you must have been to have sung it for the doyen of Tamil film industry then in that adolescent voice of yours. I would think your voice broke out right after that recording! I have read about your humility, a rarity especially in the face of such a huge Himalayan success, i have followed your concerts world wide on and off without really consciously keeping track of you. You just were there all the time. What a phenomenal journey yours must have been. A life well lived sir, hats off to you! Gentle sweet soul.

I just lost one more dot that connected me to my parents…

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