The Arts

S.P. Balasubrahmanyam – the Inimitable Impressionist

A polyglot, a polymath, a socialite and a contemporary artist across generations – SPB is a unique cultural treasure who transcends comparison.

He came into the music industry so long ago that the only record of his Tamil debut (Hotel Ramba, 1969, never released) is his own memory, recounted in a conversation for Doordarshan Podhigai, decades later. Sripathi Panditharadhyula Balasubrahmanyam, or SPB, as millions of his fans across generations know him, is no more. He did not pass away at the end of a long career trajectory that rose and waned; it only rose. He is among those unique artists who has left behind a body of work rich enough to eulogise, and still possessed a magical voice that could traverse emotions and octaves with ease, and evoked wonder without a filter of nostalgia.

Born to Harikatha exponent S.P. Sambamurthy in 1946 in erstwhile North Arcot (present day Tiruvallur, Tamil Nadu), SPB’s career ambition was to be an engineer. While he was unable to complete his studies at the JNTU College of Engineering, he did develop an interest in singing competitively. It was during one such competition that he was spotted by the composer S.P. Kothandapani, who gave him his first opportunity as a playback singer in Telugu. He was musically inclined as a child but did not receive extensive formal instruction. Though he often expressed regret over not being a ‘trained’ singer, it is interesting to imagine what formal training might have done to his vocal adventurism, which often flirted with the limits of a raga, and was a perfect fit for film music. Not unlike Kishore Kumar.

He burst into the scene fully formed in 1966. There was no learning curve or tentative beginnings. The virtuosity was undeniable. And the emotional intelligence – the part of the voice that clicks with the words and not just the music – was precocious. What was peculiar in this debut in the Telugu fantasy ‘Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna’ (1967) was how much his voice resembled that of a legend of those times. Those who realised that this singer was not Ghantasala could not shake the feeling that he was doing an impression of Ghantasala in his prime and in a decidedly adventurous mood.

When the ‘Jane Eyre’-inspired ‘Shanti Nilayam’ came out in Tamil in 1969, his rendition of ‘Iyarkai ennum’ was a burst of fresh air – a voice that could carry an A-list star’s shenanigans and share the load that T.M. Soundararajan and P.B. Srinivas carried almost exclusively. The same year, he sang playback for former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.G. Ramachandran (MGR). And in 1971, he did the impossible – singing ‘Pottu vaitha mugamo’ with enough gusto to feed the signature, over-the-top expressionism of Sivaji Ganesan. The voice, though, was still very Ghantasala. It hit consonants hard and favoured a sharpness and reediness in the lower octave.

To be fair, the movies he sang in and the stars he sang for belonged front and centre in a particular era – an era that was on the cusp of major change. Cinematic forces like K. Balachander were only a few years away from making movies that would shift industry tectonics. And a troubadour from Theni was about to be christened Ilaiyaraja, and go on to redefine film music. Did SPB have more than a younger Ghantasala in his vocal cords? If so, how long would that transition take?

Not long, apparently. This was the case not just the first time around, but with every transition in movies and music over the next four decades.

Brilliance, at scale

By lending his voice prodigiously and with a boggling range of expression to music directors large and small, SPB became one of the most coveted voices in the country.

That Sivaji Ganesan song was such a hit that there was no real need to change anything. But SPB did, for the song ‘Ninaithaal naan vanam’ in the Balachander-directed ‘Naangu Suvargal’ (1971). And in 1973, with the release of ‘Arangetram’, which literally means ‘debut’ (starring Kamal Haasan in his first role as an adult), a transition was complete. SPB’s rendition of ‘Kadavul amaithu vaitha medai’ – a song of desperate cheer masking heartbreak – broke any invisible gates holding back SPB’s range of singing. An exciting era had begun, with a voice large enough to carry it across.

This virtuosity over time embraced classical music as well. ‘Shankarabharanam’, an international-award winning 1980 film directed by K. Vishwanath, had SPB sing for the protagonist, a Carnatic classical vocalist. The music, by K.V. Mahadevan, was necessarily raga-based and pushed SPB into an interesting zone. He won a national award and a Nandi award for the vocals. ‘Dorakuna’, the final track, is a fine example of how SPB infuses theatrics in a classical setting.

Playlist: 15 Songs for Which S.P. Balasubrahmanyam Won Awards

One of the most striking aspects of SPB’s career was his sheer output: over 40,000 songs in 16 languages. Admittedly, most of his work was in Telugu, Tamil and Kannada, but his forays into Malayalam or Hindi are not the afterthoughts that one might imagine. His debut in Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada all occurred within three years of the release of his first song. His work in Hindi won a national award, in the film ‘Ek Duuje Ke Liye’, as well as Filmfare awards for ‘Maine Pyaar Kiya’, ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’; through the 1990s, he was the voice of Salman Khan.

There is a note worth making here on SPB’s work in Bollywood: voicing Kamal Haasan in ‘Ek Duuje Ke Liye’ turned out to be a stroke of serendipity. While Kamal broke the decidedly racist cliché of a ‘Madrasi’ with his charisma, SPB made the accent, until then the butt of jokes in conversation, acceptable in song. For a native Hindi speaker, ‘Tere mere beech mein’ is a hard pill to swallow. The cadence of the words is just a little off, but the emotion comes through so effectively that it is no longer an aberration. It is simply an original voice, a new form of expression.

It can be argued that SPB’s popularity in Hindi influenced an important cross-pollination of talent in the next generation. The south celebrated Udit Narayan, Sukhwinder Singh, Sonu Nigam, Daler Mehndi, Adnan Sami, Vishal Dadlani and an impeccable Sunidhi Chauhan across Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and – in Sonu Nigam’s case – a whole lot of Kannada.

And South Indian singers in the north are no longer the exception. Shankar Mahadevan, Hariharan, Mahalakshmi Iyer, K.K, Benny Dayal and Rahman himself are mainstays and occasionally, intentionally or otherwise, tend to add a little garnish of the south when singing in Hindi.

The social butterfly

SPB has been generous with his time and a charming on-screen presence on TV. In sponsored mega-events, in numerous interviews and as a benevolent, indulgent judge in talent shows. He built a reputation of universal likability, which was broken briefly with a very public disagreement with Ilaiyaraja.

The SPB-Ilaiyaraja combo is one for the ages. It began in the 1980s. The Bharathiraja-directed ‘Nizhalgal’ (1980) launched Vairamuthu as a poet for a new generation of Tamils. The song ‘Idhu oru ponmalai pozhudhu’ was a landmark in music, voice and lyrics. This was followed by a stream of hits in Telugu and Tamil. Another inflection point for these artists is ‘Mouna Ragam’, the brilliant Mani Ratnam drama that released in 1986. The song ‘Manram vandha’ is a study in vocal restraint.

The string of hits did raise a recurring question: is this an Ilaiyaraja song or is it an SPB song? In later years, both would work less with each other. Seemingly out of the blue, in 2017, Ilaiyaraja sent a legal notice to SPB when he was in the middle of a tour entitled ‘SPB50’, over copyright infringement. SPB did not sing Ilaiyaraja’s songs on stage for the next year or so, when they made up and came together to perform in a fundraiser.

The polymath

Despite a ubiquitous and very identifiable voice, SPB was a prolific dubbing artist and voice actor. He has been the de facto voice of Kamal Haasan in the Telugu versions of the actor’s films. He has lent his voice to stars in various languages. He brings great gusto to voice acting, as an avid mimicry artist and occasional actor himself.

His forays into acting are charming and his on-screen ease is indicative of a proclivity for performance. One of his most popular roles is in the Shankar blockbuster ‘Kadhalan’ (1994). He played the protagonist Prabhu Deva’s empathetic father, even featuring in one dance video (below).

His role as a single father struggling to connect with his daughter in ‘Keladi Kanmani’ was poignant and understated. The movie, a commercial success, also featured a ‘breathless’ song in which SPB seems to sing impossible stretches of the track in a single breath. As a music director, his most popular album was the movie ‘Sigaram’ from 1991, in which he also played the lead. The song ‘Idho idho’ is a good reflection of his 1990s melodic sensibilities.

In that decade, Telugu cinema underwent a resurgence. The output was immense and, if one went by the numbers, so was the quality. A-listers worked more and were less insecure about release dates. It was a golden era for comedy. Non-A-listers had big hits, too – Rajasekhar, Jagapathi Babu, even an up-and-coming J.D. Chakravarthy. And a common thread in all of these was the SPB song – incredibly varied for every genre but effective all the same.

Some examples off the cuff are his songs in Nagarjuna-starrers ‘Shiva’ and ‘Nirnayam’, the Venkatesh blockbusters ‘Bobbili Raja’ and ‘Kshanakshanam’, a string of Rajendra Prasad hits including ‘April 1 Vidudhala’ and ‘Mister Pellam’. His voice – both for romance and the mandatory ‘item numbers’ in Chiranjeevi’s films – bolstered the superstar’s appeal.

Speaking of superstars, SPB has been the voice of Rajinikanth’s ‘entry song’ in all the latter’s biggest hits. From ‘Annamalai’ through ‘Baasha’, ‘Arunachalam’ and beyond. The most recognisable of these is his ‘Oruvan oruvan mudhalali’ in Muthu (1995). This song is also one of his early collaborations with A.R. Rahman, who was terraforming film music not just with sound engineering but also by breaking down the dependence on a small handful of singers. Ilaiyaraja tried this in the 1980s, without much success. Even in some of his blockbuster hits, like ‘Madura marikozhunthu’, it was clear that the song was intended for someone with a more flamboyant vocal range.

Before Rahman’s transition into a new sound, SPB delivered some timeless melodies for him in ‘Kadhal Desam’ and in ‘Duet’; ‘Anjali Anjali’ comes to mind. Three years later, he proved that he could lend voice to more than melody. The song ‘Thanga thamarai magale’ in ‘Minsara Kanavu’ (1997) was unique. As Balachander’s cinema did for SPB in the mid- to late-1970s, this song broke another sound barrier for SPB and won him a national award.x

A polyglot, a polymath, a socialite and a contemporary artist across generations – SPB is a unique cultural treasure who transcends comparison. This impressionist, who could imbibe the spirit of changing times, with a voice that refused to age is and forever will be inimitable.

Anand Venkateswaran is a former journalist. He now heads communications for Lendroid and writes about FinTech, film and books.