There has hardly ever been any playback singer in the history of Indian films who could transcend the borders of regionalities and languages and move millions of hearts with his/her songs like SP Balasubrahmanyam always did. Fondly known as SPB, he sang in 16 different languages, including Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi, and Malayalam. However, his mother tongue was always music. He would often tell his fans, “You all have made me sing in so many different languages and everyone who speaks those languages has always thought that their language belongs to me too. I am very proud of that.”
The unique timbre and texture of his voice could not only create chartbusters but also memorable numbers, that have already achieved cult status. However, he often claimed that his songs were far from perfect. In an old interview with The Hindu, the singer had confessed, “… I feel I could have sung better. I wonder how I got so many chances…I am not saying this out of humility. It’s a million-dollar question that will haunt me for as long as I live.” Unfortunately, it is a question that seems rather redundant today, as we collectively mourn the death of the maestro due to coronavirus, as well as celebrate the legacy he has left behind, which no one — from music mavens to famous musicians like AR Rahman or Ilaiyaraaja — would ever deem anything but perfect.
SPB’s vocal perfection, however, has a lot to do with his emotiveness. His songs like Bahut Pyaar Karte Hai from Saajan or Pehla Pehla Pyaar Hai from Hum Aapke Hain Koun were so full of emotions that they could express the depths of romance even when the person lipsyncing to them was a young and lanky Salman Khan, with wondering eyes, and a chiseled torso and no trace of emotions on his face.
The Class Act
A part of the reason for his expressive voice was his capability to act, because of which he could display an array of emotions even in his vocals. Despite singing over 40,000 songs in his long and illustrious career (which is, in itself a world record), SPB also made time to act in several films. The memorable ones among them are Thiruda Thiruda and Kadhalan. His tryst with acting, in fact, began when he was a little boy, as he acted in plays along with his dad, who was as Harikatha artist.
One of his childhood anecdotes recounts how SPB (who was around five-year-old at the time) had fallen asleep before the staging of a play in which his father, SP Sambamurthy, was playing the role of Ramadas, while SPB himself was portraying the character of Ramadas’ son. When it was SPB’s cue to go on stage, he was woken-up hurriedly and sent directly on the stage, where his father(who was already in Ramadas’ character) was tied up. Since he was still sleepy, it didn’t occur to the little SPB that he was in a play. He saw his father tied up and began to cry in distress. The audience, however, did not know the reasons for his tears and thought he was a gifted actor. Later in life, SPB indeed proved that he possessed a great natural talent for acting, as he played some iconic onscreen father roles.
The Voice Of The (Screen) Gods
One of the reasons why SPB could sing in so many languages was because he was a stickler for diction. He would often sit down with lyricists to understand the essence of words, the dialect, pronunciation, and more importantly, how they come together in a song to convey a specific meaning or emotion. Therefore, even if he didn’t know or understand a certain language completely, he could still sing beautifully in it. For instance, he won a national Award for Kamal Hasaan starrer Ek Duuje Ke Liye when he had little grasp of Hindi.
It is perhaps this training and devotion to understanding words, which also made SPB an extraordinary dubbing artist. He dubbed for several screen idols including Kamal Hasaan, Rajinikanth, and Mohanlal. Reports claim that for Dasavathaaram, SPB dubbed 7 out of the 10 different voices which were required for the 10 roles played by Kamal Haasan. His voice was also used by Hasaan in Bhamane Satyabhamane. For Mohanlal, SPB’s voice was used in Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar. When Rajinikanth’s Tamil film Kuselan was dubbed in Telugu, SPB had also lent his voice for the actor.
Blending styles and genres
Although SPB never received any classical training, he covered an enormous range in music, which very few singers can. He received his first national award for Shankarabarnam, for which he had sung Carnatic songs for the protagonist, although he had no formal training in Carnatic music. A die-hard Rafi fan, as a 17-year-old, when he would go for auditions he would sing one of Rafi’s songs, from the film Dosti. The mesmerizing way in which Rafi switched scales and evoked emotions fascinated him. Little did he know at the time, that he would not only sing many more songs than Rafi ever did but will also receive the same kind of love and respect that Rafi had, in Indian music. More than anything, Balasubrahmanyam’s songs became a yardstick of romantic melodies, not just in Hindi but also in the Tamil film industry. His songs were also a wonderful confluence of classical and modern.
In absence of any training, his understanding of music was simple yet profound. “I always think that music has no language barrier. The music itself is the language. it is the closest path to divinity. When you close your eyes and sing and experience the pain and the beauty in the song, you experience god although you do not know the shape of god or music,” he had said when explaining his understanding of music. SPB has, in his long career also given music for over 40 films of various languages.