S.P. Balasubramaniam: Half a Century of Music has Lapsed into the Silence of the Ages

The voice has stilled but the music will outlive the voice. This would be a fairly accurate one-line tribute to Sripati Panditaradhyula Balasubramaniam aka Subramani aka Mani aka Balu aka SPB.     

A great difficulty that one encounters while writing a tribute to SPB is confronting the huge pile of autobiographical information he has left behind, especially over the last fifteen or so years. What he left unfinished was writing a formal autobiography. Indeed, one feels a sort of retrospective frustration and sadness that his latest venture, Simply SPB didn’t begin at least five years earlier. It was the video autobiography of his rich and long musical journey. However, this enormous volume of autobiographical information is also a silver lining: by providing a wealth of firsthand, readymade information, SPB has made the job of lazy researchers a breeze. Neither is it mere information, it is a treasure of brilliant anecdotes and valuable insights drawn from a lifetime of experience.     

In the realm of cinema music or playback singing, SPB is still akin to air. He is everywhere, and it is not an exaggeration to claim that there are at least ten SPB songs being played at a given moment throughout the world in multiple languages and genres. For half a century, SPB strode the world of cinema music like a colossus slicing across languages and genres and delivered the same melodic quality with the consistency of majestic rivers that merge in the sea. This is something no playback singer before him had done and none will do in the future given that there’s nothing called “music” anymore in Indian filmdom. By itself, this is an unparalleled feat, to rule the entire south Indian film music for half a century like a monarch in a highly treacherous industry.

Apart from cinema music, SPB also lent his rich voice mainly in the genre of Bhakti (devotional)music singing timeless Stotrams and other poetic formats malleable to music. One can risk a claim that his Bilvashtakam and Lingashtakam among others, enjoyed the same ubiquitous status and presence as M.S. Subbulakshmi’s Sri Venkatesha Suprabhatam, a staple fare on radio and “tape recorders” in middle class homes for almost three full generations.

***

S.P. Balasubramaniam entered playback singing at a Sandhi Kala, or crossroads in South Indian film history. He learned the nuances of playback singing from the best of the past, adapted himself to the fast-changing present, and influenced and inspired countless future singers and music directors. In his own words, which he has recounted on countless occasions, he emotionally narrates how his “seniors” have personally guided and mentored him, and “put my mistakes in their stomach without anger, without scolding me.” He mentions with great reverence how the legendary Ghantasala Venkateshwara Rao sat on the pavement opposite SPB’s house, waiting for him for more than two hours just to inform him that he had a recording scheduled. This was at a time when Ghantasala himself was at the peak of his career. Such anecdotes are also mirrors of the culture of refinement, affection, and humanity that existed in the cinema industry of that period.

Such endless anecdotes also reveal the fact that like most accomplished people in various fields, in SPB’s case too, the man was also the method, his Sangita was inseparable from his Samskara. His humility was unostentatious, his confidence in his abilities didn’t descend to arrogance, and his awareness of his own limitations became a source of his strength. A combination of all these made him an unvarnished professional in the sense that playback singing is primarily a profession. From K.V. Mahadevan all the way up to Aniruddh Ravichander, from S. Rajeshwara Rao to Manisharma, and from G.K. Venkatesh to Arjun Janya, SPB exhibited the same grace, obedience, and professionalism throughout his half-century musical career. While SPB’s vastly older music directors praised his humility and Samskara, the younger music directors unfailingly mention about “cultivating at least one percent of his character and conduct.” Small wonder that he became the most sought-after playback singer cutting across four generations.

The other striking quality of SPB’s musical repertoire is its freshness, an evergreen quality of sorts. He is among the few singers whose voice quality surprisingly remained uniform and melodious till the very end. Without making comparisons, even the iconic Lata Mangeshkar’s voice had lost its edge roughly after Ek Duje Liye, in which SPB made his Hindi debut. Perhaps nature had been kind to him, perhaps his frenetic pace of singing kept his voice at an optimum level of polish…whatever the reason, the fact is undeniable.   

Freshness and a kind of unattainable flexibility was the other hallmark that characterized his singing. Till the final breaths of his life, SPB’s lasting regret was the fact that he never learned Classical music in a formal manner, and that “one day, I hope I will actually perform a full-fledged Carnatic concert.” Sadly, he never lived to realise that hope. Yet, he could effortlessly sing tough Carnatic compositions with the felicity of accomplished classical musicians. The songs in his life-changing Sankarabharanam film obviously come to mind first followed by the Kritis in Tyagayya. These apart, tough compositions like Sri Tumburu Narada Nadamrutam, Sangita Sahitya Samalankrute, Sangita Jatimullai, Shilegalu Sangitava Hadive, Pavadisu Paramatma….a separate playlist has to be made. In the same breath, SPB could also hoot and howl and whistle and cackle and introduce bestial noises in the mind-numbing numbers of mindless masala films of Chiranjeevi, Rajinikanth, Kamal Hassan, Ambarish, and Shankar Nag. He could also cough like a terminal tuberculosis patient and weep the tears of a jilted lover in the whopping number of “sad” songs he has sung. Indeed, we suspect that many of SPB’s “sad” songs have singlehandedly rescued hundreds of “cancer” films which were the staple diet of cinema of the mid 1970s up to the early 1990s. With his unbeatable combination with that other stalwart S. Janaki, he belted out hundreds of “love” songs liberally sprinkled with all manner of erotic sounds and gross sighing, some of them truly cringeworthy but all of them superhits. The other astonishing fact is how SPB could effortlessly render folk songs in Kannada and Tamil in their respective dialects with the natural felicity of a native speaker. Especially, Kannada folk songs set in the old Mysore rustic dialect which is hard for even urban Kannadigas to speak, much less sing.  

This then is the other special quality of SPB’s singing: the easy nativity he infused in each language he sang in. It is nearly impossible to make out that his mother tongue is Telugu. The lack of the quirks of his native Telugu accent while singing non-Telugu songs is not an easy feat to achieve, a feat that SPB mastered. This owes to his insistence on owning the entire lyric, complete with its bhava (emotion), a fact he admits and recommends to younger singers. It is said that he insisted on writing down the lyric of each song in longhand, understanding each word and line and the pauses and accents and other unique, local nuances of such non-Telugu lyrics. This can be traced to the impressions formed during his early years under his father, the renowned Harikatha exponent, Sri Sambamurthy. Language is both the expression and the vehicle of feeling, and the timeless Indian literary and musical heritage has fused it in a manner few cultures have. SPB was a devoted adherent of this tradition in his own fashion.     

Small wonder that from autorickshaw drivers to the President of India, Balu’s music embraced them all and spared none. Millions joyously offered to drench themselves in his music, reminding us of the lyric, naa ganalahari nuvvu munuganga (drench in the waters of my music). In fact, SPB continues to provide direct employment to the hundreds of orchestra troupes during the Ganesha festival, Annamma celebrations and the Kannada Rajyotsava seasons in my state at least. Perhaps the same holds true to varying degrees in all South Indian states.

***

Needless, it would almost be a crime to omit mentioning SPB’s long, fruitful, prolific and highly productive collaboration with Ilaiyaraaja and S. Janaki. With all its ups and downs, the SPB-Ilaiyaraaja combination was the happy outcome of abiding friendship, affection, professionalism and enduring music. Both their journeys were pretty much similar and the heights of success they attained didn’t sour their friendship. SPB was almost generous to a fault in his unrestrained praise for Ilaiyaraaja’s genius. As far as S.Janaki was concerned, it was a relationship underscored by a unique kind of reverence, elder-sisterly love, mirthful prankishness, rich musical collaboration, and prodigious musical output. During the LP and cassette era, the number of “Best of SPB – S. Janaki duets” record labels released by HMV, Sangeetha, etc is almost countless.  

***

Perhaps few singers of his generation held lyricists and poets in such exalted regard as SPB. We can examine this facet in the backdrop of the other major chapter of his career: musical reality shows. Padutha Theeyaga (I will Sing Sweetly) in Telugu and Yede Tumbi Haduvenu (I will Sing from the Depths of my Heart) in Kannada. With the rampaging invasion of privately-owned commercial TV, these shows became an inseparable part of every middle and lower middle-class home, and their success is the stuff of legends. Barring the shows SPB shepherded, the rest of these musical reality shows are muck, to put it bluntly.

Balu’s compering of Padutha Theeyaga, which first aired on the fledgling ETV Telugu in 1996 is truly a masterclass at many different levels. The ostensible aim of this programme is to discover new singing talent and it has largely fulfilled its aim. However, by agreeing to host and compere Padhutha Theeyaga, SPB created competition for himself in an industry where backstabbing is often the norm. It must be remembered that in 1996, Balu was at the peak of his career.

To this day, I tune into Padutha Theeyaga episodes on YouTube just to listen to SPB’s commentary, and to savour the joy of listening to rare, brilliant, hilarious and insightful anecdotes behind the making of some of the iconic and immortal songs in film music. It is a whole education in itself delivered first hand by a person who was both a participant and witness. Here, Balu becomes a master storyteller and a historian in his inimitable way. His memory is astounding and his repertoire is inexhaustible. These anecdotes are also about memorable songs of the pre-SPB era, which shows how deeply and widely he has imbibed the details and nuances of his chosen field and the care he has taken to preserve them till the very end. The stories are fantastic and their scope, encyclopedic.

In delineating the story behind such songs, SPB covers almost all aspects: a one-line plot of the movie, its makers, how the song was conceived, the number of rehearsals, the talent or genius of the composer, the prowess of the singer(s), occasional fights, and not the least, the lyrical quality.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned point about language and lyric and poetry. It is a sheer treat to listen to him piece apart some of the timeless lyrics in South Indian cinema and explain their subtleties and why the lyricist chose a specific word. Thus, when he speaks with great emotion about towering writers like Veturi Sundararamamurthy, Atreya, Sirivennela Sitarama Sastri, Jandhyala Papayya Sastri, Malladi, C. Narayana Reddy, Devulapalli, Chi. Udayashankar, R.N. Jayagopal, Vijaya Narasimha, and K.R. Sitarama Sastry, it is hard not to be swept in its tide. Neither are these mere praises of said lyricists: they are well-read, thoughtful tributes and objective assessments of merit drawn from personal experience.    

As compere extraordinaire, perhaps only SPB had mastered the fine art of delicate balance. Indeed, it takes a special skill and a high degree of restraint to praise a substandard music director or singer who is your co-judge without making it appear insincere or flattering. I will hazard claiming that SPB’s co-judges acquired an undeserving halo only by the dint or happy accident of being seated next to him.

The same observation applies in a tangential fashion when SPB makes the blunt but truthful observation about a generation of “pure” Carnatic singers who massacred the lyrics of a Kriti and mainstreamed a contorted fashion of singing even Alapana by slaughtering melody at the altar of a musical grammar roasted in their private kitchens. 

***

S.P. Balasubramaniam was also a highly-rooted, proud, and practicing Sanatani in his non-musical life. There are scores of real-life examples that show his abiding devotion for our religious and cultural heritage and our rich musical tradition. He made it a point to invite exponents of vanishing art and musical forms like Harikatha and traditional Telugu stage dramas featuring themes from our epic and Puranic lore. He created a special category in Padutha Theeyaga where singers would recite and sing musical compositions from say, Satya Harishchandra, Nala Damayanti, etc stage dramas. Here is an example:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_fmiW8h0To

Here is one more:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMYv-sIBKKo

The tears of joy that SPB sheds and the passionate commentary that accompanies it are straight from the heart. The fact that he has created this special category and has used it to expound on the richness of this fast-vanishing dramatic tradition once again shows his lasting commitment to the tradition and culture that birthed it.   

SPB also religiously celebrated the Tyagaraja Aradhana in his hometown in his father’s memory. On this occasion, Sri Sambamurthy would follow in Tyagaraja footsteps and go door-to-door, performing Unchavrutti (the English word, “begging” doesn’t do justice to the profoundity of the term) and from the money and material collected, he would celebrate Tyagaraja’s Aradhana. SPB kept this tradition alive in his own unique fashion.  

Then there is the moving episode where he performed Padapuja to K.J. Yesudas whom he regards as his elder brother and Guru.

The latest and last episode in this facet of SPB’s remarkable life was when he donated his ancestral home to the Kanchi Sanakra Matham. The Matham now runs a Veda Patashala there.  

***

Among his numerous non-musical forays in filmdom, SPB also distinguished himself as a reasonably good actor and an okayish director. His stint as a producer ended in financial disaster to recoup which he had to work hard at a late stage in his life. However, in the overall reckoning, he deserves an honourable mention in these realms in the sense that he was a complete artist.

Closing Notes

S.P. Balasubramaniam chose a comparatively small but important niche in filmdom, devotedly stuck to it throughout his life and touched the summit of excellence in it. An exemplary model to follow by any standard. It was a truly fruitful, highly productive, and well-lived life. The best way to close this tribute is to use the timeless Bhartrhari verse that SPB himself has sung in Sagara Sangamam commemorating the passing away of a true artist:

जयन्ति ते सुकृतिनो रससिद्धाः कवीश्वराः |
नास्ति येषां यशः काये जरामरणजं भयम्   ||

jayanti te sukṛtino  rasasiddhāḥ kavīśvarāḥ |
nāsti yeṣāṃ yaśaḥ kāye jarāmaraṇajaṃ bhayam   ||

Victorious are the masters, the rasa-siddha poets
Whose body of fame has neither fear of old age nor death.

Postscript:

I am indebted to Shatavadhani Dr. Ganesh for his excellent tribute to SPB and his abiding encouragement to me to write this piece. All these have greatly enriched my humble tribute.  

|| Om Shanti ||

Author(s)

About:

Sandeep Balakrishna is a writer, author, translator, and socio-political-cultural analyst. He is the author of "Tipu Sultan: The Tyrant of Mysore" and "The Madurai Sultanate: A Concise History." He translated Dr. S L Bhyrappa's magnum opus "Avarana" into English.

Prekshaa Publications

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