SP Balasubrahmanyam was a lesson in decoding tradition while keeping with the times
He may have voiced a music teacher in Sankarabharnam and a dancer in Salangai Oli, but inadvertently, SPB set me on a path that traversed Indian and Western music.
Growing up in a Tamilian household means having music playing in the house. All. The. Time. Perhaps the only instances when it would not be the case, was when using the mixer-grinder or answering trunk calls that automatically heightened our decibel levels.
Film music can often be easier on the untrained ears than classical vocals, yet with SP Balasubrahmanyam it was like a subliminal lesson in decoding tradition while keeping with the times. To think that a playback singer with no training in classical music would so seamlessly be the leading voice of so many films steeped in classical music, says something about SPB (as he was known)'s ability to mould his voice.
Most of us who grew up in '90s Mumbai on a steady dose of Hindi films and were familiar with SP Balasubrahmanyam’s voice, knew it was synonymous with Salman Khan’s Rajshri hits. From Maine Pyaar Kiya to the hugely popular Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, SPB got Salman’s intonation so perfectly that the only time we could tell the two apart was if his South Indian accents slipped in.
By the time he became a name to reckon with in 1980-'90s Mumbai, he already had a rich musical legacy, and so everything he did after that was just surplus.
Although it had been a couple of years since Sankarabharnam (1980) released by the time I was born, the soundtrack continued to find much airplay via a reel-to-reel system at home. Classical music (both Carnatic and Hindustani) was such an intrinsic part of our upbringing, that film music, especially those based on classical music are “elders-approved”, because they become a great way to introduce the younger generation to the aesthetics of musical disciplines without being overwhelmed by their complexities. This was “inception” before Christopher Nolan taught us the word. The diet is so rich in these “raga-based” songs that when we finally sit down to learn music, we realise that already know a lot of the notes/chords.
So, the Holy Trinity of classical music-based South Indian films at home saw Sankarabharnam (Telugu), Sindhu Bhairavi (Tamil) and Salangai Oli (originally Sagara Sangamam in Telugu) being played on loop. Those five years between Sankarabharnam and Salangai Oli created a greater imprint in my mind than the Salman years that coincided with my generation. They say the early impressions of music on a child have a long-lasting impact through the adult years as well. Over the years, I have come to realise that so much of my understanding of classical music finds its roots in the film songs of SP Balasubrahmanyam.
He went on to win many more accolades and recognition over the years, but his vocal prowess in Sankarabharnam is perhaps his greatest film achievement. Classical legend Balamuralikrishna was to lend his voice to the lead character Sastri, before a hardcore playback singer was picked to voice the part. And to think that he followed that up with Saagara Sangamam is testimony to his genius.
One of my earliest memories of casually learning music involved repeating notes after my mother — Sa-Ri-Ga-Ri, Ga-Pa-Da-Pa from Sankarabharnam. If you’ve watched the movie, you’d know exactly which scene. I, of course, had no idea it was from the movie until some years later. The song would play and Amma would pause after each line and sing it slower until I understood. And I would attempt to match her pitch. We would sing along to 'Broche Varevu Ra,' again Amma singing as Sastri and I would be the student. The songs of the film gave great scope for repeating lines given that the plot revolved around a guru and his relationship with his shishya. We would effortlessly sing in Telugu although we didn’t know a word of it otherwise.
My father would lounge on the couch singing 'Manasa Sanchara Re' while reading anything from the newspaper to Anna Karenina, as the whiff of filter coffee filled the air. Till date neither of us can listen to 'Dorakuna Ituvanti Seva' without being moved to tears by the end of it. In the movie, Sastri sings the song before falling ill midway. His student then picks up from where he left and continues 'Dorakuna Ituvanti Seva,' which loosely translates to “Can I ever have the privilege of serving you”, thus symbolically taking on the mantel.
When I sat down for my first Hindustani vocal lesson in front of the legendary Pt. Hridaynath Mangeshkar, his mind was searching for a simple song for the Tamilian girl. In his infinite wisdom he decided, Na Manogo To Dungi Tohe Gari Re from Nivdung (1989) would be simple enough for an eight-year-old. The language was completely unfamiliar to my broken understanding of functional Marathi and I was rather unversed in the school of Hindustani classical music at that point. Add to this the sight of the illustrious Asha Bhosle leaning against the room door as you learn one of her own songs; you can imagine the situation is both unbelievably amazing and immensely daunting.
As Panditji concluded the song, he earnestly asked me if I grasped anything at all. And I said, “All I know if that this song is in Hindolam.”
“This is Malkauns,” he corrected, puzzled.
I looked at my mother for reconfirmation, who thankfully explained, “Raag Malkauns in Hindustani is Ragam Hindolam in Carnatic music.”
Impressed, he asked if I’ve been training in Carnatic music, and I said, “No uncle, I know it from the movie Sankarabharnam.” And I sang the opening lines of Samaja Vara Gamana from the film, before Asha Bhosle said “Arre, yeh toh SPB ka gaana hai.”
The movie is a great introduction to Carnatic classical music, with SPB’s golden voice being a compelling guide to the rich tradition that backs the film’s soundtrack. He may have voiced a music teacher in Sankarabharnam and a classically trained dancer in Salangai Oli, but inadvertently and perhaps through providence, he set me on a path that traversed various languages and disciplines of Indian and Western music.
Now as I write his obituary, I’m overwhelmed with emotion and the only words that reverberate in my head are Dorakuna Ituvanti Seva?
SP Balasubrahmanyam playlist: From 'Maine Pyar Kiya' to 'Chennai Express', a collection of his best Bollywood songs
Having sung over 40,000 songs in various Indian languages, SP Balasubrahmanyam created a Guinness World Record for recording the highest number of songs.
SP Balasubrahmanyam passed away on 25 September due to coronavirus-related complications
SP Balasubrahmanyam was admitted to a Chennai hospital with mild symptoms of coronavirus last month, but his condition deteriorated after a week, and he had to be shifted to the ICU on 13 August.