One usually tends to joke about things that they only usually have strong feelings about - feelings of either adulation or aggression. Adulation is where Alexander Babu’s brilliant piece on SPB comes from. It’s a perceptive, thought through piece that is borne out of respect, joy, and unadulterated love. Like how you would make fun of a family member, while being unhesitant to jump in front of a bullet for them.
While giving us some good-hearted laughs, this piece also calls out one of the incredible things about SPB’s singing - the humanity within. Off the stupendously large list of accomplishments that SPB had, this is the one that strikes me the most - his ability to infuse unmistakeable emotion into his singing. When SPB sang, you could often tell that it was him singing. But you could also clearly tell what the song was trying to convey. And I don’t mean about the clarity of the vocals or the way the words are enunciated. I mean the way his singing lets us imagine the cinema a song could be part of and the stories it is telling, the psychology of its characters, and the complexity of their interactions. With lip-sync songs being the norm in Indian cinema, what better way to treat them than this!
Seldom did (and does) singing become emoting so elegantly. Artists with that rarefied ability are few and far apart. Other icons like Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong, or Asha Bhosle come to mind. Yes, we have tremendous singers in the Indian music scene but none so irrefutably consistent when it comes to this particular feature.
Even a mere smattering of examples from my list of favorites proves this. The earnest-ness with which he starts off the “Vennilavum” line in “Mannil Indha Kadhalandri” (Keladi Kanmani). The jubilance of the first few lines or the calming reassurance of the stanzas from “Keeravani” (Anveshana). The tender flirtations of “Rakkamma” (Thalapathy) or “Azhagaana Ratchasiye” (Mudhalvan); the wanton drunken lust of “Thanga Thamarai Magale” (Minsara Kanavu); the devoted persuasion of “Ennai Kaanavillaye” (Kadhal Desam); the innocent indulgences of “Ayyayo” (Aadukalam)”; or the cunning banter of “Neetoh Cheppana” (Athadu).
If not for my limited musical knowledge, I could go on and on. Even recently, I bumped into a 2020 SPB song, Ennoda Baasha (Devadas Parvathi) and couldn’t help but notice this - with how he deliberately stretches the word “Heart” to describe the character’s predicament.
It may have been his voice and its benchmark-able quality that has remained unfazed over five decades. It may have been his experience - a confidence that comes with utmost mastery of one’s art, where one is less focused about meeting their pitches and more focused on making art a channel for a larger story to unfold. It may have been his understanding of humanity, our whims, fancies, and the resultant emotions - which, his endearing acting gigs do speak volumes of.
Now, how does one eulogize a cultural beacon. I’m sure his influence has pervaded into many lives, at one point or another. For me, it was discovering what the concept of music is all about as a very young kid in the 90s (also thanks to my parents’ and brother’s obsession with the works of A.R.Rahman from the time). SPB’s significance is so indelible that it ceases to become just a part of our culture; but more so, is a foundational element that then births this very culture. Like Carnatic music, or the Tabla. Or, for the want of broader analogies, cricket, or 3PM chai and snacks.
So I won’t try to eulogize him. I’ll redirect you to this beautiful tribute from ARR or this comprehensive delving by Baradwaj Rangan; while I work on discovering more of SPB’s music.
Starting with this mellifluous song that I discovered this morning.