Remembering SPB One Year On!

This piece was written for the News site – The News Minute and was published on the 26th June, 2021 – on the 1st death Anniversary of SPB.  It can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/ennadi-meenakshi-malare-mounama-20-songs-spb-brought-life-his-voice-155731

It’s exactly one year since SP Balasubrahmanyam left us. Or did he? Is he not lingering still amongst us through the 40,000 plus songs he left behind?  In the case of creators and artists, milestones like the first death anniversary is an occasion not just to remember, but also to celebrate. Celebrate their legacy. On this first death anniversary of SPB, this piece aims to just do that — celebrate the legacy of the versatile singer by revisiting some of his songs.

I hope I know what I am getting into. To pick just a few songs from his vast discography, of which 50% could be classified as hits — if not super hits — is an arduous task.  Therefore, first up, my list is going to narrow down to just Tamil songs. Next, instead of making it as a list of super hits, I would like to look at some of his songs that had some uniqueness to them. This is, of course, purely a personal choice and therefore subject to my own biases and subjectivity.

The songs can be unique in many ways, as I have tried to explain. It could be also due to the way SPB rendered those compositions, where even imagining those songs in someone else’s voice would be unfathomable now. These songs are what they are because of the way SPB sang them.

So, here is the list of my top 20 ‘unique’ SPB songs, in chronological order. That many of them are predominantly solos is coincidental. Here it is:

  1. Pottu Vaitha Mugamo: This was at a time when the MGR-Sivaji duo was dominating the Tamil filmdom. Till then, we were used to the legendary TM Soundarrajan (TMS) doing playback singing for Sivaji. In fact, it is widely believed that TMS used to modulate his voice to suit Sivaji and MGR respectively, for whom he regularly sang. SPB was making his baby steps into the Tamil industry. Music Director MS Viswanathan (MSV) tosses this song to SPB — his first for Sivaji. The very youthful voice of SPB manages to suit Sivaji in this melodious duet and for listeners, this came as a different experience after being used to the usual steely voice of TMS for Sivaji.
  2. Aval Oru Navarasa Naadagam: SPB started singing for MGR quite early in his career. But this song from MGR’s Ulagam Sutrum Valiban — a musical and a blockbuster — remains etched in our hearts.  Among the ten odd songs in this film, while the other songs were mostly sung by TMS for MGR, Aval Oru Navarasa Naadagamwas sung by SPB.  A very soulful and soothing melody, SPB teases with his soft voice while matching the tempo of MSV’s famous rhythm arrangement. We have heard of the Tamil phrase paal vadiyum mugamto denote innocence. This was SPB’s paal vadiyum voice!
  3. Then Sindhudhe Vaanam: Though this song was composed by GK Venkatesh, this has an Ilaiyaraaja connection, with whom SPB would collaborate later to churn out thousands of hits and create history. Raaja, who was assisting Venkatesh in this period, has himself explained the uniqueness of this song. The melody is complex, with long phrases and octaves that alternate between the higher and lower. SPB along with S Janaki complement each other beautifully to give us this memorable song.
  4. Kadavul Amaithu Vaitha Medai: From the film Aval Oru Thodarkathai, this one is not just a song but a stage performance. Apart from the male singing voice, there are a lot of sounds of animals, birds and others that come in between. Amidst all this, SPB holds his own, conveying the sombre mood of the scene very well.
  5. Ennadi Meenakshi:The Raaja era dawns upon us and for SPB and indeed for us, it is a golden period in Tamil film music. This song is from the film Ilamai Oonjalaadugirathu. While there is the song Ore Naal Unnai Naan, a melodious number sung by SPB, I picked this song — Ennadi Meenakshi — to be part of this list, for a reason. SPB displays another dimension of his singing, hitherto not seen. Could SPB sing only soft romantic or smooth flowing numbers? He answers these questions with this song. He sings with a rough tonal quality for this song, in line with the angry mood of Kamal Haasan, for whom he sings this song. This would pave the way for many more songs in this genre for SPB later throughout his career.
  6. Engeyum Eppothum: This is a song which will get into any ‘SPB list’. Period. SPB is in his element here as his voice traverses seamlessly from one rhythm pattern to another and from one octave to another — Pallavi to Anupallavi to Charanam. It is as if the song is a journey around the whole musical universe. Just like the words in the song itself: “Kaalai Japaanil kaapi, maalai New Yorkil Caberet”!
  7. Naan Ennum Pozhuthu: An everlasting melody, which is easily mistakable for a Raaja composition. But this is composed by Salil Chowdhury for the film Azhiyaatha Kolangal, based on his own original Hindi version: Na Jiya Lage Na, sung by none other than Lata Mangeshkar. SPB’s Tamil rendition is as mellifluous as a hot knife piercing through butter and to me, fares better than the original.
  8. Vaa Machaan Vaa: How will a typical ‘Dappaan kuthu’ song sound in SPB’s voice? Listen to Vaa Machaan Vaa from Vandi Chakkaram. He does attempt a false voice for this song to show a more rough-and-tough performance. Kudos to the composer duo Shankar Ganesh for exploring SPB’s range at that time.
  9. Ithu Oru Pon Maalai Pozhuthu: This is another song which will be in any ‘SPB list’. It is very difficult to separate the composer Raaja, the singer SPB and the lyricist Vairamuthu from this song. I felt that the voice of SPB in this song had a more mature feel that had not been felt before. And amazingly, this timbre of SPB’s voice would sustain till his last breath.
  10. Sangeetha Jathimullai: By his own admission, SPB was not a classically trained singer. And this song would challenge even a seasoned and trained singer. But SPB breezes through the complex notes and Jathis in this song once again composed by Raaja. It’s a sure way of getting goosebumps, even today, when we see clips of SPB performing on shows.
  11. Entire album of Payanangal Mudivathillai: Welcome to the ‘Mic Mohan’ era in Tamil films. All the seven songs in this film are brilliant compositions by Raaja, but SPB takes them to another level. Each of the songs belong to a different genre. From Western classical style (Ilaiya Nila) to Carnatic ragas (Raga Deepam Yetrum Neram) to Folk style (Ye Aatha) to a typical melody duet (Saalai Oram Solai Ondru) to a pathos number (Vaigaraiyil Vaigai Karaiyil), SPB straddles all these genres in absolute ease.  In my personal opinion, with Shankarabharanam in 1980 and Payanangal Mudivathillai in 1982, SPB stepped into the hall of fame of India’s top playback singers.
  12. Kana Kaanum Kangal Mella: What a melody! This number from Balachandar’s Agni Saatchiis a personal favourite. It’s a deeply haunting melody that invariably touches your heart. At no point in the song does SPB’s voice miss the soothing feel, which is the hallmark of this rendition.
  13. Sandanam Poosum Manjal: While SPB was all busy with his singing, did we miss a gifted composer residing in him? This song probably proves so. A beautiful song from the film Thudikkum Karangalfor which SPB himself composed the music, the song, somehow, is not talked about much.
  14. Ilanjolai Poothathaa: Raaja and ragas. Balu and bhavas (emotions). And if there is a song that epitomises these, it is Ilanjolai Poothathaa. A fine melody set in the Hindustani raga Madhuvanti, SPB lords over this composition with his easy, flowing style. A gem of a song from the Ilaiyaraaja-SPB duo.
  15. Mannil Intha Kadalandri: This song is impossible to ignore. Yes, SPB did accept that he didn’t hold his breath while singing the charanams of this song. Yet, will we believe it? SPB’s breathless singing in this song is part of folklore now.
  16. Vanthenda Paalkaran: When did the trend of energetic, high octane, foot-tapping solo opening songs, invariably sung by SPB for Rajinikanth in his movies, start? I guess it is with this song from Annamalai. Most of the opening songs that came after this one, up until the Superstar’s last film Darbar, have followed the Vanthenda Paalkarantemplate.
  17. En Kadhale: Can anyone else convey a love failure or disappointment in a song better than SPB?  This song from Duet is a testimony to this, so is the song Unna NinachuPaatu Padichen. SPB gets into a melancholic groove in this song and moves the listeners to tears when he finishes it. I can’t think of anyone else who would have brought a similar effect to this song.
  18. Malare Maunama: An evergreen and beautiful composition by Vidyasagar, SPB along with Janaki rendered a song that would become an all-time classic!
  19. Mun Paniya:This number from the film Nandha, that released in 2001, told us two things. That Yuvan Shankar Raja as a composer had arrived, and that SPB was not finished even in the new millennium.
  20. Meduvaagathan:This is a personal favourite, though the song didn’t get the attention it deserved. A peach of a melody from Rahman for the film Kochadaiyaan, it is as if SPB turned the clock on his voice by 30 years for this song.

Did I miss quite a few of SPB’s ‘unique’ songs? Probably. That’s the beauty of this exercise, though, isn’t it? At the end of it, you are only half satisfied! Nevertheless, putting this list together was a wonderful experience as I got a chance to revisit the epic work of SPB in Tamil. Is there a better way to celebrate our favourite Paadum Nila?

P.S: My friend Arunmozhi has put this list in a playlist for easy reference. Please check it out.

Thanks Arun!