SPB – Thank you!

This piece was written for the News site – The News Minute and was carried on 26th Sep 2020. It can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/why-spb-special-everyone-radio-smartphone-generation-133954

It must be around the mid ‘70s. On Sundays, our whole family used to crowd around the radio and tune into All India Radio, Trichy, after lunch by 1 pm sharp.  Between 1 to 2 pm, the station played the latest Tamil film songs and at the time, it was the only opportunity to catch up with newly released songs. I remember vividly that in that period, for many weeks, almost all of the 10 songs being played were sung by SP Balasubrahmanyam, and that too for different music directors. If our growing up was cheerful and with verve, SPB had a role in it.

Between the ‘70s and ‘90s in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, if budding male singers had an inspiration, it was only SPB. Almost all the orchestras of those days had one singer who tried to sing SPB’s songs in his voice. So “his” voice was all over the air. For all of them, SPB was a role model not just for the music but also for the way he conducted himself with utmost humility. This probably came from the belief SPB had, that he was indeed blessed and gifted.

By his own admission, SPB was not a trained singer. As a child, he did not learn any form of classical music, though he had the opportunity to learn from his father, who was a Harikatha exponent. So, genes did play a role in shaping SPB as a singer. But unless told so, anyone who had the opportunity to listen to the thousands of songs he sang will never believe that he did not have a classical music background and that all his singing was self-made.

Though there are many, if I have to pick one album of SPB to demonstrate his variety and versatility, it will be Payanangal Mudivathillai, a film with a singer as the protagonist.  I must add here that Payanangal Mudivathillai is also a film that showcases Ilaiyaraaja’s range as a composer, and it is with him that SPB had the best of partnerships.

Just listen to the songs in that album. On one end, you have the song ‘Raaga Deepam’, a classical number based on the raga Hamsanandi with a grand aalaap right at the beginning. At the other end, you have a song like ‘ ‘Hey Aatha Aathorama’ which falls in the genre of a typical dappankuthu song. In between, you have the evergreen classic ‘Ilaya Nila Pozhigirathu’ which is a melody in the western classical mould. And other gems like ‘Thogai Ilamayil’, ‘Mani Osai Kettu Ezhunthu’, ‘Saalai Oram Solai’ and finally the pathos filled song —  ‘Vaigaraiyil Vaigaikariyal’.

All these songs in the album — of which some are solo acts — are of SPB. Not just in terms of genre, even the emotions conveyed in each of the songs are different. The texture of SPB’s voice for each of these songs is different. If one were to use millennial lingo, SPB kills it. To me, Sankarabharanam in 1980 and Payanangal Mudivathillai in 1982 were landmarks in SPB’s career which elevated him from being called a good singer till then, to a great singer.

SPB’s voice may not have been very unique, but his voice quality was. His voice would never waver no matter what pitch he sang in. In live shows, SPB used to do his own improvisations at the end of the song to end with a flourish. In the beginning, I used to have my heart in my mouth when he, on his own, took the song to higher octaves, only to land safely back with the pitch intact, much to my awe. And I am certain that SPB was improvising spontaneously on stage as every time he would do it, he would do so differently even for the same song. Just listen to his different renditions of ‘Sundari Kannal Oru Seydhi’ in stage shows.

Kamban veetu kattu thariyum kavi paadum” goes a popular saying, meaning “In Kamban’s house, even a loom will pen a poem”. Similarly, SPB paadara paatula irumalum thaala kattukkul irukkum. In SPB’s songs, even his coughing (Remember the songs ‘Dorakuna Ituvanti Seva’ or ‘Mani Osai Kettu Ezhunthu’) will be on beat and within the time signature. So precise was his singing that he hardly skipped a beat or distorted the pitch.

That SPB could maintain his voice timbre intact for over five decades is a marvel! Even after crossing 70, he could sing romantic duets for stars a third of his age. If there was a silver lining in his passing, it is this. That till he breathed his last, his voice never gave way and remained one that was energetic, mellifluous and more importantly, youthful.

I come back to the emotion. That as a singer, SPB had a great voice is well known. But, inside him there was a great actor too. Probably it’s got to do with his dad’s genes again. Harikatha is one form where the performer needs to sing and act on stage.  This was what helped him shape the emotions while singing songs of different moods – from a peppy ‘Oruvan Oruvan Mudhalali’ to a lullaby-like ‘Kana Kaanum Kangal Mella’ with equal elan.

SPB probably loved acting. I heard from one of my friends in the Kavithalayaa unit that director K Balachander used to say, ‘Avan oru bayangara nadigan da’, referring to SPB.  Not surprising that KB regularly gave him breaks in films and TV serials, whether it was the hero role in his own production Sigaram, or a doctor’s role in Manathil Uruthi Vendum. The actor in SPB also manifested when he was dubbing for Kamal in Telugu films in the beginning. If actor Kitty’s ‘pasu thol porthiya puli’ type villain portrayal in the film Sathya became a big hit, half the credit goes to SPB, who dubbed for him. Eventually, his acting skills enhanced his style of singing.

Getting the essence of the emotion of the song and delivering it with a pitch-perfect voice consistently, that too cutting across genres, is what made SPB the versatile singer he was. That’s also why he endeared himself from the radio generation to today’s mobile phone generation.

Just the other day, I was watching a clip that was circulating on WhatsApp groups where SPB as a guest in a reality show was holding his own with that peach of a melody song ‘En Kadhale’ from Duet. At the end of the song, almost everyone onstage was in tears, including the celebrity judges, participants and the audience. But, SPB himself, while making everyone else cry, was smiling all through the singing. A similar feeling has dawned today. A whole generation of people feeling sad today on his passing but SPB himself, the happy-go-lucky-type person he was, will be cheerful wherever he is.

Musicians are blessed. They don’t go away. They stay with us through their renderings. So will SPB, who will be with us through ‘Malare Mounama’, through ‘Sankara Nada Sareera’, through ‘Ithu Oru Pon Malai Pozhuthu’, through ‘Tere Mere Beech Mein’, through the many other hits he has belted.

Should we mourn SPB’s death? Maybe, we should just celebrate. Celebrate his music.  The forty thousand-plus long list means a celebration that goes on for long, for us and for many generations to come. For now, thank you SPB, from the bottom of our hearts. For the music and for being the human you were.

Intha Raja Kaiya Vecha,…,…!

Today was just another Sunday morning. As I turned on the ignition of my car for a Sunday morning drive, Ilayaraja’s (Raja) hits started playing. On top of the playlist was Raja Kaiya Vecha,…,… from the hit film Apoorva Sagotharargal.  There are 2 versions of this song – one sung by Kamal Haasan himself which eventually featured in the film and the other sung by S.P. Balasubramanyam (SPB) which just got retained in the music album. Its’ very rare that a song sung by SPB and composed by Raja gets consigned to just the album. As I was enjoying the interlude in that song which has some awesome feet tapping music, the CD started playing truant and was jumping few tracks and eventually it stopped. My Sunday morning tryst with Raja-SPB duo got aborted midway. At that point in time, I had no premonition of what was to follow later.

Reaching home, soon I could see SPB’s Facebook post going viral where he claimed that he has been served legal notice by Raja’s attorney for singing Raja’s compositions without prior permission in his recent World tour stage shows. And that in the rest of the shows, he may not be singing Raja’s songs. Difficult to believe, the first reaction was of course “Why would Raja take such an extreme step against SPB who was a close friend, associate and a fellow traveller in his music journey?” In a spat involving these 2 namely Raja and SPB for people like me who have grown up with the music of the 70’s and 80’s it is difficult to take a stand. On the one hand you have Raja, a genius and whose music transcends all superlatives. And on the other hand you have a singer who even today can give an Arijit Singh a run for his money with his mellifluous voice and versatile singing. While a lean and fit Raja is known to have a bloated ego, the physically fuller SPB comes across as a man of humility and feather lite ego. Even in this FB post he didn’t have one word of disrespect for Raja and admitted his own ignorance of legalities. He won the hearts and the sympathies of the fandom.

To be fair, it was important to hear out Raja’s side before getting judgemental on his action. And soon in the course of the day we did get to see the same through Raja’s legal consultant who was probably behind shooting this legal notice. As expected he talked of violation of IP rights, royalty payments,…,… The issue of copyrights and Intellectual property rights (IP) on music compositions have of late become a bone of contention between music composers, Lyricists and film producers. The fact of the matter is till about the first decade of this millennium, lyricist and music composers were blissfully unaware of their Intellectual copy rights with a result they were never paid royalty by producers for their creations. Only recently, with the exposure to Hollywood,.. the composers and lyricists became aware of their IP rights. A.R. Rahman now owns the IP for all the music he creates.

Looking up on the issue of Indian Copyright Act, I understood that in 2012 the amendments made to the act set right the historical anomaly of being not beneficial to the creators. Famed Hindi lyricist Javed Akhtar was instrumental in getting the amendments passed. Historically, Indian film producers just paid a one-time fee to song writers, composers and singers. And denied them revenues from other sources like cover versions, ringtones, digital downloads,.. which have become increasingly lucrative.

The amended bill now makes song writers and composers as owners of the copyright which cannot be assigned to the producers as per earlier version. More importantly, as a recurring source of revenue, it is now mandatory for broadcasters – Radio, TV and Digital to pay a royalty to the copyright owners each time the song is played.

It seems that it is now part of the standard operating procedure for singers to take formal permission from the music composers before performing their songs on stage. And as part of this process, the acceptance to pay the applicable royalty. So it comes as a surprise that event producers of SPB’s recent concerts missed this point of not informing or taking Raja’s permission for singing his songs. So from a purely legal standpoint, it is clear that Raja has not hit a wrong note on this matter. But then SPB is not just another singer. He has been a constant companion to Raja all through, with the duo churning out some thousands of hits. It is today hypothetical to argue if the duo’s songs were hits because of Raja’s music or SPB’s singing.  For a fan the Raja-SPB combination was magical and together they have given some evergreen, everlasting music which will continue to live forever in his/her heart.

From Raja’s side could it have been handled differently? Certainly one would feel so. Instead of a legal notice, a friendly call to remind the SPB camp of the IP issue would probably have settled the issue under wraps. Unless otherwise we are not privy to some larger conflict of interests between the two themselves or their minders. In which case after Vairamuthu and Bharathiraja SPB could be the latest to land on the other side of Raja’s symphony.

‘Intha Raja Kaiya Vecha,…. Wronga ponathilla,.. ‘goes the song.  The genius lyricist Vaali wrote this line probably keeping Ilayaraja in mind on his music. But on this issue, it appears Raja has hit a wrong note! He probably should lay his hand on the phone to call SPB and undo this wrong bit, unless Raja chose to use syncopation!!!

Being an ardent of fan of both Raja and SPB, to me what has happened is sad and disappointing. In terms of taking sides on this spat, the head wants to go with Raja and the heart with SPB. But then the ears are always with the duo!!!  Let the Andhi Mazhai continue to pour!!!