How on earth do you write about SPB? How do you contain the vastness of his accomplishments, the vast pleasures he has brought us, in a couple of thousand words? Is it even possible for mere language to express what this man has meant to so many music lovers? All this has been on my mind for the past few days, as we kept getting news about the singer’s deteriorating condition. And this morning, I was talking to my video producer about this. He’s a millennial, a self-confessed “not a songs guy”, and he said he knew SPB as Prabhu Deva’s father in Kadhalan. I smiled as he went on: He danced so gracefully in that ‘panju mittai’ song… He was so big, and yet he had so much elegance and style… Then he thought some more and recalled that every time he thought of SPB, he remembered his grandmother, who told him that “SPB eats ice cream every day and still he sings so well”. This made my producer think he should also eat ice-cream every day, because that’s clearly how greatness is achieved.
Maybe ice-cream is a good way to sum up SPB. To me, it’s the ultimate comfort food. To me, SPB is the ultimate comfort listen. I can’t imagine a world without his music, which is why I’m wondering what it would be like to have been born in the 1950s. So you grow up listening to TMS and PB Sreenivas and AM Raja — and suddenly, it’s 1969, and you hear ‘Aayiram nilave vaa’ (Adimai Penn) and ‘Iyarkai ennum ilaya kanni’ (Shanti Nilayam). You’re probably saying: Well, not bad for a new singer… SPB’s voice is so fresh, so young — if it were a face, it would have acne and the barest wisp of a moustache. It doesn’t sit well on either MGR or Gemini Ganesan, the leading men of those two films. Luckily, MS Viswanathan doesn’t think so. Fast-forward to 1971, and you’re listening to ‘Maadhamo aavani’ (Utharavindri Ulley Vaa), and maybe the jaw drops a little at how SPB’s voice drops at ‘Nayagan vendra naal…’ It’s a signature MSV tune-twist, of course, but you’re also probably thinking: Wow, new singer, maybe there is something to you, after all…
By the mid-70s, the not-so-new-any-more singer has totally won you over. TMS is waning. MSV is looking for a new voice that he can bend to his will, and SPB is that voice. I would argue that MSV is the greatest composer SPB sang for, because he composed for the voice, first. He revelled in constantly changing musical phrases, and I think SPB wouldn’t quite have turned out to be the SPB we know if he hadn’t spent all that time with the mellisai mannar. What a set of songs! One of my favourites is ‘Edho oru nadhiyil’ (Enna Thavam Seidhen), a gorgeous duet with P Susheela. The first line goes: Edho oru nadhiyil naan iranguvadhai poley… The tune and the singers make you feel like you’re dipping your feet in a cool river. The second line goes: Edho oru inbam nee arugil irundhaaley… That could have been written for SPB. As long as his voice is around, there is this undefinable pleasure.
What makes the SPB-MSV collaboration so great? Because, for the first time in Tamil cinema, we get a singer who sounds casual, conversational. As much as MSV did for SPB, I’d say the relationship was reciprocal — for the great composer might have packed up much earlier had SPB not been around, filling him with the excitement of unexplored possibilities. Take ‘Angum ingum’ (Avargal). Now, imagine the great TMS singing the song (and this is not a who-is-better exercise). It’s not that inconceivable a situation. TMS, after all, has sung many such philosophical numbers, written by Kannadasan. And he has sung stylish songs like ‘Yaar andha nilavu’… But this type of song, at once philosophical and stylish, was created for SPB. The first iteration of the opening line is a flat rendition. It essentially says: This is the graph of the tune, without any embellishments. But in the second iteration, there’s a small vibrato at ‘ingum’. There’s a delicate U-turn at ‘undu’. Under MSV, SPB transformed the philosophical song from what it was in earlier decades. Back then, it sounded like a white-bearded sage standing on one leg, on an anthill, and giving you a life lesson. You folded your hands and sighed at the truth of the words. SPB makes it feel like you’re sitting with a friend over a drink, thinking the kind of heavy things one thinks about when having a drink with a friend.
Oh, the sweetness of SPB’s voice in the 1970s. Listen to ‘Nandha nee en nila’ (Nandha en nila), in Madhuvanti raga. Listen to the softness of the ‘vaa’ at the end of the song. It’s a caress. And we come to another SPB feature that sets him apart: the man could emote. He could “act” with his voice. He was the Kamal of singers. Take ‘Kamban emaandhan’ (Nizhal Nijamagiradhu) and listen to how SPB puts across the line, ‘Oru aadhikka nayagan saadhikka vandhal…” You’ll swear he saw the chauvinistic cockiness of the Kamal character on screen before singing the song. You’d think someone who can pull off this song has nothing to prove anymore, but creative people are often put under pressure — by fans like us, and by themselves. Yes, yes, the man can croon like a god, and he can sing a light-ish Madhuvanti like ‘Nandha nee en nila’, but can do that whole “gambeeram” thing that TMS could do and which SPB’s contemporary Yesudas is being sought out for. See, even MSV went to Yesudas for ‘Adhisaya raagam’ (Apoorva Raagangal).
Enter KV Mahadevan, with Sankarabharanam. SPB was the voice of Sankara Sastri, the protagonist, a great Carnatic music vidwan, glistening with “gambeeram” from head to toe. You could argue that the way SPB pulls off the opening alapana of ‘Paadi parandha kili’ (Kizhakku Vaasal) is every bit the equal of a more “classical” number. But then, sometimes, we ask for obvious proof. And Sankarabharanam was as obvious as proof could get. This man, now, could officially sing everything.
Now, we come to the second great phase of SPB’s career in Tamil film music: with Ilaiyaraaja. And something curious happens here. At first, when this genius composer is still finding his feet, there’s the hangover of older composers. Think of ‘Nadhiyoram’ (Annai Or Aalayam) or the incredibly incredible ‘Vaa ponmayile’ (Poonthalir). SPB sounds as “free” as he did with MSV. But soon, Raja locks in on his style, and decides that his forte is in using the voice not as just a voice but as an “instrument” like the other instruments in the orchestra. He begins to shorten his musical phrasings, interleave them with instrumental bits so that the voice and the instrument seem to be doing a “duet”, instead of the instruments simply “backing” the voice”…
In other words (and really generalising a big topic), if the MSV-era composers were known for their “flow”, Raja is more “metric”. He creates little instrumental dams, and frankly, only the finest voices can course past them and make you say: This is not just a Raja song, but also the singer’s song. It’s not just about singing with ‘sruthi suddham’ or keeping tune, but imparting your personality to a song that’s already brimming over with Raja’s personality. And SPB did this over and over. You see this in ‘Geetham sangeetham’ (Kokkarakko). You see this in ‘Thamaraikodi’ (Ananda Kummi). You see this in the great Raja-SPB “sad songs” like ‘Poguthey poguthey’ (Kadalora Kavithaigal) and ‘Theerthakarai orathiley’ (Theertha Karayinile).
Raja’s compositions are rigidly set — in the sense that the magical voice/instrument arrangements are so tightly “locked” that a singer can’t easily improvise, or at least appear to improvise like in the songs of the older composers, because of the fear that an extra sangati or two might crash into, say, a bass guitar riff. But even in this scenario, SPB retains his SPB-ness. How marvellously he laughs that little laugh in ‘Pani vizhum malarvanam’ (Ninaivellam Nithya, a top candidate for greatest Raja/SPB score ever), during the line ‘Kaalai ezhundhal parihasam’. How beautifully he sighs in ‘Andhi mazhai’ (Rajaparvai), just before the line ‘ethanai naaladi ilamayile’. You feel the catch in his voice, and thus, you feel the youthful yearning in that Vairamuthu line. It may have been Raja who instructed SPB to “act” this way, but I can’t think of many singers who could have delivered so precisely on those instructions.
Oh, the unrelenting astonishments of the Raja/SPB collaboration. Most of my southern industry music knowledge is restricted to Tamil/ Telugu / Malayalam cinema, but if you’ve been there at the time, it was impossible to escape the odd Kannada hit like ‘Yaava shilpi kanda kanasu’ (Janma Janmada Anubandha), with the synth bursting out of your tiny two-in-one speaker, or ‘Saavira jenumagalu’ (Nyaya Gedditu). That’s another amazing thing about SPB. He sounded like the star on screen. Like how TMS used to modulate himself for MGR and Sivaji Ganesan, SPB had star-signature tricks up his sleeve. You listened to ‘Pattu kannam’ (Kakki Chattai), and you’d swear it was actually Kamal laughing in that song and not SPB. That same year, 1985, you listened to ‘Penn maaney sangeetham paadi vaa’ (Naan Sigappu Manidhan), and you’d swear it’s a Rajini voice. Part of this is surely our own nostalgia, the fact that we’ve already seen the sequence and matched actor and song, but surely there’s something more. And SPB always brought that something more to these songs.
For me, the greatest “proof” — if you still need it — of SPB’s vocal quality is in the Raja song passages that are least “singer”-ly. Take the opening lines of ‘Mandram vandha thendralukku’ (Mouna Raagam). The tune is a staccato up-and-down between two notes, held together by guitar and synth chords, and you need a certain kind of velvet in the voice to keep the listener hooked to something this… (intentionally) flat. Or take ‘Paadha kolusu paattu’ (Thirumathi Pazhanichamy). The first two melody lines are repeats. The next four melody lines are repeats. SPB eases you into these repeating patterns so exquisitely that they never appear monotonous. There’s the criticism that pre-Rahman-era composers kept repeating the same set of singers. Well, this is the reason. When you work with a TMS, when you work with an SPB, when you know what that can do to your song, it’s hard to settle for less.
For most Tamil music lovers today, the Raja/SPB hits practically form the canon of Tamil film music: ‘Valaiyosai’ (Sathya), ‘O paapa lali’ (Geethanjali), ‘Annatha aadurar’ (Apoorva Sagotharargal), ‘Sami kitta solli vachu’ (Aavarampoo), the “breathless” song in Keladi Kanmani… You could go on, along with passing mentions of the many other music directors SPB has worked with. Among these others, I love the Oru Thalai Raagam songs, by T Rajendar. SPB got two hit solos, ‘Vasamilla malar idhu’ and ‘Idhu kuzhandhai paadum thalaatu’. And with Deva, you have the iconic Rajini-intro numbers like ‘Naan autokaran’ and ‘Vandhenda paalkaaran’… This intro-song tradition carried on until ‘Marana mass’ (Petta) and ‘Chumma kizhi’ (Darbar). SPB carried on into the Anirudh era.
Finally, we have the AR Rahman collaborations, which are canonical for the millennial generation. I am very fond of these numbers, too, for they show just how much SPB’s voice has withstood the cruellest of tests: the test of time. He sounds as fresh (and possibly even more resonant and sonorous) now as he did back then. You can hear evidence of this fountain of youth in ‘Kadhal rojave’ (Roja), ‘En veetu thotathil’ (Gentleman), ‘Pennalla pennalla’ (Uzhavan), ‘Thanga thamarai magale’ (Minsara Kanavu), ‘Azhagana raatchasiye’ (Mudhalvan)…
The strains of Reethigowlai raga in the last-mentioned song take me back to one of the greatest “song performances” of Indian cinema: the Harikatha kalakshepam, set in the same raga, from Swathi Muthyam. What. A. Composition. SPB doesn’t just knock it out of the park, as they say — he sends it to an entirely different space-time dimension. I am sad the man is gone, but “SPB” — those initials, the promise they hold when they appear beside the name of a song — is still around with those of us from the MSV generation, the Raja generation, the Rahman generation. He’s preserved in the amber of technology. Maybe a request wouldn’t be out of place, here. Remember the great man, that great voice, by listening to the songs you know. But also seek out the ones you don’t. A lifetime may not be enough.