28 Sep 2020 19:21 IST

SPB: Artist with an iconic stature, loved as a friend by millions

Illustrated by Satheesh Vellinezhi

SP Balasubrahmanyam’s greatness was in delivering world-class music to the person on the street

The achievements of legendary singer SP Balasubrahmanyam (SPB), who passed away last week at 74, are mind-boggling: More than 40,000 songs in 16 languages over a 54-year career. A TV announcer summed it all up the best, “If you were to listen to just one SPB song each day of your life, it would take you 109 years to go through his entire body of work.”

This record, permanently etched in the Guinness Book, and probably never to be erased by anyone else, is, however, not what made SPB the legend that he was. SPB’s genius was that he was a common person’s singer, popularising various genres of film music into numbers that anyone could sing in the privacy of their bathroom. From the silly tunes with yelling and laughter to the serious tear-jerker, from the love-torn male rendering a melody to the action hero performing a fast-paced dance, SPB delivered like no one else.

Just like millions of his fans, he never trained in classical music but unlike them, he went on to achieve remarkable success. He never displayed the aura that many accomplished classical musicians wear –- the aura that indirectly signals commitment, practice, and discipline — and remained, to the end, a person known for his humility to people around him, both on and off the stage. No one in the industry worked harder than him, as he hopped from studio to studio, recording multiple songs every day for much of his career.

The only other singer who was similarly gifted was another legend, Kishore Kumar, who passed away much too young, at just 58, in 1987. But Kishore’s idiosyncrasies could fill an entire chapter in a biography.

When classical became casual

SPB gave hope to his fans that they too could sing without being belittled by music purists. Fans could even attempt classical numbers if they so dared. It was SPB who led them in this regard with his sweep of credits in the film Shankarabharanam, when music director and composer KV Mahadevan took a big risk in choosing him over Carnatic classical music maestro M Balamuralikrishna.

What a huge and consequential bet that was. To this day, fans of traditional Carnatic and Hindustani music begrudgingly acknowledge that SPB’s Shankarabharanam hits marketed classical music to the masses more than the combined efforts of the greatest exponents of the art during this time, including Bhimsen Joshi, MS Subbalakshmi, and Pandit Jasraj. The secrets were brevity and wide distribution. A common man sitting in a barber’s shop could savour the alphabets of classical music -- Raagam, Taanam, and Pallavi -- by subliminally listening to a five-minute title of the same name blaring out of a crackling radio set, mixed with all the noises from the street.

Like all art, music also needs to be distributed for it to become popular, and later appreciated. While so many people have seen the Mona Lisa over the years, the exclusive painting is only available for viewing at the Louvre, in Paris, placing it out of reach of millions around the world. During the 1970s and early 1980s, when SPB gained fame, he was on the radio each day with AIR disk jockeys playing his various songs over and over again, on programme after programme. The reach was immense, and SPB became a household name in the four southern States.

Dominant theme at events and homes

He dominated music delivery to the masses through other media too. At a wedding ceremony or a street religious festival, young children made song requests to the LP-records-playing technician in every village and city in South India. The technician, always tucked away in a small area, with his myriad pieces of equipment dangerously wired together and designed to entertain, knew the routine. Play MS’ Shri Venkatesha Suprabhatam as the first song of the day to placate the organisers and awaken the community. Afterwards, any song, even a lilting romance number — most likely, an SPB hit — was acceptable, obeisance already having been made to the Gods.

The late 1970s saw the arrival of cassette tape recorders, mainly Japanese knockoffs at underground grey-market shops such as at the Burma Bazaar and Bangkok Bazaar. The gadgets were expensive — costing nearly a month’s salary for a mid-level government official -- but people somehow indulged to help satiate that passion for music that is there within all of us. Music had become too democratised and was too much in demand to wait for your radio station to play your favourite number. Cheap cassettes were available literally for a song, and these two developments forever transformed the consumption of music.

SPB’s devotional offering Lingashtakam became a mainstay in every household. His alphabet songs in various languages became the staple for parents lulling their children to sleep each night while simultaneously teaching them language phonetics.

When Napster, Kazaa, and other peer-to-peer file-sharing services blossomed, the currency of music spread like a pandemic. The works of great performers got zapped instantly to all corners of the globe. Every person had their own .mp3 music collection on their music players and USB sticks. With YouTube’s popularity, people could even see their favourite actors behind SPB’s tunes. And as SPB performed in front of live audiences, they could view the great man, in person.

Legacy that will live on forever

SPB entered the hospital on August 5 after testing positive for Covid. He seemed to have a premonition of the worst, based on his farewell to a TV audience a few days prior and his assurances to his fans in a recorded video message that appeared to lack confidence. His popularity could be measured by the remarkable response of ordinary people praying for his recovery on social media. I followed his status on Twitter for all the 54 days he was in the hospital. Checking up on his health had become one more activity each morning. I had not done this ever, for anyone, other than my father. Such was his emotional grip on me.

Much has been said about SPB’s humility, which made him unique among artists of his calibre and was a huge factor responsible for his iconic status. He was famous because he was ubiquitous. This may seem counter-intuitive, but perhaps he was ubiquitous because he was famous.

It doesn’t matter now. A giant has passed and it’s impossible to think that another in his mould will ever arise. It also doesn’t matter in another sense. Some 99 per cent of his massive fan base never once saw him perform live but loved him as a friend, mentor, teacher, and human being. The world will continue to enjoy him, forever, thanks to technology that is equally ubiquitous.