Farewell, my friend SPB

Updated by admin on Saturday, September 26, 2020 10:05 PM IST

Chennai: Those were the days when Ilayaraja and his brothers struggled for even one square meal in two days. They would conduct music for Bharatiraja's plays and occasionally get a chance to play the guitar for a film recording.  Bharatiraja requested SP Balasubrahmanyam, then an up-and-coming singer to engage them in his orchestra which used to perform light music programmes in Chennai. SPB took them on board though he did not have that many vacancies in his troupe, mainly to provide them some means to eke out their livelihood. Later, Ilayaraja rose to such dizzy heights as a music composer that SPB wondered where that talent came from.

In the early Ilayaraja films, SPB was missing, as despite Ilayaraja's warning he fell sick, developed a throat infection. Ilayaraja had to use other singers like Malaysia Vasudevan. One day, SPB ran into Ilayaraja at a studio and told him 'Dey, Naanum oru singer daa. Ennai Yen Kooppida Maattengere" (Hey, I am also a singer, why don't you call me too). Ilayaraja laughed and said,  "I warned you not to fall sick. Are you okay now? Come tomorrow morning for a recording", and is how they began recording songs together for over 45 years.
For over 45 years, the two families have been close friends despite the odd irritant. It was the Ilayaraja-SPB combination that rocked the South Indian film industry. SPB later said, "Ilayaraja was born for me. I was born for Ilayaraja".  

SPB had that trait in him to help musicians in whatever way he could. A few years ago, having earned a good pile of money from his overseas tours he decided to provide a monthly fund to musicians who did not have enough opportunities in song recordings for films. Keyboards, electronic devices and computers had rendered them obsolete.    

I had the privilege of organising several music shows featuring SPB in the last 30 years. He would take them very seriously. I would present him a list of songs out of which he would pick what suited him most. He would invariably grumble or pretend to. "I don't know how you manage to dig out these songs. I don't sing these songs on stage at all. I have even forgotten these songs. For my other programmes, I have no problem, I have more or less the same set of songs which I repeat. For you, I have to practise these songs all over again", he would say.

And that is how I got him to sing 'Sangeetha Jaadhi Mullai' from Kaadhal Oviyam for the first time live over 30 years ago. He got thunderous applause. After that, it became one of his regulars.

Similarly, when my list included O Vasanta Raja for another event  with S Janaki, he looked at me and said, "What is this song? I remember it only vaguely. Sing a few lines for me". I hummed the tune. Then, his face broke into a beautiful smile and he said, "Manchi paattu. What a wonderful song. Why nobody asks me to sing this? he would ask. And that is how we got him to sing Thakita Thakita Dhadhumi (Saagara Sangamam), Chinna PUra Onru or Nadhiyil Aadum Poovanam.  

Before doing the S Janaki event, he would say check the song list with Janaki Amma. Let her select, she is my senior, he would say.

On another occasion, he told me why are you constantly seeking my dates. Why not do a programme to felicitate P B Sreenivos sir. No one is organising a felicitation for that giant. Pls organise a programme for him, for my sake", he said. I then organised an event to felicitate PBS, a musical felicitation in which over 20 top singers participated. One day before the event, he called me over to his house for a discussion. "How much are you paying me?" He asked. I was stunned, laughed and told him politely, "Sir, it is your show I am organising. There is no payment for singers. All of them are singing free". He asked, "All of them?", and I said, "All of them" -- P Susheela, S Janaki, KJ Yesudas, Jayachandran, Vani Jairam, SP Shailaja, Unni Menon, P Unnikrishnan, Srinivas, and others. Okay, he added with a smile.

One thing that struck me was the way he would prepare a live music show. After the song discussion, I would normally prepare a cassette or a CD containing all his songs, which he would play during car journeys to the airport or while returning to his house or hotel after a recording. He wouldn't attend rehearsals but listen to these songs several times over for a few days. That was why, he never fumbled at live shows, and could even improvise.

He showed a rare ability to do mimicry (Kadavul Amaitha Maedai), or a rough voice like Star Wars or for a drunkard.

Even during film recordings, he would make the extra effort to ensure that the songs came out well. Once, during my event with SPB-S Janaki, anchored for the first time by Vairamuthu, the lyricist pointed out that  after the song Andhimazhai Pozhigiradhu in Rajaparvai was recorded by Ilayaraja, Vairamuthu hesitatingly said, "Can we have one more take?" The entire unit was taken aback.

Vairamuthu  said he had written the following lines as

தனிமையிலே வெறுமையிலே, எத்தனை நாளடி இளமையிலே:
கெட்டன இரவுகள் சுட்டன கனவுகள் இமைகளும் சுமையடி இள மயிலே:
(அந்தி மழை பொழிகிறது)

The rendering of the words Ila Mayilae was okay, but the stress on the gap should be a little more prominent, to bring out the difference between Ilamayilae and Ila Mayilae, he pointed out. Vairamuthu said at the event that SPB readily agreed to do another take, and this time laid more stress on the words Ila Mayilae. Vairamuthu would go on to say that SPB, though his mother-tongue was Telugu, took great pains to sing the Tamil words perfectly.

Though he hailed from Andhra, SPB made Chennai his home, where he brought up his family, built his house, and a studio which he named after Kothandapani, the music director who gave him the first film song.

SPB had a lot of friends from various communities in Chennai -- Kannadigas, Tamils, Malayalis and Telugus besides Marwadis -- with whom he would regularly interact. "They would call me Golti ( that is how people from Andhra were affectionately called in Chennai)," he would say and laugh.

For some of my shows, he skipped a couple of songs and disappeared from the stage. The next day, when he would bump into me at another event or at a recording, he would himself come up to me and straightaway apologise for having left without singing couple of songs which were under contract. This happened twice. Next time we meet, I am sure he would come up to me and apologise for having left the planet, without taking my leave !  Farewell, my friend !

By R. Rangaraj (President, Chennai 2000 Plus Trust and MD, Music Durbar)


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