Things that occur once they're gone

Updated: 30 September, 2020 07:59 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

SP Balasubrahmanyam was special, because he bridged the South to the North, with Salman Khan, even before A R Rahman!

S P Balasubrahmanyam. File pic
S P Balasubrahmanyam. File pic

Mayank ShekharGenerally, I find Indian playback singers over-rated. If you consider the plethora of young and old singing talents, from small towns and big cities alike, that show up each night on music reality shows — able to hit you so hard, with their rendition of popular songs.

And yet, if you look back at history, particularly of Hindi film music, you'll find it dominated entirely by such a small pantheon (six to seven singers, max). It'd seem as if no one else in India could sing. While it appears that practically everybody can — on a scale of bathroom to Broadway/Bollywood, of course.

This is no judgment on history's best-known Indian playback singers. People often associate them with a song, more than its composer, or lyricist — neither of whom is even credited on a streaming app/YouTube, usually. The knock is decidedly on this over-rating!

Or as expressed in the favourite stanza of my second favourite SP Balasubrahmanyam (SPB) number, 'Sach mere yaar hai', composed by RD Burman (for the Ramesh Sippy film Saagar): 'Sunte thay hum, yeh zindagi/Gham aur khushi, ka khel hai/Humko magar, aaya nazar/Yeh zindagi, woh khel hai/Koi sab jeete, sab koi haar de/Apni toh haar hai, yaar mere.'

That's Javed Akhtar, writing in prose-like lyrics, his forte, to basically suggest, 'Zindagi (life) is a zero-sum game; winner takes all.' And SPB gently giggling, right before the last line: 'And I am the loser, after all!'

Does it feel like SPB is talking to you? Almost as much as when he takes off in his famous drawl — 'I downt know what you say/I downt know what to say…' Full dialogue/speech, in the middle of the song 'Hum bane tum bane', from K Balachander's deeply resonant North-South Indian Romeo & Juliet adaptation, Ek Duuje Ke Le Liye (1981), composed by Laxmikant-Pyarelal.

The latter being SPB at his playful best (in his Hindi film debut). The former being a meditation on unrequited love — most popular form of romance, savoured/shared among Indian men, North and South combined. Both tracks picturised on Kamal Haasan. For whom SPB was the suited singing voice. He could even dub dialogues on Haasan's behalf!

That the audience could so naturally identify a singer's voice with a superstar's then allow the playback singer near-monopoly over soundtracks featuring the said star? This developed combo, being the reason few others stood a chance to break into the traditional music-cum-movie industry? Especially given that desi mainstream films have been musicals (in their own right). Yet it was never expected of the star, after KL Saigal perhaps, to be a singer himself? Seems like it to me.

Although I'm also pretty sure you'd want Kishore, Mukesh, Lata or Asha in your album anyway! The biggest influence on SPB's singing, he once said on a reality show, was Mohd. Rafi. Cycling to his engineering college, he'd listen to the track, 'Diwaana hua baadal/Saawan ki ghata chhayi/Yeh dekh ke dil jhoo-ma': "Can you imagine anybody else sing that 'ma' (in the end), in that beautiful expression?" SPB would break into tears.

It is that same subtle extra, half a harkat, if you may, after the full stop in a note, what I suspect made the formally untrained singer SPB's baritone renditions stand out as his own. Even while he'd been voice-acting for so many heroes down South — MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Rajnikanth, right down to Dhanush, over a career spanning six decades. This is a staggering feat for a playback singer.

For us in the '90s, growing up in the North, SPB was foremost the unparalleled voice of Dev Kohli's words in Sooraj Barjatya's Maine Pyar Kiya (1989): 'Aate jaate, haste gaate/Socha tha maine, mann mein kai baar…' This is how a South Indian sensation became the voice for, arguably, North India's hugest superstar. Looking back, it's clear Salman Khan was the face of SPB!

We hum/mimic the voice. Does it matter that the track is ripped off from Stevie Wonder's I Just Called To Say I Love You? No. Just as I don't care if a lot of his Hindi songs have Tamil/Telugu versions, which someone or the other will bet, is way better. Can't get parochial about music — the only universal language we know.

But I do feel, without doubt, 'Yeh haseen vadiyan' (from Roja; favourite song, period) > 'Pudhu vellai mazhai' (original, by Unni Menon). That's because SPB sang the Hindi version. This is how AR Rahman, from a Tamil soundtrack, changed Hindi film music scene, forever. Must've helped that we knew SPB's voice, already.

By one newspaper estimate, SPB had recorded 50,000 songs, in 16 languages. Divided by 365, that's a new composition sung every day, without a break, for 137 years! How does this even add up? Guessing by the fact that you become underrated, by sheer omnipresence.

It's his untimely death that's brought SPB alive on my playlist, in ways that I hadn't known. Sure, have discovered some gems. But we seek comfort in nostalgia. And music is memories first. Saying this with that ear-worm 'Sach mere yaar hai' on loop, for four days straight! Have I planted it in your head, too? Good, that was the intention.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14

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First Published: 30 September, 2020 06:44 IST

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