Tribute | Society

Remembering SPB: The singer who listened

Illustration: R. Rajesh  

Every now and then, my playlist reminds me of ‘Humne Toh Dil Ko Aapke Qadmon Pe Rakh Diya’, among my favourite Mohammed Rafi-Asha Bhosle duets. I don’t know enough Hindi to fully understand the lyrics, and I need Google to tell me it’s from a 1965 film called Mere Sanam, and that it was composed by O.P. Nayyar, whose name I first heard on TVS Saregama hosted by the mild-mannered Sonu Nigam in the 90s.

Incidentally, of all the video clips that have inundated social media after singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam passed away last fortnight, it is one from a Nigam show that I have been going back to. On the show, speaking of why “Rafi saab” was the singer who had the “maximum influence” on him, SPB goes on to recall his student days when he would cycle to engineering college at 7.30 a.m. every day, and listen to one particular Rafi song and invariably tear up. He then breaks into ‘Deewana hua baadal, saawan ki ghataa chaayee, ye dekh ke dil jhooma’ (from Kashmir Ki Kali, 1964). “That ‘ma’ [in jhooma]… can you imagine anybody else singing it with that sort of beautiful expression?” he says. “The man is coming into your ears, caressing, singing with a smile. How can you not fall in love?!”

On another show, on a Telugu TV channel, SPB sings Rafi’s ‘Jaanewalo Zara Mudke Dekho Mujhe’, a song he loved improvising with, and says, “He [Rafi] is the only person who can sing like that.” Later, when I met him for an interview in 2012, he told me the largest music folder on his phone was dedicated to Rafi.

Over the past few days, listening to SPB on loop, I was excited to catch what I thought were some Rafi-esque touches, especially in ‘Ore Naal Unai Naan Nilavil Parthadu’, his duet with Vani Jayaram for Ilamai Oonjal Aadukirathu that released in 1978 when SPB was in his early 30s. The flavour, pace and three-count rhythmic scape of the beautiful Ilaiyaraaja composition took me back to ‘Humne Toh Dil Ko Aapke Qadmon Pe...,’ but it is really the gentleness and care with which SPB’s voice treats the words and notes that remind me most of Rafi. The caressing that SPB so admired in Rafi.

A glimpse of Rafi

I learnt later that this wasn’t merely my imagination when I found a video clip where SPB says that many of his songs have “a glimpse of Rafi”. He would make a notation saying ‘Rafi’ in certain places on his song scripts, in order to execute a particular glide or vocal effect in those lines. It is not hard to come up with thousands of such examples of SPB’s masterful play with tone and timbre to evoke a certain mood. But what is more fascinating is what SPB does with these various influences, including that of Rafi, because what you hear in an SPB song is not simply a version of another singer but much more. SPB unfailingly acknowledged his many sources of inspiration, but went on to create a whole catalogue of unique vocal expressions that no playback singer after him can afford to overlook.

He brought together the musical traits he relished in Rafi, Kishore Kumar, T.M. Soundararajan (TMS) and P.B. Sreenivas (PBS) — but made them his own. In fact, SPB often spoke about how much he learnt from S. Janaki’s voice dynamics — her modulation, the effortless glide from one note to another, and the tiny embellishments that fall gently like the curled ends of satin ribbons atop a gift-wrapped package.

This is perhaps why, where the male playback industry often came up with two giants at a time — such as Rafi-Kishore or TMS-PBS, to give listeners two distinct styles and listening experiences — with his genius, it was just SPB-SPB for quite a while. This is not to belittle the remarkable contributions made over the years by the other much-loved male singers such as Mukesh, A.M. Raja, K.J. Yesudas, Jayachandran or Malaysia Vasudevan. It is simply to say that with SPB, music directors often found everything they wanted and needed — flourish, lilt and finesse — in one voice.

A master’s mind

All the same, the fact that his voice worked equally well for actors with very different physical and performance attributes does not imply he had a different voice for everyone. However different they may sound or feel, each song has an unmistakable SPB ring to it. That ‘SPB core’ remains intact in all his songs, and co-exists with a sincere, willing and daring musical mind. Sincere to the music director and lyricist’s idea; willing to learn and apply; and daring enough to constantly redraw and expand his comfort zone.

The many tributes to SPB recall with awe how on many days the singer would record over 20 songs. A.R. Rahman talks about how quickly SPB could learn a composition and record it, while others emphasise his unmatched versatility. What these fundamentally point to is his aptitude to grasp new ideas, his incredible musical acumen that processed and internalised them, and his ability to translate these into vocal perfection. Except, SPB had no formal training in any of these aspects. He was a master of his own making.

Above all, when we hear SPB speak about a song — whether his own or another — he comes across first and foremost as a passionate rasika (someone who engages with and deeply enjoys a work of art). You see not a star singer, but a discerning listener, who can make himself vulnerable and drown in the magic of the notes. While acutely aware of his exceptional talent, SPB was grounded in the realisation that all art, including his own, is bigger than the artist.

Alternating between playlists, I chance upon the slow-paced ‘Thoda Thoda Malarndhadhenna’, a brilliant melody by A.R. Rahman. In the line ‘Mazhai vara boomi maruppadhenna’, when I hear SPB gliding through the word ‘boomi’, I get goosebumps. I don’t know if SPB had marked ‘Rafi’ on the margins of the script of this song, but it certainly bears the stamp of India’s best playback singer all over it — it’s called the SPB imprint.

Thankfully, there is enough SPB to last us a lifetime. And enough SPB for millions of his fans to share and yet feel he is singing exclusively to each one of us.

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2020 11:06:19 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/remembering-spb-the-singer-who-listened/article32751793.ece

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