“You need the voice to create a vibe, build an ambience and tell a story. In SPB’s case, he was at once the singer, the lover, the actor.”
As the pallavi (first paragraph) of MSV’s Sippi irukkudu muthum irukkudu ends, giving way to a delightful instrumental interlude, I find myself getting alert every single time. I know precisely what I am waiting for and don’t want to miss, while getting predictably carried away in that simple yet attractive tune.
Actors Sridevi and Kamal Haasan in the song ‘Sippi irukkudu muthum irukkudu,’ from the movie Varumayin Niram Sivappu.
It is to hear SPB say “C’mon, say it once again”, with much fondness and camaraderie. Sridevi throws a meter-and-tune challenge at Kamal Haasan, asking him to respond with poetry. At the end of the exchange (captured memorably in conversation and music by SPB-Janaki in Kannadasan’s words), they acknowledge their love for each other. And I affirm mine for SPB. His speaking voice interspersing lines of a song invariably make me grin. Just the way that flirty chuckle of his, in konjam maranju paakkava, illa mudugu thekkava (‘Pothi vecha malliga mottu), does.
It seems an irony to be reminded of the speaking voice of one of the finest playback singers ever, arguably the best in India – whether you take benchmarks in quantity or quality. If a song were just about music, then, the performer’s singing [or playing] technique and the skill to accurately execute a musical idea is all it will take. But when a song is an experience for an artiste, like it was for SPB in each of those 40,000-odd numbers, technique or skill alone won’t do. You need the voice to create a vibe, build an ambience and tell a story. In SPB’s case, he was at once the singer, the lover, the actor.
“I am a good actor. I can emote very well physically and my ability to emote with voice is only an extension of that,” he told me in an interview in 2012, speaking of the “edge” he might have had. That was one of three occasions I saw SPB close, in person. The other two were in Jaffna, in Sri Lanka, where he performed in 2016, to a massive gathering; and in Colombo, where he received an award from the Kamban Kazhagam in February this year, just before coronavirus (COVID-19) struck this part of the world, and months before it got to him. Scores of his fans who gathered at Ramakrishna Hall, located in Colombo’s predominantly Tamil area of Wellawatte, were ecstatic, especially when he sang a few lines. SPB reciprocated the sentiment, but also said how thrilled he was to share the stage with fellow-awardee Kumar Sangakkara that night. “Cricket is my greatest passion after music,” he told the audience.
A trusted witness
For those of us born in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, or others born earlier or later but as addicted, SPB was a trusted witness to our love stories – past, present, unrequited, forgotten. It was impossible to fall in love, or out of love, without him, all the more when he teamed up with maestro Ilaiyaraja. When you could have SPB’s voice for company and comfort, peaceful solitude seemed overrated.
His career began in the 1960s, but every generation born after that sees him as their icon. He never stopped being contemporary in the five-plus decades his career spanned, and his voice refused to bear any sign of age, fatigue or overuse.
Many have marvelled at the fact that an artiste of his stature emerged with no formal training. Many have been awe-struck by his versatility – his unmatched ability to traverse genres with equal ease and familiarity. But there is something more significant in the way he presented these different styles – be it a typical carnatic flavour, like in the blockbuster Sankarabharanam, or the contagiously free-spirited ancestors of today’s kuthu pattu, such as Aey aatha aathorama vaariya or Yen jodi manja kuruvi – he showed that it was possible for an “untrained voice” to sing both with enviable mastery and musical acumen. At the same time, not all trained voices can sing either or both as convincingly, as singers with rigorous training would repeatedly prove in their attempts on reality shows.
However, for a listener, there was no need to get his songs “right”. Summoning any emotion at will in his songs, SPB spoke directly to each of us. No matter which style or how complex his song is, the moment his fan hears it, it is hers to sing along with or dance to. In that sense, SPB’s songs aren’t just his. They are ours. That is why in his passing, a part of our own history is gone.