I grew up in Pondicherry. I distinctly remember one evening, when my English teacher, Mrs Hawkins, came up to my father and said that she had to take me to see Shankarabharanam. She really wanted me to pursue Bharatanatyam, and she believed that watching the film was essential to encourage my interest in dance. And so we all went to watch the film. I came back fascinated by the dance, but subconsciously it was my first introduction to SP Balasubrahmanyam, who sang those gems including Raagam Taanam Pallavi and Sankaraa Naadasareeraparaa.
Although my understanding of Tamil was rudimentary and just enough to get along, one couldn’t escape the magic of SPB in Pondicherry. His voice played at all hours. All India Radio, loud speakers, weddings, political rallys. You didn’t need to know the language to enjoy his voice. He was the Kishore Kumar of the South. And like him, not formally trained either.
I was still in Pondicherry, when the Vasu-Sapna tragedy on the cliffs, Ek Duje Ke Liye released. And we went crazy with the songs. Everyone in school was singing, “I don’t know what you say! I don’t know, don’t know what you say”. Who cared what he said, as long everything was so melodious. That was SPB transcending the language barriers so beautifully. Suddenly, “yeh romba matlab kya hai“, “parva illa, nee nalla paadarai” and “appadiya” entered the lingo of the Northies too. It was mandatory for all of us to memorize “mere jeevan saathi“, the lift song, and get all the names of the films in sequence correctly to score marks with your buddies. I played the song just now, and gave a whoop of delight to find out that I remembered them all correctly even now, including Shin Shinaki Baabla Boo! Now when I think back, I see how SPB had percolated into our lives without us even realizing what had hit us.
I had shifted to Chanda by the time Maine pyaar kiya released. Right from the credit sequence, as SPB crooned Aate jaate hanste gaate, we were hooked. It was the age when our hormones were just rising, and dil deewana bin sajna ke and mere rang mein rangne waali was lapped up by us teenagers eagerly. SPB could sing anything and we fell for it. We tried roller skating like Salman and Raveena singing, tumse jo dekhte hi pyaar hua, when we didn’t even know where Linking Road, Peddar Road and Carter Road were. SPB was who we turned to when our adolescent hearts broke. Who hasn’t listened to “Sach mere yaar hai, bas wahi pyaar hai, jiske badle mein koi to pyaar de” from Saagar on the loop and suddenly found the lyrics resonate with the smithereens of one’s heart. It was the anthem for unrequitted love.
As I grew up SPB was still around. Whether it was softly crooning Anjali Anjali or my all time favourite Rojajaaneman, his melodious voice continued to regale us. We in the Hindi speaking belt have experienced only a fraction of SP Balasubrahmanyam’s genius. And when I hear my friends from school in Pondicherry mourn the loss of this versatile singer with so many other talents including acting, I realize that I hardly know anything. I am not a music connoisseur, just another listener. But I will miss his genial smile and his soul-stirring voice.
However the thing with music is that it always outlives the singer. As SPB sang in Udaya Geetham: Indha thegam maraindhaalum isaiyaai malarven. Loosely translated it means: Even if this body disappears, I will blossom into music. We are lucky to still have his voice living with us. He will still be around. Forever.