My love for S.P. Balasubramaniam began when I absolutely detested him and his singing. It was back in the day when households had only one screen and it was prized real estate. Parents usually exercised full dictatorial right over the TV and as a child, I would hope that my parents would let me check the score of a cricket match whenever they felt charitable.
Though my parents often squabbled over what to choose between primetime news and melodramatic soap operas, they took turns to exercise power. But they always agreed on one programme: Paadutha Theeyaga, which aired on ETV.
Colluding parents meant that I definitely couldn’t get to watch the cricket match and I had to bend to their coalition. I despised SPB for this grave injustice, but eventually, like a protagonist in a bad romcom, I found myself enjoying the ‘SPB show’ – not least for his singing, but also because of the general calm it brought to our chaotic household.
The show was a long-running property hosted by SPB where budding singers got a platform to showcase their talent. This was before televised singing competitions had mentors and mentees bickering and arguing as TRPs rose and fell dramatically. It was a show for introverts, where SPB was the biggest extrovert.
Giggling with guests, reminiscing over stories from the past, and giving advice to the next generation – that’s how SPB conducted himself on the show. There were neither big highs nor dramatic lows; the show just gave its viewers the feeling of a pleasant breeze on a moonlit night and the privilege of feeling like connoisseurs of music.
Tired husbands, wives, mother, fathers, employees, employers wanted nothing more. The show took them to wherever they wanted to go to: a moment in college where they walked arm-in-arm with their friends, a moment from their childhood where they slept on terraces with thin bedsheets, a love story from their teen years left behind as a what-if question, or even the prospect of someone enjoying their profession for decades.
Another time I fell in love with SPB was during a squabble which had strong regionalist currents. I was 12 and travelling with an aunt on a train. She had the talent to begin a conversation with a stranger on the basis of a shared compartment. As Telugu people usually do when they meet passengers from other states of south India (this time, a Tamilian man), we tried to settle the debate of which was the superior region once and for all.
Not being well versed in politics, my aunt ensured the topic centred around cinema. And every time the Tamilian man threw a name that he thought settled the debate, my aunt threw one back at him. This regionalist ping-pong went something like this:
Man: Kamal Hassan
Man: K. Balachander
Aunt: K. Vishwanath
Man: Mani Ratnam
Aunt: Ram Gopal Verma
Me: Sri Devi
Man: Sri Devi is actually Tamilian
Aunt: [to me] Idiot. [to man] Savitri.
Man: A.R. Rahman
Noticing my aunt struggling, the man perked up. My aunt seemed to have no answer to this perfect backhand smash from her opponent.
I could see my team was getting thrashed. Then then man did something men usually do when they have the upper hand: he tried to humiliate the losing side.
Man: Even SPB.
Man: He’s ours.
The man had made a mistake, SPB was born in southern coastal district of Nellore in Andhra Pradesh.
My aunt rose back as though she was the hero of a Telugu film – a hero who has been given ample time to recover during the final fight as the villain delivers a monologue.
Aunt: He’s Telugu. In fact, both your music directors only benefitted from this Telugu singer. They both came running to him.
Before the argument could be settled, the train reached the man’s destination. My aunt claims he got down prematurely because he knew he was losing the debate. Despite my aunt’s debatable claim, it was obvious that SPB had saved her regionalist pride. More importantly, he had drawn the match.
The last time I fell in love with SPB was recently when my relatives were mourning the loss of someone in the family. It wasn’t a pretty sight. The rituals, the grief, and the sadness felt like a Groundhog Day situation. Particularly affected was a gruff uncle who was the embodiment of the kind of man who you think of when I say ‘Indian uncle’ – stern, incapable of expressing emotion, and with a thick misplaced moustache. Whatever our private opinions about him, it hurt us to see someone from the family clearly filled with sorrow, but unable to grieve.
Different members from the family tried everything: playing cards, watching a film, and even a drinking session with his friends. Nothing worked.
Soon, the family left him to be with himself. Some stones can’t be melted and sorrow can’t be extinguished – that’s what we told ourselves.
And then something magical doused the sorrow when I was flipping through the channels on the television. Unknown to me, others had gathered around the couch: younger cousins, aunts, and even my gruff uncle. An unsaid consensus was arrived at that whichever channel I landed on had to satisfy every member of the audience in the room.
First it was a news channel that was covering COVID-19. There was a collective groan. Then it was a Telugu film from the 80s. The kind with ridiculous fights where the hero bounces off the chests of goons, all accompanied by springy techno music. An apologetic snigger came from the aunts, directed at the younger generation.
And then I landed on a channel that played music 24×7. The song had a blind man singing to a speech-impaired girl about why he would never ask God (Shiva) for eyesight. Nobody cared but for some reason I gave the channel longer time than I did for the others.
Five seconds later, SPB’s voice kicked in.
‘Aadhi bikhshuvunu vaadinedi koredhi…‘
I changed the channel. Suddenly, a gruff voice softly – as if he thought nobody could hear him – continued the song.
‘Boodidicchedi vaadinedi adigedhi.
Aadhi bikhshuvunu vaadinedi koredhi
Boodidicchedi vaadinedi adigedhi.’
Then there was collective eye contact, which instructed me in unison to go back to the previous channel. And for the next few minutes, my uncle sat smiling at the screen as SPB sang this song – which is supposed to insult and praise Shiva at the same time. None of us understood the song’s lyrics fully – and I doubt even my uncle did – but he was transfixed and crooned a lyric or two when he could.
When the song was done, he just said, “SPB. Nobody can sing like him.”
And then he smiled. All of us agreed. Not many singers can take the gruffest man’s sadness and rinse it away like that.
The love affair doesn’t end there. It won’t. SPB may never sing again, but he won’t just live on only through his songs and performances. The man meant more. He will live as lingering lyrics on the lips of untrained singers, the kind of calm to wash away a tough day, a unifying force while others fight for him.
It’s been a tough year for all of us. I don’t need to tell you why. Each of us are facing a battle we cannot speak of or believe. We’re losing pieces of our whole and are being forced to stitch together new versions of ourselves.
I think I know a singer who might make you feel better.
Mukesh Manjunath is a writer currently based out of Mumbai. He has previously published in The Wire, EPW, and The World of Apu. He is working on his debut non-fiction book titled The Age of Heroes to be published by Harper Collins India.
Featured image credit: SP Balasubramaniam/Instagram