P Veerapandian, a driver of a Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation (TNSTC) mofussil bus was on duty on the Sivakasi-Coimbatore route when he first heard the news of the singer SP Balasubrahmanyam’s death on September 25.
“There was a discussion among the passengers and the conductor later broke the news to me. While most people expressed shock and grief, some people began asking us to play their favourite songs. It was like all of us were collectively paying homage to him on our ride,” he says.
Drivers of buses, including those run by the TNSTC and private operators, say that the death of the singer has deeply impacted them. His voice served as a distraction and a companion during long rides through winding roads and monotonous highways, they say. SPB’s loss is similar to that of a family member’s, they add. In the last 10 days, drivers say that they have been swapping songs via pen drives, downloading melodies and adding to their repository of ‘town bus melodies’ as a means to remember SPB by.
“SPB made it seem like his songs were a conversation. His distinct sounds and laughs made it seem like a chat in the middle of the night when passengers are asleep. It has always been a delight to play his songs,” says R Beemaraja, a TNSTC mofussil bus driver plying between Rameswaram and Coimbatore.
R Sukumaran, who has been driving tourist vans across southern Tamil Nadu for over 20 years, says that SPB’s ‘love songs’ reminds him of his home. “When we set out on long journeys, we are constantly reminded of leaving behind our families and those we love. Listening to his songs serves as a reminder to me. Someone is waiting for me back at home and I must return,” he says.
Veerapandian says that he has four memory cards filled with songs by SPB and is likely going to get more such memory cards. “How else can we listen to all of his 40,000 songs?”
Beemaraja says that although travellers usually complain about the song choices on buses, they do not raise any complaints against songs by SPB. “Some say that it helps them sleep,” he says.
T Dharmaraj, head of department of folklore and cultural studies at Madurai Kamaraj University says SPB could be considered one of the gateways to music composer Ilaiyaraja’s genius.
“Ilayaraja’s music is magical as it expands a second or a moment to make one believe that they could be in the past and the present at the same time, while they are travelling. Ilayaraja’s magic is made accessible through SPB. In many ways, SPB is the gateway to Raja’s genius,” says Dharmaraj, who has authored Ilayarajavai Varaithal (Drawing Ilaiyaraja), which dedicates a chapter on listening to music composer Ilayaraja’s songs while travelling.
He states that many, like him, have had the privilege of listening to songs while looking outside the window and staring at the journey ahead. In his book, he explains that Ilayaraja aids in providing a passenger the ability to transcend the physical nature of time.
He compares SPB to waves and Ilayaraja to a mighty ocean. “While the depth of the ocean is daunting, the waves gives one the opportunity to merely wet their feet and enjoy the ocean. One does not need to know about Ilayaraja’s interludes, ragam, or the way a song is composed. One can merely enjoy it by listening to SPB sing,” he says.
For S Maruthi Kumar, a 26 year-old co-founder of Instagram page ‘Repeat Audience’, SPB’s songs like Maankuyile Poonkuyile have often woken him up from slumber while travelling from his hometown Chennai, to his college located between Tiruchi and Thanjavur.
Inspired by these trips to college, Repeat Audience co-founder Prajnesh Karthic created ‘Mofussil Melodies’, a post discussing popular songs played in buses including hits by SPB like Chinnamani Kuyile from Amman Kovil Kizhakale.
“As passengers, we would wake up to songs sung by SPB and composed by Ilayaraja and they would liven the experience of travelling. One could say that this was a major connection for our generation, to the songs of the 80s,” he says.
Bus drivers anticipate that there will be a time when songs of the 80s, especially those sung by SPB, will lose preference with the younger generation.
Sukumaran says that youngsters often request for songs by naming young actors of the present generation.
“Maybe they (youth) will not want to listen to SPB but his songs are not for them to cherish. We [drivers] will continue playing his songs in the night. He is one of our own and we will never forget him,” he says.