After the death of SP Balasubrahmanyam, actor, music director, voice actor, and singer nonpareil, the platitudes have flown in fast and furious. “Music is immortal”. “Don’t mourn the man, celebrate his music”. “He will live on through his thousands of songs and fans”.
Where then do we put this collective grief? How must we rationalize away this pit in the bottom of our stomach when we hear a voice that we know so well that we do not even need to actually hear it to hear it? The days since hearing of S.P.B’s deteriorating health have passed (as have the past 5 decades) submerged in his songs and on screen appearances. But the foreboding sense of fear did little to brace us for the impact of his passing.
The heroes of our youth are meant to fade away. Either because we as adults pay less attention to their craft or because the heroes themselves are subject to the foibles of age or passage of time. Father Time is undefeated in this respect; his only nemesis seemed to be the dulcet tones of Balasubrahmanyam’s voice. As a child of the 80s I cannot remember a time when his singing wasn’t ubiquitous. For many of us we were never truly alone solely because that voice would always float in, fill the void, and even make time stand still. For his voice was the most reliable instrument known to Indian film music. A guitar string that rarely went out of tune; a mridangam that didn’t need tightening. One of my greatest privileges was to witness S.P.B sing “O Butterfly” from Meera live in 1992 at Chennai’s Music Academy – an event and rendering that is seared into my mind. A cursory search on YouTube reveals him singing the song with the same elan more than 30 years later. To what causes then must I attribute the tears that well up when I hear the lines “nizhalaip pOla thodarum ennai maRanthu pOgirai” (you leave ignoring me who follows you like a shadow)? Father Time has conspired with Mother Nature to claim his victory releasing a force that has not just claimed our youth. This as-yet-unquenched pandemic has now stolen away the very fountain of youth. So, permit us, if you will, our grief.
Amidst all the consternation, consolation, and conversation what has risen to the forefront is a portrait of a man who was first and foremost a connoisseur of music and the art of singing for film or for an audience. The near deification of Mohammed Rafi, the ardent professional respect for S Janaki and P Susheela, the playful encouragement of the amateur stage singer who is probably having an out-of-body experience just conversing with him. Above all, it seemed to mortals like us that the very process of singing excited him. Understanding the musical idea, recalling the notes, reaching them consistently every time, and then adding his own unique bit of dynamics that remade each instance anew. Few among us are lucky to derive such joy consistently from our work, because let’s face it this was work for him. It had to have come with its own unique brand of challenges. And yet, he seemed perennially willing to accommodate song requests in interviews, in private gatherings, and of course during live performances. To maintain his level of enthusiasm over the span of a career as long as his, will remain a pipedream for many of us. So, permit us, if you will, our grief.
Can one measure a life in numbers? Will the statistics on songs, films, languages, LPs pressed, cassette’s magnetized, mp3s encoded come close to the experience of a single live performance? Will all the tweets and messages make up for the times we took his gift for granted? As the years pass we may eventually smile without sadness at his antics in “Eureka Saka Mika”. We may stop choking up as he caresses the words “ningi nela ekam kaaga, ee kshanam illa ilaagindhi”. Eventually we will remember as we must, smiling and crooning behind a microphone. But for now, permit us, if you will, the comfort of our grief.
Deepauk Murugesan is a former freelance writer on film currently based in Boston, MA. He is the cofounder of The Other Banana podcast where you can find him chit chatting primarily on South Asian content.