Tribute to SPB: A banyan tree falls

I was maybe 5 or 6 when I first heard SPB’s voice. It was the song Rakkamma Kaiya Thathu. Though it didn’t register as an SPB song and more as a hit Tamil song.

Likewise, I didn’t quite realize how SPB was making his presence felt in large chunks of the Singaravelan soundtrack, though I loved every song:

But it was because of the above sad version that the name SPB registered when a year later, my father, talking about the Kalaignan title track mentioned how beautiful SPB’s singing in the sad portion was:

AND a year or so later, the songs of Paatu Paadavaa (which had SPB in one of the lead roles) were all over Jain TV/Sun TV. I can’t say for sure if we did have a Sun TV feed in Kalyan yet at the time but it was one of the two channels for sure. The presence of Janakaraj made this song memorable for me as a kid, but in later years I have realized what a tour de force this was for the SPB-Raja combo and (though we obviously didn’t know it then) one of the last times that it scaled these heights.

You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned Hindi yet. To be honest, I never completely warmed up to his Hindi songs in spite of growing up in Mumbai. Because I was being exposed to the unbelievable things he was still doing in Tamil (he was ALREADY a veteran then, in the 90s) and his Hindi work seemed to pale in comparison.

But as the Raja-SPB combo began to fade away, Rahman and SPB stepped in. Where Raja wasn’t much interested in making SPB sing very high, Rahman did make SPB sing so high it at times got challenging for him to reproduce live:

And also exploited his ability to belt with the big hulk of a tone he really had. Yes, SPB was often thought of a soft voice but really, it was his singing that is soft. The timber was in fact powerful and huge.

Azhagana Ratchasiye was another highlight of the combination:

But by now, with the advent of mp3 and my growing interest in Ilayaraja’s 80s work (the work I HADN’T grown up listening to), I was moving away from contemporary Tamil music and digging into the archives.

And that is where I discovered beauties like Seer Kondu Vaa. But also this less heralded track from the same film (Naan Paadum Paadal).

Or this song, where the S Janaki-rendered charanam is a bit of a letdown (the tune, not her singing) but the SPB pallavi is magnificent.

As social media and wiki blossomed (in the early part of the noughties, you couldn’t yet count on wiki to get details of all soundtracks), tracking down songs I had missed out became easier. Either somebody on Raja fan networks would recommend a song:

or I would hear it on TV and get the name on the internet :

or I would look up the listing of songs on the soundtrack and listen to songs I had not noticed/heard before:

And BR’s article on old Tamil music introduced me to this magnificent solo SPB rendered under MSV’s baton:

And when it wasn’t tracking down ‘new’ SPB songs I hadn’t heard before, it was listening to new amazing performances from this ageless wonder of a singer:

In the last year, a new addition to this list of activities was…listening to SPB’s reminiscences on Youtube hosted by himself.

And then…I heard he was diagnosed with covid-19 and joined millions in praying for his recovery.

But he died…

All of a sudden, the musical banyan tree that had remained virtually unchanged and ageless all these years, a comforting shelter for any weather, had fallen.

It will not be hard to retain the memories because he left so many of them, a treasure trove that cannot be enumerated or assigned a value. But it will be hard to live with the reality that he is no more. Because it still feels like he was going to come back and resume singing in concert once we got back to normal. Wonder what else we’re going to lose as we wait for normal to return….Will it?

RIP, Om Shanti to the legend, the one and only.

11 Responses to “Tribute to SPB: A banyan tree falls”

  1. TambiDude Says:

    Lovely write up Madan.

  2. Jayram Says:

    Thanks for the heartfelt tribute, Madan.

  3. TambiDude Says:

    RDBurman was a huge fan of SPB. In 1993 in an interview with TOI he claimed that his range was phenomenal, and he was the best singer by a mile.

    Once when SPB complained about some tough notes he was asked to sing, RDB smiled and told “that is because I know you could do sing it. Tabhee to tujhe madras se bulaya”

    • Madan Says:

      Yes, I remember that anecdote. I think it was about this song Aaja Meri Jaan. The way the vocal melody starts is very awkward and SPB asked RDB, “Sir, how can I sing this?” And that’s when RD told him what you quoted.

  4. Anu Says:

    Lovely write-up and tribute!!

  5. Tambi Dude Says:

    Aja was also shamelessly copied by Cho(R)DBurman.

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