The SPB-Rafi Duet We Never Got
“Parvaaliye, nee nalla paadarai!” [“Not bad, you sing well!”]
Kamal Haasan’s Tamil-speaking Vasu compliments Rati Agnihotri’s Hindi-speaking Sapna thus, in the 1981 superhit movie, Ek Duuje Ke Liye. Much later, I chuckled to myself thinking the prolific singer SPB is saying this to the legendary singer Lata Mangeshkar.
SP Balasubrahmanyam (4 June 1946–25 September 2020), made a spectacular debut in the Hindi film industry, already having conquered the South. It’s difficult to imagine the world of singing without SPB — a man who probably features on everyone’s list of ‘all-time favourite singers’. In what is fairly public knowledge, SPB recalls an incident on both, Shekhar Suman’s talk show Movers & Shakers, and Karan Thapar’s talk show Face to Face.
Despite being the mega singing sensation he is — his range in Sankarabharanam alone is spectacular — SPB said he was extremely nervous to sing with Lata Mangeshkar in Ek Duuje Ke Liye. On Face to Face, SPB recalled his first meeting with Mangeshkar and how he was so jittery, he dropped his cup of tea on her white saree. She however didn’t get upset (I think she understood her impact on him), and went on to tell him that this was a good omen and he’d go far in the Hindi film industry. And well, she wasn’t wrong at all.
We heard SPB give his generous voice for Kamal Haasan. His rendition of “Tere mere beech mein” (also his favourite Hindi song among the many that he has sung) is gut-wrenching, while you can sense his heartbreak when he sings “Apni tou haar hai, yaar mere”. I think like RafiSaab, SPB would put special emphasis on certain words, making the entire composition his own in his extraordinary way.
Soon, SPB would begin singing for Salman Khan. The preteen in me thought it was Khan singing, right from “Saathiya tune kya kiya” to “Tumse milne ki tamanna hai” [note SPB’s exhilarating ‘jaanam’], and the most playful nok-jhonk in “Joote dedo” and even “Haaye ram, kudiyon ka hai zamaana”. For me, what set SPB apart from several other singers, was his mastery over the pronunciation and diction of words in Hindi and Urdu. Every ‘kh’, ‘bh’, ‘chh’ and ‘q’ was perfect, which isn’t always easy for a South Indian.
Every now and then, I wish I had spent enough time deeply steeped into SPB’s singing, for instance, breaking into “Ilamai, etho, etho” every New Year; realising the romance in “Aayiram nilave vaa” and “Sundari, kannaal oru sethi”; jiving each time to the energetic ‘Madai thiranthu’. How do I even begin to talk about the majestic “Sankaraa naadasareeraparaa” and “Omkaara Naadaanusandhanam”? But because I spent (and continue to spend) so much of my time being in love with RafiSaab, I guess SPB wouldn’t really mind.
Several people shared personal accounts of their meeting with SPB, and what one understood was that this giant personality was so humble, so gentle, so damn approachable, you wanted him to be around forever. Here’s a small account by one Sivamani Vasudevan from Chennai that appeared in The Hindu:
‘Years ago, I once flew from Madras to Hyderabad. Just before take-off, someone whispered that SPB too was on the flight, but in the business class. Word spread and most passengers in the economy class craned their necks to steal a glimpse of the celebrity, but ended up being disappointed. Perhaps the airhostess sensed what was happening and tipped off the singing legend. After we landed, we were greatly surprised to find SPB at the bottom most step of the ladder, greeting each one of us. He was humility personified.’
That’s how easy it is to fall in love and reverence with SPB.
After his passing last September, this is what I wrote:
“Kannukkul needhan, kanneeril needhan,
Kanmoodi parthal, nenjukkul needhan,
Ennanadho, edhanadho, sol sol”
There could be two things happening right now — either the heavens would be rejoicing, or thousands of eyes would’ve welled up.
Sometimes it’s difficult to process the loss of someone you’ve never met or never had a conversation with. As with Irrfan, I don’t know how to grieve or mourn SPB. How do you mourn a person who gave his soul to each song, making it uniquely his own, whose smile could reach your heart and make you come alive each and every time?
In a video that might have been re-watched by people, we see SPB in an episode of the spectacular singing show — SaReGaMa, when it was hosted by an equally spectacular Sonu Nigam. SPB speaks highly of my all-time favourite singer Mohd Rafi (I was under the foolish impression that Rafi Marg in Delhi is named after him. It’s not.). SPB says that when Rafi sang the portion ‘Ye dekh-ke dil jhoomaa’ from ‘Deewana hua baadal’, the ‘maa’ cannot be sung by anyone else so. He goes on to say that it feels like RafiSaab is whispering into your ears, caressing you so. He’s right. But RafiSaab wasn’t the only one who could work such wonders.
SPB has always had the magical quality of making it seem like he’s singing only for you. An auditorium could seat 1,000 people, a cinema hall could seat 250 people, and in all probability, each listener would feel SPB is singing exclusively for their ears.
The evident camaraderie he shared with his fellow singers reflects in each stage show, each live performance. If you loved the bond between Rajini and Mammukka in Thalapathy, you should know it was possible because even years after the movie’s release, SPB and Yesudas would sing ‘Kattu Kuyilu’ with ease. SPB’s “Mmhhh… Ehh he… Idhu eppadi” is sheer joy.
I often wonder how he made his voice sound like the softest musical instrument in ‘En Kadhale En Kadhale’. The audience at this live concert was justifiably in tears. Even the tiny laughs SPB would bring in were special, such as in ‘Ye mausam ka jaadu hai mitwaa’, or his boisterous, playful “No no” in ‘Aaja shaam hone aayi’.
As I spent last night listening to SPB over and over again, and going back to what he had said about RafiSaab, I believe the heavens are definitely celebrating.
What I missed out writing then was this: RafiSaab passed in 1980. SPB entered the Hindi film industry a year later. Had the two gotten the chance to sing together, I’m pretty sure that song would be the one I’d end my evenings with, it’d probably be a song I’d choose to woo someone with, and it’d definitely be the song that would tell me I’m home.
Thank you, RafiSaab and SPB. As both of you hold the most amazing concerts up in the heavens, regaling everyone who has the privilege of being there with you, your abiding love shall remain with the mortals who tread the path below.