How the singer warmed up to journalists, and sometimes even sang a few lines exclusively for them
July 28, 2006 was a lucky day for me. My favourite singer SP Balasubrahmanyam was in town for a concert and I reached the concert venue at Perks School grounds in Coimbatore early enough, hoping to get an exclusive interview with him. As expected, the event organisers turned down my request, but I was not going to let go. I sat in the front row, mesmerised, as he sang some of his gems like ‘Sangeetha Megham’, ‘Idhu Oru Ponmalai’ and ‘Kaeladi Kanmani’.
During a break between the songs, I clambered on to the stage and whispered my request to him. SPB promised to meet me at his hotel after the concert. He kept his word, and greeted me with his trademark smile and a “Thanks for your patience.”
That was the start of my 40-minute conversation with the legendary singer. “Even today, I have a thousand butterflies in my stomach before every song,” he told me. This was the same singer who had already won six national awards, was in the Guinness Book of World Records for having recorded over 36,000 songs, had a successful innings as a dubbing artiste, was an actor, and a composer. When he passed away, he had had sung about 42,000 songs in over 16 languages.
He spoke of his favourites — the national-award winning, ‘Omkaara Nadhaanu’ from Shankarabharanam and the Ilaiyaraaja composition, ‘Sundari Kannaal’, composed in Mumbai with late music director RD Burman’s orchestra. SPB smiled as he remembered how after the recording, the troupe gave the composer a standing ovation. ‘Kaeladi Kanmani’ from the film Pudhu Pudhu Arthangal is one of his top-100 favourite songs. He said it was an ‘extraordinary composition’ of Ilaiyaraaja and described it, “a thesis that can be presented at the Trinity College for learners.”
I made it a point to be at as many concerts as possible when he was in town. And every time, the experience was thrilling and moving at the same time because he had such a cheery presence and powerful performance on stage. His banter with his co-singers, appreciation to the members of the orchestra, and his ready wit, made the concert a complete entertainer.
His stage performances mostly started with ‘Sangeetha Megam’ from Udhaya Geetham. During a concert once, much to the consternation of the gathering, it began drizzling. SPB just smiled and assured the audience, “It’s His blessings; don’t worry, it will rain only after 9.30 pm after the show is over.”
There are many memories, but there’s one particular one that is special. On the evening of my interview with him, SPB’s team kept urging him to have dinner and rest. But he continued speaking to me. At the end, I asked him if he would sing a few lines for me, and… he did. Nilaavey Vaa…he sang for me.