W hat makes a great voice? The answer to this question is elusive. We do not have any common framework to understand this idea of “greatness”. On most occasions, such debates are more likely to be personal expressions, with preferences and tastes taking precedence over any objective analysis. Some love the voice of Lata Mangeshkar, while others find it too shrill and sharp. Such people tend to lean towards Asha Bhosle. In any case, these arguments are endless.
But here is the curious thing about S.P. Balasubrahmanyam (SPB). He was one of the very few film singers whose voice was almost never criticised. Everyone found it sonorous and attractive. Such universal acceptance is rare and hence, we have to wonder how and why. Is there some overall sense of “good voice” that we are conditioned to accept as the norm, as long as it stays within a bandwidth of parameters? Or is it not really about the voice?
A singer, usually, does not appreciate being only told that his or her voice is lovely. Yes, it is a compliment, but the musician within the singer hopes that the listener was moved by something more, something larger than just the accident of fate combined with physical training. When that inner individual is ignored, it hurts, deeply. Some playback singers have been brilliant at executing exactly what the music director demanded. In other words, they either did not have a musical personality or they suppressed the musician within. They did a job. Others allowed the musician within to internalise the music and then gift it to us as their own. But this reasoning still falls short of explaining the overarching acceptance that SPB gained.
Every voice has its own distinctive character; a signature tone, timbre and accent. No singer can ever erase these associated markers. But a singer can give the voice an emotional range that transcends this imprint. When we listen to a song, it is not just the melodiousness, verve, beat, lyrics or structure that lures us into its domain. It is the emotive resonance that is derived from the coming together of all these elements. In the case of film music, this also includes the screenplay, story and context. The song lives in its emotional vitality and, when this connection is achieved, the singer resonates.
Say, a singer cements this relationship rendering a romantic song. With repeated renditions of similar numbers, the singer’s voice is confirmed in our minds as romantic. It tugs at our hearts and communicates the lover’s passion effectively. We fall in love with that voice and imagine the singer to be a great lover. In this interlocking, the texture of this singer’s voice becomes attached to this specific emotional quality. As the bearer of romance, the singer also overshadows any actor. He is the “lover’s voice”, irrespective of whether the actor is Rajinikanth or Kamal Haasan. This exists in our mind long after the song is heard; the love in the voice never fades, even if the singer grows old.
The music director plays a role in enabling these associations. The director identifies a specific emotional possibility in a voice and offers those songs to the singer. But what if a voice refuses to be reduced, truncated into one emotional, social or political landscape, but pushes the boundaries of every human feeling and inhabits the entire spectrum of emotions with equal ease?
SPB was in love, surprised, joyous, excited, fearful, sad, contemptuous and disgusted. He was the father, son, lover, brother, friend, villain and hero. He was the voice of the privileged and the questioning voice of the oppressed and marginalised. He was an urbanite, a villager and could belong to any era. In his voice we found every social, cultural and aesthetic possibility. This allowed every individual, irrespective of their socio-political location, to find him/herself within his voice at one time or another. This self-identification gave SPB a universalism that has eluded every other Indian playback singer. And I would like to stress with extra emphasis that no other “voice” in Indian film history has belonged to such a diverse cross-section of Indian society.
SPB came from a certain social construction and to be able to de-baggage that in his work would have been impossible, unless he was able to leave S.P. Balasubrahmanyam the person behind the moment he stood in front of the mike. SPB had an instinctive way of tapping into various cultures and demographies. This is emotional insight of the highest order and difficult to explain. For all other singers, there was and is a social-range limit to their voice.
There is one possible answer to this mystery. Great musicians are those who listen carefully, attentively and receive with respect. Listening is not limited to music; it is as much about accent, dialect and pronunciation. It is beyond listening in the sonic sense; it includes learning varied body languages, internalising social contexts and realities.
SPB seems to have been able to absorb this from all that he witnessed in life. In other words, he let life imbue his musicality. Therefore, when he sang a song, it had a larger story to tell; not just the one being communicated by the director, music director, cinematographer or actor. SPB’s voice became the voice of the idea. He abstracted the song from the specificity of the film and made it a human calling.
If there is one indicator of the nuance in his listening, it is in the way he enunciated the words in a song. Most people do not realise that pronouncing a word is entirely different from singing it. As a part of music, the word becomes a musical body and its highs, lows, elongation and emphasis undergo a subtle but crucial transformation. Only if these happen will the music flow. Added to this complication is the fact that these alterations are language-, dialect- and culture-specific. In other words, depending on the character SPB was singing for, the musical word had a specific etched acoustic form. And SPB gave every musical word, phrase and line the social, political and aesthetic identity it demanded.
Such a person had to be selfless, musically. This comes from a realisation of one’s role, that as a musician, one is a catalyst and not an originator. When you are a bridge between people, ideas and feelings, “I”—the individual identity—has to become invisible. This sounds very close to an actor’s reality, but is actually much harder to accomplish. The actor enters the secondary reality of the film using the character he is playing, separating himself from the role. The two realities are clearly demarcated.
On the other hand, the playback singer comes in momentarily to lend his voice. In the studio, away from any semblance of the cinematic reality, he needs to give life to an idea, keeping in mind the described context, the actor’s image and the music director’s composition. And while adhering to all these requirements, he needs to somehow find his own bearings.
SPB lived selflessly, transcending the imagination of all these people but yet put aside the craving for the “spotlight”. He realised that the “self” is established when it forgets its own presence.
T.M. Krishna is a musician, author and activist.