When the Pavalar Brothers, Ilayaraja, Baskar and Gangei Amaren struggled during their early days in Chennai – no proper place to stay and barely had one meal a day – it was singer S P Balasubrahmanyam who provided them much needed support by including them in his orchestra which performed stage shows. A common friend introduced Ilayaraja and co., to SPB who asked them to play on various instruments for him. Raja worked on the harmonium, Amar on the guitar and Baskar on the percussion. SPB was impressed but said there was no room for them in his troupe as it already had harmonium and guitar players. Yet, when he found that the brothers had a hand to mouth existence in Chennai, he included them in his orchestra, with Raja playing the harmonium, Amar on the guitar, and Baskar doing the percussion.
During the demo, Raja had impressed SPB with the dexterity with which he used two hands to play the harmonium, reproducing every note, whether it was Lara’s Theme or popular Hindi and Tamil songs.
In those days, SPB would present a number of Hindi hits during his shows as Hindi songs were more popular than Tamil songs. Hits from Aradhana were reproduced with great skill by Ilayaraja and his brothers. SPB had by then rendered several songs for Tamil films and had sung a large number of Telugu songs.
The brothers, at last, had some money to stay on in Chennai, even while Raja looked desperately for opportunities to compose music for films.
Ilayaraja and SPB became great friends, sharing moments of joy and sorrow, and had a special bond. It turned into a Vaadaa Podaa relationship.
SPB was not present during the song recordings of Ilayaraja, a special moment in the lives of the Pavalar Brothers. There was no SPB song in Annakili. A couple of films went by yet Balu had not sung for Ilayaraja, his dear friend.
It turned out that the evening prior to the recording for Annakili, Ilayaraja had asked Balu to turn up for the song recording next day, and asked him to be careful and not ruin his throat. But things turned out exactly as Raja feared. The next morning, SPB could not come for the recording as he developed severe cough and could not sing. Raja was reportedly angry and said he had asked Balu to be cautious the previous day.
SPB had not turned up for the Padhinaaru Vayadhinilae recording though he was supposed to sing the Aatukutti Muttaiyittu song. Malaysia Vasudevan was then asked to sing the song, and it went on to be a super hit, and launched his career in a big way. It seemed that Balu was also supposed to sing the other famous song in the film Sevvandhi Poo Mudichu, and this too was sung by Malaysia Vasudevan. Sigappu Rojakkal too did not have SPB songs, the two duets were sung by Kamal Haasan and S Janaki, and Malaysia Vasudevan and S Janaki.
One day, Balu happened to meet Raja at a function and asked him ‘Yen Daa Dey, Naan ellaam unakku paadagaraa theriyaleyaa (Hey you, don’t you recognize me as a singer). Balu laughed and said he had warned him not to fall sick. Come tomorrow, he told Balu. They then began recording songs, the first of which was said to be Oru Naal Unnou Oru Naal with Janaki for Uravaadum Nenjam though their duet, Naan Pesa Vandhen for Palootti Valartha Kili was heard earlier as the film came ahead of Uravaadum Nenjam.
Then began a series of SPB songs which rocked the Tamil film industry. The SPB-Raja songs became a rage. SPB duets with Janaki too were extremely popular. Ilayaraja’s mesmerizing orchestration, weaving patterns of Western arrangements with Tamil folk, the new combination of Balu and Janaki came as a whiff of fresh air when the TMS-P Susheela combination seemed stale under the MSV baton.
Wave after wave of the Balu-Raja combo swept aside all other combinations, as other music directors were swamped by this unending onslaught.
When Ilayaraja began presenting his music shows live on stage, SPB was very much present as the star attraction, as he and the brothers had riotous scenes on stage, marked by bouts of boisterous laughter, improvisation on stage, pulling each other’s legs, and mischief in the air. The events were laugh riots in the midst of some serious, captivating music.
Films like Payanangal Mudivathillai catapulted their combination to new heights and both SPB and Raja reached cult status. For more than a decade, they dominated Tamil film music, with the eighties belonging to them. Though other singers did their make their mark like Yesudas and Jayachandran, SPB was on cloud nine. As SPB said two decades later, “Ilayaraja was born for me, and I was born for Ilayaraja”.
Yet, they drifted apart after A R Rahman made a dramatic entry with Roja, and Ilayaraja ceased to dominate the industry from the middle of the 1990s. SPB and Raja fell apart when Balu was served a legal notice by Raja when the singer was on a world tour. Why did the split take place? (To be continued)