A picture from Swathi's childhoodSwathi Manivannan

Of all the losses 2020 seems to bring about, the demise of well-respected celebrities seems to be most acutely felt – from Kobe Bryant to Irrfan Khan, and more recently, Chadwick Boseman. Even though we live in a world that, in my opinion, obsesses over celebrities way too much, the impact some of them have had in uplifting marginalised communities has meant that when they pass on, their loss is grieved collectively, even globally.

On 25th September, I woke up to the news that the famed South Indian singer, S. P. Balasubrahmanyam had passed away as a result of complications due to COVID-19. While less known outside of South Asia, SPB, as he was known, was an incredibly prolific singer, having recorded over 40000 songs in 16 languages throughout his career. His impact in the Telugu and Tamil film industries was so vast that one would be hard-pressed to find any film soundtrack between the 70s and 90s that did not feature at least one of his songs.

Growing up in Singapore as the child of two Tamil immigrants from India, my childhood was filled with listening to Tamil songs not only on the radio and TV, but also on cassettes, CDs and MP3 players. Both my parents love old Tamil songs, with my dad, in particular, being an ardent SPB fan. This naturally meant that my mum used to play the soundtracks of Shankarabharanam and Salangai Oli during my infanthood as well. SPB’s music was an integral part of my childhood and family life.

The CD of SPB's songs that Swathi's mum used to listen toSwathi Manivannan

SPB’s voice was comforting simply in its presence. He had songs for every emotion, every occasion, every person. It didn’t matter that I was a 10-year-old living in urban Singapore or a 20-year-old having never fallen in love, I could still relate to his songs about romance in an Indian village during the 80s; they made me feel like I was the protagonist he was singing about. The unique thing about his songs was that there would be a bit of yang in yin and a bit of yin in yang. As one Twitter user put it, “the chinna sirippu (small laughter) in a sad song, the chinna sadness in a happy song […] (one could) keep saying many such things (about SPB)”. I don’t think I can say that about most other singers I’ve listened to.

“It is bittersweet that SPB’s voice, which was a soothing balm to me and many others during our own struggles, also continues to heal our grief over his loss.”

One of the few things I missed about home when I first moved to Cambridge was hearing Tamil in my surroundings. Although I mostly converse in English outside of my family, staying at home meant that I’d still spent most of my life hearing and seeing Tamil some way or another. Suddenly spending months surrounded by just English, outside of my weekly calls back home, only contributed more to my ever-present homesickness during that first Michaelmas. On nights where I just needed a good cry, I’d sometimes search for a few of SPB’s songs on Spotify and listen to them as I stared blankly into space, letting his voice wash away my worries.

What I felt in those first days in Cambridge was probably just a fraction of what the Eelam Tamil diaspora must have felt when they fled to the West during the worst of the Sri Lankan Civil War. As I scrolled through Twitter on the day of SPB’s passing, collectively grieving with several other South Asians, I also saw generations of Eelam Tamils thank SPB for his songs, which had provided them with hope for their struggles and served as a reminder of the homes they’d left behind. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to hold onto a couple of cassette tapes, listening to them to remind oneself of a home far, far away.


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I think all of this also ties back to why SPB’s passing hurts so much. It wasn’t just that he was a prolific singer, he was also a genuinely kind person. Whenever he was called onto singing contests as a guest, I could see the compassion and delight in his eyes as he appreciated and encouraged every performer. Every time someone thanked him for his art, he would accept their compliments with grace and humility. He was someone I, and I’m sure several other musicians, looked up to.

It feels like there’s been a void in my heart these few days, and I am trying to fill it up by listening to SPB’s songs. It is bittersweet that SPB’s voice, which was a soothing balm to me and many others during our own struggles, also continues to heal our grief over his loss. This legacy speaks volumes about his impact and how he will be remembered for the years to come. And even though the sorrow is fading away gradually, I am, and will always be filled with so much gratitude for this legendary singer. And so, to SPB, I say: “Thank you for the music, for giving it to me.”

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