The untimely death of legendary musician S P Balasubrahmanyam (SPB) makes me reminisce my journey of listening to his songs from when I was a primary school kid. While SPB sang over 40,000 songs across 16 languages, he will live in me through half-a-dozen songs that he sang for one Telugu movie. These songs highlight to me the unparalleled power music possesses to germinate paths of discovery.
For many of us from South India, SPB is synonymous with the Telugu movie Shankarabharanamu. Though Tamil is my mother tongue, the incredibly melodious songs sung by SPB in this movie left an indelible mark on me. At a young age, when Carnatic music can seem like Greek and Latin to someone who did not learn it, the songs in the movie got deeply rooted in my psyche. When I now wonder why these songs had such a profound impact on my young mind, it becomes clear that the songs and the movie — complementary to each other as a lamp and its wick — uplift and inspire in a way that I have found nonpareil.
The beauty of Shankarabharanamu is that the initial feature that draws one to it is but the first step of an incredible journey of discovery. The songs sung by SPB were the first, but the most important, step that drew me into this journey. Over the years, I have watched the movie over a dozen times. The experience has been akin to reading a seminal book like Resnick and Halliday again and again. Each time, I discovered something new that I wondered why I did not find in the previous viewing or reading.
On each occasion, I have been drawn into watching the movie after I felt like listening to one of its eternal songs. Every time, after marvelling at the bhakti that the songs induce, I have felt inspired to comprehend the meaning of the lyrics. Listening to the song and then understanding its lyrics only whetted my appetite as I have invariably watched the movie to understand the context of the song in the movie. This process, from the melody of the song to meaning and then to the context in the movie, has been a deeply enriching personal journey as it has helped me understand the deep spiritual ethos that we inherit as Indians.
A stanza from the last song in the movie, “ragalanantalu nee veyi roopalu bhavarogatimirala pokarchu deepalu”, captures beautifully the essence of this spiritual ethos. Praising the Divine and the infinite number of paths to reach the same, the stanza describes that “your thousands of forms are like the infinite number of ragas that dispel the darkness of worldly bondage”. That the Divine can be attained through divine music (Nada Bramhan), the field of selfless action (Karma Yoga), the pursuit of the highest knowledge (Jnana Yoga) or the sincerest devotion (Bhakti Yoga) is a credo that carries in its embryo the Truth that the Divine can be attained through unshakeable faith in any religion.
In this context, I have realised personally how secularism in the Indian ethos is different from the western conception of the same. The subtle, but crucial, difference is akin to the difference between the numbers 0 and 1. Though adjacent to each other, metaphysically the numbers capture opposites — zero conveys nothing while one captures the entirety. The western conception of secularism resembles the number zero, i.e. no religion, while the Indian concept of secularism resembles the number one, i.e. taking in the entirety of all religions, paths, faiths and beliefs. By being all inclusive, the Indian conception makes no distinction among them.
The title song of the movie captures the many nuances of our spiritual ethos and the role of music in enhancing one’s virtues. A key stanza in the song describes music as the life or the essence (“sangeetame pranamu”) as well as the staircase/path (“ganame sopanamu”) for one, “advaita siddhiki”, i.e. to attain the state of advaita or non-duality, where the worshipper and the worshipped merge into each other; two, “amaratva labdhiki”, i.e. to gain immortality; three, “satva sadhanaku”, i.e. undertaking sadhana or penance to achieve the sattva guna, which represents a state of virtuous harmony within oneself and thereby with the universe and all its beings; four, “satya shodhanaku”, i.e. pursuit of the eternal truth.
SPB’s songs in this movie uplift in so many ways. Take bhakti captured by the song “Shankara, naadasharirapara.” Every time I listen to the song, I am moved not only by the bhakti embedded in it but also by the profound impact that pure bhakti is shown to have on the Divine. After finding society discriminating among humans based on their caste or social strata, SPB pleads against such discrimination: “Shankara! O wonderful embodied form of the unmanifest cosmic vibration, Om!” As SPB entreats with incredibly high pitched notes that few can match, the clouds burst affirming the Divine disapproval of social discrimination. The context of the song also goads one to pursue one’s convictions irrespective of the social criticism that inevitably comes one’s way in a noble pursuit. After all, one is finally answerable only to one’s own conscience and the Almighty.
SPB’s last song in the movie is by far the best as it embodies the highest virtue of niswartha seva or selfless service: “Dorakuna itu vanti seva?” Can I ever be blessed with this kind of privilege to serve You? The song offers the greatest meaning to all of us public servants as the Divine permeates every living being on this planet. Therefore, serving the people selflessly is the ultimate service to the Lord.
For offering the inseparable complementarity between the divine songs and the inspiring movie, SPB you have lived your own words “amaratva labdhiki”, gained immortality. Such lives must only be celebrated and not mourned.
The writer is Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India
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