Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam, legendary playback singer, composer, actor, producer and musician whose evocative voice and the earnestness in it could elevate a simple piece of music to absolute sublimity, died on Friday afternoon following a cardio-respiratory arrest at MGM Healthcare in Chennai. He was 74.
Balasubrahmanyam, fondly called SPB and Balu by his friends and fans, was admitted to the hospital on August 5 after he tested positive for COVID 19. He was later shifted to the ICU after he developed severe pneumonia due to further complications. He is survived by wife Savithri, son SP Charan and daughter Pallavi. Outside the hospital, an emotional Charan told reporters, “SPB belongs to everyone. He will live on in his songs,”
The news of the musician’s death sent legions of fans into mourning. Recently candlelight vigils were held outside the hospital to pray for the musician’s health.
Widely held as one of the finest male playback singers with a 50-year-long career, SP Balasubrahmanyam, transcended language barriers by singing in 16 of them including Hindi, Telugu, Kannada and Tamil among others. He found success in the Hindi film industry and a lot more than just success in South Indian film music — a cult status as an artiste who received genuine affection from people. From MG Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan to Kamal Hassan, Mohan and a slew of actors in the present day, Balasubrahmanyam’s voice was a fixture for all of them. That he held the Guinness Book of World Record for singing the highest number of songs ever (40,000 songs) was just another feather in his cap. In all of them, that tender, velvety voice triumphantly stood out as one of a kind — it was unpretentious and yet grand. And that’s where the magic nestled itself.
And to think that his voice was rejected once upon a time. During the music-making process of filmmaker K Balachander’s Rati Agnihotri and Kamal Hassan starrer Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981) — the Hindi remake of the director’s Telugu film Maro Charitra — composer Raamlaxman was displeased. He felt that Balasubrahmanyam, the “Madrasi” singer he were asked to work with, could not accurately pronounce words from Anand Bakshi’s Hindustani lyrics. Balachander’s condition was clear — SPB was to sing for Kamal Hassan, since the character, Vasu, was not supposed to be good at Hindi and pronunciation wouldn’t be a problem. The composer relented.
The songs in SP Balasubrahmanyam’s smooth baritone, many of which were duets with Lata Mangeshkar, captured the nation’s attention. The mix of his trademark sincerity and the delicate youthfulness paired with a soft timbre made Balasubrahmanyam a national phenomena. It’s hard to forget him singing ‘I don’t know what you say’ in the title song. The following year, SPB received the National Award for the Best Male Playback Singer for the famed lament from the film in the pathos-driven raga Shivranjini — Tere mere beech mein. Soon Balasubrahmanyam was cast as Salman Khan’s voice in Sooraj Barjatya’s famed project Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989) by composer Raamlaxman. The voice fit Khan like a glove. And while a couple of songs were directly plagiarised from western pop tunes, SPB’s voice was sealed into a popular and younger consciousness. The singer continued being Khan’s voice throughout the 90s in his subsequent successes such as Andaz Apna Apna (1994) and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994) among others.
Balasubrahmanyam was born in Konetammapeta village, Nellore, Andhra Pradesh. His interest in music began early. Bright in academics, Balasubrahmanyam wanted to become an engineer and took admission in Anantpur, Andhra Pradesh. While going to college on his cycle he would often hear Deewana huya baadal, the O P Nayyar ditty immortalised by Mohammad Rafi, in a shop. “I could hear Rafi sahab’s smile in that song. I would cry… it felt nearest to godliness,” Balasubrahmanyam said once in a conversation with singer Sonu Nigam on the sets of the show SaReGaMa.
SP Balasubrahmanyam had to drop out of college due to a bad bout of typhoid. Even years later, he regretted not completing his degree. Not many musicians with his kind of success would want to go back to school. Balasubrahmanyam did, and it made him special.
In his early 20s, Balasubrahmanyam was the leader of a music group that had him as vocalist and his friend Ilaiyaraaja on the harmonium. They would perform in villages and cities, take part in competitions and visit composers for work. Finally, Balasubrahmanyam made his singing debut in 1966 with Telugu movie Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna, which was scored by his mentor S P Kodandapani. He was soon recording songs in Tamil and Kannada. His song Aayiram nilave vaa, picturised on MGR and J Jayalalitha in the 1969 film Adimai Penn, was a huge success.
But what made Balasubrahmanyam a force to reckon with was Sankarabharanam (1980), the Telugu musical drama that remains one of the finest films on classical music. Singer M Balamuralikrishna was the top choice for the complex Carnatic classical compositions. But composer K Mahadevan decided on Balasubrahmanyam, who eventually won his first National Award for the songs.
In the Tamil industry, he worked extensively with Ilaiyaraaja, M S Viswanathan and later A R Rahman among others. The collaboration between Balasubrahmanyam and Rahman for the song Thanga Thamarai won him another National Award, his first for a Tamil song. There was also the title song of Roja where the two collaborated. The tender romanticism paired with powerful vocals is likely to remain one of the singer’s finest hours.
Balasubrahmanyam was also a well-known dubbing artiste and dubbed for Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Salman Khan, Anil Kapoor among others for Telugu versions of their films. He also acted in a few films.
In 1997, there was a rare live concert by Lata Mangeshkar titled “Lata An Era In An Evening”. It was televised and had every major name from the film industry present. For one of its segments, Mangeshkar invited Balasubrahmanyam to sing with her and said, “Inka upkaar rahega mujh par ki ye mere liye aaye (It’s his beneficence that he has come for me.” Balasubrahmanyam gave Mangeshkar a toothy smile and said, “Jab bhagwaan bulaate hai toh aana hi padta hai (When god calls, you have to show up),” before breaking into their famed pieces together.
Balasubrahmanyam is survived by wife Savithri, son S P Charan and daughter Pallavi.
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