Legendary playback singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam passed away at a private hospital in Chennai on Friday. He was 74.
Balasubrahmanyam was hospitalised in August at MGM Healthcare after testing positive for COVID-19, and while he reportedly did well initially, he took a turn for the worse, and was put on a ventilator and ECMO support.
On September 7, he tested negative for COVID-19 but continued to be on the ventilator and ECMO even as he participated in passive physiotherapy.
Popularly known as SPB, Balasubrahmanyam made his singing debut in 1966 with Telugu movie Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna. He has sung over 40,000 songs in as many as 16 languages including Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Hindi.
Balasubrahmanyam was also a voice-over artist. He was the voice-over artist for actor Kamal Hassan, whenever the latter’s Tamil movies were dubbed in Telugu. Balasubrahmanyam also acted in a few movies.
He is survived by his wife, a son and a daughter — both are playback singers.
Balasubrahmanyam sang thousands of songs in South Indian languages and in Hindi for five decades for generations of actors — from MGR, Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan, down to the stars of the present — and is the winner of six national awards. He also had won the hearts of several fans across the world for whom his songs have marked milestones.
‘Paadum Nila’ (Singing Moon) as he was called by his fans had a lilting voice with the finest traces of great singers. “His was a breeze-like voice of A.M Raja, with the softness of the P.B. Srinivas and the effortlessness of Mohamed Rafi,” said film music historian Vamanan.
His voice effortlessly captured varied human emotions and feelings. In one scene he would sing a spoof — Annatha adurar othiko a laugh in his voice— and in another scene he would powerfully express the anguished mind by rendering — Unna nenachan paatu padichen thangame as seen in Apoorva Sagodharargal. He had acted in films such as Manathil Uruthi Vendum, Keladi Kanmani and Sikaram, besides scoring music for some films.
An extremely friendly and genial man who enjoyed his moments with interviewers, SPB once said he was fond of life and never wanted to die. Others in the industry had only the best words for him, considering him a friend and guide.
SPB bagged his first national award for Sankarabharanam, even though all the songs in the Telugu film are based on pure Carnatic ragas. He was never formally trained in Carnatic music, but that did not stop him, not then, not ever. “Even SPB had apprehensions about taking on the assignment as he had no proper training in classical music. It was T.K. Pugazhlendi, the assistant of music director K.V. Mahadevan who persuaded SPB to render the songs,” said Mr. Vamanan. And what a hit they turned out to be.
The second time he won the award, was for his first Hindi song, Tere Mere Beech Mein in the film Ek Duuje Ke Liye. Two more awards came his way for the Telugu films Sagarasangamam and Rudraveena. Sangeetha Sagara Ganayogi Panchakshara Gavai, the Kannada film won him the fifth national award.
The award for Tamil films eluded him many years even though his collaboration with music directors Ilayaraja and M.S. Viswanathan had resulted in innumerable memorable duets, solos, folk songs, spoofs and songs with classical touches. He finally won it for the song Thanga Thamarai in the film Minsara Kanavu for which the music was scored by A.R. Rahman.
SPB in an interview said Tamil films offered a lot of scenes and scope in which a song sat perfectly, without any artificiality.
Born Sripathi Paditha Arathyula Balasubramaniam, in 1946, to Nelloor-based Harikatha exponent Sambamurthy, SPB’s ambition was to become an engineer. His failure to clear a subject in his PUC course forced him to pursue the now-defunct AMIE course in Chennai. But the music in his blood lured him towards singing competitions, and finally to the film world.
His talent was spotted by another playback singer and music director S.P. Kothandapani, who was sitting among the audience at a competition at the Andhra Social and Cultural Society (ASCA) and he provided him with an opportunity to sing in the Telugu film Sri Sri Mariatha Ramanna. SPB was one among the four singers — S.P. Kothandapani, P. Susheela, P.B. Srinivas and Eelapada Raguramaiha — who rendered the ragamalika song, Emi Evindha Mogum.
“Anyone who had listened to the part he rendered for Shoban Babu would have realised the potential in the voice. It proved to be a prelude for a record career in film music,” said Mr. Vamanan. As they say, the rest was history.
Looking back, even as he secured a toehold in the Telugu industry, a break in the Tamil film industry proved elusive until an introduction to music director M.S. Viswanthan (MSV) through his friend Bharani. SPB chose to render Nilava Ennidam Nerungathy before MSV, who liked the voice, but had reservations about his Tamil pronunciation. It was actually a chance meeting with MSV opened the doors of Tamil film music. SPB came in like a fresh breeze with Iyarkai Ennum Ilayakanni, for the film Santhi Nilayam.
“Though the song was recorded first, another song, Aayiram Nilave Vaa in the MGR-starrer Adimaipen reached the public first — the film was released earlier in the year 1969,” explained Mr. Vamanan.
Both the songs became a hit overnight. SPB would gratefully acknowledge the opportunity given to him by MGR and music director K.V. Mahadevan who introduced him to the future Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.
SPB was down with malaria after rehearsal was over. But MGR waited till he recovered. “MGR told me that he did not want to disappoint me. He felt that I would have informed my friends and if I was not given the opportunity, my friends would not think well of my capacity as a singer,” SPB once said.
Later in the film Suryakanthi, he sang the number Naan Endral Avalum Naanum and late Chief Minister Jayalalithaa rendered the English verses. His playback songs for thespian Sivaji Ganesan, particularly Pootuvaitha Mugamo in Sumathi En Sundari and Emuna Nadhi Inkey in Gowravam were equally popular.
Even though there is the argument that MGR had roped in SPB because of his difference of opinion with T.M. Soundararajan (TMS), Mr. Vamanan said MGR continued to prefer TMS to render duets and songs with political messages. MGR also gave opportunities to K.J. Jesudas and Jayachandran.
SPB sang Aval Oru Navarasa Natakam in the film Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban and Paadum Pothu Naan Thendral Kattru and Angey Varuvathu Yaro in the film Netru Indru Naalai. MSV continued to use SPB in films of all actors.
Even though he worked with other music directors like V. Kumar, Vijaybaskar and Shyam, SPB’s career graph ascended with the arrival of Ilayaraja and actors such as Rajinikant and Kamal Haasan.
Even with Ilayaraja it did not happen immediately. SPB could not get an opportunity in Annakili, Patrakalai, Kavikuyil, Durgadevi, Deepam and Thunai Iruppal Meenakshi. Once the combination began though, it proved unstoppable. Bhuvana Oru Kelvikuri offered him two outstanding songs — Raja Enbar Mandhiri Enbar and Vizhiyile Malarnthathu. The duets he rendered with S. Janaki were irreplaceable.
At a time when Ilayaraja started dominating film music, MSV’s music for Ninaithale Inikkum rocked and almost all the songs were rendered by SPB in the film. Later when MSV and Ilayaraja came together to score music for Mella Thiranthathu Kathavu, SPB was their natural choice.
Actor Mohan benefited enormously from the music of Ilayaraja and voice of SPB. Almost all the songs in his films proved great numbers. His voice remained eternally youthful and he enthralled his fans by appearing on stage with light music troupes.
He and Ilayaraja had a small falling out after the music director prevented him from singing on stage the songs composed by him, based on copyright claims. The two patched up though later, in a public event.
SPB was the favourite singer of MSV and would always cherish the song Ilakkanam Marudho in the film Nizhal Nijamahirathu.
When MSV composed music for Krishna Ganangal penned by Kannadasan, SPB sang the song, the lullaby Ayarpadi Maligaiyil Thaimadiyil Kantrinaipol Mayakannan Thoongukiran. And now, SPB himself will be asleep forever, his voice playing the same lullaby it has played in several homes for decades now.
SPB is no more, but his voice will live on. (Courtesy The Hindu)