CHENNAI: legendary singer SP Balasubrahmanyam breathed his last at a private hospital in Chennai on Friday. He was 74. The singer was hospitalised on August 5 due to complications arising from Covid-19. On August 14, it was announced that his condition had worsened, and he was shifted to the High Dependency Unit. Though his son, SP Charan, later said that the singer showed improvements and tested negative for Covid, the music legend succumbed to illness.
Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam was born in Konetammapeta, Nellore, Andhra Pradesh, on June 4, 1946. A six-time National Award winner, he made his singing debut with the Telugu film, Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna in 1966. He made his Kannada debut the same year for composer M Ranga Rao in Nakkare Ada Swarga. SPB was introduced to Tamil through legendary composer MS Viswanathan’s song, Iyarkaiyenum Idhayakani in the Gemini Ganesan film, Shanthi Nilayam (1969). The same year saw SPB singing his breakout song, Aayiram Nilave Vaa for MGR’s Adimaipenn.
Balasubrahmanyam was drawn to music at an early age but did not get training in classical singing, though he evinced interest in learning musical instruments. He won the first prize in a music competition for budding singers organised by the Madras-based Telugu Cultural Organisation and also won the best singer award in a competition judged by his father SP Kodandapani and mentor Ghantasala Venkateswararao.
Over the next five decades, SPB, as he is fondly referred to, made an indelible mark across various languages. In a career spanning over 50 years, SPB sang over 40,000 songs in several languages, including Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, and Hindi, among others. He received his first National Award for his seminal work in Shankarabharanam. This was the first of the three National Awards he received for singing in Telugu. Shankarabharanam received worldwide acclaim and cemented SPB as one of the premier singers of the country for singing a largely Carnatic-based sound track without any formal training in the medium.
He received his other National Awards for his work in Sagara Sangamam and Rudraveena. He also won one each in Hindi, Kannada, and Tamil for Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981), Sangeetha Sagara Ganayogi Panchakshara Gavai (1995), and Minsara Kanavu (1996), respectively. Notably, Tere Mere Beech Mein from Ek Duje ke Liye was his debut song in Bollywood.
In interviews, SPB stated that veteran Bollywood singer Mohammed Rafi was his favourite and revealed that he had learnt plenty from him. SPB was known to sing for an average of six to eight hours every day, and at the peak of his career, is reported to have sung for as many as 17 hours in a single day.
He was the singing voice of the biggest stars of his time, including Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Mohan and Salman Khan. SPB formed a fruitful relationship with some of the most iconic composers, including Satyam, S Rajeswara Rao, KV Mahadevan, MS Viswanathan, Ilaiyaraaja, AR Rahman, Vidyasagar, MM Keeravani, Deva, and Hamsalekha, all the way up to current generation composers like SS Thaman and Anirudh.
Versatile singer’s lasting impact on Bollywood music
SPB’s collaborations with Ilaiyaraaja, in particular, attained a cult status for ruling the South Indian cinema in the 80s. Theirs was an iconic equation that commenced when Ilaiyaraaja and his brothers became musicians in SPB’s music group. Their work in both Tamil and Telugu continues to be revered by legions. In Tamil especially, SPB was wellknown for moulding his voice to suit top composers and was considered the apex singer in the business.
Be it the quirky Kadavul Amaithu Vaitha Medai (Aval Oru Thodarkadhai), the chirpy Idhu Oru Ponmalai Pozhudhu (Nizhalgal), the massy My Name Is Billa (Billa), or the melancholic Unna Nenachu (Aboorva Sagodharargal), SPB was synonymous with versatility. He was awarded the Kalaimamani in 1981 and was a four-time recipient of the Tamil Nadu State Award. SPB also won 25 Nandi Awards for his work in Telugu cinema.
While he ruled the roost in Telugu and Tamil for decades on end, he had an equally impressive run in Bollywood too that began with Ek Duje Ke Liye. Later, the singer became the voice of actor Salman Khan who was just starting out in Bollywood. Their collaborations in Maine Pyar Kiya (most memorably Dil Deewana), Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Saajan and Andaz Apna Apna stand the test of time. His duets with legendary singer Lata Mangeshkar established him as one of the few South Indian singers to chart a Bollywood career without having to compromise on his identity.
After a 15-year-long break since Kabhi Na Kabhi with AR Rahman, SPB returned to Bollywood with Shah Rukh Khan’s Chennai Express (2013), composed by Vishal-Shekhar. So connected was SPB with the late 80s and early 90s Bollywood that in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, a film that was an ode to the Hindi cinema of that era, there were references to his singing style in the number, Life Mein Fair Chance Kiska. The versatile SPB was also an accomplished composer, actor, and voice artiste.
He composed music for 40-plus films in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Hindi. Some of his notable works include Sigaram, Padamati Sandhyaragam and Thurpu Velle Railu. SPB began his dubbing career with the Telugu version of K Balachander- Kamal Haasan’s Manmadha Leelai. He went on to dub for many Kamal Haasan films in Telugu. Apart from this collaborations, SPB also provided voice-over for artistes like Rajinikanth, Vishnuvardhan, K Bhagyaraj, Anil Kapoor, Gemini Ganesan, Mohanlal and Nagesh in various languages.
After appearing in cameos in the early 80s, he began acting in the late 80s. He played the lead for the first time in Keladi Kanmani (1990) and featured in important roles in many films since then. As an actor, he worked with many legendary directors including K Balachander, Mani Ratnam, Shankar, KS Ravikumar, and Muthyala Subbaiah.
He was regarded as a fine performer and won a Nandi Special Jury award for his seamless portrayal of a retired teacher in actor- turned-director Tanikella Bharani’s Telugu drama, Mithunam. SPB was conferred the Padma Shri in 2001, and ten years later, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2011. His sister, SP Shailaja, and his son, SP Charan are accomplished singers in their own right, and he has collaborated with them on multiple songs. The timeless artist is survived by his wife Savitri, son Charan, and daughter Pallavi.