The legendary playback singer and composer-actor-producer, SP Balasubrahmanyam has passed away in a Chennai hospital on 25th September 2020, after a spirited fight against the COVID-19 disease. The singer-composer who dominated the film industries of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka and Mumbai (Bollywood) for over five decades had tested positive on 5th August 2020 and was in hospital since. Although the artiste was doing well in the initial stage serious complications developed later and he was put on the ventilator and ECMO (Extra-corporeal Membrane Oxygenation) support. He did test COVID-19 negative on September 7, 2020, but as his breathing problems persisted, he continued to be on ventilator and ECMO support. His condition became extremely critical in the last two days, and finally the music legend had to give in. He was 74.
Born into a Telugu family in Tamil Nadu in 1946 and raised mostly in Andhra Pradesh, SP Balasubrahmanyam, better known as ‘SPB’ or ‘Balu’, showed his lively interest in music from an early age, and over the years started singing in various local competitions winning prizes all the time. He made his debut as a playback singer for a Telugu movie in 1966 where the music score was done by his music mentor SP Kodandopani. Within days he made his Kannada playback singing debut and forayed into the Tamil movies in 1969, and then to the Malayalam film industry in the same year. SPB’s illustrious and spectacular musical journey began: his becoming the voice of the legendary actors of Southern India like Gemini Ganesan, MG Ramchandran (MGR), NT Rama Rao (NTR), Shivaji Ganesan and to Kamal Hassan for whom he sang for Hindi movies too, Rajnikant and then to the super heroes of Bollywood, from Salman Khan to Shahrukh Khan.
Balasubrahmanyam achieved international fame by singing for the unforgettable Telugu movie Sankarabharanam in 1980, directed by K Vishwanath. Balu was never trained in classical music, particularly the Carnatic style; but yet, he made history by adapting his singing aesthetics to suit the character of a classical music protagonist in the movie. SPB won his first National Award as the best male playback singer in this movie. The very next year, that is 1981, he took the Hindi film industry, Bollywood, by storm: singing lilting numbers for Kamal Hassan in the super-hit movie ‘Ek Duuje Ke Liye‘, a remake of an original Telugu film, for which he got his second National Award as the best male playback singer in Hindi. And SPB became the most sought-after voice in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi language films with music directors ranging from the legendary Ilaiyaraaja, S Janaki, KV Mahadevan to AR Rahman, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, RD Burman, Ram-Laxman, Anand-Milind and others.
In a career of over five decades SPB sang over 40,000 songs in 16 Indian languages. He had won 6 National Awards for his playback singing in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi; won 6 Filmfare awards for southern zone; he was conferred Padma Shri in 2001 and Padma Bhushan in 2011; he was honoured with the ‘Indian Film Personality of the Year’ in 2016; and numerous other state awards from his four southern states. For a personality of his stature the list of national awards seemed to be lesser in numbers which is largely due to the fact that the ‘national’ Hindi film industry or Bollywood enjoyed far greater reach, visibility, popularity and patronage across the nation, and therefore, many legendary greats of southern India had to remain content mostly with state recognition.
SP Balasubrahmanyam is perhaps the only Indian playback singer to have enjoyed five-decade long fame without a plateau with fan following across India and the world irrespective of the language barriers. His greatness was in his delightfully melodious yet manly voice, his immense prowess of natural modulations, his intrinsic ability to play-act with the required emotions and his inborn talent to adapt his singing style as suits the characters/heroes of movies across five main and numerous other languages, like the legendary Mohammad Rafi did so naturally from the forties till his demise in 1980. Incidentally, Rafi had been his model singer and a real guru throughout his career, loving the Hindi film-song icon always. Perhaps, for this reason he thrived in Bollywood for much longer than other southern-region singers like Yesudas and Vani Jayram. Of course, he too did have hiatus of about 15 years from Bollywood, coming back only in 2013 to sing for Shahrukh Khan in the super-hit movie Chennai Express. However, the great artiste kept on singing-composing in southern languages till his last days.
We salute the great musician and mourn his tragic demise, with the whole nation as condolence messages have been pouring in from film personalities, politicians, leaders, stalwarts in all the professional fields and his millions of fans. Apart from his singing Balu has always been loved by all for his simplicity, his lovable interactions with the public, his communication through the media and his bright jovial nature.