S.P. Balasubrahmanyam: The Versatile Music Maestro

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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.

Born Sripathi Paditha Arathyula Balasubrahmanyam, 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.

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.

His father was a Harikatha Vidwan (a narrator of religious tales) in Andhra Pradesh who sang religious folk songs in the village square for a living. This was Balasubrahmanyam’s humble introduction into the art.

He had absolutely no formal tuition in Carnatic music. But he had such a good ear for it that the absence of any classical training was no hindrance. He admits: "Even today I don't know the ABC of classical music."

One day in 1963, when he was studying engineering in Madras, a friend entered his name for a light music competition. Balasubrahmanyam wrote the song, composed the score and sang it. He was adjudged the best even before the song was finished.

Even so, it was a good three years before his first recording. He sang with P. Sushila, P.B. Srinivas and the late Raghuramiah. Sushila recalls: "He was barely 18 at the time and I remember wondering if he would manage. But the moment I heard him, my doubts vanished."

The big singing break in Tamil films came in 1969 when M.G. Ramachandran asked noted music director K.V. Mahadevan to try him out in Adimai Pen (Slave Girl). His first song was an instant hit. Balasubrahmanyam had arrived. In doing so, he virtually dethroned T.M. Soundarajan and almost toppled Ghantasala from the number one slot in Telugu films.

K. Vishwanath, the well-known Telugu director, explains: "His rendition does not follow the regular, linear and methodical approach. Instead, Balu provides the dramatic impetus which makes his songs come alive."

The film Keladi Kanmani was a hit which established him as an actor.