‘Gaana Gandharva’ SP Balasubrahmanyam And His Unmatched Imprint In Indian Playback Singing

 - Sakshi Post

Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam, fondly called by his zillion fans as SPB or SP Balu, was born in Nellore in a Telugu family on 4 June, 1946. His father Sripathi Panditaradhyula Sambamurthy was a Harikatha exponent and also an actor in plays. His mother, Sakunthalamma, incidentally passed away on 4 February, 2019 at the age of 89 in Nellore. SPB was one among seven siblings -- two brothers and five sisters. Noted playback singer S P Sailaja was one of them.

He was married to Savithri following a brief love story and has two children -- daughter Pallavi and son S P B Charan, who himself is also a playback singer and film producer.

Balasubrahmanyam was truly the rarest among the rare when it comes to gifted talents. His singing prowess was world renowned and can be likened with all-time great singers humanity has ever seen. What makes him a versatile artistic treasure is his multi-talented personality. He wore many hats in his illustrious career -- that of an actor, music composer, producer and a fabulous dubbing artiste.

The passion for music bloomed in Balasubrahmanyam at a very tender age. It would almost sound surreal to know that he was a self-taught musician, with no formal training from any noted guru until the time he earned his name and fame. Driven by his love for music, he studied notations and learned music at that early age.

Even a quirk of fate seemed to have played its part in the making of Balu, the legendary musician when he was seemingly destined to become an engineer. Intially, he joined JNTU College of Engineering in Anantapur as he wanted to become an engineer. He had to give up his studies in the Anantapur college soon after being afflicted with typhoid. As a result, he opted for an associate membership in the Institution of Engineers, Chennai.

This brought him closer, literally, to pursuing his dream of becoming a singer in Chennai, then Madras, the capital of south Indian film industry. In his quest to find a foothold in the film industry, he first pursued music by singing in competitions and winning dime a dozen awards while continuing his engineering studies. Most notable among the early honours was the first prize he won in a music competition for amateur singers which was organised by the Madras-based Telugu Cultural Organisation in 1964.

Incidentally, Balasubrahmanyam spearheaded a light music troupe that comprised musicians some of whom would later become legendaries of the musical realm. Anirutta (on the harmonium), Ilaiyaraaja (on guitar and later on harmonium), Baskar (on percussion) and Gangai Amaran, the brother of Ilaiyaraaja (on guitar) were part of his celebrated band.

The first time he made heads turn in the film industry was when he was adjudged as the best singer in a singing contest that was judged by yesteryears music director S P Kodandapani and Ghantasala, the father of south Indian playback singing. After steadfast attempts between visits to many music directors and recording studios, his got the chance to audition his singing talent with a track he sang in Tamil for the song "Nilave Ennidam Nerungadhe" which was eventually rendered by veteran playback singer P B Srinivas.

Balasubrahmanyam made his debut as a playback singer on 15 December 1966 with Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna, a Telugu film scored by his mentor, S P Kodandapani. The first non-Telugu song which he recorded just eight days after his debut Telugu song was in Kannada in 1966. It was for the film ‘Nakkare Ade Swarga’, starring Kannada comedy stalwart T R Narasimharaju. He recorded his first Tamil song "Athaanodu Ippadi Irundhu Eththanai Naalaachu", a duet with L R Eswari in the music direction of M S Viswanathan for the film ‘Hotel Ramba’. He was later introduced to the Malayalam film industry by G Devarajan in the film Kadalppalam.

With an unbelievable stamina to sing non-stop and unparalleled prowess in improvising and bringing life to singing, SPB, in the Indian playback history, can only be likened to another legendary singer Kishore Kumar.

He has the rare distinction of rendering the most songs in a single day by any singer. At the peak of his career, he has recorded 21 songs in Kannada for the composer Upendra Kumar in Bangalore from 9 am to 9 pm on 8 February 1981. He followed it up with 19 songs in Tamil and 16 songs in Hindi in a day which is a remarkable record that can never be emulated.  

"There were days when I used to record 15–20 songs, but only for Anand-Milind. And I would take the last flight back to Chennai."  His demand and popularity was such that for more than three decades it looked as if there was only singer in the south. In his native language Telugu and Tamil, he recorded duets with P Susheela, S Janaki, Vani Jayaram and L R Eswari. Balasubrahmanyam's association with Ilaiyaraaja began even before Ilaiyaraaja came to the cine field. In those days, SPB used to sing in towns and villages all over south India and Ilaiyaraaja, then an unknown harmonium and guitar player accompanied SPB by playing in his concerts.

1980s Brought International recognition For Him

Balasubrahmanyam came to international prominence with the 1980s’ film Sankarabharanam. The film is considered to be one of the best films ever to emerge from the Telugu film industry.  Directed by K Vishwanath, the film's soundtrack was composed by K.V. Mahadevan, and led to an increase in the usage of Karnatak music in Telugu cinema. Not a classically trained singer, he used a "film music" aesthetic in recording the songs. Balasubrahmanyam received his first National Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer for his work. His first work in Hindi films was in the following year, in Ek Duuje Ke Liye (1981), for which he received another National Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer.

Balasubrahmanyam began to record more songs in Tamil, especially for Ilaiyaraaja with S.Janaki, the trio considered to be highly successful in the Tamil film industry from the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. The songs were based on classical music, such as in Saagara Sangamam (1983), for which both Ilaiayaraaja and S.P.B won National Film Awards, Swathi Muthyam (1986) and Rudraveena (1988) which again won National Awards for Ilaiyaraaja and Balasubrahmanyam.

In 1989, Balasubrahmanyam was the playback singer for Bollywood actor Salman Khan in the blockbuster Maine Pyar Kiya. The soundtrack for the film was very successful and he won a Filmfare Award for Best Male Playback Singer for the song Dil Deewana. For much of the next decade, Balasubrahmanyam continued as the "romantic singing voice" on the soundtracks of Khan's films. Notable among these was Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! which became the all time hit highest-grossing Bollywood film of all time Balasubrahmanyam's duet with Lata Mangeshkar, "Didi Tera Devar Deewana", was very popular. This solidified Balasubrahmanyam as one of the biggest playback singers in India. SP Balasubrahmanyam became identified as Salman Khan's voice in the 90s just like Kishore Kumar became Rajesh Khanna’s voice through the 70s.

In the 1990s, he worked with composers such as Vidyasagar, M. M. Keeravani, S. A. Rajkumar and Deva among others, but his association with A.R.Rahman turned out be a major success.

Balasubramanyam's association with Hamsalekha began after the latter's successful venture Premaloka in Kannada. Balasubramanyam sung the most songs for Hamsalekha in Kannada. He received his fourth National Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer for the song "Umandu Ghumandu" from the Kannada film Ganayogi Panchakshari Gavayi (1995), which was a Hindustani classical music-based composition by Hamsalekha.

Balasubrahmanyam recorded three songs for A. R. Rahman in his debut film Roja. He had a long time association with Rahman right from Roja, the latter's debut film. Other popular songs include "July Maadham" from Pudhiya Mugam, which also marked the debut of singer Anupama, "Mannoothu Manthayilae" from Kizhakku Cheemayile which was a folk number and he almost sang all songs in the musical love story Duet and "Thanga Thaamarai" from Minsara Kanavu which fetched him, the sixth and latest of his National Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer till date.

In 2013, Balasubrahmanyam recorded the title song for Chennai Express – "Chennai Express", singing for the lead actor Shahrukh Khan, under the music direction of Vishal-Shekhar. He returned to Bollywood music after being away from it for 15 years.

In May 2020, SPB crooned a song on humanity titled "Bharath Bhoomi" which was composed by Ilaiyaraaja as a tribute to the people such as police, army, doctors, nurses and janitors who have been significantly working amid COVID-19 pandemic. The video song was officially unveiled by Ilaiyaraaja through his official YouTube account on 30 May 2020 in both Tamil and Hindi languages.

Mesmerised Masses Equally With His Voice Dubbing

Balasubrahmanyam accidentally became a dubbing artist with K. Balachander's film Manmadha Leela, the dubbed Telugu version of Manmadha Leelai, providing voice-over for Kamal Haasan. He has also provided voice-overs for various artists, including Kamal Haasan, Rajinikanth, Vishnuvardhan, Salman Khan, K. Bhagyaraj, Mohan, Anil Kapoor, Girish Karnad, Gemini Ganesan, Arjun Sarja, Nagesh, Karthik, and Raghuvaran in various languages. He was assigned as the default dubbing artist for Kamal Haasan in Telugu-dubbed versions of Tamil films. For the Telugu version of Dasavathaaram, he gave voice to seven characters (including the female character) out of ten characters played by Kamal Haasan. He was awarded the Nandi Award for Best Male Dubbing Artist for the films Annamayya and Sri Sai Mahima. He dubbed for Nandamuri Balakrishna for the Tamil version of the movie Sri Rama Rajyam in 2012. He also dubbed for Ben Kingsley in the Telugu-dubbed version of Gandhi.

On 5 August 2020, Balasubrahmanyam tested positive for COVID-19 and was admitted to MGM Healthcare in Chennai. Subsequently, his health deteriorated and he was shifted to the intensive care unit in a critical state. He required a ventilator and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) support. His son Charan provided updates via social media to fans, while members of the Tamil film industry engaged in a mass prayer via Zoom on 20 August and candle light vigils were held by fans outside the hospital. On 7 September, Balasubrahmanyam tested negative, but remained on life support before the end came on Friday.

No death for immortals. SP Balu will live on forever with the thousands of his songs.

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