In fond memory: SP Balasubrahmanyam — matchless musician, a nek insaan

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September 26, 2020 8:47 AM

Balasubrahmanyam, fondly called SPB and Balu, was admitted to the hospital on August 5 after he tested positive for Covid- 19.

SP Balasubrahmanyam (June 1946 - September 2020)

Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam, legendary playback singer, composer, actor, producer and the musician whose evocative voice and the earnestness in it could elevate a simple piece of music to absolute subliminity, died on Friday afternoon of a cardio-respiratory arrest at MGM Healthcare in Chennai.

Balasubrahmanyam, fondly called SPB and Balu, was admitted to the hospital on August 5 after he tested positive for Covid- 19. He was later shifted to the ICU after he developed severe pneumonia due to further complications. He is survived by wife Savithri, son SP Charan and daughter Pallavi. He was 74. Outside the hospital an emotional Charan told the reporters, “SPB belongs to everyone. He will live on in his songs”.

The news of the musician’s death sent legions of his fans into mourning. Subrahmanyam, believed to be one of the finest male playback singers with a 50-year-long career, transcended language barriers by singing in 16 of them including Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Tamil among others. He found success in the Hindi film industry but a lot more in South Indian film music — a cult status and genuine affection from people. From MG Ramachandran (MGR), Sivaji Ganesan, Gemini Ganesan to Kamal Hassan, Rajanikanth, Mohan and a slew of actors in the present day, Subrahmanyam’s voice was often the fixture for all of them. That he held the Guinness Book of World Record for singing the highest number of songs ever (40,000 songs) was just another feather in his cap. In all of them, that tender, velvety voice triumphantly stood out as one of a kind — one that was unpretentious and yet grand. And that’s where the magic nestled. Here north and south and the politics of their languages didn’t matter.

And to think that his voice was turned down once upon a time. During the music making process of filmmaker S Balachandar’s Rati Agnihotri and Kamal Haasan starrer Ek Duje ke Liye (1981) — Hindi remake of the director’s Telugu film Maro Charitra — composers Laxmikant-Pyarelal were displeased. They felt that Balasubrahmanyam, the “Madrasi” singer they were asked to work with, could not accurately pronounce Anand Bakshi’s Hindustani lyrics. Balachandar’s condition was clear — Balasubramaniam was to sing for Haasan, since Vasu, his character was not supposed to be good at Hindi. The composer duo relented.

The songs in Balasubramaniam’s smooth baritone, many of which were duets with Lata Mangeshkar, captured the nation’s attention. The mix of his trademark sincerity paired with a soft timbre made the musician a national phenomena. The following year Balasubramaniam received the National Award for the Best Male Playback Singer for the famed lament Tere mere beech mein in the pathos-driven raga Shivranjini. Even Lakshmikant Pyarelal turned a corner. They cast him as Salman Khan’s voice in Sooraj Barjatya’s famed project Maine Pyaar Kiya (1989). The voice fit Khan like a glove. Balasubrahmanyam continued being Khan’s voice throughout the 90s in his subsequent successes such as Andaz Apna Apna (1994) in the song Ye raat aur ye doori and many in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994) among others.

In a condolence message on Twitter, Haasan said, “A great singer who sang for four generations of heroes will be remembered for seven generations to come.”, while Mangeshkar referred to him as “nek insaan (good person)”

Balasubrahmanyam was born in Konetampet village located in present day Tiruvallur into a Telugu family to a Harikatha artiste and his wife. His interest in music began early. Bright in academics, Balasubrahmanyam wanted to become an engineer and took admission in Anantpur, Andhra Pradesh. While going to college on his cycle he would often hear Deewana huya baadal, the melodious OP Nayyar ditty immortalised by Mohammad Rafi, in a shop. “I could hear Rafi sahab’s smile in that song. I would cry… it felt nearest to godliness,” Subrahmanyam had said once in a conversation with singer Sonu Nigam on the sets of the show SaReGaMa.

In his early 20s Balasubrahmanyam was also the leader of a music group that had him as a vocalist and his friend Illiyaraja on the harmonium. They would perform with a few others in small villages and cities, take part in competitions and visit composers for work. Finally Balasubrahmanyam made his singing debut in 1966 with Telugu movie Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna, which was scored by his mentor, SP Kodandapani. He soon began recording songs in Tamil and Kannada. His song Aayiram nilave vaa, picturised on MGR and J Jayalalitha in the 1969 film Adimai Penn was a huge success.

But what turned Balasubrahmanyam into a force to reckon with was Sankarabharanam (1980), the Telugu musical drama, which remains one of the finest films on the subject of classical music. Iconic singer M Balamuralikrishna was the top choice for the complex Carnatic classical compositions. But composer K Mahadevan decided on Balasubrahmanyam, who eventually won his first National Award for the songs. In the Tamil industry, he worked extensively with his friend Illiyaraja, M.S. Viswanathan and later AR Rahman among others. The collaboration between him and Rahman for the song Thanga Thamarai won the singer another National Award, his first for a Tamil song. There was also the title song of Roja where the two collaborated. The tender romanticism paired with powerful vocals is likely to remain one of the singer’s finest hours.

Balasubrahmanyam was also a well-known dubbing artiste and dubbed for Hassan, Rajnikanth, Salman Khan, Anil Kapoor among others for Telugu versions of their films. He also acted in a few films.

In 1997, there was a rare live concert by Lata Mangeshkar titled “Lata An Era In An Evening”. It was significant because it was televised and had every major name from the film industry present. For one of its segments, Mangeshkar invited Balasubrahmanyam to sing with her and said, “Inka upkaar rahega mujh par ki ye mere liye aaye. (It’s his beneficence that he has come for me.” Balasubrahmanyam gave Mangeshkar a toothy smile and said, “Jab bhagwaan bulaate hai toh aana hi padta hai (When god calls out, you have to show up),” before breaking into their famed pieces together.

With inputs by Arun Janardhanan

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