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Singing Moon: The brilliance of SP Balasubhrahmanyam

Gautam Chintamani
·6-min read

At the time he was to sing his first duet with the legendary Lata Mangeshkar, S.P. Balasubhrahmanyam was a bit nervous. It was not a case of nerves that got the singer frazzled. SPB, as the singer was fondly referred to by legions of fans as well as the industry, was a well-known singer in his own right and a force to reckon with in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada films.

The duet was ‘Tere mere beech mein’ from Ek Duje Ke Liya and years later, SPB recalled how in a line of the song, he to tell Lata ji that she sang well. Even though he was enacting a character’s action, S.P. Balasubhrahmanyam found it an affront to say such a thing to the great Lata Mangeshkar.

This incident revealed a side of the singer that remains hidden from most. That SPB was one of the greatest singers in India is a well-known fact and there is hardly any dispute about the man’s humility but in the process of enumerating the ways SPB was great, the simple truth that he was one of the kindest souls in the business often gets missed.

His death at 74 on 25 September 2020 following COVOD-19 is a loss that cannot be summarised in words.

Born on 4 June 1946 in Nellore, which was a part of the Madras Presidency then, SPB studied to be an engineer. He often participated in music competitions during that period.

Additionally, he also sang for a music troupe that featured future music great Ilaiyaraaja with whom SPB would go on to collaborate on many classics. In a music competition that was judged by S. P. Kodandapani and Ghantasala, Balasubhrahmanyam emerged as the best singer and some time later, Kodandapani gave him a break in Telugu films.

S.P. Balasubhrahmanyam started as a playback singer in the mid-1960s in Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna, (1966) under S. P. Kodandapani and soon forayed into Tamil and Kanada films. He sang a few notable songs early on in his career such as ‘Aayiram Nilave Vaa’ in Adimai Penn (1969).
Although Shanti Nilayam (1969) was the first film that Balasubhrahmanyam sang for in Tamil, Adimai Penn ended up releasing earlier. The song featured M.G. Ramachandran on-screen and it more than announced SPB’s arrival.

For the next decade, Balasubhrahmanyam was a constant factor across Tamil and Telugu playback singing and he entered a league of his own with Sankarabharanam (1980), the Telugu classic that also fetched the singer the first of his six National Film Award.

An untrained voice as far as classical music went, Balasubhrahmanyam’s vocal prowess were tested to the limit by the K.V. Mahadevan’s score in Sankarabharanam. As the soundtrack was largely Carnatic music based, the celebrated classical vocalist Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna was the original choice to sing the songs.

However, owing to a packed scheduled, Balamuralikrishna was not able to commit as much time as Mahadevan would have needed and as a result, they turned to Balasubhrahmanyam.

The decade also witnessed a fantastic collaboration between Balasubhrahmanyam and music composer Ilaiyaraaja that delivered all-time greats such as ’Playa Nila Pozhigiruthey’ from Payanangal Mudivathillai (1982) and ‘Mannil Indha Kaadhal’ from Keladi Kanmani (1990), which he sang in a single breath.

In the early 1980s, the Hindi remake of K. Balachander’s Telugu blockbuster Maro Charitra (1978) as Ek Dujje Ke Liye (1981) introduced the brilliance of Balasubhrahmanyam to Hindi audiences.

Composed by Laxmikant–Pyarelal and penned by Anand Bakshi, the songs of Ek Dujje Ke Life became a rage and the Lata-SP duets like ‘Tere Mere Beech Mein’ are remembered to date. The song got SPB a National Film Award and the first of his two Filmfare Awards in Hindi films. Kamal Haasan became a popular pan-India actor with the success of Ek Dujje Ke Liye and in the mid-1980s was also seen as a future superstar in Hindi films.

Balasubhrahmanyam came to be identified as the voice of Kamal Haasan in Hindi films and the two shared an excellent rapport. Interestingly enough, Balasubhrahmanyam had also transitioned into a much-acclaimed dubbing artiste and had dubbed for Ben Kingsley in the Telugu version of Gandhi (1982). He was Kamal Haasan’s ‘voice’ in the Telugu versions of his films.

In addition to Ek Dujje Ke Liye, Sanam Teri Kasam (1984) both in terms of the film as well as music became Kamal Haasan’s other big success in Hindi film. Although R.D. Burman used Kishore Kumar to sing for Haasan in Sanam Teri Kasam, he got Balasubhrahmanyam to croon for Haasan in Saagar (1985). Balasubhrahmanyam sang all the songs that were filmed on Haasan and despite the film’s box office failure, it’s music became a runaway hit.

Beyond Javed Akhtar’s lyrics and Burman’s music, it was Balasubhrahmanyam’s that infused life in the songs that covered a range of emotions. The soundtrack’s iconic hit ‘Sach mere yaar hai’ has endured over the decades and is considered one of the finest songs of not just the decade but also Burman’s body of work.

The two collaborated on many albums including Gardish (1993) that featured the wonderful ‘Hum na samjhe the’ and Aaja Meri Jaan, which changed completely after the composer’s death.

On the face of it, one might not think of Balasubhrahmanyam’s velvet voice for a young star such as Salman Khan and that too in the late 1980s. It was the producers of the film, Rajshri productions, that chose Balasubhrahmanyam top sing for Salman Khan as they felt it was the kind of voice they liked in playback singers for their films. Much like the impact that Yesudas had with Rajshri’s Chitchor (1976), and Dulhan Wahi Jo Piya Man Bhaye (1977), the songs of Maine Pyar Kiya also became runaway hits.

For a better part of the 1990s, when it came to Hindi films, Balasubhrahmanyam was identified as Salman’s voice and featured in the decade’s most popular soundtracks such as Saajan and Hum Aapke Hai Koun…! (1994).

In the early 1990s, SPB also embarked on one of his greatest creative partnerships with AR Rahman’s Roja (1992) in which he sang three songs. Over the years, Rahman and SPB collaboration gave memorable songs in Pudhiya Mugam (1993), Duet (1994), and Minisara Kanavu (1997) and many more.

Once the style of film music changed in Bollywood, SPB drastically reduced his output but made a rare exception to sing the title track for Shah Rukh Khan in Chennai Express (2013).

It would be virtually both impossible as well as insulting to think of few songs as the greatest that S.P. Balasubhrahmanyam ever sang. This is simply because he rendered over 40,000 songs in 16 languages across a career that spanned more than 50 years.

The singer also held world records for recording between 15-20 songs in a single day on multiple occasions for different languages. He also metamorphosed into a fine actor with exceptional comic timing. He was a common face on reality television shows that unearthed fresh talent and also toured extensively for live shows.

Called ‘Paadum Nila’ (Singing Moon) by millions of fans, S.P. Balasubhrahmanyam was blessed by the heavens. He transcended the definition of a playback singer as in the five and a half decades that he sang, SPB’s voice was a constant reminder of the goodness in this world. A legend in every sense of the word, the vacuum he leaves behind shall never cease.