Chennai: The voice from the south that mesmerised Indian cinema, across geographical regions and ages for 54 years, has fallen silent with the passing away of leading playback singer S P Balasubrahmanyam in Chennai on Friday afternoon. His son and singer S P Charan confirmed his death to journalists waiting at the private hospital where he was admitted on August 5 after testing positive for COVID-19.
Popularly called SPB and known as Balu to his film world peers, the 74-year-old multifaceted singer, actor, dubbing artiste and film producer, lost his long battle to complications arising from COVID-19, drowning his fans and the tinsel town in sorrow.
Starting his career as a playback singer in the Telugu film industry at the age of 20, SPB went on to sing eternally popular numbers for top heroes in all south Indian languages and Hindi among others. He holds the record of singing over 40,000 songs in over a dozen languages.
If in Tamil he sang for demi-gods of the yesteryears such as M G Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan and reigning stars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, SPB debuted in Bollywood with Ek Duje Ke Liye in the early 1980s and went on to become the voice of Salman Khan in his smashing hits Maine Pyar Kiya and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun.
A self-professed fan of Mohamed Rafi, SPB remains the only truly pan-Indian singer from the south, who has achieved success in such scale in Bollywood. His 'Tere mere beech mein' in Ek Duje Ke Liye; 'Yeh haseen vadiyan' in Roja and 'Aaja shaam hone aayee' in Main Pyar Kiya remain among the popular chartbusters till this day.
Born in Andhra Pradesh as Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam in June 1946, the singer had little formal training in music. He dropped out of an engineering degree course to make a debut in Tollywood at the age of 20. Though his debut in Bollywood was not easy, once he mesmerised the audience there was no looking back. He once recalled how he would record 15 to 20 songs for the composer duo Anand-Milind in Mumbai and take the last flight back to Chennai, the Kollywood hub.
For those rooting for his melodious carnatic renditions in the 1980-Telugu film Sankarabharanam, it would be difficult to believe that he had taken up the assignment reluctantly. With no grounding in carnatic music, SPB was not game for it but director K Vishwanath convinced him to sing the compositions which not only became a hit but also fetched him the first national award for playback singing.
In one of his interviews in recent years, he admitted that even after five decades of success, he would get jittery performing on a stage. Yet he loved the stage as he felt it would help him correct mistakes. He would vouch for the importance of rehearsals even in his 70s. “Lata Mangeshkar rehearses before a programme even now,” he told an interviewer while sharing why it was inevitable to practice before every show. SPB developed a bond with his lyricist, music director and technicians, which he saw as a necessity to give his best performance. He would regret that many present-day singers never took the effort to know about the composers and lyricists.
While describing Rafi’s style of singing, which he acknowledged having emulated, SPB once cited the number 'Ye mera prem patra padhkar' in Sangam, and rather poetically said “Just listen to how Rafi saab articulates the word ‘zindagi’ (in the song). It’s to die for!”
For the SPB fan, his zindagi (life) that revolved around songs is to die for.