Legendary playback singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam passes away

Published : September 25, 2020 14:48 IST

S.P. Balasubrahmanyam. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

The iconic playback singer of Indian cinema, Dr Sripathi Panditharadhyula Balasubrahmanyam, aka `SPB’ or Balu to millions of music lovers, passed away at a Chennai Hospital on September 25 due to complications arising out of COVID-19 infection.

According to the hospital management, he had turned COVID negative on September 4, but had to remain in the hospital for post-COVID treatment. But on September 24 his condition deteriorated. The next day, i.e., on September 25, he suffered a “cardiorespiratory arrest” around 1 p.m. and passed away.

The 74-year old singer, who had sung nearly half-a- lakh film and devotional songs, the majority of them in South Indian languages and also in Hindi and 14 other Indian languages, was admitted to the city hospital 50 days back, on August 5, when he tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. Initially he put out a video from hospital bed saying that he had “tested positive with mild symptoms”, and preferred hospitalisation instead of home quarantine since his family was worried. He told his fans that he was quite alright and in “good hands”. He was confident that he would be discharged in a day or two.

The management of the hospital in which he was treated, at the time of admission had claimed that his health parameters were under constant monitoring and he had been maintaining normal oxygen saturation too. But in the early hours of August 14 he developed heavy breathing difficulties and was put on ventilator and ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation). Since then his condition remained precarious. People cutting across religious faiths prayed for his recovery across Tamil Nadu. The entire Tamil cinema industry organised a mass prayer for him.

The first week of September saw him “stabilising” slowly. He reportedly responded to calls and could identify people. His son, also a singer-cum-actor, S.P.B. Charan, told the media that his father had turned COVID negative on September 4 but had to “stay in the hospital for some more time”. But on September 24 his condition started deteriorating. The hospital management in its bulletin said that “his condition in the last 24 hours has deteriorated further warranting maximal life support”. It said that his condition was “extremely critical”. The next day, around 1 p.m., the hospital management said he suffered a cardiorespiratory arrest and died. He is survived by his wife and a daughter and son Charan.

SPB, a native of Nellore in undivided Andhra Pradesh, was born on June 4, 1946, in an orthodox Telugu Brahmin family. He had an insatiable love for music and other performing arts from his early days. He may have inherited this love for music and the arts from his father the late S.P. Sambamurthy, who was a Harikatha exponent. He grew up in a family of two brothers and five sisters, one of whom, S.P. Sailaja, is also a play back singer and actor. The Indian government in recognition of his contribution to music, art and cinema conferred upon him the country’s highest civilian awards, Padma Shri (2001) and Padma Bhushan (2011).

His tale of success began with an award he won in a competition in Chennai in 1964. His ravishingly unique voice sounded fresh and naturally romantic. It captivated and mesmerised listeners and composers. His debut song was in the Telugu film Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna in 1966, though his first Tamil song, with playback singer L.R. Eswari and composed by M.S. Viswanathan, in the same period did not see the light of day because the film was not released. But he had a roaring break in late 60s when two of his songs both with veteran singer P. Susheela — one in Gemini Ganesan starrer Shanthi Nilayam (Iyarkai Ennum) and another in M.G. Ramachandran starrer Adimai Penn (Aayiram Nilavae Vaa), which catapulted him to stardom and fame.

He became a household name with the runaway success of the iconic Telugu musical extravaganzas Sankarabaranam and later Sagara Sangamam. In fact, he was not trained in classical music. And he became famous across the nation, when his first Hindi film, Ek Duuje Ke Liye, brought him a slot in the highly competitive Bollywood and a National Award for the Best Male Playback Singer. He worked with almost all stalwarts in the cinema industry in all languages and sent many records tumbling. At one time, between 1980 and 1990, he used to sing 15 to 20 songs a day in different languages to fulfil his commitments.

In Tamil, in which he ruled for almost three decades unchallenged, he worked with giants such as Viswanathan and sang for super heroes like M.G. Ramachandran and Sivaji Ganesan. His association with music director Ilaiyaraaja was from early 1980s when both as young music lovers used to perform music shows across Tamil Nadu as a tiny orchestra team. Later, from the 1990s he teamed up with many young and up and coming music composers including A.R. Rahman. The SPB-Rahman duo gave many scintillating numbers to remember.

He did not confine himself to singing. He donned multiple roles in the film industry such as actor, director, music director, dubbing artiste and producer. This multi-faceted personality had won many awards and recognitions, including national film awards for Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, and Hindi and two dozen Nandi awards from Andhra Pradesh, besides number of Filmfare and other awards.

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