SPB–The Musical Genius

M Somasekhar 

This article was originally posted on June 5, 2020, but is being re-plugged due to the demise of the legend today (September 25).

As he entered the Platinum Jubilee year of his life on June 4, S P Balasubramanyam, the musical genius continues to enthrall millions of his fans across the globe with his mellifluous and versatile voice.

   I cannot but recall my chance meeting with this legend, popularly known as SPB or Balu, a few Summers ago, on a flight from Bengaluru to Hyderabad. For me, a Journalist, it was the classic instance of ‘button holing’ a star.  

  At Bengaluru airport that evening, I was a totally tired self, after a full day’s work and travel. When I saw SPB embarking the same plane to Hyderabad, I suddenly felt the urge to meet him. Though, I had seen him at close quarters, heard his concerts, that day, somehow, I sensed a wonderful opportunity to meet him in person. 

  My tiredness too started ebbing with the prospect. As the plane landed at RGIA, I quickly walked up to him, introduced myself and earned the turn to disembark alongside, move to the shuttle and cosy beside him in the transit bus. A brief conversation, a picture and an experience for a lifetime followed in those ten minutes of bus ride and walkthrough.  SPB told me that in December 2016, he had completed 50 years–a glorious half a century of melodious, playback singing. 

   That he earned the title of `Gana Gandharva’ (heavenly voice) and respect of top heroes, music directors and audiences of generations is testimony to his immense talents. A household name in South India, SPB continues to have his imprint on Tollywood, Kollywood & Bollywood, like no other singer. 

    With over 40,000 songs in most (16) Indian languages, but predominantly in —Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi, SPB holds a Guinness Record entry too. He is, undoubtedly, among India’s greatest playback singers of all time. 

    My earlier, meeting with SPB goes back to three decades. It was in 1985 that the newspaper baron and film producer under the banner Mayuri Films that Ch Ramoji Rao, made the film 

Natya Mayuri, directed by Singeetam Srinivasa Rao. It was based on the real life of Sudha Chandran, a Bharatanatyam dancer, who suffers a road accident and loses her leg. Undeterred, she gets an artificial `Jaipur foot’ fitted and continues her passion, going on to win a national award too. 

    The film was inspired by a newspaper report on Sudha Chandran. On the terrace of the Eenadu Newspaper, one evening in 1985, Ch Ramoji Rao introduced the actress, SPB, the music director and others to a small group of media. As a PTI reporter, I covered the event interacting with the rising singer, Sripathi Panditharadhula Balasubramanyam. The film won several national awards.

   I learnt, that SPB, though a talented singer from a young age, was more of an ‘accidental’, playback singer. Hailing from a middle class family from Nellore, he was eyeing Civil Services career. In Chennai for the pursuit sometime in 1966, his life changed, with an offer to audition in a Telugu film, Maryada Ramanna by SP Kodandapani. Thereafter, there has been no looking back, for this son of a Harikatha artiste. His sister, S P Sailaja achieved some measure of success as a singer. 

   As he grew in the film world, his voice became instrumental, not just in many hits in South India films, but also bolstered the career’s of heroes-both upcoming and established. His versatility as a singer in terms of variety, richness, modulations, adapting his voice to different heroes, characters and age groups, quickly set him apart from the greats of the time like Ghantasala, P B Sreenivas etc. Like Kishore Kumar of Hindi cinema, his voice just seems to suit any character. 

  “I came to prepare for a career in bureaucracy but ended up as a singer in tinsel-world” he recalled. Now, I do not sing much for films, but am engaged in promoting, spotting and encouraging talent. A mission, I felt was fantastic to undertake, SPB recalled during my recent interaction.     

     Over the years the great singer has also tried his hand at multiple roles-acting, film directing, as music director,  producer and lending voice to actors like Kamala Hasan, Rajnikanth, Anil Kapoor, Raghu Varan, Gemini Ganesan , Girish Karnad etc.. Balu mesmerised audiences by lending his voice to 7 characters (including a female) in Kamal Hasan’s `Dasavataram’.

   In combination with the greats–Ilayaraja, K Vishwanath, A R Rahman,  SPB has scaled great heights in taking Indian cinema music across the globe, singing to huge gatherings in London, Paris, New York, Malaysia, Gulf etc. over the decades. His songs in Sankarabaranam, a classic by K Viswanath, who is also a close relative of his, won both of them international recognition. 

   A R Rahman’s debut film, Roja benefitted with three songs by SPB. The duo was a runaway hit for over a decade in the 1990s. Simultaneously, SPB was lending his voice to Salman Khan, starting with Maine Pyar Kiya. His songs in  Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! , and the duet with Lata MangeshkarDidi Tera Devar Deewana, won the hearts of Hindi cinema lovers too. 

Incidentally, SPB made his debut in Bollywood, sometime in 1981 with the song in Ek Duje Ke Liye with the tune, Tere Mere Beech Mein, for K Balachander in the  Kamala Haasan and Rati Agnihotri starrer. At that time the legend Mohd Rafi too had sung a few songs in Telugu like Naa Madhi Ninnu Pilichindhi  in Aradhana. In 2013, SPB comeback to sing for Shahrukh Khan in Chennai Express. 

In recent years, SPB has shed lot of weight and is energetic and passionate to focus on this mission to encourage fresh talent. His TV show ‘Padutha theeyaga’ never cease to enthrall music buffs as he motivates and thrills audiences with a huge sense of humour. 

   He is known for his modesty and respect for elders as well as extending a helping hand for charity shows on innumerable occasions. The way he handled the unsavoury, run in with Ilayaraja during 2017 on matters of copyright also show his maturity. The issue broke when Ilaiyaraaja slapped a legal notice on SPB, then in the thick of his SPB50’s US leg of the concert tour organised by his son, who too is a singer. 

   He lost no time in acknowledging that he was not aware of the law and would respect it. SPB went ahead completing the tour successfully without Ilaiyaraaja’s songs. Within the next two years, the two greats reportedly settled the differences. 

   Life has not always been rosy for SPB. His forays into film production have not been particularly successful. His experimental sci-fi film Aditya 365, a trip in the time Machine being one example. He tried acting too. 

  We signed off our memorable meeting with mutual greetings and I fondly wish that SPB continues to enrich music with what he calls `a God given gift of voice’ for generations to come and thrill listeners worldwide.

Somasekhar Mulugu, former Associate Editor & Chief of Bureau of The Hindu BusinessLine, is a well-known political, business and science writer and analyst based in Hyderabad.

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