The voice lives on

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Singing legend, S P Balasubrahmanyam passed away in Chennai, last week, after a prolonged battle with the fatal coronavirus. NT BUZZ pays tribute to the departed playback singer whose voice enchanted Indian cinema as well as music lovers over the past fifty years

RAMNATH N PAI RAIKAR  NT NETWORK

When S P Balasubrahmanyam, at the inaugural ceremony of the International Film Festival of India 2016, hummed ‘Tere Mere Beech Mein’ from the film, ‘Ek Duuje Ke Liye’, the movie with which he had made an entry into the Hindi film industry, exactly 35 years after the film’s release, there was a Goa connect.

The iconic film, including this song composed in ‘Raag Shivranjani’, was shot in Goa and now has become a memory of the serene and picturesque place that this region once was. 

The singer, who departed recently, was presented with the Indian Film Personality of the Year Award, at the 47th edition of this film festival held in Goa, in 2016. Before humming the popular song, he had thanked the listeners for not forgetting him during his 50-year-long career. And what a career it had been before he was claimed by the deadly coronavirus. 

When Maran from Sri Lanka, who is a visually-impaired fan of S P Balasubrahmanyam, lost his eyesight in an accident, he could lead his life in darkness only with the consolation provided by the songs sung by the South Indian singer. In fact, the singer went out of his way to fulfil the long time dream of Maran of meeting his idol. He also sang ‘Chinna Pura Ondru’ song for his fan. That shows the effect his voice had on the listeners.

Born Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam, he received countrywide fame and glory after he made his singing debut in the Hindi film industry through the 1981 blockbuster, ‘Ek Duuje Ke Liye’ for which he received the National Award for Best Playback Singer. However, by that time he was already a voice to reckon with in the South Indian film industry and had already won the same award for the song ‘Omkara Naadhanu’ in the 1980 Telugu musical film, ‘Sankarabharanam’. He later went on to win this award four more times, for the 1983 Telugu dance film, ‘Saagara Sangamam’; the 1988 Telugu musical drama, ‘Rudraveena’; the 1995 Kannada biographical film, ‘Sangeetha Sagara Ganayogi Panchakshara Gavai’ and the 1997 Tamil musical romance film, ‘Minsara Kanavu’.

Awards came in leaps and bounds for S P Balasubrahmanyam as he won seven Filmfare Awards, including one for his song ‘Dil Deewana’ in ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’ (1989). A Padma Shri in 2001 and Padma Bhushan in 2011 formed the crowning glory of these awards.

SPB to his legions of fans arrived in the Hindi film industry – the ultimate destination of any Indian playback singer – at the beginning of the 1980s when a void was created in the playback field due to the passing away of legendary singers namely Mukesh and Mohammed Rafi. He was a perfect replacement for providing a singing voice to the Hindi film actors, but something went wrong somewhere. The use of SPB’s voice in Hindi films was initially limited to Kamal Haasan, maybe because Kamal Haasan was the hero for whom he sang upon his arrival in the Hindi film industry. The two worked together in films like ‘Yeh toh Kamaal ho Gaya’ (1982), ‘Zara si Zindagi’ (1983), ‘Ek Nai Paheli’ (1984), ‘Saagar’ (1985) and many more.   

Occasionally SPB sang for other actors like Jeetendra in ‘Ek hi Bhool’ (1981) and ‘Raaste Pyar Ke’ (1982), Anil Kapoor in ‘Hifazat’ (1987) and ‘Jamai Raja’ (1990), and so on. But he did not really get a chance to display his histrionics, except maybe in a film like ‘Teri Payal Mere Geet’ (1993), which had maestro Naushad composing its music. That film had a seven-minute semi-classical title song, a tough song, which was incidentally okayed in one take. “I still remember recording for ‘Teri Payal Mere Geet’. After I sang, Naushad ji was silent before saying the take was perfect; those were the longest 30 seconds of my life,” the singer had later recalled.

‘Maine Pyar Kiya’, which was released in 1989, rejuvenated the career of SPB in the Hindi film industry. He teamed up again with Lata Mangeshkar for this love story, as he had done eight years earlier in ‘Ek Duuje Ke Liye’. The songs were runaway successes just like the film and SPB was identified as the voice of Salman Khan in subsequent films like ‘Patthar Ke Phool’ (1991), ‘Saajan’ (1991), ‘Love’ (1991), ‘Andaz Apna Apna’ (1994) and the biggest of them all, ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun…!’ (1994). During the 1990s, SPB also got to sing some good songs in films like ‘Roja’ (1992), ‘Vansh’ (1992), and ‘Sapnay’ (1997).

The new century witnessed SPB keeping away from the Hindi film industry and concentrating on South Indian films. In 2013, he recorded the title song for ‘Chennai Express’ singing for the lead actor Shah Rukh Khan, under the music direction of Vishal-Shekhar, breaking his 15-year hiatus from Hindi cinema music. However, one can easily deduce that the Hindi film industry, unfortunately, did not fully exploit the potential of this talented singer.

Another interesting facet of SPB’s talent was his acting skill. He acted in a number of South Indian films including ‘Pakkinti Ammayi’, a 1981 Telugu film based on the Mehmood-Kishore Kumar fun film ‘Padosan’ (1968), in which he essayed the role played by Kishore Kumar in the original. Interestingly, SPB was also a dubbing artiste and had even dubbed for Ben Kingsley in the Telugu-dubbed version of ‘Gandhi’ (1982).

Making his singing debut in 1967 with the Telugu movie, ‘Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna’, SPB went on to sing over 40,000 songs in as many as 16 languages. Subsequently, he won a place the Guinness World Record for recording the highest number of songs by a singer.

SPB also travelled around the world performing in stage shows with leading singers including Lata Mangeshkar. He even celebrated 50 years of his singing career at a stage concert in Singapore in 2017.

In May 2020, SPB crooned a song on humanity titled ‘Bharath Bhoomi’, which was composed by Ilaiyaraaja as a tribute to the corona warriors who have been significantly working amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The music video was officially unveiled by Ilaiyaraaja through his official YouTube account on May 30, 2020, in both Tamil and Hindi languages. Four months later he was gone, succumbing to the same deadly virus, leaving behind the legacy of his countless songs.