SPB’s melodious voice reverberates | Sunday Observer

SPB’s melodious voice reverberates

1 November, 2020

“The music world has lost one of its favourite playback singers who entertained millions of fans with his mellifluous voice. The untimely death of Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam, popularly known as SPB, has created a musical vacuum difficult to fill,” said Nagalingam Kumarakuruparan, an Indologist based in Hyderabad, India in an e-mail interview with the Sunday Observer. Excerpts:

S.P. Balasubrahmanyam is a multi-dimensional personality whose interests embraced aspects of life ranging from music to poetry and cinema to literature. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he was not a career playback singer. He was a rare person who wanted to bring about a paradigm shift to lacklustre Indian cinema music, especially, the South Indian cinema music. His melodious voice reverberated through the length and breadth of India and beyond.

SPB was the undisputed king of playback male singers. He did not become a superstar overnight. He came to that position by the dint of hard work and dedication. He was born in Nellore, Andhra Pradesh, India to a Brahmin family on June 4, 1946. His father, S.P. Sambamurthy, was a Harikatha artiste who used to sing about the glory of gods and goddesses. His mother, Sakunthalamma died in 2019. His sister S.P. Sailaja was one-time a popular South Indian singer.

Balasubrahmanyam learned music at an early age. Although he joined the JNTU College of Engineering in Anantapur, he had to discontinue his studies due to illness. However, he later completed his studies and became an associate member of the Institution of Engineers in Chennai.


Despite being a qualified engineer, he continued to pursue his music. He soon realised that he was more a musician than an engineer. In 1964 he won the first prize in a music competition for amateur singers conducted by the Madras-based Telugu Cultural Organization. At the same time he functioned as the leader of a light music troupe which included Ilaiyaraja who later became one of the leading cine music directors in India. Ilaiyaraja played the harmonium while his brother Bhaskar played the percussion. His younger brother Gangai Ammaran played the guitar.

SPB associated with Ilaiyaraja even before the latter entered the cine field. In the early days he used to sing in towns and villages of South India. Ilaiyaraja then an unknown harmonium player accompanied SPB in his concerts. In fact, Ilaiyaraja was introduced to Balasubrahmanyam by Bharatiraja, a small-time film director. Bharatiraja later became very famous as a film director. He directed many blockbusters and won a number of national awards.

Lady Luck smiled on Balasubrahmanyam when he took part in a music competition. On the panel of judges was S. Janaki, a famous playback singer.

Impressed by SPB’s talents as a singer, she introduced him to a leading Telugu music director. SPB’s first break into cinema music came when he made his debut as a playback singer in a Telugu film in 1966. After three years he sang a Tamil duet with P. Susheela in Shanti Nilayam. In 1969 he recorded a song for M.G. Ramachandran’s film ‘AdiMaipen.’ It gave a big boost to his fame as a playback singer. Unfortunately, while recording the song SPB fell ill, but the director did not want to postpone the proceedings. He wanted to engage the services of another playback singer. However, when MGR came to know about it, he asked the music director to postpone the recording until SPB recovered from his illness.


Later SPB visited MGR’s residence to thank him for his kindness. MGR said, “Balu, I know, you would have told your friends and relatives about this song. They must be eagerly waiting to listen to your song. I didn’t want to disappoint them.” When the film was released the song Aayiram Nilavae Vaa (Let thousand moons appear) sung by SPB became a number one hit. The song also gave him a turbo boost to his fame as a playback singer.

SPB acquired international fame with the release of the film ‘Sankarabharanam’ in 1980. It was one of the best films to be produced in the Telugu film industry. He received his first National Film Award for Best Male Playback Singer for the film. His first Hindi film was In ekduujekeliye screened in 1981. In recognition of the songs he had sung for the film, he was given the National Film Award for Best Male Playback singer.

In later years, SPB began to sing more songs in South Indian languages. He sang with Ilaiyaraja and S. Janaki. The trio was highly successful in the 1970s and 1980s.

Most of the film songs were based on classical music. Both SPB and Ilaiyaraja won National Awards for Best Male Playback Singer and Best Music director respectively for their songs in SaagaraSangamam (1983) and Rudraveena (1988). SPB won the prestigious Filmfare Award for Best Male Playback singer for his song Dil Deewana in Salman Khan blockbuster Maine PyarKiya. Another Salman Khan film Hum aapkehainkoun’ became the highest-grossing Hindi film at the time. In that film SPB’s duet with Lata Mangeshkar, Diditera deva deevan became an instant hit making him one of the leading playback singers in India.


In the 1990s SPB’s close association with the leading music director A.R. Rahman turned out to be a tremendous success. He established a new record by singing a large number of songs in a single day. For instance, he sang 21 songs in Kannada on February 8, 1981. In addition, he sang 19 songs in Tamil and 16 songs in Hindi on a single day. In his illustrious career as a playback singer, SPB has sung well over 40,000 songs in different languages.

In recognition of his contribution to music, he received the Padma Shri Award in 2001 and the Padma Bhushan Award in 2011 from the Government of India. He has visited Sri Lanka on several occasions. His last visit to Sri Lanka was in January 2020 to receive an award for lifetime achievement instituted by VTV Theivanayagam Foundation and the Colombo Kamban Kazagam.

When Nagalingam Kumarakuruparan (NK) met Balasubrahmanyam on a flight from Chennai to Delhi, he appeared to be a humble and accessible person despite his fame as a playback singer. NK still remembers SPB’s infectious laughter and cheerful bonhomie. He still remembers SPB’s memorable words, “Music has provided a wonderful soundtrack to my life in general. Different genres of music appeal to me. They may be Indian, Western, classical or folk. I have never limited myself to one style because music speaks a universal language. Music has taught me that life constantly redeems itself, even during the most difficult and strenuous times.”

In May 2020, SPB crooned a song on humanity titled Bharath Bhoomi composed by Ilaiyaraja as a tribute to the police, doctors, nurses and municipal workers who had been working relentlessly during the Covid-19 pandemic. The video was officially released on May 30, 2020. On August 5, 2020 SPB tested Covid-19 positive and was admitted to MGM Hospital. He passed away on September 24, 2020 leaving his wife Savitri, daughter Pallavi and son Charan. Despite his untimely death, SPB’s haunting melodies still linger in our collective memory.

[email protected]