It is never easy to convert music and melody to words. One is universal, the latter, limited. Arguably among the all-time greats of playback music his range made the man and his variety his trademark. Born on June 4, 1946, Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam sure has unmatched reach. Many admire his persona and see him as a singer but he is larger than life. Singer par excellence apart, he is a music director, actor, dubbing artiste.
Quality is the signature of the man. He did not see in this any conflict with quantity. He holds the Guinness World Record for recording the highest number of songs by a singer with over 40,000 songs. Take a peep into his drawing room shelf of trophies: six National Film Awards for Best Male Playback Singer for his works in four different languages: Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, and Hindi, 25 erstwhile Andhra Pradesh State Nandi Awards for his works towards Telugu cinema. Multiple nominations for Filmfare — a winner once, but in the same category from South, six Filmfare Awards in the South. In 2012, he received the State NTR National Award for his contributions to Indian cinema. Recipient of prestigious civilian awards, he was awarded the Padma Shri in 2001 and, a decade later, Padma Bhushan. He was honoured with the ‘Indian Film Personality of the Year’ consisting of a Silver Peacock Medal.
He chanced into being a dubbing artiste by accident with K Balachander’s film ‘Manmadha Leela’, the dubbed Telugu version of ‘Manmadha Leelai’, providing voice-over to Kamal Haasan. The talent was then pressed into service for other artistes including Rajinikanth, Vishnuvardhan, Salman Khan, K Bhagyaraj, Mohan, Anil Kapoor, Girish Karnad, Gemini Ganesan, Arjun Sarja, Nagesh, Karthik, and Raghuvaran in various languages. He was assigned as the default dubbing artiste for Kamal Haasan in Telugu-dubbed versions of Tamil films. For the Telugu version of ‘Dasavathaaram’, he gave voice to seven characters (including the female character) out of ten characters played by Kamal Haasan. Here too, he comes out a winner by being awarded the Nandi Award for Best Male Dubbing Artist for the films ‘Annamayya’ and ‘Sri Sai Mahima’. He dubbed for Nandamuri Balakrishna for the Tamil version of the movie ‘Sri Rama Rajyam’ in 2012. Interestingly, he dubbed for Ben Kingsley in the Telugu version of Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’.
As an actor he has about 75 films in Telugu, Tamil and Kannada languages having made his debut in the 1969 Telugu film ‘Pellante Noorella Panta’.
SPB or Balu as he is popularly referred to, debuted as a playback singer on December 15, 1966, with ‘Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna’, a Telugu film scored by his mentor, SP Kodandapani. Outside of Telugu cinema, his first outing was just eight days after his debut Telugu song — in Kannada in 1966 for the film ‘Nakkare Ade Swarga’, starring Kannada comedy stalwart TR Narasimharaju. Talk of ghost voices a la Dilip – Rafi, Raj – Mukush, Dev – Kishore, Bollywood identified his voice as the Salman Khan’s voice in the ’90s.
In the 1990s, he worked with composers such as Vidyasagar, MM Keeravani, SA Rajkumar and Deva among others, but his association with AR Rahman (started with ‘Roja’) marked a fresh huge milestone in a career already studded with achievements of calibre talent and unique brilliance. When, after a long hiatus, he returned to Bollywood, he did the title song for ‘Chennai Express’, singing for the lead actor Shah Rukh Khan, under the music direction of Vishal-Shekhar.
It is a unique part of our film world that artistes just do not sing a few romantic numbers, make their megabucks and fade. An integral part of some greats is how they gear up to the calls of the nation, albeit in the sphere of their specialty.
In May 2020, he delivered ‘Bharath Bhoomi’, an Ilaiyaraaja composition as a tribute to people such as doctors, nurses, Army personnel, police, and janitors – fighters in the forefront significantly risking life for the war against the Covid-19 pandemic. The video song was officially unveiled by Ilaiyaraaja through his official YouTube account on May 30, 2020, in both Tamil and Hindi languages.
Film music is often seen not just as a presentation in isolation and often the genius of an artiste is also in the adaptability to differing stars, scenarios, images and co-artistes. His association is with virtually the who’s who of the music world. A sample from the list:
Ghantasala, P Susheela, PB Sreenivas, K Raghuramayya, SP Sailaja, S Janaki, KS Chithra, SPB Charan (his son), Sridevi (‘Kshana Kshanam’ – ‘Ko ante koti’), PG Krishnaveni, Sunandha, Radhika (singer, not actor), Sujatha Mohan, Sobha Shankar, Udit Narayanan, Pallavi, Malgudi Subha, Renuka, Anuradha Sriram, MM Keeravani, Gangadhar, Anand, Srilekha, Malavika, Gopika Poornima, Richi, KS Chitra, Usha, Kalpana, Sujatha, Swarnalatha, Sunitha Upadrashta, SPB Pallavi (his daughter), Shreya Ghoshal, Sonu Nigam, Sadhana Sargam, Unnikrishnan, Kavita Krishnamurthy, Reihana (AR Rahman’s sister), Benny Dayaal, Malavika, Hima Bindu, Sowmya, Srinivas, Kathija Rahman, Geetha Madhuri, Pranavi, Shankar Mahadevan, Revanth, Rahul Sipligunj, Rita, Chaitra, Kailash Kher, Sreenidhi, Ramya, Yesudas, Hariharan, Bombay Jayashri, Mohana Bhogaraju, Shweta Mohan. I guess I must stop from exhaustion, not from being exhaustive.
This is a nice small world that this great artiste has built for himself. Even as news of his poor health made the rounds, one of the first posts on social media came from the genius Ilaiyaraaja. The two were involved in a spat with Ilaiyaraaja raising a legal issue when SPB was performing concerts in the US. The man’s response told it all: The singer said, “I am ignorant of the law. If it is a law, so be it and I obey it.” In fact, social media is flooded with photos of the legendary musicians in a warm hug welcoming each other at a studio. He was part of ‘Isai Celebrates Isai’, a four-hour live concert in Chennai by Ilaiyaraaja in 2019.
Music is often rich by the artistes who leave their mark. Sometimes, personalities even transcend that space and create a niche for themselves. When all the gadgets and the archives have rested, the voice will still linger saying: ‘Jaamu ratiri jabilamma jola padana ilaa’.
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