Renowned Indian singer SP Balasubrahmanyam has died after contracting Covid-19. Balasubrahmanyam, 74, died on Friday after spending days in intensive care in a hospital in the southern city of Chennai. SPB, as he was popularly known, sang more than 40,000 songs for movies in 16 Indian languages over 50 years. Celebrities and fans alike have paid tributes to him, acknowledging his contribution to music. Balasubrahmanyam tested positive for Covid-19 in early August and was admitted to hospital soon after. He tested negative in September but continued to receive life support treatment. The hospital where he was being treated said in a statement that he died of a cardio-respiratory arrest.
As news of his death broke, social media was flooded with condolences and memories as people recollected some of their favourite songs sung by him. He was a legendary “playback singer” that is, his voice was pre-recorded for use in films in which actors would lip-sync to the songs. He sang for top composers of his time, including AR Rahman and Ilaiyaraaja. Balasubrahmanyam began his career in Tamil and Telugu cinema in southern India – but he was also the first crossover singer who gained success in Bollywood. His breakthrough Bollywood film came in 1981 when he sang for Ek Duuje Ke Liye (We Are Made For Each Other), a romantic tragedy that was one of the year’s biggest hits. He was hailed as a singing sensation despite his marked southern accent and became the ‘singing voice’ for Bollywood superstars such as Salman Khan.
Born in 1946 into a middle class family from Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, Balasubrahmanyam broke many social norms despite his traditional upbringing. Although his father was a devotional singer, Balasubrahmanyam did not go through the rigours of learning classical music which was a norm at most homes. Instead, he moved to the big city of Madras (now called Chennai) as a young man and formed a band with his friends. It included Ilaiyaraaja, who would go on to become an acclaimed music composer, as the guitarist and others who played harmonica and percussion. Balasubrahmanyam dropped out from engineering studies in college to take up singing after he was talent-spotted at a music competition by local film music composers. I planned to be an engineer. Then music turned the course of my life. I realized not to plan and let things play out for me, he said in an interview. Balasubrahmanyam’s first major breakthrough in southern films came when he sang for Tamil superstar MG Ramachandran in a 1969 film Adimai Penn. Singing for a superstar like him changed how the Tamil film world looked at me, he told an interviewer once.
Working in four southern Indian language film industries kept Balasubrahmanyam busy through the 1970s until the end of the last decade. He became the highest paid singer in southern India. Balasubrahmanyam hopped from one music studio to another, recording as many as three new songs every day for more than two decades. At the height of his popularity he once spent 17 hours in a single day recording songs for different composers. In 1981, Balasubrahmanyam created a record by recording 21 new songs in the Kannada language from morning until night for a film music composer. When Bollywood demanded work of him, he would fly to Mumbai, record Hindi songs for films and return to Chennai in the evening. In 1992, he recorded some memorable romantic numbers for Oscar-winning composer AR Rahman for the blockbuster hit, Roja. His versatile voice lent itself to romantic and classical songs. He was also a flamboyant yodeller and sang bouncy dance tracks.
Balasubrahmanyam is a phenomenon. He has a fine voice which always sings true. He has a deep awareness and a basic feel for aesthetics of film music. Adding to all this is a raging enthusiasm; a respect for the art, which is his profession, and an open mind, critic VAK Ranga Rao once said. At the height of Balasubrahmanyam’s fame, love letters, written in blood by his fans, would fill his mailbox. Indian musicians usually don’t smoke because they believe it ruins their singing voices; and many professional singers say they do not drink cold water or eat ice-creams. But Balasubrahmanyam never hid his smoking habits or his love for an iced drink. When he asked for a chilled soft drink before moving into the recording booth, it would cause quite a stir in the studio. I want to stop singing the day I feel cannot, he told an interviewer once. Balasubrahmanyam received two of India’s top civilian honours, Padma Shri in 2001 and Padma Bhushan in 2011.