Great singer, greater human being
Whether you like South Indian film music or not, there is no way you can ever have anyone saying that he doesn't like S P Balasubramaniam, popularly known by the obvious shortening of his name SPB. The avuncular roly-poly SPB is the Sivaji Ganesan of singing. And this is no facile labeling.
In a career spanning over three decades, SPB has sung over 40,000 songs in various Indian languages and is still going strong. Winner of several accolades and awards, Balasubramaniam is a multi-faceted personality - a singer, actor, producer, and music - composer and dubbing artiste all in one.
Still young in his voice, SPB celebrates his birthday today. It is more than coincidence, and appropriate that SPB and Ilayaraja celebrate their birthdays within a gap of a couple of days. For the duo changed the face of South Indian film music like never before. The combination has verily created magic for listener's world over, and no amount of words can do justice to the duo's impact. A generation of listeners has been shaped up by them. More pertinently, a generation of singers and musicians has been impacted by them. This is a testimony to their undoubted talent, style, professionalism and beyond all their simplicity.
Both SPB and Ilayaraja share another common feature - they are not formally trained in music. This makes their achievements even more remarkable.
S P B was born as Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubramaniam into an orthodox Saivite Brahmin family on 4 June 1946 in Konetammapeta in the Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh. His father SP Sambamurthy was a well-known exponent of Harikatha.
The young Balasubramaniam took to singing as a hobby during his childhood. He developed an interest in music very early in his life, but had no formal training. He was preparing for a career in engineering, but destiny had different (and right ideas) for him. The paunchy youngster, through a catena of happy events, ended up facing the mike for singing.
Music director SP Kodandapani took him under his wing. One thing lead to another and the rest, as they says, is symphony. The rise of SPB in the late 60s and early 70s was phenomenal. And by the 80s, he was the monarch of all he surveyed as he was the voice of Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam movies.
Balasubramaniam made his debut in film music as a singer in 1966 with Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna, a film scored by his mentor Kodandapani.
A gifted singer, he is highly regarded for his incredible vocal range, deep rich voice, and mastery of style, technique and control. These qualities allowed him expression across various genres of Indian music, and he has been highly sought after by many of India's film music composers.
SPB is fairly well-versed in the Hindi language, but has also sung in various other less familiar languages such as Bengali, Tulu and Oriya. He has performed both the popular and classical music of India. For example, the songs he performed in the films Sankarabharanam, Sagara Sangamam, Rudra Veena were based on Carnatic classical music.
Winner of various awards including Padma Sri and national award for his songs in various films including Sankarabharanam, Ek Duje Ke Liye, Rudraveena, Ganayogi Panchakshari Gavayi and Minsaara Kanavu. SPB holds the record for singing (recording) 19 songs in Tamil in a day, and 16 songs in Hindi in a day, which is a notable achievement.
He has also given voice for various artists like Kamal Haasan, Bhagyaraj, Mohan, Girish Karnad, Gemini Ganesh, Nagesh, and Karthik.
But SPB is no mere musical pony, he has a wider gamut of accomplishments. SPB is an actor, music director and film producer.
As an actor, his roles in films including Manathil Uruthi Vendum, Avvai Shanmugi, Thiruda Thiruda, Guna, Kadhalan, Ratchagan, Kadhal Desam, Minsara Kanavu, Sigaram and Keladi Kanmani won him accolades. He was the music director of many Kannada movies and Tamil films like Thudikkum Karangal and Sigaram.
For a man who has sung nearly 40,000 songs, it is obvious that it is impossible to single out his best ones. Almost all his output is the point about his singing is that he suits his voice to the actor without any apparent effort. Though he has confessed that he doesn't make any change for, say Kamal or Rajnikanth, the result on the listeners' ears is however different. It seems as if they are listening Kamal or Rajni himself.
The other great thing about SPB is that his voice, after nearly four decades in the industry, has still not lost its youthful exuberance or infectious enthusiasm. SPB's range is also amazing. There maybe better singers in a particular style than him. But there is none to touch his versatility or variations. In that sense, he is the Bradman of singing.
SPB, despite his enormous achievements that are sure to stand the test of time, has remained a humble and ever approachable human being. This is something that any achiever, in whatever field, should try to emulate. He still approaches life with humility and sincerity. And that, sirs, is the nub of the man: A nice human being.
A great performer and a good person ----- you cannot say the two things about the same person. But with SPB you can. That is his greatness.
Having seen three generations of performers, SPB still marches forward with glee.