SP Balasubrahmanyam, singer, music composer and occasional actor, died on Friday at a hospital at 1:04 PM in Chennai due to complications from Covid-19. He was 74. Balasubrahmanyam had been hospitalised for over a month after testing positive for Covid-19 in early August, and his condition worsened over the last day.
According to hospital authorities; the veteran playback singer, who was on maximal life support, suffered a cardio-respiratory arrest on Friday.
“In a further setback this morning, despite maximal life support measures and the best efforts of the clinical team, his condition deteriorated further and he suffered a cardio-respiratory arrest. With profound grief, we regret to inform that he has passed away on September 25th at 13:04 hours,” a statement from hospital authorities said.
Balasubrahmanyam had a prolific singing career in Indian movies, singing over 40,000 songs by some accounts, mostly in his native Telugu and Tamil. For over 50 years, Balasubrahmanyam sang thousands of songs for hundreds of music composers, flying from Chennai to Mumbai to Hyderabad, recording relentlessly. He was awarded the Padma Bhushan, India’s third highest civilian award, in 2011 in addition to his six national film awards for singing.
SPB, as he was known, started his career as a playback singer in 1966. He started his career singing several songs in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam under stalwarts like M.S. Viswanathan, G.Devarajan and K.V. Mahadevan; singing behind the scenes for actors like M.G. Ramachandran and ‘Sivaji’ Ganesan.
Balasubrahmanyam had established himself as a singer of repute by the time his friend, music composer Ilaiyaraaja made his debut in Annakili in 1974. The two were good friends even before Ilaiyaraaja’s debut, but Balasubrahmanyam did not sing for Ilaiayaraaja’s first few films. In later interviews, Balasubrahmanyam would recount how he was supposed to sing in Annakili but could not due to a sore throat. Their first song together was Oru Naal Unnodu Oru Naal from Uravaadum Nenjam.
The careers of the duo took off from that point. Ilaiyaraaja was prolific; recording several songs a day, and seemingly reserved his best numbers for his friend Balu. Balasubrahmanyam’s was a special talent tailormade for playback singing. His voice was sensitive and sweet; and a departure from the loud masculinity of the reigning singers of that era. He emoted subtly, pronounced words with care and sang like a dream, elevating every song that he sang. His output was rich, varied and textured, from classical Carnatic music based songs – like the songs in Kadhal Oviyam and KV Mahadevan’s Shankarabaranam to modern, signature ‘SPB songs’ like Paruvame Pudhiya Paadal, Pani Vizhum Malar Vanam, Madai Thiranthu, Mannil Indha Kaadal and AR Rahman’s Thanga Thaamarai Magale and Kadhal Rojave in Tamil; Vedam Anuvanuvna; Cheppalani Undi from Telugu; Jotheyali and Umandu Ghumandu Ghana Gar Je Badara in Kannada. Balasubrahmanyam also continued to collaborate with MS Viswanathan, singing classics like Ilakkanam Marutho and Sippi Irukkudhu.
He had a stop start career in Hindi, with the national award winning Tere Mere Beech Mein his most notable work. He sang several songs for actor Salman Khan when Khan was just starting out, and worked with music directors like RD Burman and Laxmikant-Pyarelal, and later, AR Rahman.
Balasubrahmanyam was also a voice-actor, lending his voice to stars like Kamal Haasan and Bhagyaraj when their movies were dubbed into Telugu from Tamil. He also started playing guest roles in movies in the 1980s, but his breakout role as an actor came in director Vasanth’s Keladi Kanmani, where he played a sensitive widower whose grieving young daughter does not approve of his romantic interest in a woman. His acting was much like his singing – sensitive and subtle. He would recall in a speech later that he missed out on the role of a lifetime when director P Bharathiraaja offered him the lead role in his Mudhal Mariyadhai – the movie, starring Sivaji Ganesan went on to win critical acclaim for both the director and its lead actor.
During his 50-year career, Balasubrahmanyam did numerous stage shows where he sang songs from his movies. He showed time and again that there was no better singer on stage. His pitch perfect singing and lively personality on stage made him a highly sought after performer.
He has had his brushes with health scares. In the 1980s, he underwent surgery on his vocal cords when he “woke up one day and realised he could not hold a note”. He also struggled with his weight throughout his career and was disarmingly self-deprecating about it. In 2012, he underwent bariatric surgery for weight loss, losing nearly 30 kilograms in the process and emerging fitter. He continued to sing prolifically, including for younger generation music directors like AR Rahman, GV Prakash Kumar and Anirudh Ravichander.
SP Balasubrahmanyam was admitted to MGM Healthcare on August 5 after he tested positive for Covid-19. On August 13, the singer’s health condition deteriorated and he was moved to the Intensive Care Unit, according to doctors at MGM. “Based on the advice of the expert medical team attending to him, he has been moved to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and he is on life support and his condition remains critical,” read the statement issued by the hospital at the time.
His son, SPB Charan, who has been posting regular health updates through videos on social media said on Tuesday: “Dad continues the steady progress toward getting better. Ekmo/ventilator, physio therapy continue with oral intake of liquids. He’s been eager to leave the hospital as early as possible.”
But Balasubrahmanyam’s health worsened on Wednesday. MGM Healthcare, the hospital where the late singer was admitted since August 5, issued a health bulletin on Thursday morning that said “Thiru S P Balasubrahmanyam who had been admitted at MGM Healthcare on August 5 remains on ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) and other life support measures. His condition in the last 24 hours has deteriorated further warranting maximal life support and he is extremely critical. The team of experts at MGM Healthcare are closely monitoring his health condition.”
Kamal Haasan, actor and politician, visited the hospital on Thursday night and left after a brief interaction with the media gathered at the hospital. “He is on life-support and his family is praying. I can’t say he is doing well,” he said.
He is survived by his wife, Savithri, daughter Pallavi and son, producer and singer SP Charan.