Community Mourns Death of SPB, Popular Indian Playback Singer

S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, an Indian singer who delivered songs for more than 1,000 movies in a smooth and vibrant voice and in a multitude of regional languages, died on Sept. 25 in Chennai, India. He was 74. The cause was complications of Covid-19, according to a statement from MGM Healthcare, where he had been hospitalized.

The singer was hospitalized at a private hospital in Chennai after testing positive for COVID-19 and was keeping unwell for quite some time now. From Rajinikanth to Kamal Haasan, music maestro AR Rahman to Lata Mangeshkar, celebrities across India took to social media to mourn the death of the singer.

Meanwhile political leaders across the country — President Ram Nath Kovind, Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit, Chief Minister K. Palaniswami, Deputy Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam, DMK President M.K. Stalin, MDMK General Secretary Vaiko, PMK Founder S. Ramadoss and Chief Ministers of several other states mourned the singer’s death. Actor Rajinikanth tweeted: “Balu sir … you have been my voice for many years … your voice and your memories will live with me forever … I will truly miss you …”

 “With the unfortunate demise of Shri S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, our cultural world is a lot poorer,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India wrote on Twitter. “I have no words to say. There can be one and only Balu Sir. I have sung a couple of songs with Balu Sir in Tamil movies. In those days the recording used to be live and it was interesting. He encouraged me a lot. Some months back I had met him. He enquired about my family and me,” playback singer Jency said.

The legendary singer who has recorded over 40,000 songs in 16 languages over a period of five decades, died on Friday afternoon due to cardio-respiratory arrest at the M.G.H. Healthcare. Earlier in the day, hundreds of people stood in a long queue to pay homage to the singer as well as celebrities from the movie world at the farm house.

On August 5, in a Facebook post, the 74-year-old SPB said that he was suffering from a very mild attack of coronavirus and had got himself hospitalized to take rest. He had said that though the doctors had advised him to stay at home and take rest, he decided to be in a hospital, as at home his family members would get concerned.

He hoped to get discharged from the hospital in two days. But it was not to be. For a brief period, he showed some improvement in his health condition and had tested negative for coronavirus on Sept. 4. But on Sept. 24 the hospital said his condition was extremely critical. Since then, the indications about Balasubrahmanyam were not good. He was placed on ECMO and other life support systems. The singer’s family members were present at the hospital.

Director Bharathiraja, after visiting the iconic singer at the hospital, told the media at this time of grief he was not able to say anything. It was movie director Venkat Prabhu who first tweeted about the singer’s death. Prabhu tweeted “#RIPSPB 1:04pm” announcing the sad news.

For more than four decades Mr. Balasubrahmanyam, better known as “S.P.B.” or “Balu” to his fans, was a major presence as a playback singer, who sings tunes that are later lip-synced by actors in India’s movie musicals. His best-known songs were in the languages of Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi.

“I often sit with the lyricists and ask them what they meant to convey so that I get the emotional crux of the song,” he once said in a newspaper interview about having to be expressive in so many languages. “If I think I cannot pronounce something well, I opt out of the song.”

Mr. Balasubrahmanyam was also a music producer and character actor. He won the National Film Award, one of the country’s most prestigious entertainment prizes, six times. He also received two of India’s top civilian honors: the Padma Shri in 2001 and the Padma Bhushan in 2011.

Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam was born on June 4, 1946, in Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, a state in southeastern India. His father, S. P. Sambamurthy, was a singer and stage actor; his mother, Sakunthalamma, was a homemaker.

Mr. Balasubrahmanyam once said that he became a singer by accident. He was studying engineering in college when he won a singing competition, which opened doors for him in the Telugu-language film industry as a playback singer. His first movie performance came in 1966.

Encouraged by his initial success, he went on to perform in a band; one member, Ilayaraja, also became well-known. He broke into Bollywood in 1981. He later collaborated often with the composer A.R. Rahman, who won two Oscars for his work on the hit movie “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008).

Mr. Balasubrahmanyam often spoke of the inspiration he received from Mohammed Rafi, one of the most popular Indian singers in the 1950s and ’60s. “I was so bewildered by the talent with which he was singing,” he said on his YouTube channel in 2019.

He is survived by his wife, Savitri Balasubrahmanyam; his daughter, Pallavi Balasubrahmanyam; his son, S.P.B. Charan; and two grandchildren.

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