S.P. Bala: A 40,000-Song Indian Legend

S.P. Bala: A 40,000-Song Indian Legend

India has the distinction of producing some of the world’s greatest singers, with intensity, range and vocals that only seem to get better with each decade.  S.P. Bala, who regaled us for over five decades, had another rare distinction: 40,000 songs under his belt. That too for a man so afraid once to try out his voice in a studio, that he had to be coaxed. 

Until his passing on Sept. 25, 2020, at the age of 74 from complications related to Covid-19, SPB, as he was referred to by his initials, sung in as many as 16 Indian languages including Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, and Hindi over a span of nearly 55 years.

He was also a voice-over artist for iconic Tamil actor Kamal Hassan and an erstwhile actor in his own right.

SPB had another quality rare among super legends of his stature: an absolute down-to-earth humility that allowed him to appreciate and interact with the youngest of singers, prompting a near-divine reverence from his fans.

“I can only thank God everyday for giving me the kind of teachers I had,” he’d often say in interviews and speeches. Of Tamil film’s maestro Illayaraja, he’d say: “He’s like a brother who led the way in life for me.” Of Indian musical wizard and Oscar winner A.R. Rahman: “Young enough to be my son, yet knowledgeable enough to be my guru.” Of S.Janaki, one of the three living nightingales of Tamil music from the 1960s: “It was Janaki maa who got me into professional singing. I was so afraid to even try out in the studio. She coaxed me.”

Born as Sripathi Paditha Arathyula Balasubramaniam, in 1946, to Nelloor-based Harikatha exponent SP Sambamurthy, SPB’s ambition was to become an engineer. His failure to clear a subject in his PUC course forced him to pursue the now-defunct AMIE course in Chennai. But the music coursing in his blood lured him towards singing competitions, and finally to the film world.

SPB developed an interest in music at an early age, studied notations and learned music. He continued to pursue music during his engineering studies and won awards at singing competitions. In 1964, he won the first prize in a music competition for amateur singers organised by the Madras-based Telugu Cultural Organisation. He was the leader of a light music troupe that had two key members who would have a lifelong association with him in music — Ilaiyaraaja and his brother Gangai Amaran.

He landed his first professional singing opportunity in 1966 after his talent was spotted by composer S.P. Kothandapani, who was in the audience at a song competition the young SPB participated in. 

Over the decades that followed, SPB sang thousands of songs in South Indian languages and in Hindi for five decades for generations of actors — from MGR, Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan, down to the stars of the present — and won six national awards. He also won the hearts of millions across the world, rendering songs that marked milestones in many lives.

SPB’s voice effortlessly captured varied human emotions and feelings. In one scene he would sing a spoof, and in another, he would powerfully express the anguished mind. Besides singing, he acted in films such as Manathil Uruthi Vendum, Keladi Kanmani and Sikaram, and also scored music for some films.

In Tamil, he was known as Paadum Nila, literally meaning “Serenading Moon”. “His was a breeze-like voice of A.M Raja, with the softness of the P.B. Srinivas and the effortlessness of Mohamed Rafi,” said film music historian Vamanan, noting particularly the lilt in SPB’s voice that had the finest traces of great singers. 

Looking back, even after he secured a toehold in the Telugu industry, a break in Tamil films proved elusive until an introduction to music director M.S. Viswanthan through his friend Bharani. SPB chose to render Nilava Ennidam Nerungathy before MSV, who liked the voice, but had reservations about his Tamil pronunciation.

Overcoming that hurdle, SPB ultimately became MSV’s favorite singer. Of the many tunes composed by MSV, one of SPB’s favorites Ilakkanam Marudho from the film Nizhal Nijamahirathu.

It was actually a chance meeting with MSV that opened the doors of Tamil film music to SPB. He came in like a fresh breeze with Iyarkai Ennum Ilayakanni, for the film Santhi Nilayam.

“Though the song was recorded first, another song, Aayiram Nilave Vaa in the MGR-starrer Adimaipen reached the public first — the film was released earlier in the year 1969,” recalls Vamanan.

Both songs became hits overnight. MGR, or M.G. Ramachandran, would go on to become South India’s Chief Minister. But before that, his film career in Tamil was breaking records. Composer K.V. Mahadevan decided to try the up-and-coming SPB to voice MGR for the first time in a song.

The rehearsals went well but SPB came down with malaria shortly after. But MGR waited till he recovered. “MGR told me that he did not want to disappoint me. He felt that I would have informed my friends and if I was not given the opportunity, my friends would not think well of my capacity as a singer,” SPB once said.

Later in the film Suryakanthi, he sang the number Naan Endral Avalum Naanum.  Rendering English verses in that song was Jayalalithaa Jayaram, a popular actress who had a cozy off-screen relationship with MGR and, ironically, went on to become Tamilnadu Chief Minister too. His playback songs for Sivaji Ganesan, particularly Pootuvaitha Mugamo in Sumathi En Sundari and Emuna Nadhi Inkey in Gowravam, were equally popular.

For MGR, SPB also sang Aval Oru Navarasa Natakam in the film Ulagam Suttrum Vaaliban and Paadum Pothu Naan Thendral Kattru and Angey Varuvathu Yaro in the film Netru Indru Naalai. MSV continued to use SPB in films of all actors.

Even though he worked with other music directors like V. Kumar, Vijaybaskar and Shyam, SPB’s career graph ascended with the arrival of Ilayaraja and actors such as Rajinikant and Kamal Haasan.

Even with Ilayaraja it did not happen immediately. SPB could not get an opportunity in Annakili, Patrakalai, Kavikuyil, Durgadevi, Deepam and Thunai Iruppal Meenakshi. Once the combination began though, it proved unstoppable. Bhuvana Oru Kelvikuri offered him two outstanding songs — Raja Enbar Mandhiri Enbar and Vizhiyile Malarnthathu. The duets he rendered with S. Janaki were irreplaceable.

At a time when Ilayaraja started dominating film music, MSV’s music for Ninaithale Inikkum rocked and almost all the songs were rendered by SPB in the film. Later when MSV and Ilayaraja came together to score music for Mella Thiranthathu Kathavu, SPB was their natural choice.

Actor Mohan benefited enormously from the music of Ilayaraja and voice of SPB. Almost all the songs in his films proved great numbers. His voice remained eternally youthful and he enthralled his fans by appearing on stage with light music troupes.

He and Ilayaraja had a small falling out after the music director prevented him from singing on stage the songs composed by him, based on copyright claims. The two patched up though later, in a public event.

SPB bagged his first national award for Sankarabharanam, even though all the songs in the Telugu film are based on pure Carnatic ragas. He was never formally trained in Carnatic music, but that did not stop him, not then, not ever. “Even SPB had apprehensions about taking on the assignment as he had no proper training in classical music. It was T.K. Pugazhlendi, the assistant of music director K.V. Mahadevan who persuaded SPB to render the songs,” said Vamanan. And what a hit they turned out to be.

The second time he won the award, was for his first Hindi song, Tere Mere Beech Mein in the film Ek Duuje Ke Liye. Two more awards came his way for the Telugu films Sagarasangamam and Rudraveena. Sangeetha Sagara Ganayogi Panchakshara Gavai, the Kannada film won him the fifth national award.

The award for Tamil films eluded him many years even though his collaboration with music directors Ilayaraja and M.S. Viswanathan had resulted in innumerable memorable duets, solos, folk songs, spoofs and songs with classical touches. He finally won it for the song Thanga Thamarai in the film Minsara Kanavu for which the music was scored by A.R. Rahman.

SPB in an interview said Tamil films offered a lot of scenes and scope in which a song sat perfectly, without any artificiality.

“Anyone who had listened to the part he rendered for Shoban Babu would have realised the potential in the voice. It proved to be a prelude for a record career in film music,” said Vamanan. As they say, the rest was history.

  • Adapted from a tribute in The Hindu
  • Banner image: News18.com



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