You don’t get to meet legends everyday, but I was lucky enough to have a memorable rendezvous with one — playback singer Dr S P Balasubrahmanyam. Born in 1946 at Konetampet, music was in his genes as his father, S P Sambamurthy, was a known musician and a harikatha exponent. Balasubrahmanyam took to singing at an early age.
His first break came when he won a talent contest in Chennai and was spotted by the late film music composer, S P Kodandapani, who gave him a chance to sing in the 1966 Telugu film, Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna. Later, Balasubrahmanyam garnered a toehold in Hindi cinema with his popular renditions in the super hit film, Ek Duje Ke Liye.
Having sung a staggering 35,000 songs in films, private albums and TV Serials in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Hindi, Tulu, Oriya, Assamese, Badaga, Sanskrit, English, Konkani, Bengali, Marathi and Punjabi, he still remains one of the most sought-after playback singers in Hindi as well as regional cinema.
A unique trait is that he can sing in various languages effortlessly. Tell him that and he replies, “At a very nascent stage of my career, I had the opportunity to sing songs in different languages. For instance, my second song itself was in Kannada (Nakkare Adhe Swarga). You have got to have the aptitude to learn the language, love it; it requires a lot of homework. But I was able to do it with the help of all the lyricists, directors, assistant directors, co-singers, music directors and actors I have worked with. More than anything, you should love and respect the language to be able to sing with the right emotions,” he says.
In fact, SPB, as he is affectionately known, is also an accomplished actor. “In a way, every singer is an actor. We act before the microphone. If he or she is as comfortable in front of a camera as they are before a microphone, they can do well as actors. I acted in 65 films in Telugu, Tamil and Kannada. I still get lots of offers. But I have become choosy because of my age and time constraints. At the moment, I am working on a Telugu film,” he adds.
Apart from singing and acting, SPB has also dabbled in anchoring and has worked as a music director and producer. Dubbing for actors in more than 100 South Indian movies has brought him immense recognition and awards. Wearing several hats with equal aplomb comes easy if “you have the passion for doing what you like and enjoy doing it.”
SPB is currently anchoring two shows, one in Telugu (Paaduthaa Theeyagaa) and the other in Kannada (Yedhe Thumbi Haaduvenuy). Incidentally, both shows have been running for more than a decade.
“The Telugu reality show is the first of its kind in South India. When Ramoji Rao of ETV asked me to do the show, way back in the mid ‘90s, I said I could not because I was very busy singing at that time and was not sure how I could juggle the two. But his consistent persuasion made me accept the job. I do not consider new singers as competition but rather look at this as a platform to recognise talent. I want to help them hone their skills and guide them.” However, he does not promote musical reality shows that involve children as participants. “I am against children being forced by parents to win these shows.”
SPB recorded 17 songs in Kannada for composer Upendra Kumar in 1981 over a single day, which is a record. He has also recorded 19 songs in Tamil and Telugu in a day and 16 songs in Hindi in a day for music directors Anand-Milind, which is a notable achievement.
SPB admires several singers as he believes that each voice has its own melody and quality but considers Mohammed Rafi as his idol. As a singer, he aspires to be like his idol, but, he never sets challenges for himself. “I take each day as it comes. I try and enjoy every song I sing, and sometimes, if I do fail to deliver, I try to decipher and understand where I went wrong. I always believe we should learn from our mistakes and never repeat them,” he says.