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Tamils mourn legendary singer S P Balasubrahmanyam

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The legendary South Indian musician S P Balasubrahmanyam has passed away aged 74.

A prolific playback and concert singer who also made his mark as a music director, actor, dubbing artist and film producer, Balasubrahmanyam also lent his voice to the Tamil Eelam liberation struggle, recording several revolutionary songs in the mid-2000s.

See: SPB and songs of the Tamil Eelam liberation struggle

Born in 1946 in present-day Thiruvallur district in Tamil Nadu to a Telugu family, Balasubrahmanyam made his debuts in Telugu and Kannada cinema before recording for Tamil movies in the late 1960s.

S P Balasubrahmanyam, M S Viswanathan and Ilaiyaraaja

He worked closely with prolific music producers of several generations, recording hits and becoming a signature voice for M S Viswanathan, Ilaiyaraaja, and A R Rahman for whose illustrious debut in 1992 ‘Roja’ he recorded three tracks, including the eponymous ‘Kadhal Rojave’. A king of duets, Balasubrahmanyam formed legendary rapports with celebrated singers S. Janaki, P. Susheela and K. S. Chithra. His voice became closely associated with the hit films of Tamil superstars Rajinikanth and Kamal Haassan.

S P Balasubrahmanyam and A R Rahman

Given the ‘Kalaimamani’ award by the Government of Tamil Nadu in 1981, Balasubrahmanyam was bestowed the ‘Padma Shri’ title by the Government of India in 2001, and then ‘Padma Bhushan’ in 2011, the third highest civilian honour in the country.

Between 1979 and 1996 he won six national film awards, the last one in 1996 for a Tamil song ‘Thanga thamarai magale’, produced by A R Rahman, from the film ‘Minsara Kanavu’. He also won four Tamil Nadu state film awards between 1969 and 1994.

P Susheela and S P Balasubrahmanyam

Although not classically trained, Balasubrahmanyam won acclaim for his performance of several challenging compositions such as ‘Sangeetha Jaathi Mullai’ from ‘Kaadhal Oviyam’ in 1982 and ‘Satham Illatha Thanimai’ from the 1999 film ‘Amarkalam’.

Balasubrahmanyam, known also as SPB, was much loved by Eelam Tamils of all ages. As well as his later recorded Eelam songs, his melodies from across the Palk Straits provided succour to the Tamil youth of the 70s and 80s, then wrestling with pogroms and state brutality, the unfolding armed struggle and mass displacement. Balasubrahmanyam also appeared frequently at concerts organised by the Eelam Tamil diaspora in the UK, Canada, and Europe. Notably in 2007, he performed alongside fellow legend K J Yesudas in Toronto, and in 2013 appeared in London at a diaspora-organised Ilaiyaraaja concert.

K J Yesudas and S P Balasubrahmanyam

S P Balasubrahmanyam died on 25 September 2020 in Chennai, succumbing to Covid-19. He is survived by his wife, son – singer and producer S P Charan and siblings, including singer S P Sailaja. Although his passing will be mourned by thousands around the world, he leaves behind an oeuvre spanning over five decades and encompassing over 40,000 songs.

S P Balasubrahmanyam and Kamal Haassan

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