In December 2016, SP Balasubrahmanyam completes half a century of playback singing – the equivalent of cricketer Sachin Tendulkar if we take into account the magnificence of the consistency in this longevity.

Balasubrahmanyam will also be honoured with the Centenary Award for Indian Film Personality of the Year at the International Film Festival of India (November 20-28). In 2015, it was the singer’s partner in his musical journey, Ilaiyaraaja, who received the award.

Balasubrahmanyam’s songs are part of the collective experience of film fans across southern India. He has sung over 40,000 tracks in his mother tongue Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam. Where will history place SPB, as he is known, in the pantheon of great singers? His sheer longevity, perhaps matched only by the other south Indian stalwart KJ Yesudas, sets him apart from most. But as in sports, mere numbers do not make a great artist.

Balasubrahmanyam emerged on the scene in the late 1960s, when South Indian films were going through an epochal change in direction. In the preceding decades, epics and myths were used to bolster the prevalent political discourse. Cinema was the medium that created the Dravidian superhero through a thematic insistence on valour and ethnic pride.

MG Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan and NT Rama Rao, all with foundations in theatre, donned these epic roles, and singers who lent their voices to these characters had to match their theatrics. The high-pitched singing of TM Soundararajan, Sirgazhi Govindarajan and KV Mahadevan was the norm. The subtlety of PB Sreenivas and AM Rajah was considered a lesser art.

Change came in the late ‘60s and early ’70s, when directors such as K Balachander filmed the drama of family life and the nuances of social engagement. Screen heroes slowly turned back into mortals, and the film music industry shifted from theatrical numbers to subdued, low-octave melodies. It was this generational shift that SPB embodied.

Where it all began

His entry into playback singing was accidental. Born on June 4, 1946, in Konetampet in the unified Madras Presidency, his family had Telugu origins. SPB’s father was an exponent of harikatha, the tradition of narrating songs and stories about the gods. SPB didn’t train in classical singing, although he did show interest in learning instruments. He wanted to become an engineer and find a government job.

A college friend’s intervention in 1963 changed Balasubrahmanyam’s future. The friend entered Balasubrahmanyam’s name in a light music competition, which he won. At another such competition, music director SP Kodandapani asked for an audition. The budding singer chose the melody Nilave Ennidam Nerungathe, sung by PB Sreenivas in the Tamil movie Ramu. In retrospect, the choice seems obvious. The song drowns the listener in pathos and provides the singer ample opportunity to emote.

Balasubrahmanyam made his professional debut on December 15, 1966, in the Telugu movie Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna. The song Emi E Vintha Moham, became fairly popular. The song that cemented his career also marked his entry in Tamil cinema. In 1969, MG Ramachandran was looking for a fresh voice. The legendary music composer KV Mahadevan remembered the young SPB and played his voice to MGR, who made Balasubrahmanyam an offer.

The recording had its fair share of drama. SPB fell ill and could not record immediately, and could get behind the microphone only three months after MGR’s offer. MGR chose to suspend the recording until SPB got better. In 1969, SPB recorded Ayiram Nilave Vaa for Adimai Penn, which became a blockbuster. The new singing superstar had finally arrived.

Ayiram Nilave Vaa.

SPB in the 1970s

Several music directors quickly warmed to Balasubrahmanyam’s talent. MS Viswanathan began using him in almost every movie after 1969. The rigour of the composers for whom Balasubrahmanyam sang during his early years were key in shaping his trajectory.

As SPB pointed out in a reality show a few years ago, Viswanathan was a tough composer who brought numerous modulations into the structure of a song. These modulations, or sangadhis, gave the songs their terrific melody. Despite having no classical training, Balasubrahmanyam quickly imbibed these subtleties and reproduced them with precision in recordings.

Three songs from the ’70s illustrate SPB’s command over the sangadhis. In Mathamo Avani from Utharavindri Ulle Vaa in 1971, Balasubrahmanyam glides over extremely subtle variations in the pitch in almost every verse.

Mathamo Avani.

Sampath Kumar, a former BBC correspondent who did a 63-part radio series on Tamil film music, said SPB was never methodical in his music. He surprised the listener with the drama in his voice. “There is never a dull moment when SPB sings,” Kumar said.

By 1974, the Tamil screen hero was also changing for good. MGR and Sivaji Ganesan were gradually giving way to Kamal Haasan. This meant that loud, declamatory singing was on its way out, but Balasubrahmanyam shows his adeptness at blending elements from two eras. In the classic song from Aval Oru Thodarkathai, SPB starts with a mellowed note and then hits a high before returning to an enchanting base. The song also illustrates SPB’s growing command over Tamil diction – a startling feat given that Viswanathan had initially rejected SPB because he was not able to pronounce Tamil words properly.

Kadavul Amaithu Vaitha.

The processes that shaped Tamil cinema were at play in Telugu as well. SPB was surfing over a wave of new-age light music in which composers were experimenting with new genres. In Siri Malle Neeve from Pantulamma, composed by the legendary duo Rajan-Nagendra, SPB nails the vibratos with elan.

Siri Malle Neeve.

Balasubrahmanyam also owned peppy numbers of the early ’80s, making him a rage among college students. There is attitude in the way he sings Engeyum Eppothum or Ilamai Itho Itho, songs that remain popular on campuses.

The long collaboration with Ilaiyaraaja

Many such evergreen songs were composed by the musician who became an integral and inseparable part of Balasubrahmanyam’s career in the ’80s. All these years later, the question lingers: did Ilaiyaraaja create the legend of SPB or did SPB cement Ilaiyaraaja’s success?

Their association goes back to the ’60s, before Ilaiyaraaja made his debut as a music director in Annakili in 1976. They ran a popular light music troupe in Chennai. But it was their collaboration in the ’80s that cemented SPB’s place as the number one male playback singer in south India. The grandeur of Ilaiyaraaja’s compositions integrated Western elements with Indian traditions.

Vamanan, author and film music historian, said that the combination also had a lot to do with the “convenience of consistency” that SPB brought to the table. Ilaiyaraaja was ruling over the cinematic landscape in the South, especially in Tamil, and was composing for over 25 movies a year. “This meant there was no time for innovating with voices,” Vamanan said.

None of this takes away from the character of SPB’s voice. Whether it is the pathos of unrequited love in Unna Nenache Pattu Padichen from Apoorva Sagodharargal or the blooming marital romance with a hint of underlying melancholy in Mandram Vantha Thendralukku in Mouna Ragam, SPB could lift the compositions with his emotional heft. The leading men of the decade concurred – like Sivaji Ganesan and MGR preferred the voice of TM Soundararajan, Rajinikanth, Kamal Hassan and Vishnuvardhan chose SPB. In fact, Vishnuvardhan had a clause in his contract that only SPB should sing for him.

Balasubrahmanyam varied his voice to suit the personalities of the actors on whom the songs were filmed. In Enna Satham Intha Neram from the Kamal Hassan starrer Punnagai Mannan, SPB captures the sadness behind a romance that is about to end in a planned suicide. The voice flows as smooth as the saxophone in the interlude.

Enna Satham Indha Neram.

In the song from Thambikku Entha Uru, SPB brings out the typical deeper tone for Rajinikanth without compromising on the melody.

Kaadhalin Deepam Ondru.

When Rajinikanth’s movies assumed political colours in the ’90s, SPB was the go-to singer for the introductory song. These tracks, including Autokaran from Baasha and Oruvan Oruvan Mudhalali from Muthu, played an important role in inflating Rajinikanth’s superstar image.

However, there is one aspect on which SPB lost out. Despite the ease with which he sung even complicated compositions, Ilaiyaraaja preferred other singers when it came to purely Carnatic compositions.

SPB had rendered heavy classical songs in movies like Shankarabaranam (1980), which won him his first national award. “But in the ’80s, Ilaiyaraaja himself was not very strong in Carnatic,” Vamanan said, adding that it would have taken time-consuming efforts for make SPB to sing such songs to Ilaiyaraaja’s satisfaction.

Balasubrahmanyam, with his large physique, also had an adventurous streak and never compromised on the pleasures of life. In 1989, a vocal fold nodule threatened his career. Doctors said he could either stop singing or risk a surgery with the danger of damaging his voice forever. He took the latter option and emerged stronger.

That Hindi accent

Though he predominantly worked in Southern cinema, SPB also left his mark on Hindi films. His first song in Hindi, Tere Mere Beech Mein, from K Balachander’s Ek Duje Ke Liye (1981), fetched him a national award. The composers Laxmikant-Pyarelal were against using SPB, given his heavy accent. But Balachander pointed out that since Kamal Haasan’s character was a Tamilian, SPB’s accent would appear authentic.

Tere Mere Beech Mein.

Balasubrahmanyam later briefly (and mysteriously) became the voice of Salman Khan in films such as Maine Pyaar Kiya and Love. This phase of SPB’s career earned him ridicule due to his heavy accent. The master of modulation came across as flat and insipid.

One reason why SPB may have continued to sing in Hindi despite the negative reviews is the lure of greater recognition. Despite great achievements in the south, Ilaiyaraaja and SPB have not been placed on the same pedestal as SD Burman and Kishore Kumar.

The larger question is whether we should judge SPB by the songs he sung for Hindi films. “Would you assess the career of Lata Mangeshkar by the Tamil songs she sung?” said Sampath Kumar.

Balasubrahmanyam has not been as prolific in recent years, even though he dexterously adapted to the compositions of newer composers in the late ’90s, including AR Rahman. His career has gone beyond singing – he has also acted in movies such as Manathil Urudhi Vendum and Keladi Kanmani and scored the soul-stirring music for Sigaram, in which he played the lead role.

Balasubrahmanyam will always remain one of a kind. “Whether we could call him the greatest playback singer is debatable,” Vamanan said. “But he is surely among the very best.”

En Kathalee.