Memoir: Hariharan on S.P. Balasubramaniam

    He must have been sent to life with the purpose of selfless giving. That’s Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubramaniam, for us – a legendary singer and actor. S. P. Balasubramaniam, who I am proud to have as my senior and have been fortunate to learn so much from. Forty years in the industry and an unbelievable list of recordings across all genres – my respect for SP weighs the same as his admiration for S. P. Kodandapani, his mentor.

    SP was a stalwart, very lively and energetic, with a metallic voice. His trait of emoting has always been phenomenal. Even Shankar (Mahadevan) seconds me to the fact that his absence has cast a very different effect on all of us altogether. We do miss him, but we listen and praise his works repeatedly, and forget to feel that absenteeism. The way he did his playbacks for Kamal Haasan or Salman Khan or Rajinikanth – I am awestruck by the range of the names itself – were simply amazing. While recording, he not only ‘acted out the voice’ of the person he was singing for, but also imitated the body language of the star. It reflected in his musical style and blended effortlessly with the personality of the star! An art which he solitarily took to its zenith. When his songs are played in the backdrop, the viewers on the other side can precisely feel the actor singing, their mannerisms gelling with the voice modulations. SP chose to sing in a modern voice, devoid of any Carnatic touch, which unfurled its unique universality.

    What made Balu, as I fondly called him, a legend was his concentration and his memory. His concentration – he would literally live inside his studio, avoiding distractions. He would be on broadcast for 20 hours, over the devotional channels, especially the Tirupati Live. Unimaginable! Ashaji (Bhonsle) told me that once he was to record under Pancham (R. D. Barman) da’s music direction. SPB arrived by an 11:30am flight, got to the studio around 1 o’clock in the afternoon and was ready for recording after lunch, just two practice sessions later. This whole incident surprised Ashaji immensely. She had been practicing since morning but still had to be corrected. “What does he eat to have a tremendous memory like that?” remained Ashaji’s unsolved query. It is said that SP did not even need the notations or reminders, throughout his career.

    I have been his fan since my college days, those were the 70s. Interestingly, when we first met at Lakshmikantji’s studio, he recognized me! Like his vocal talent, I have to say this again, equally praiseworthy was his eidetic memory. He had remembered me singing ghazal at a youth festival on Chennai Doordarshan. Just imagine, an established name like him had already recommended me to music directors, even when we were absolute strangers. Probably music does not need familial ties for the creation of a new bond. Likewise, SP, Shankar, Rahman (A.R. Rahman) and I – we all have been acquaintances for life, the flowers of the South Indian film industry. Our popularity boomed and we did shows together all over the globe.

    All our problems regarding the decisions about the compositions of various songs were always solved by SP, singlehandedly; yet it was him who had received no formal training. When on tours, we would discuss all sorts of prevailing issues, in our industry and abroad, about fitness and health too and often we even compared our weights! As a friend, SP could not be more gentle and caring. I have never seen him angry, never-ever. If he disliked something, he would avoid that person in future but never create a scene. So at times when I got angry, I refrained from expressing because I knew he wouldn’t appreciate. All kinds of aggression would be subdued by his indomitable aura whenever he was around.

    This happy person taught us life lessons. He made us realize that we can perfect our skills further by listening to our own songs – analyzing whether we are loud for the audience or being tone-deaf – all these needed to be precisely noted down before the stage curtains went up in a jam-packed auditorium. He operated like a trained technician – utterly organized, he was to have his iPad, files, headphone and other wired devices – everything neatly arranged and ready for use anytime.

    Balu had always been a person with child-like excitement in his heart. He not only loved kids and loved those reality shows for juniors, but he himself was fun loving and a big prankster. We have been the partners-in-crime a lot of times. Once our target had been Chithraji; in one of A. R. Rahman’s shows. As nervous as she was, we told her that she was to be brought on stage in a palanquin while she would sing the mukhra. Chithra began crying like a school girl and we knew we had been successful, but we had to hold our ears and apologise in order to make her believe that she was pranked by one of her seniors! SP did those with a nonchalant face. He did prank Udit (Narayan) as well by hiding his phone while he was trying to click a photo with him. It didn’t matter who you were, whether you were a big star or not, you wouldn’t be spared if he had a prank planned for you.

    Death is inevitable and we all must face it one day, boldly. And so did S. P. Balasubramaniam. But the legacy that he has left behind is magnanimous. What SP has achieved in his life I don’t think anybody can achieve! He was the archetype of a Karma Yogi, he and his profession had become one, his soul had completely been immersed in the calm waters of music. Whenever I feel tired, hopeless or distracted, I just think about him, about the knowledge one can acquire from him. I guess that’s not only me, many might do so without accepting or realizing that actually. Now it is like, the melody still remains, but the person behind the voice is no more! I still try to touch him through his songs; he must be laughing at me from wherever he is. He will continue to live till posterity. We will miss him, yet we shall always celebrate his life through his legacy. So many people in the future will learn from him, as we keep learning today. We will always remember him on happy occasions, and we will seek the company of his music when we are sad. Who on earth can take away this companionship?



    Music maestro Hariharan is widely popular not only for his playback tracks but also for his ghazals and bhajans. A pioneer of Indian fusion music, he has been awarded the Padmashree in 2004, which is just one among many other prestigious awards he has won.

    Transcripted & compiled from Tell Me Your Story’s interview with Mr. Hariharan.

    Transcript by: Ishika Batra, Pursuing B. A. (English Honors), JECRC University, Jaipur, Rajasthan.

    Compiled by: Ankita Dutta

    Ankita Dutta has completed her post-graduation in English and is currently pursuing B.Ed. She is also doing an International PG Diploma course to become an English Language Trainer. Besides English, Bengali and Hindi, she is also adept in Sanskrit. George Orwell’s 1984 is her scholarly inspiration because of the subject matter and Orwell’s narrative technique. 1984 has piqued her attention towards the craft of storytelling which effortlessly blends with the reader’s fictional reality. Ankita’s research interests lie in the English postcolonial dystopian literature and she looks forward to pursuing this for her doctoral studies.



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