S. P. Balasubrahmanyam, Indian Singer With Huge Repertory, Dies at 74

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

S. P. Balasubrahmanyam, an Indian singer who delivered songs for more than 1,000 movies in a smooth and vibrant voice and in a multitude of regional languages, died on Sept. 25 in Chennai, India. He was 74.

The cause was complications of Covid-19, according to a statement from MGM Healthcare, where he had been hospitalized.

His death drew tributes from many prominent musicians, politicians and actors on social media. “With the unfortunate demise of Shri S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, our cultural world is a lot poorer,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India wrote on Twitter.

For more than four decades Mr. Balasubrahmanyam, better known as “S.P.B.” or “Balu” to his fans, was a major presence as a playback singer, who sings tunes that are later lip-synced by actors in India’s movie musicals. His best-known songs were in the languages of Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi.

“I often sit with the lyricists and ask them what they meant to convey so that I get the emotional crux of the song,” he once said in a newspaper interview about having to be expressive in so many languages. “If I think I cannot pronounce something well, I opt out of the song.”

Mr. Balasubrahmanyam was also a music producer and character actor. He won the National Film Award, one of the country’s most prestigious entertainment prizes, six times. He also received two of India’s top civilian honors: the Padma Shri in 2001 and the Padma Bhushan in 2011.

Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam was born on June 4, 1946, in Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, a state in southeastern India. His father, S. P. Sambamurthy, was a singer and stage actor; his mother, Sakunthalamma, was a homemaker.

Mr. Balasubrahmanyam once said that he became a singer by accident. He was studying engineering in college when he won a singing competition, which opened doors for him in the Telugu-language film industry as a playback singer. His first movie performance came in 1966.

Encouraged by his initial success, he went on to perform in a band; one member, Ilayaraja, also became well-known. He broke into Bollywood in 1981. He later collaborated often with the composer A.R. Rahman, who won two Oscars for his work on the hit movie “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008).

Mr. Balasubrahmanyam often spoke of the inspiration he received from Mohammed Rafi, one of the most popular Indian singers in the 1950s and ’60s. “I was so bewildered by the talent with which he was singing,” he said on his YouTube channel in 2019.

He is survived by his wife, Savitri Balasubrahmanyam; his daughter, Pallavi Balasubrahmanyam; his son, S.P.B. Charan; and two grandchildren.

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