V.K. SANTOSH KUMAR
Ms Padmaja Yerramsetty never thought that famous Indian singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam (SPB) would recognise her when she visited the Ramoji Film City in Hyderabad on March 5.
The 49-year-old, who is the head of marketing at Ishtara Jewellery in Singapore, had met him in July last year when he took part in the Voice of Legends event at Suntec.
"I was pleasantly surprised when he waited for me on the stage," she said. "He was filming for Padutha Theeyaga, a reality singing competition in Telugu, and made time to say hello to me.
"He called me Anantapuram ammayi (girl from Anantapur, a city in Andhra Pradesh) and said he cannot forget me as I gave him food when he visited Singapore.
"Tears rolled down my face. I was humbled that a great man treated me so affectionately."
Ishtara was one of the sponsors of the Voice of Legends show and Ms Padmaja spent four days taking care of SPB and his team of musicians in Singapore.
"I was their caretaker," she said. "I was with them from morning to 9pm daily when they did their rehearsals at the Global Indian International School. I was so happy that he remembered what I had done to make everything smooth for the group."
More tears rolled down her face last Friday when she heard that SPB had died in Chennai after being hospitalised with symptoms of Covid-19 almost two months ago. He was 74.
"I was shattered," she said. "He was a great fighter and I had expected him to return from the hospital and continue singing. But it was not to be. I will always remember him as a witty, humorous and affectionate person. He was a legend but so humble. Meeting him was a lifetime experience for me."
SPB sang more than 40,000 songs in 16 languages, including Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi, over 55 years. A household name across India, he enthralled audiences around the world.
"The great thing about SPB's playback singing is that he could get into the character of an actor and give a feel to his actions," said Mr Nandu Ropulu, 40, a Telugu film distributor and IT company owner in Singapore.
"He and Tamil film star Kamal Haasan were almost inseparable. SPB could modulate his voice so well that it sounded like it was Kamal who was actually singing. It was also the case when he was singing in Hindi for films featuring Salman Khan."
Mr Nandu met SPB when the singer performed at the SPB 50 Years event at Suntec in February 2017. "I wanted to meet him desperately as he is my favourite singer. I called up Telugu actor and family friend Sai Kumar and asked him to introduce me to SPB.
"You won't believe this... SPB himself called me directly when he reached Singapore and told me to meet him along with my wife. And he waited for us at the hotel."
Mr Nandu said that Om Namo Venkateshaaya, a Telugu film he was distributing in Singapore at that time, had flopped. But the songs SPB sang in the film were super hits.
"I was downcast but SPB told me not to worry," said Mr Nandu. "He asked me to choose films carefully and said I will be successful in the future."
According to Mr Nandu, SPB regularly kept in touch with him thereafter.
"When my wife Lavanya had to undergo surgery, he sent me a video message wishing her well.
"I was depressed when I heard he had died. It felt like a member of my family had gone. The last thing he told me was to visit him in Chennai."
SPB's simplicity also struck former Singapore national cricket team captain Thaiyar Mohamed when the singer walked into the Padang unannounced during an India-Pakistan match in April 1996.
"It was the Singer Cup triangular tournament and I was the manager of the Sri Lanka team," said Mr Thaiyar, now 62. "The security guards did not recognise him and wouldn't let him in. I spotted him and had to intervene.
"I asked SPB, whom I had been following since the 1970s, where he wanted to sit. He said with the Indian players. I took him to the dugout and the Indian players stood up to greet him. He watched the match for about two hours and then left."
Mr Thaiyar was stunned by the singer's gracious response when he told him that he was Singapore's cricket captain. "SPB told me he was privileged to meet me. I was floored. He gave me his phone number and I met him a couple of times later in Dubai."
Mr Thaiyar said he has almost all the songs sung by SPB in his collection. "He was amazing. He had a terrific range and could adapt so well. It"s rare to find a singer like him.
"It was a real shock to me when he died. I could not do anything for a couple of days. I just sat glued to the TV watching his funeral. What remains memorable is that he is a cricket fan and I was able to assist him."
SPB also liked to visit the MTR restaurant on Serangaoon Road whenever he was in Singapore.
"I talked to him at least five times," said the restaurant's manager Shrinivas Rao. "He was very polite and made it a point to talk to everybody.
"He particularly liked our rava idli, pudi masala dosa and bisi bele bath. We also used to send takeaways to his hotel room."
"It was a real shock to me when he died. I could not do anything for a couple of days. I just sat glued to the TV watching his funeral." - Former Singapore national cricket team captain Thaiyar Mohamed