His unique voice that was rich and deep secured Shimoga Subbanna a special place in the pantheon of Bhavageethe singers in Karnataka.
His death on Thursday probably also marks the slow fading away of a pioneering generation of singers and composers who made sugama sangeetha (the tradition of setting poems to music, thereby taking poetry close to people) a rage.
Lahari Velu, of Lahari Music, who brought out most of his albums, said what set Shimoga Subbanna apart from other singers was the quality of his voice. “As an artiste he may have sung fewer songs than many others, which is because he was averse to rampant commercialisation of art. But almost every song he has sung has remained a classic and he is a connoisseur’s singer. Even today most of his songs are being heard by lakhs of listeners on streaming platforms earning revenue for us and I am sure this will be the case for decades to come,” he said.
Born in Nagara, Shivamogga district, in 1938, Shimoga Subbanna became a household name when he won Rajat Kamal award for Best Playback Singer (Male) for his song “Kadu Kudure Odi Banditta…” in Chandrashekhar Kambar’s film “Kadukudure” in 1979 and he never looked back.
Prof. N. S. Lakshminarayana Bhatta, Subbanna’s friend since his student days when he was christened “College Rafi” for his singing talents and even sang the national anthem in front of Jawaharlal Nehru, suggested his name to his other friend Kambar who was making films.
“He first sang in the film Karimayi, but his name G. Subrahmanya became a hurdle for him. The cassette record firm printed the name of S.P. Balasubramanyam instead, given how omnipresent SPB was during that time. Even the radio was crediting the song to SPB,” Prof. Bhatta recounted once.
Dr. Kambar recounting his association with Subbanna said when he sang for Kadukudure next, he decided to give him the name Shimoga Subbanna, which stuck. The singer soon changed his name officially too. The song went on to fetch him a national award.
However, despite winning a national award, Kannada cinema did not provide him great opportunities. Kannada cinema’s loss was a big gain for the field of Sugama Sangeeta, which was gathering steam and soon became a trend in early 1980s. Among the most popular cassettes of the time was Shishunala Sharif Geetegalu — in which Subbanna sang three songs “Kodagana Koli Nungitta..”, “Biddiyabbe Muduki..” and “Alabeda Tangi..” They became instant chartbusters.
He worked at an auditor’s office and was a lawyer in Shivamogga before he shifted to Bengaluru in 1983, seeking better opportunities and this gave a big boost to his career. However, he also continued to work as a lawyer and was even an advocate for the Government of Karnataka in the High Court for eight years.
Following his shift to the city, he travelled across the State giving concerts and more albums made him very popular. Subbanna often also credited his success to All India Radio where he was an A grade artist for over five decades.
Though his most popular songs were tatvapadas by Shishunala Sharif, poems by Kuvempu which were spiritual and philosophical, were his forte. He also sang several delicate compositions like “Banni Bhavagale Banni Nannedege..” or a “Yarigoo Helonu Beda..”. His singing also had a strong influence of classical music, which also set him apart from other singers of his time. While growing up in a family with strong influence of Carnatic music, he was a connoisseur of Hindustani music and it influenced his music greatly.
He gave concerts until recently before the pandemic hit the world and old age caught up with him. However, till his last days, his voice remained the same and he often sang at his home for his friends, his family members said.