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Madhu Balakrishnan

The winner of a Kerala State Award and a Tamil Nadu State Award, both for Best Playback Singer, Tamil Nadu’s prestigious “Kalaimamani” title and numerous other accolades, Madhu Balakrishnan is today widely acclaimed as one of South India’s leading playback singers.

In a playback singing career spanning more than 25 years now, Madhu has sung over 500 film songs in multiple languages, including Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and even Tulu. He has sung for almost all major composers who are currently active, such as maestro Ilaiyaraaja, M. Jayachandran, Vidyasagar, M. M. Keeravani, Harris Jayaraj, D. Imman, Bijibal, Deepak Dev, and Gopi Sundar. The devout Hindu has also recorded more than 1,000 devotional songs, including Christian devotional songs, and appeared in several devotional music videos.

Madhu performs regularly at the Swaralaya Dance and Music Festival held in Palakkad and the Chembai Sangeethootsavam in Guruvayur. He also appears on Malayalam and Tamil television as a performer or judge of talent competitions such as Flowers’ channel’s Top Singer show.

Madhu's fame has spread well beyond Indian shores: he has performed in Canada, Singapore, Malaysia, Europe and Australia. He has also performed frequently in the Gulf region and, as an accomplished artiste, he was recently granted a “Golden Visa” by the United Arab Emirates.

An unexpected debut

Madhu's foray into playback singing began with an unexpected offer in 1995 from a Tamil composer, Shaan, who was scouting around for a new voice. Madhu was then undergoing a four-year music training course at the Academy of Indian Music and Arts in Chennai. It was the academy's founder-director, Padma Bhushan T. V. Gopalakrishnan, who put in a plug for his pupil when approached by Shaan for recommendations on a new voice. The debut song that Madhu recorded for Shaan was a duet with K. S. Chitra titled "Ullathai thirandhu" from the film “Ulavuthurai”.

Upon graduation from the academy, Madhu recorded some devotional numbers in Malayalam and then landed offers to sing for Malayalam films around 1999. His first song, “Paathiraa pooveh”, went into oblivion as the film “Sisiram” failed to see the light of day. Subsequently, Madhu began gaining attention when he sang for films such as “Umayapuram Sultan”. He was soon spotted and signed on by musical heavyweights such as the late Raveendran Master and M. G. Radhakrishnan.

But it was the 2002 Malayalam song “Amme Amme” from the film “Vaalkannadi” that truly launched Madhu’s career as a playback singer. His powerful and poignant rendition of the song composed by M. Jayachandran bagged him a Kerala State Film Award for Best Playback Singer and gave him a firm footing in the Malayalam film music industry.

Some of Madhu’s popular numbers in Malayalam since then include “Raveerayai poove” from “Rock and Roll”, which won him an Asianet award, and “Ramayanam katha” from “Pathaam nilayile theevandi”, which won the first of several Kerala Film Critics awards over the years. Acknowledging his talent, the Swaralaya-Eenam cultural organisation conferred on him the “Best Young Singer of the Decade” award in 2010.

Meanwhile, Madhu re-entered the Tamil film music industry in 2000. This was when he caught the attention of maestro Ilaiyaraaja, thanks to a brief good word put in by a well-wisher who had recognised and utilised his talents, the late Malayalam musical stalwart Swaamy V. Dhakshinamoorthy. Ilaiyaraaja signed on Madhu to sing “Edhilum ingu iruppaan” and “Vande mataram” for the Tamil film “Bharathi”.

But Madhu’s break in Tamil films came in 2003 with the Vidyasagar hit melody “Kanaa kandeinadee thozhi” from the film “Parthiban kanavu”. Further recognition came two years later, when Vidyasagar tapped him again, this time as the voice of Superstar Rajnikanth in “Konja neram konja neram”. The duet with Asha Bhosle from the movie “Chandramukhi” became a chartbuster.

Soon, Madhu was signed on to sing for Tamil films such as “Pithamagan”, “Mozhi”, “Abhiyum naanum”, and “Naan mahaan alla”. Capping his achievements in Tamil film music, Madhu won a Tamil Nadu State Film Award for Best Playback Singer in 2006 and the Tamil Nadu “Kalaimamani” title for artistic achievement a year later. In 2010 Madhu won a Radio Mirchi award for his soulful rendition of Ilaiyaraaja’s “Picchai pathiram” from “Naan kadavul".

Classical base

Madhu’s strength lies in his classical foundation. Although his late father and his mother were not professional musicians, both had good musical sense – mother, Leelavathy, had studied both music and dance, and his father loved to sing, especially the songs of Ilaiyaraaja. With strong encouragement from musically inclined parents, Madhu started classical training in his childhood years under Sreedevi and Chandramana Narayanan Namboothiri. He also took part in light music competitions while at school.

After completing his pre-degree course, Madhu abandoned the academic route to focus on his music education. He received a Ford Foundation scholarship to undertake a four-year course in classical music and joined the aforesaid Academy of Indian Music and Arts in Chennai. At the academy, he came under the tutelage of a slew of heavyweights such as founder-director Gopalakrishnan as well as Manikrishna Swami and Vedavalli.

Today, Madhu is highly sought after by composers to sing classically oriented numbers in films. Songs such as “Himalayam” from “Scene No 001” (Malayalam), “Thendral ennum thear” from “Paasa killigal” (Tamil), the theme song of the Tamil film “Thavamaai thavam irundhu”, “Kana kanade sharade” from “Apthamithra” (Kanada), “Ramavinodhi vallabha” from “Swarabhishekam” (Telugu), and the more recent “Kala Devatha” from the Malayalam film “Love FM” are just a handful of the numerous film songs that showcase his training – songs where he has skilfully rendered challenging ragas, scaled effortlessly through multiple octaves, and breathlessly sustained notes for an incredible number of bars.

Versatile singer

But Madhu's classical heft has not detracted from his ability to croon soft melodies for romantic heroes. His Tamil songs such as "Ding dong koyil mani" ("Ji"), sung for “Thala” Ajith Kumar, as well as "Solli tharavaa" ("Majaa"), and "Attrai thingal" ("Sivapathikaram"), and Malayalam songs such as "Enguninnu vanna" ("Calcutta News") and "Chentharmizhi" ("Perumazhakaalam") well highlight his ability to modulate his deep baritones to suit the mood.

In 2010, the usually staid Madhu put on an unexpectedly lively stage presence and proved his versatility by singing a wide range of songs, from classically oriented numbers and love tunes to jazzy numbers and even a rollicking dappanguttu song in the inaugural Sun TV talent competition “Sangeetha Maha Yutham”. His outstanding performances in the three-month long contest helped his team of amateur singers beat five other teams, each helmed by a playback singer, and won the hearts of Tamil audiences around the globe.

Some of the recent Malayalam movies that Madhu has sung for include “Bharatha Circus”, “Silence”, “Baby Sam”, “Niyogam”, “Uriyattu”, and the blockbuster epic “Baahubali 2”.

Personal trivia

Madhu was born on 24 June 1974 in Paravur in Kerala's Ernakulam district. He is married to Viditha (“Divya”), sister of cricketer Sreesanth. Madhu and Divya have two sons, Madhav (b. 2002) and Mahaadev (b. 2009), both of whom are more inclined towards Western music. The family lives in Tripunithura, Ernakulam.