People of Southern India—particularly the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Telangana—speak the language of Tamil. From these states emerged some of the greatest singers in the industry, particularly playback singers.
What is a playback singer? Sometimes called ghost singers, singers pre-record songs that are to be used in films. The singer doesn’t actually appear in the film, and the actor or actress only lip-syncs to the playback singer’s singing.
With their talents, they have provided amazing vocals for hundreds of films, many of which are steeped in rich Indian history and culture. Thus in this post, let us give homage to 11 of the greatest and most famous Tamil singers who have influenced India’s music industry. Read on!
1. K. J. Yesudas
Born in Kochi, India, Kattassery Yesudas is one of the best playback singers in the Indian music industry. He’s an iconic figure of the state of Kerala and well-known for his devotional and film songs.
Yesudas made his debut in the music industry when he released “Jaathi Bhedam Matha Dwesham,” a fan-favorite immediately after its release. This, amazingly, was just the first of over 50,000 songs he would record in his career.
His playback singing has won several awards, including eight Best Male Playback Singer National Awards and a whopping 43 Best Playback Singer State Awards, firmly cementing his legacy.
2. K. S. Chithra
Next up, we have another popular playback singer. Krishnan Nair Shantakumari Chithra, or K. S. Chithra in short, is a classical music artist from Kerala.
Chithra began her singing career as a playback artist before she released albums and music. Her first studio album was Ragga Raaga, which she released in 1993. She has since recorded over 25,000 songs.
Additionally, Chithra has won numerous awards for her works, including (but not limited to) four Tamil Nadu State Film Awards and six National Film Awards. She has also received the Padma Bhushan Award, one of the most prestigious awards in India, for her contributions to the Indian music industry.
3. S. P. Balasubrahmanyam
Yet another playback singer, Sripathi Panditaradhyula Balasubrahmanyam (simply referred to as SPB or Balu), hailed from Pradesh, India. With a musician father, Balu learned to love music at an early age and studied it later on.
Although he studied engineering in college, Balu later pursued music after winning several awards in different singing competitions. Soon, he was debuting in the film Sri Sri Sri Maryada Ramanna, singing the song “Emiyee Vinta Moham,” and continued to become one of the greatest playback singers.
Sadly, the singer passed away in 2020. However, in his over five-decade career, Balu won multiple National Film Awards and other music awards that cemented his legacy in India’s musical industry.
We have next another singer from Kerala. Like many artists on this list, Hariharan was born into a musical family. Both his parents were Carnatic vocalists, and with Hariharan’s popularity, it is clear where he gets his talents from.
Though he had experience in singing for TV series, he joined the Tamil film world in 1992, where he gained even more acclaim. In particular, his version of “Uyire Uyire” for the movie Bombay landed him a Tamil Nadu State Government Film Award.
Over his career, Hariharan has sung more than 15,000 songs in approximately ten languages, including Tamil and Hindi, proving his versatility. Aside from Indian classical music, he specializes in Indian devotional songs, playback songs, and ghazals.
5. Shreya Ghoshal
Though born in West Bengal, Shreya Ghoshal grew up in Rawatbhata. Her passion for music started when she was young, and she even won various music competitions when she was just eight years.
Ghoshal’s musical career started after her debut song, “Ganraj Rangi Nachato,” but her breakthrough came when she did playback singing for the movie Devdas. Her work on that film won her three awards, including a Best Female Playback Singer from the National Film Award for the song “Bairi Piya.”
From there, Ghoshal was unstoppable. She received multiple offers for other films and soon became one of India’s highest-paid female playback singers. She has also judged on several TV talent shows, like STAR Voice of India and Indian Idol Junior.
6. Shruti Haasan
Chennai-born Shruti Haasan is an actress and singer from Madras, Tamil Nadu. She is Kamal Haasan and Sarika Thakur’s daughter, two of India’s most famous actors.
Haasan started singing when she was six years old in her father’s film, Thevar Magan, written in Tamil. She collaborated with above mentioned K. J. Yesudas in 2002 on a playback song for the film En Mana Vaanil, which made her famous in the music industry.
Since then, Haasan has sung in over 20 films and won many awards, including Filmfare Awards and SIMA Awards. Music aside, Haasan has followed her parents’ footsteps and has delved into acting.
7. T. M. Soundararajan
You cannot leave Thoguluva Soundararajan’s name when talking about some of the greatest Tamil singers out there. The Carnatic musician and singer was born in Madurai and grew up in the same city.
Soundararajan began singing when he was seven years and studied Carnatic music to improve his craft. He started singing professionally in 1950 when his songs for the soundtrack of the film Krishna Vijayam became a hit.
Besides singing, Soundararajan also starred in various Tamil films, such as Pattinathar and Kallum Kaniyagum. His legendary work in both the music and film industries passed India’s borders and gained him many global awards, such as the Singapore Tamil Fans Recognition Award.
8. Shankar Mahadevan
Though born in Chembur, Mumbai, Shankar Mahadevan‘s family was from Kerala and spoke Tamil. From a young age, the soon-to-be-famous singer was interested in music and studied Carnatic music and Hindustani classics.
With his learning and natural talents, Mahadevan integrated the two genres into his songs, making him unique. His 1998 album, Breathless, propelled him to fame, topping multiple musical charts and earning the singer a Best Non-film Album award.
Many of Mahadevan’s works have earned him awards. He’s won a handful of Best Male Playback awards from awarding organizations such as National Film Award and Kerala State Film Award. In 2019, he also gained the coveted Padma Shri Award for his musical contributions.
The Humming Queen of India, Swarnalatha Arasi, was born and raised in Chittur, Kerala, in 1973. Surrounded by family members who loved music, she started singing when she was only three years old.
Later on, Arasi studied Hindustani Carnatic music, which gave her the foundation she needed to succeed in the music industry. A duet with the legend K. J. Yesudas in the 1987 film Neethikku Thandanai gave her the breakthrough she needed.
Since then, Arasi has recorded approximately 10,000 songs in various languages, such as Badaga and Tamil. She has also participated in several television shows, such as Vijay TV reality and Jaya TV Ragamalika show.
10. Unni Menon
Our second to last is Unni Menon. Hailing from Valanchery, Kerala, India, the Tamil singer loved studying as a youth. He went to college and earned a degree in physics before focusing on a musical career.
His musical break came after creating the track songs for the film Kadathu. Tamil singer icon K. J. Yesudas loved his work, and soon Menon was singing regularly for other movies. Songs like “Maanathe Hoori Pole” and “Kaayampoo Korthu Tharum” continued his fame.
Over the years, Menon has won several awards; four of them are Best Male Playback Singer from various awarding organizations, like the Tamil Nadu State Film Award. Today, he continues his amazing work as a playback singer.
Lastly, we have Nagoor Babu, the popular Indian musician, singer, music composer, actor, and producer known by fans as Mano.
This multi-talented artist was born in Tenali to a musician father and an actress mother. His career actually started out as an actor, and it was only happenstance when he landed a role in singing.
After it was discovered he could sing—and very well, at that—Mano received a number of offers from film directors. Then from playback singing, he went on to sing ghazals and classical pieces like “Athma Varaiyo.”
In his career, Mano has recorded over 30,000 songs in over 15 languages, such as Telugu and Tamil. He has also composed music for various Indian films, like Sombheri and Azhagiya Tamil Megan, winning various awards.
Summing Up Our List Of Great Tamil Singers
As you have read, dear readers, Tamil singers are in abundance. Some have created and recorded their own song hits, while others sang as playback singers. Their works are revered all over India, winning national awards to prove that they are the best.
We hope you’ve enjoyed the list and perhaps ventured to listen to (or watch) some of the works from the above artists. However, this list is far from complete. Who have we missed? Let us know, and we’ll add them for you!