The year was 1983 and 13-year-old Viswanathan Anand was part of a junior chess team, the Madras Colts. They were in trouble, on the verge of dropping out of the National Team Championship — to be hosted at the IIT Bombay, Powai campus — because the Madras District Chess Association (MDCA), which had decided to send its representation of junior players for the tournament, had no money to fund their participation. It’s when legendary Indian playback singer SP Balasubrahmanyam, who died on Friday, stepped in, volunteering to sponsor the team. Anand beat 9-time national champion Manuel Aaron in that tournament and eventually ended up winning the top board prize.
“What I remember of that story was that the famous Telugu poet and writer Aarudhra who was involved in chess [MDCA president then] had requested SPB to sponsor the Madras Colts team,” Anand told ESPN about his first sponsor, “For me, it was a big break. That top board prize got me a chance to play the National ‘b’ and subsequently the National ‘a’ and it was my breakthrough year.”
The story goes that SPB was recording a song written by Aarudhra at the Vijaya Gardens studio in Chennai when the latter requested him to write out a check. Without asking any questions, SPB handed his close friend a blank check. He was then told that it was for funding the participation of four young chess players from the city at a national tournament. When young Anand got to know about SPB’s gesture, he somewhat embarrassingly recalls thinking of offering the pocket money that his mother had given him for the trip to the late singer as a return gift.
“Thankfully, better sense prevailed and I didn’t go through with the idea,” says Anand, “Many years later I met SPB at the Hyderabad airport and wondered if he even recalled funding our team since I thought he’d done largely it as a favor to a friend,” said Anand, “I was trying to piece together the incident for him when he waved his hand and said, ‘I remember it, young man! I’m very happy I did it’. We met a couple of times after that as well, typically on flights or at airports. Though our meetings have been few and brief, his simplicity left a huge impression on me. Whenever we spoke, he seemed so affectionate and genuinely concerned with how I was doing. I felt very special in his presence.”
“People like SPB are institutions. You grow up with them and they are just there. A whole generation was bred on his music and that is only a fraction because he was a singer in so many languages, which I found amazing. I found out recently that he has sung some 40,000 songs. In songs like ‘Ennadi Meenakshi’, I somehow hear his voice. When I got to know a month ago that he had fallen sick I felt really bad because well it’s a new thing [Covid-19] and you don’t know the odds. For a while, it seemed he was getting better so you crossed your fingers and hoped and then hoped harder. Yesterday news began trickling in that things had taken a grim turn. When I heard he is no more, I felt heartbroken. Having met him, the world just feels a bit poorer.”