Versatile genius

Print edition : April 20, 2012

A book that sensitively portrays the late veena maestro S. Balachander, known as much for his soul-stirring music as for his narcissistic ways.

Well-known biographer Vikram Sampat has come up with a book on S. Balachander (1927-1990), the most problematic maestros of Carnatic music. Just as Balachander's mastery of the veena was widely admired, his largely pointless eccentricities were given a wide berth by critics and colleagues alike.

Balachander was a self-taught versatile genius. His interests, apart from music, included chess, film-making he scripted, produced, directed and acted in feature films calligraphy and literature. During his formative years as a music student, Balachander venerated Dhannamal and Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer, both vainikas, or veena maestros. The other musical luminaries he looked up to for inspiration were Tiger Varadachariar (1876-1951), Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer (1896-1970) and T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai (1898-1956).

A poster of his 1962 film Avana Ivan.-

Carnatic vocal music and its links with the veena had intrigued Balachander since childhood. He gave up playing the sitar, on which he played Carnatic ragas proficiently as a boy, to take up the veena seriously. A finger gliding up and down a single string of the veena could produce an unfathomable array of notes that could match the most intricate gamakas that a human voice is capable of producing. It was around the time young Balachander was a staff artiste at All India Radio that his affair with the veena started. He was most fascinated by the vast spectrum of notes the instrument could produce. His genius went hand in hand with his vanity even at 15 when he decided to master the veena. When his musical companion and confidant Ambu, himself a vainika, asked him to take formal lessons on the veena from a learned teacher, Balachander said: I will make my own destiny on this instrument! He did, but at great cost to himself.

The book has a selection of photographs from Balachander's meticulously preserved albums. There is a picture of his parents, mother Parvathi alias Chellamal and father Sundaram Iyer, taken well after his cinematic venture with V. Shantaram, the well-known director of Hindi and Marathi films.

Shantaram had come to Madras (now Chennai) to gather the cast for his Tamil film Seetha Kalyanam, based on a tale from the Ramayana. But the shooting was done in a studio in Kolhapur, Maharashtra. Balachander's father, elder brother Rajam (who later became a much-admired painter of Hindu mythological images), and elder sister Jayalakshmi were cast in the film. While Rajam played Rama, Jayalakshmi played Sita and Sundaram Iyer played Janaka, Sita's father. Baburao Pendharkar, a veteran of silent cinema, directed this eminently successful film, which was released in 1934. The music was scored by Papanasam Sivan.

Balachander as the protagonist in the film Bommai, 1964.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The film also featured little Balachander, of whom The Sunday Chronicle of July 1, 1934, said: The seemingly unnecessary inclusion of the small boy playing on the kanjira in the film was extenuated by his ability both before and off the camera. The series of performances, held in Trichy and Madras, showed the young fellow to be an artist in his own line to call this urchin of scarcely 7 years a genius is certainly no exaggeration. He was already being drawn to another art, although music was to be his lifelong anchor.

There are pictures of the boy genius playing chess, one with his elderly guru Kuppuswamy Iyengar and another with a ranked player in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1937. One picture from 1938 shows a 11-year-old Balachander in Karachi, dressed in an overcoat, flanked by the Punjab Chess Champion of 1937, Sharif Hussain, and Afzal Wali, another chess player. There are also stills from the films he appeared in, including one from Doctor Savitri (1955) in which he played a Sikh.

As he grew older and his prodigious musical gifts began to flower, Balachander's narcissism grew apace. He seemed to have yo-yo effect on people, in that they were greatly attracted to his ability to make stirring music, and at the same time were repulsed by his vain, egocentric behaviour. He did not care for his contemporaries who were more loved than he was. He thought Chittibabu, a worthy disciple of Emani Sankara Sastri, became popular because he always played to the gallery. Balachander cited Chittibabu's rendering of Kommalo koyila, the cry of the cuckoo, on the veena as a prime example of his straying from the path of classicism which Carnatic music demanded.

In 1978, Balachander objected to the conducting of an instrumental ensemble of Thyagaraja kritis by Emani Sankara Sastri at the the Thyagaraja Aradhana, the annual music festival held at the saint's samadhi in Tiruvaiyyaru. Balachander was one of the trustees of the committee that organised the aradhana, the Sri Thyagabrahma Mahotsava Sabha. When the sabha ignored his objections, he resigned and later wrote a letter justifying his stand: I can understand Pancharatna kritis being sung, played and performed in unison at the saint's samadhi. But to render orchestrated' Thyagaraja kritis and that too performing in his own sanctified samadhi is in my humble opinion a gross sacrilege. He went on to observe that the day was not far when an American jazz group would play Thyagaraja kritis at the same festival.

He could never forgive Emani Sankara Sastri for what he considered was utterly irresponsible behaviour. They had known each other from the Gemini Studio days where Sastri was a composer-conductor. Sastri went on to become the head of Vadya Vrinda (National Orchestra) of All India Radio, while Balachander was learning film-making through osmosis.

Veena Vidwan S. Balachander was a risk-taker who could fail on occasion but when he succeeded he could make it an elevating musical experience for the listener.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

His veena-playing took the Carnatic music world by storm. Balachander came to be known as the risk-taker who could fail on occasion but when he succeeded he could make it an elevating musical experience for the listener. Not for him the beaten path. Indian Express of April 4, 1967, observed thus: Originality is almost an obsession with him. But it is the obsession of a perfectionist. His innovations may appear quaint but never unpleasant, very often they are stunningly beautiful. Being emotionally sensitive and a man of volatile moods, no two concerts of his are alike. But because he is a virtuoso, his veena is almost a part of his body.

Of listeners with varying degrees of musical sensitivity, Balachander said thus: When I play, I explore my inner soul. In my audience only a small percentage will be receptive to my wavelength. But I am also concerned about the others who are not up to the same level of reception. It is my duty through this music to elevate their sense of appreciation by reaching out to them and help them come up and blossom as listeners. There is in these remarks both a deep concern for and a certain condescension towards the listener. Humility and haughtiness existed in him in equal measure. When he heard over the radio a brilliant pallavi by Vidwan D.K. Jayaraman, a visibly moved Balachander proceeded to Jayaraman's house late at night with a silk shawl as a gift.

He could be a difficult customer if his gander was up, and an irrational one too! His initiation of the controversy on Swati Tirunal (1813-1846), the Maharaja of Travancore, and the detrimental role it played on his life and work was, in retrospect, hardly worth the trouble. He was of the opinion that since Swati Tirunal was only a lyricist, he could not be clubbed with the great trinity of composer-lyricists of Carnatic music, namely, Shyama Shastri (1762-1827), Thyagaraja (1767-1847) and Muthuswami Dikshitar (1776-1835).

Balachander spent a great deal of energy and a fair amount of money trying to prove that Swati Tirunal's music was a hoax. Amongst the adherents of the late Maharaja was the latter-day master of Carnatic vocal Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who shifted to Travancore in 1940 to assist Mutthiah Bhagavathar to bring to light the kritis of Swati Tirunal with the approval of Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi who was a connoisseur of music. The controversy earned Balachander many enemies. Balachander filed a writ petition in the Madras High Court on December 17, 1989. It was up to his son S.B.S. Raman to withdraw the petition after Balachander's death.

Rich in detail

Sampat's book is rich in detail and has a great deal of objectivity. He has gone to great lengths to concentrate on Balachander's music and place him in the perspective of the Carnatic music of his time, and possibly ours. He brings out Emani Sankara Sastri's and Balachander's individual styles of musical expression in an elegant paragraph: In recent times two gifted vainikas who worked hard to overcome this limitation of the instrument were Emani Sankara Sastri (192287) and Balachander. By a unique combination of finger movements and plucking, Emani managed to create an illusion of fretless musical continuity. While Balachander attempted the same continuity, what distinguished his style was that he drew out of it a majestic and manly grandeur. This was in contrast to Emani coaxing a delicate feminine gracefulness from the veena.

Giving a Veena recital to students of Western Michigan University, United States, who were on a tour of Chennai, in this undated photograph.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The author tells us how two masters of the instrument overcame the limitations imposed by the relatively short duration of vibration of the strings by plucking them. He also gives a line drawing of the veena to illustrate its various characteristics.

Sampat wrote the much-acclaimed My Name Is Gauhar Jaan on the life and times of Gauhar Jaan (1873-1930), the great exponent of Hindustani music, two years ago. It was a well-researched and sensitive compilation. His biography of Balachander is equally sensitive but it has drawn needless flak from the vainika's critics. Balachander's wife, Shantha, and son have accused him of not taking a stand on the Swati Tirunal issue. But the truth is that the biography is very well researched and acquaints the lay, unbiased reader with the musical and psychological world that made possible the flowering of Balachander's genius and the sociological and historical conditions in which he was grounded.

Sampat has not relied on words alone. He attaches a CD to make the listener aware of Balachander's prodigious musical gifts, just as he did with Gauhar Jaan's biography to make people marvel at her recordings made as early as 1905. His task is made easy this time, for the audio quality of Balachander's playing is of a professional standard.

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