G. N. Balasubramaniam
My friendship with late G. N. Balasubramaniam started in peculiar
circumstances - with a friction. During early 1950s started
writing a column entitled 'Musings on Music' in the Deccan Herald. One week it
carried a review of an AIR broadcast of GNB's recital wherein I
had criticized his off key singing. I knew that there would be protests by some GNB fans
and I did not mind because I was living at a safe distance,
at Mysore city, from where I was filing the reviews. A couple of
months later Balasubramaniam visited Mysore and gave a
concert at the Sri Prasanna Sitarama Mandiram (Bidaram Krishnappa
Ramamandiram). I attended the concert but left early because it was a
long drawn one due to the Radio relay starting only at 9.30 p.m. I had
to trudge a long distance to my home.
Next morning the President of the Ramamandiram, K. Puttu Rao, a respected advocate of Mysore, came to my place. I was surprised and when he said "I say what have you done to GNB? Yesterday night after the concert I took him home for Dinner and he scarcely touched the food saying repeatedly "that gentleman has done me an injustice, referring to you. What is the matter?" I was taken aback. I did not realise that the review which I had almost forgotten had hurt Balasubramaniam as to spoil his appetite even several months after its publication. Then I decided that during my next visit to Madras to meet GNB in person and have a straight discussion about this subject, as to what points did really hurt him etc., because after my talk with Puttu Rao I had dug up that review and found nothing wrong.
During the December Musical festival I went to Madras. But I could not meet him. Next year I visited Madras again during the music season. This time I met Balasubramaniam through my friend M. A. Narasimhachar. GNB was very cordial and invited us to the AIR station where he had assumed charge as the Deputy Producer of Karnatic Music recently. During the following three or four days I met GNB several times, at his home, at AIR, Music Academy. We discussed various topics related to music and musicians. But GNB did not refer to my review of his broadcast even once. Finally I raised the subject myself and asked him "Balasubramaniam, I was told that you were hurt by my review of your Radio broadcast sometime back. May I know what part of it did hurt you ?" GNB said "Let us forget about it Sir. It is not an important matter." But I was not convinced and persisted. Finally he said "No doubt I was hurt like any musician when unfavourable remarks are made about him or his music. Besides I was also a bit concerned abut the effect the review would have on the organisers of my concerts. After all I am a professional musician. I was unwell on the day of the broadcast and could not cancel the broadcast at the last minute. That is the reason for my off key singing, which of course you could not know," I retorted "Balasubramaniam, you are an established musician and a highly popular figure. Even if unflattering reviews appear in the press every day for a whole year they will not affect your concert opportunities in any way,. But you must remember that you are almost a cult figure especially for the young musicians, who try to emulate you. And if they hear your off key concerts, they will certainly follow giving apasruthi concerts and point at you in case anyone criticised them."
Anyway after this heart to heart talk we became close friends. I also realised that GNB was a very sensitive musician and also a gentleman. We regularly corresponded and personally discussed various aspects of music. These discussions were highly illuminating and thought provoking at least to me. His approach to music was not merely conventional and sentimental. It was rational and the evaluation was intellectual. Combined with his attractive stage presence and a breezy style of singing that reflected an youthful urge and vitality made him an ideal especially to the youth. During our discussions, I wanted to be enlightened about certain points teasing my mind. First of all how did GNB, a literature honours graduate who was cut out for prestigious functions in life, chose music, which certainly had an uncertainty, as his career? GNB said he was born in a family where music was a part of life. He grew up in an atmosphere heavily laden with music and "I may say," he averred "I could not escape music. But there was no necessity for any stimulants because I was inclined towards music even from my younger days and divided my time between my studies and music. And I also had abundant opportunities to hear the best of music through masters of music which strengthened my music faculties and also created an urge to pursue the art seriously. However the real turning point came through Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar" said GNB.
According to him when Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar came for a concert at the Parthasarathy Swamy Sangitha Sabha, his father G. V. Narayanaswamy Iyer invited Ariyakudi to his home to discuss an important problem and seek his advice. Iyer's son "Mani," was a precocious lad and had developed a disquieting habit of always occupying his spare time with music. His enthusiasm and spirited singing somehow endeared him to many people and he was perpetually inveigled away to sing at any function in the vicinity. Of course, this did not really interfere with his school studies. But even an infatuation has its limits. Mani was now approaching the age when the voice tended to break and when, too, he would have to make up his mind and concentrate on a course leading to a prosperous and "respectable" life. In these circumstances, might it not be advisable to wean him away from music?
Ariyakudi asked the lad to sing. After listening
for a while, he gravely said to his father, "I feel that you should not
interfere, but allow him to follow up his zest for music. It is true
that he is at an age when the voice comes to its natural form; also that
he sings rather fast. But in due course both will settle down of their own
accord; and I should say the boy has a great future." Ariyakudi's words proved
Narayanaswamy Iyer, as well as being a respected teacher, was the Secretary of the venerable Parthasarathiswami Sangita Sabha and was considered one of the pillars of musical culture in Madras. His inclinations, naturally, were on the severely conservative side. Any musician who earned an appreciative nod from Iyer was almost as elated as one of his students who scored high marks. Still, the responsibilities of a father overriding the predilections of the connoisseur in him, he had his doubts about the rightness of the course his son was set upon. He tried once or twice, unsuccessfully, to stem the tide. By this time Mani had completed his way to his ultimate Honours in Literature at the Christian College. The father's last intervention was when, after gaining the Honours degree, Mani was persuaded to deposit the fee for a Law degree. The call of music presumably became too strong for him at this point and he was carried away on its current. Iyer threw up his hands in despair, exclaiming, "If it is written in his fate that he must earn his living by music only, who am I that I should seek to prevent it ?"
Balasubramaniam was born at Gudalur in Tamilnadu on 6th January 1910, but came with his family to Madras. Because his talent in music was noticed when he was young, the boy was drafted to sing in any function. He even enacted the role of Dhruva in a drama when he was barely 10. His debut concert occurred in peculiar circumstances. In 1928, Musiri Subramanya Iyer had been fixed for a concert at the Kapaleeshwara temple in Mylapore, Madras. Unexpectedly he could not perform that day. The nonplussed authorities noticed Balasubramaniam in the audience and persuaded him to perform in the place of Musiri. The audience was as surprised as thrilled at this young man's reedy voice, the fast rolls, their lightning speed all delivered with an assurance and non chalance. GNB a new star appeared on the horizon and he never looked back.
Thus G. N. Balasubramaniam's musical life ran like an unbroken stream even from his early days. Its course was steady and rapid, though not meteoric. Contrary to accepted forebodings, the graduate who made music his profession, singing with an energetic and thrilling style, gathered in no time a large circle of admirers, who affectionately abbreviated his name to the three letters, "G.N.B." He was soon a celebrity, commanding a high premium in the concert halls, and this led to some peculiar episodes in his life - he played featured roles in a couple of Tamil film hits, in which he acted with such prominent artistes as Vasundhara Devi (mother of Vyjayanthimala) and M. S. Subbulakshmi, and won the President's award and the much coveted Sangita Kalanidhi
of the Madras Music Academy, and a host of lesser honours.
Two factors principally contributed to his success: first, the pleasant voice, the breezy style, the easy delivery ornamented with fast fluttering rolls, or birkas as they are called, in which he indulged with effortless nonchalance; second, the personality. Despite the ravages of illnesses, the tall fair-complexioned G.N.B., adorned with his glittering diamond ear studs and dressed in spotless white khadi, cut a handsome figure on the platform. It will hardly be incorrect to describe him as a matinee idol of the musical world of his days. And the fair sex outnumbered the rest at his recitals. The picture of the handsome figure with the lively, effervescent expression and slightly flamboyant style so firmly impressed itself on the minds of most of his admirers that they cherished an illusion of his changeless youth was often disconcerting to G.N.B. himself, when his fans made demands for features that were the highlights of his music some decades ago. "These people seem to forget that their G.N.B. has grown in years and his name has grown with him," said he. "It is regrettable that the musical ideas and tastes of people do not develop with their years."
Naturally, the modalities of his music had undergone a change with age. It is true that his voice - particularly in the upper reaches - became hazy and had lost some of its sparkle. He had to gather momentum to negotiate some high points which he once sang effortlessly. But in the middle register the voice was rich in timbre and imparted a distinctively masculine quality to his music .
Balasubramaniam was a modern in a field strongly dominated by tradition. Nevertheless, he was not detached from that. His inherent love for music was nurtured during his formative years by the congenial atmosphere of a home ringing with the songs of the stalwarts of the period, who were frequent visitors. He had his initiation from his father and later came under the influence of Madurai Subrahmaniayya, a scion of the Tyagaraja family, considered no less a perfectionist than a purist. When a Diploma course in music was introduced in Madras University, G.N.B. abandoned the idea of a Law degree and was one of the first batch of students to be trained by the late "Tiger" Varadachariar. Despite such courses of training, which were not in strict accordance with the ancient gurukula system, G.N.B. was not aloof from tradition. But with him its perspectives were tempered with realism.
"After all, what is tradition ? That which symbolises the enduring values in art," used to say G.N.B. "Tradition is never static, always dynamic. Otherwise music becomes fossilised and is reduced to the position of a museum piece." Elaborating this in one of his speeches, he remarked, "In music, as in other fields of the culture which we have inherited from the past, we have now come to a stage when, I am afraid, a blind and unmeaning obedience and adherence to time-honoured canons will no longer obtain amongst rising generations. Unless we are able to understand and communicate to them the why and how of our past traditions and practices, there is every reason for our being nervous about the continuance of our inherited culture."
In brief, Balasubramaniam may be said to symbolise a new look in Karnatak, music. Indeed, we may add with some justification that he was a bridge between the old and the new and was to some extent instrumental in the streamlining of this art. Naturally, he was the idol of a large section of music-lovers and the ideal for many musicians- in-the-making, most of whom - however unsuccessfully-tried to emulate his style. Any aspect of music that he touched automatically became the popular fancy overnight. In this connection I may recall a casual conversation I had with Ariyakudi once.
Spirit of inquiry
After putting much hard work and organisation into the task Mysore Sangitha Kalabhivriddhini Sabha had published a collection of the compositions of Mysore Sadashiva Rao. Feeling that the purpose of such a publication could not fructify unless the compositions were brought into circulation in a manner which gave them a fresh lease of life, I sounded out Ariyakudi as to whether he could not render this service to the works of an old master. "There is no use in asking me," he said. "Persuade G.N.B. to sing a few of them and they will be popular automatically".
Though he deeply revered tradition and its positive values, Balasubramaniam had no inhibitions, and his academic career had instilled into him the spirit of inquiry and the logic of a modern intellectual, whose inclinations are more for the living substance of art than for the superstitious sentiment surrounding it. Naturally, G.N.B. was always ready for new experiments and to take new directions - of course within the sphere of classical Karnatak music-which may often appear too bold and unconventional to the orthodox. "Nothing new should be rejected merely on the score that it is novel," he said. "For cultural progress, we have to thank the pioneers of new ideas and expressions, though in their own times they may have been called rebels."
"Like a staircase"
"Every concert should have an educative aspect," said Balasubramaniam. "It should have new points of appeal and should never repeat hackneyed phrases or passages. The plan and pattern may be the same, but they need to be given new colour and life." Perfectly at home in both the lakshana and lakshya aspects of his art, he was able to apply these ideas effectively and generally liked to do differently from what was customary. In an alapana, apart from the key notes which give the character of the raga, he dwelt on and revolved round other important notes too, inducing similar effects. Similarly, he often chose obscure and infrequently used ragas for a spacious exposition which he did with effortless ease, imparting a wholesome form to the mode. In the swaraprastara he chose a different eduppu (starting point) from what was customary, and chose a different mould when presenting even well-known and time-honoured pallavis. Above all, his music had a touch of originality and exuded a rich essence or rasabhava, as it is called. Appreciating his systematic manner of exposition, the late T.V. Subba Rao called it a "sopana paddhati" (like a staircase).
His speech, when presiding over the 32nd Conference of the Madras Music Academy, was itself highly significant. Instead of offering the customary shop-soiled cliches, G.N.B. treated the subject and its problems logically and firmly. His approach was decidedly catholic, rather than parochial, and his view was of Indian music as a whole. For instance, his may have been the only speech to have suggested the need for learning dhrupads (which resemble Dikshitar's compositions in some respects) in the South, and to have pleaded for their revival in the North, leading to the creation of kalpita sangita, in a more wholesome form resembling the South Indian kriti, rather than the free (often aim-lessly) flowing khayal in the realm of kalpana sangita. Unbiased and unprejudiced in his appreciation of the finer aspects of the art, he was so overwhelmed listening to the music of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan that he covered the maestro with a ponnadai (cloth of honour) and touched his feet. This naturally scandalised the orthodox.
"I am a neo-classicist," used to say G.N.B., when asked what was his stand in relation to contemporary Karnatak music. How did he define this obviously paradoxical term ? - "That art which is born out of the profound and powerful emotional inspiration of romaticism, selected, controlled and chiselled by a classicist's exercise of reason, to give a structurally integrated whole and achieve a union of vigour and beauty in the parts, with exquisite attractiveness and appeal as a whole." He has discussed this theme in interesting detail in an article, "Art, its Dawn, Perfection and Future Role."
A thinker among musicians, G.N.B. had analysed the subject taking up various aspects and problems from different angles and recording his reflections in many articles. Unfortunately, most of these lie buried in souvenirs-the fleeting by- products of conferences and festivals. But to read them is almost as rewarding as a conversation with him. Urbane in manner, he was always prepared to discuss these matters and had an answer to most of the conundrums with which Karnatak music is beset today.
"It is futile always to live on sentiment. We must face realities," he used to say. "This is an age not of musical creators, but of exponents. We are subsisting on the fare provided by the great trinity of Karnatak music and their successors and whatever we produce certainly follows the lines of their plans and conceptions. Music comes in cycles. At one time it will be the turn of the creator, that is to say, the composer and then of the exponent. We have to await the next creative age." Be that as it may, G.N.B. had also translated his creative conceptions into numerous compositions. A few of these have been published under title, Ganabhaskaramanimalai, while many more still await publication.
Some of his compositions, such as "Parangmukhamela' in Kanada, at concerts and are especially preferred by the younger musicians. These compositions deserve separate discussion. Balasubramaniam did not profess to be the precursor of any school of music. Nevertheless, one cannot overlook the impact of his personality and art on the prospective course of Karnatak music. While his style was irresistible to the younger generation of musicians, his ideas earned the esteem of the intelligensia.
"Why blame them?" he used to say of the younger generation of musicians who are customarily reproached for their failings. "No doubt Karnatak music like any other classical art, is in a flux. But should we not also remember what we, their elders in the field, have given them? A youngster needs guidance, an ideal, an inspiration and, above all, a congenial atmosphere. Whatever lessons he may learn, he must have unlimited opportunities to hear good music that does not merely entertain but also inspires. All these impressions form a sort of amalgam in his mind and build up the nucleus around which his faculties and talents blossom." The response of the younger generation to such understanding and sympathy was seen in the large number of adherents who faithfully trained themselves to emulate him and follow his style. Some of them like M.L. Vasanthkumari became celebrities.
Balasubramaniam passed away in 1965.
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