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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 prophetic.

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.

Musical thinker

"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.

His influence


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.

From: ramesh@ichips.intel.com (Krishnamurthy Ramesh)
Newsgroups: rec.music.indian.classical
Subject: Great Masters of Karnatik Music - G N BALASUBRAMANIAM
Date: 8 Oct 1996 15:37:58 GMT
Organization: Intel Corporation, Hillsboro, OR
G. N. Balasubramaniam
by Sangeetha Kalarathna B. V. K. Sastry
Scanned from an article in Gayana Samrajya - Monthly Bullettin of the
Bangalore Gayana Samaja, July 1996, Vol 1996, No. 7


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