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Veena S Balachander was an acknowledged master and innovator, but he was also a bit of a stormy petrel. A Seshan reviews an exhaustive new biography of the controversial musician
This is a biography of S Balachander (1927-1990), an eminent veena vidwan of the Carnatic music world, who for more than four decades was at the forefront on the concert stage as well as in controversies. The book is quite exhaustive, running to nearly 450 pages, with the author having taken pains to access authentic sources of information. It makes the book a definitive work, although one may not agree with all that is said.
In the Preface the author describes how he was helped in his work, inter alia, by the detailed album that Balachander had maintained. The album’s eight volumes and 1,000 pages contained all sorts of material — press clippings, opinions on others, awards received, etc. — and are a veritable potpourri of information relating to Balachander. Serious stuff exists side by side with light stuff.
Chapter 1 is on the birth of Balachander and the music-charged atmosphere in which he grew up. It describes a person who was multitalented from an early age. The young Balachander acted, played chess like a champion and excelled on many instruments, like the kanjira, sitar, surbahar, dilruba, piano, tarang, dholak, esraj and tabla, while working as a staff artiste for two and a half years at the then Madras station of All-India Radio.
Chapter 2, “The Goddess’ Instrument”, deals with the evolution of the veena and the veteran players of the 19th and 20th centuries who created the various banis or styles of playing it. Balachander’s final discovery of the veena as the vehicle for his musical expression is explained.
Chapter 3, “Celluloid Magic”, captures the musician’s foray into the world of films, where he played the roles of producer, director and actor. It also describes his disenchantment with the medium due to trends that were not to his liking.
Chapter 4, “The Veena Travels Westwards”, is on Balachander’s successful foreign concert trips, where he received rave reviews in the press. Chapter 5, “Determining the Classical”, is frank enough to refer, among other things, to the intense self-promotion in which he engaged to gain publicity. Chapter 6 is on the unique playing style that Balachander created, by making changes to his veena and innovating in sound amplification.
Chapter 7, “The Sentinel of the Raga”, marks the start of the controversies that followed him throughout his life — beginning with the campaign Balachander launched to preserve the purity of the raga and the criticism of the music critic. Often, the controversies involved or drew in leading personalities of the Carnatic music world.
Chapter 8, “Kindling a Genie”, is about the biggest battle of his life. This relates to the questions he raised about Swati Tirunal’s status as a vaggeyakara (lyricist-composer) of merit on a par with the members of the Trinity of Carnatic Music: Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri.
Chapter 9, “A Star Fades Away”, is about the denouement of the court battle Balachander waged against Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, a doyen of Carnatic music. In Chapter 10, “The Man and the Musician”, the reader is given glimpses of Balachander’s life with family and friends, and of the affectionate side of his personality. This contrasts with the abrasive image he presented to the public.
In the seven appendices are many interesting pieces of information on the tributes paid to the maestro, copies of his handwritten writings, and so on. The book is lavishly presented, offering many rare photographs. To top it all, there is a music CD containing a recording of the veena vidwan. An appendix on discography could have completed the picture. However, the book provides details of all the records Balachander cut.
Although the book should be valuable not just to Balachander’s admirers but also to the music world in general, I found the description of the maestro’s rather unique style and the controversies of absorbing interest for two personal reasons. First, having studied the veena formally under the late Devakottai Narayana Iyengar of the Karaikudi style, I was able to follow the nuances of the Balachander bani and can remember some of his concerts. Second, I contributed my share to the controversies started by the vidwan in the pages of Sruti, a leading music and dance monthly of Chennai.
Balachander’s craft overpowered his artistry. His technical virtuosity and innovations in playing on the veena did not hide the fact that he was constantly struggling with his instrument to express his musical ideas. His excessive obsession with pulling the string upward on a mettu (fret) to reach higher swaras was not a novelty, as claimed by him. The Karaikudi Brothers used to reach up to four swaras in the normal course, and occasionally six swaras by pulling the strings, but only when the occasion demanded, especially in faster tempos. Anything beyond that limit only compromises the sruti (or frequency) value of the note.
Such attempts resulted in physical exertion and tension, as revealed in the painful expressions on Balachander’s face as he played. His obsession with pulling the strings gave short shrift to the other gamakas in the total of ten. Particularly pleasing is jaru (akin to the glissando in Western classical music) when the artiste glides smoothly from one note to another, distant one, with beautiful anuswaras.
As a result of the limited interpretation of the gayaki style (recreating the voice of the vocalist) to achieve a continuity of sound, the distinction between the datu (note) and the matu (the text of the song) was not brought out well. I can only compare the styles of other maestros, whose playing would allow the knowledgeable to identify each word in the text by using the sahitya meetu.
Generally the plucking of the strings is less for sahitya than for swaras. The use of the contact mike and other acoustic pick-ups by Balachander only contributed to the harshness of the sound. Sunadam (sweetness of note) was a casualty. The vidwan’s statement, given on page 422, that “Aadhi [sic] Thaalam, for instance, is in 8 beats which may be divided 3-3-2, 4-2-2 or other divisions of 8” is surprising. It is 4-2-2 only.
It is obvious that Balachander was a genius and the personification of brilliance. He had a large-sized ego. He would have been immensely pleased to read this volume had he been alive today.
VOICE OF THE VEENA
Author: Vikram Sampath
Price: Rs 595