If the art was mother's gift, the title Bala Meera was given by Jawaharlal Nehru.
On a hot Sunday afternoon, Meera Grimes aka 'Bala Meera' Chandra receives you at the entrance of her spacious apartment on Poonamallee High Road, with a broad smile. For a moment, I remember those days when my family members would hurriedly complete the evening chores and rush to concerts and katha kalakshepams. One was child artist Bala Meera Chandra's harikatha. I recall the discussions that would go on till late at night about her treatise on the subject that day, her charming looks, her abhinaya and her fantastic voice.
Over a hot cup of coffee, Bala Meera starts the conversation. "Harikatha encompasses storytelling, poetry, music, drama, dance and philosophy, and it is about God or about saints who had realised God. I owe it all to my mother Neela Balasubramaniam. She used to accompany my grandmother to Kadapa Lakshmi Amma to learn music, dance and harikatha. Lakshmi Amma is the first woman harikatha artist as far as I know. My grandmother and C. Saraswathi Bai provided her vocal support. Having lost her husband at an early age and due to the prevalent social stigma, Lakshmi Amma confined her performances to her house, and only women would be in attendance. My mother's childhood dream of becoming a harikatha performer did not bear fruit. So, she was hell bent on making me one."
Bala Meera's brothers were her accompanists and her cousins and aunts gave her vocal support. Her mother never missed her programmes.
Bala Meera's voice sounds like the tinkle of a bell. She goes on "My mother taught music and dance to many children and as I watched them, it was but natural that I imbibed the art. Thuraiyur Rajagopala Sharma, an accomplished musician and harikatha exponent, volunteered to teach me the art of storytelling. His father Mahadeva Sharma had written a book on the various aspects of harikatha. The first piece I learnt was 'Dhuruva Charithram'. My arangetram took place when I was 12. I was a student of Sarada Vidyalaya, T. Nagar, at that time. Offers started pouring in after that. Many sabhas, bhajan mandalis in the city and those in the districts provided plenty of opportunities. The training went on for about five years, and I learnt 'Valli Kalyanam', 'Rukmini Kalyanam' and many more pieces, expanding my repertoire in the process."
Meeting a veteran
"Having heard about you, I wanted to see how a little girl in a skirt performs this art. That's why I am here a day earlier. I am really proud of you and will help you hone your skills further," was harikatha exponent Embar Vijayaraghavachariar's comment when Bala Meera fell at his feet after her performance at Bangalore Ramani Ammal's festival. Embar was to perform the next day. She reveres Embar a lot and values whatever she learnt from him.
A large photograph of a sanyasi in her drawing room attracts your attention. She explains, "That is Swami Remaji (Vaidyanathan) who was introduced to me by my mother when I had just finished SSLC. He taught me several bhajans of Surdas and Meerabai that he had set to music. He was an expert in all genres of music, be it Carnatic, Hindustani or Western classical. A nuclear physicist at the Cambridge University, he renounced life to propound a new philosophy. He was my spiritual guru. Before he passed away, he bequeathed to me all his writings running to several thousands of pages. I am in the process of bringing them out as a book."
The prefix 'Bala Meera' got attached to her name when she performed Meera bhajans in the presence of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in a village in Rajasthan. A large number of people had gathered there to donate gold equivalent to the weight of Nehruji for the National Defence Fund. "Patting my cheek and appreciating my performance, Nehruji said, 'So you are the Bala Meera performing Meera bhajans.' That was in 1963, and from then on I came to be known as 'Bala Meera' Chandra."
She rates her harikatha performance on the 30 saints in 30 days at Sai Samaj, Mylapore, as one of her best. 'Krishna Rathna Thrayam' taught to her by Swami Remaji was another pet subject.
Performing alongside the women trinity M.S., MLV and DKP at a Tiruttani festival got her an opportunity to perform at The Music Academy, on the request of T.L. Venkatrama Iyer. Dr. V. Raghavan helped her get a scholarship from the Academy to learn Lalithopakyanam under the tutelage of Mahadeva Bhagavatar. In the process, she learnt many Dikshitar kritis.
"As I was busy with my concerts, harikatha and dance programmes, I did B.A. privately. After obtaining a Diploma in music and dance, I went on to do my Masters at the University of Madras. That's where I met John Grimes of the U.S., who was doing research. He was deeply into Indian philosophy and wanted to marry an Indian who would help him in his journey. That's how we got married, with the blessings of the elders and Sri Sathya Sai Baba of whom he was an ardent devotee."The bookshelf in their house is full of John's books on Indian philosophy, including a treatise on Adi Sankara's Viveka Choodamani.
Shifting base to the U.S. after her marriage, Bala Meera continued her performances there. Due to ill health, she cut down on the number of performances. Unable to bear her daughter's ill health, her mother Neela passed away suddenly. "I never thought that I would be able to perform again. But by God's Grace, I am still performing, but am limiting it to chambers and smaller crowds."
Her book 'Harikatha', that covers Samartha Ramadas' contribution to art of spiritual story telling, is what she considers her best contribution to this art. She says Samartha Ramadas is the father of harikatha for it was he who codified it logically into a structure. The spiritual guru of Chatrapathi Shivaji, he travelled to South India and established maths in Thanjavur when it was ruled by Shivaji's step brother Ekoji. That's how harikatha spread in the South.
Bala Meera also hails Thanjavur Krishna Bhagavathar, who was a violin vidwan for harikatha performances then, as the father of harikatha kalakshepam, for he adopted it to suit this part of the country. "Nonetheless, Samartha Ramadas' 'Dasa Bhodha' is the ultimate book on harikatha and its grammar," she says assertively.
As I take leave, "Harikatha is a sugar coated pill," she sums up.