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Updated: May 15, 2014 20:37 IST

The Eternal Lamp

Hema Iyer Ramani
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T.R. Balamani. Photo: Shashi Ashiwal
The Hindu T.R. Balamani. Photo: Shashi Ashiwal

On May 17, disciples will celebrate the birthday of Guru Balamani, in whom math and music merge

She is not just the anaya vilakku, the flame that burns in homes of Sabrimala pilgrims till their safe return, but also the blaze from which several lamps draw their energy and brightness. Sakhshath Guru Balamani is the source that has ignited many a star in the musical galaxy. Highlighting this quality in his guru, Shankar Mahadevan says, “There are very few people in this world who have dedicated their entire lives to teaching others so that the students come into the limelight, and their happiness lies in that! She is one of them. Every note of my music is because of her.”

On May 17, many lamps will be lit at the Music Academy as disciples gather to celebrate the birthday of the ‘magara vilakku’ that is Balamani.

Little Balamba, the first among four siblings, grew up in Tattamangalam in Kerala. Her father, T. Ramanathan, was a post master, who encouraged her musical sensibilities by ensuring that she was guided by the right guru.

When Bala was nine, Narayana Bhagavathar moulded her. So devoted was he to this young student, that en-route to his destination he would stop by their home sometimes as late as 10 p.m. to teach a particular nuance, or listen to her sing. Bala imbibed this quality when she became a guru. Music, which was a passion, soon became her calling, when she sought admission to the Music College in Madras, where she was trained by stalwarts such as Chittoor Subramania Pillai, T. Brinda, Tirupambharam Swaminatha Pillai, M.A. Kalyana Krishna Bhagavathar and Devakottai Narayana Iyengar. She soon started giving concerts along with her sister, T.R. Sarasa, and they were known as the Tattamangalam Sisters.

After sailing through her Pallavi classes, she was soon cracking her viva in front of an eminent jury consisting of Paroor Sundaram Iyer, Rajamanickam Pillai, Pazhani Subbudu and Musiri Subramania Iyer! From neraval to atta tala varnam in trikalam, from raga Bhairavi to Saranga, she showed her prowess, which won her the scholarship to study music.

An early marriage saw her moving to another city, Bombay, which was to become her home. Balamba then became Balamani after her marriage. In her modest Matunga flat, Balamani began her journey as a full-fledged Carnatic vocalist. When news of this talented new entrant spread in the city, many sought her out as a teacher. A new phase began - that of a guru.

There is an amazing chemistry between music and mathematics, and Bala is a wizard at both! Her daughter, Ranjani Chander, a fabulous singer herself, admits that her mother has an uncanny head for figures and Math. Elaborating this, Kalyani, a disciple, acknowledges Bala’s aptitude for mathematical calculation. She says, “The way she works on her notation or trains us to write and understand it, is proof of her capability.”

That her mastery over notation is well known and acknowledged by giants in the field, only goes to reiterate her hold in the area. The story goes that the legend Pinakapani, musician and musicologist, once on his visit to Bombay met Balamani on the morning of the day she was slated to give a concert at 6.30 p.m. He handed over the notation of a kriti in Mohanam raga and asked her to include it in the recital’s repertoire. She proved her genius in notation, which she can write and read with equal speed, which drew admiration from Pinakapani and his praise that was akin to the title of ‘Brahmarishi.’

M.S. Jayaraman, a geologist by profession and a music connoisseur, says: “When you know how to write a song with notation, two things are definite -‘swara shuddha’ and ‘laya pidippu’. And, Balamani not only has a knowledge of this by practising it, but generously shares it with her students.”“Her mathematical strength expresses itself through the amazing control that she has over ‘pallavi’, something she ensures each of her student is equipped with,” says disciple Sabesh Subramaniam..

It is said of Balamani that her pallavis are crisp, melodic and they conform to the idiom. Her control over laya is so perfect that she makes the various gathis (whether trikalam, mishram, tishram....) rendered in pallavi seem like child's play. She is so sound mathematically that she can think of any gathi or korvai impromptu, even on the stage!

Balamani is acknowledged as the guru who brought the cerebral and the soul to her music. If notation and kalapramanam speaks of her head for math, then it is her penchant for niraval that shows her prowess in ‘manodharma,’ which is the soul of music.

Raji Gopalakrishnan also reiterates the niraval aspect of her teaching: “Musiri baani, which is the strong point of her teaching was new to me, yet she had the wonderful knack of teaching what was both powerful and simple, that I found myself drawn into singing niraval.”

Prasanna Venkataraman says that she, “instills the fundamental values of azhuttam, bhavam and good vocalisation into each one of her students.” Mala Mohan confesses that she owes her personal growth as a teacher to her guru Balamani.

With Dikshitar kritis, she worked on sangatis with effortless ease, again an ease that was deceptive.

Bala’s home in Bombay literally breathed music. It was also an extension of ‘home’ for many. Ranjani also speaks of her father Mani’s silent but unstinted support to her mother by providing endless cups of tea and food. An acknowledgement of the support a sensitive husband lent to his talented wife. Bala was ably assisted by Ashabai, her faithful maid of several years, who literally devoured her music, which prompted guru Govind Rao to once comment: “If I were to take another janma (birth), I would like to be reborn as Ashabai!”

As for competitions, her joy lay in preparing her students to win. One student says, “there was not a single student in her class who had not won the tambura prize.”

Bombay Jayashri puts it succinctly: “My parents just handed me to her, as she was their best friend whose music they adored. As disciples, we called her 'Teacher' but she was our 'Amma' who actually handheld each of us into the world of music. The ‘beeja’ (seed) from the tulsi plant (called Balamani) nourished the soil, and fresh saplings looked up to her, and look up to her still.”

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