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Versatile exponent of Harikatha

A diligent bank officer during the day and a Harikatha exponent in the evening, T. S. Balakrishna Sastrigal straddled two worlds with absolute ease. DVV pays tribute to the veteran who passed away recently.

"IN THE forenoon, he pores over account ledgers while in the evening after scanning books on scriptures, delivers the message contained therein, to a vast audience, both the tasks defying description." This was how a correspondent of a leading American daily paid his tribute in his centre-page article (about three decades ago) after interviewing T. S. Balakrishna Sastrigal both in his office and at his Harikatha performance. He was in Chennai to write an article on Hinduism with special reference to the fine art of discourses.

The journalist also wrote about his dress when at the office as an executive of State Bank of India with a coat and a turban, while describing the traditional dress he wore when he went to give his Harikatha discourse — a special type of dhoti and sacred ash and sandal paste marks on his forehead. For nearly seven decades, TSB as he was known, presented Harikathas in different parts of the country on a variety of topics, especially the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavatam.

TSB, no more with us, has given more than 10,000 musical discourses, including nearly 150 series of Harikatha performances, each lasting 30 days and more. He was singularly fortunate to have been invited to the U.S. and Canada, where he visited 19 centres rendering 35 discourses.

Harikatha is an art that requires mastery over the scriptures, various languages and music and also a powerful delivery of speech. TSB inherited the scriptural (Vedic) knowledge from his father, a mighty scholar who would deliver four lectures a day in different areas in Chennai, without a mike. His father-in-law Somadeva Sarma, an exponent of the Puranas encouraged him. A student of the Madras Christian College (Intermediate) he was proficient in English and had even acted in Shakespeare's plays. He joined the then Imperial Bank. In the study of Tamil literature, he was trained by M.V. Venugopal Pillai.

The Harikatha tradition requires extraordinary knowledge of music, particularly of the Dasarpadaas and the abhangs of Maharashtra. TSB learnt classical music from Tiger Varadhachariar, Mudikondan Sabapathy Iyer and Madirimangalam Natesa Iyer. He acquired knowledge of other genres of music from a north Indian expert.

TSB's repertoire was exhaustive and spontaneous, yet comprehensive, profound and creative. His rendering of the classics was interspersed with abundant humour.

Apart from portraying the characters in the sacred texts such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Balakrishna Sastrigal was devoted to Saint Tyagaraja and included several songs of the composer in his Harikathas. His forte was the brief introduction given at the commencement of each programme with songs from various saints, followed by an outline of the theme for the day. Countless were the titles showered on him by the Acharyas, the Governments and other institutions.

He was awarded Kalaimamani by the State Government and was a recipient of honours from the Central Sangeetha Nataka Academy and the Music Academy (Chennai).

His musical renderings, in which he was assisted by his brother T.S. Valleesan, were soul stirring as both had a rich and fluent voice. TSB used to present Harikatha in English every year for the students of Colgate University, U.S., in Chennai, on Indian epics and these were organised by Prof. William Skelton.

The late vidwan composed songs in Sanskrit, Tamil and Telugu for adapted performances on the Mahabharata, Bhagavatam and Devi Bhagavatam. He has written books — "Tyago-parishad" and "Padma Purana Saaram", and presented the Bhagavad Gita and a discourse on the life of Tyagaraja, that were brought out as LP records. The mission of this exponent of the art was to spread devotion, inculcate discipline and instil moral values. For musicians who desired to get information on rare kirtanas of Tyagaraja, he was "ready-reference" material. No more can we listen to his reverberating music, his amplification of even tough religious subjects and his command over different languages.

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