Focus Vikram Sampath's book Voice of the Veena, a biography of the legendary veena artiste S. Balachander, is a revelation for multiple reasons
Writing a biography is no mean task. Particularly, in the absence of your subjects. Vikram Sampath, author of three books, which includes two biographies, wouldn't disagree with it. His latest book on the highly talented and equally controversial veena maestro S. Balachander, Voice of the Veena , is an exhaustive work — it chronicles the life and work of the free-spirited musician, who was also a film maker, actor, chess player and several other things. It also brings to fore, in equal measure if not more, the world of films, the music sabhas, Swati Tirunal controversy — in all its turbulence.
Excerpts from an interview:
The subject of both your biographies – Gauhar Jaan and S. Balachander – were long dead by the time you took them up. It must have been difficult to re-invoke their memories among the living. Chronicling the lives of these two very different artistes offered its own set of challenges, though I feel at some point there was a commonality between the two. Both were artists who had contributed so significantly to their chosen art form. Yet, despite these multiple contributions, both were forgotten pioneers. In the case of Balachander it was a conscious attempt by the musical ‘establishment' to obliterate his memory in haste. It was tough to find contemporaries of Gauhar Jaan or anyone who had even heard her name, in Balachander's case, though people knew him well since it has just been 22 years since his death, most were unwilling to speak about him candidly.
Balachander was multi-faceted. How did you handle such a personality?
I had a vague inkling that the man was a born wizard. The fact that all his life he was a self-taught polymath who had no Guru, either in music or in films or chess, spoke volumes of his innate genius. I was certainly overawed by his personality and the challenges that this posed. However, I consciously ensured that I don't appear as a gushing fan who goes overboard in eulogising his subject! In the course of the journey, one just falls completely in love with one's subject, yet a biographer is expected to be an impartial bystander who is just watching the happenings from the ringside.
Balachander's maverick persona precedes him in the cultural world. I'm sure it's an impediment for a biographer. On the contrary it made him a more interesting character whose life did not have a linear pattern. It was necessary for me to get under his skin to understand what was it that made him such a rebel. Balachander was the perennial iconoclast. What mattered was ethics in classical music and in all his speeches and essays he would always underline the onerous responsibility that a classical musician had in propagating this Divine art, to be true to his art and to not sell it cheap.
Balachander was surely an innovator, constantly challenging himself and pushing boundaries. But he was hugely ambitious too. Oh yes, he was supremely ambitious and took himself and his career very seriously. And what is wrong in being ambitious? Balachander was at least brutally candid in making his intentions known, rather than hide behind a false veil of self-effacing humility that many artists try to portray. In fact, when Government officials came to his house seeking his details for a recommendation for the Padma Award, he candidly told them that if the Tamil Nadu Government wanted to nominate him for a Padma at all, it should be the Padma Bhushan and if it was Padma Shri on their mind, they would rather not go ahead with the idea!
He would ask people openly to name the street where he lived after him! He strongly believed that he was entitled to all this by virtue of his talents and contributions and made no bones of it!
Unlike Gauhar Jaan, Balachander may have been a far more easier subject. You had his elaborate personal diary. Yes, Balachander would be any biographer's delight and that's what makes me wonder why all these music historians of Carnatic music gave this man, who had documented every day of his life so painstakingly, a slip. I also wanted to paint a picture of the evolution of the sabha culture of Madras from the 1920s and also the Tamil film industry's journey — all seen through the lens of Balachander's life. This needed extensive research.