Music

Yazhpanam PS Balamurugan’s rise to fame

Yazhpanam P S Balamurugan

Yazhpanam P S Balamurugan   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

An extensive alapana of Simhendramadhyamam raga resounds at Vaikom Mahadeva temple amidst the annual ashtami festivities. Even as devotees queue up for darsan, the elaboration is at its crescendo and comes a full circle in almost half an hour. Many of them, including percussion masters like Tiruvarur Bhaktavalsalam and Vaikom Gopalakrishnan, throng the south of the temple to listen to the rich, effervescent music on the nadaswaram, accompanied by sonorous beats of the thavil. The piper is the young nadaswaram player Yazhpanam P S Balamurugan.

“The journey has not been an easy one,” Balamurugan says. “An uncertain future, the Sri Lankan civil war and political turmoil always haunted me and my family. During the height of the war, I was all of 15. We had to move from place to place for a sanctuary,” he recollects.

His grandfather was the first to move from India to Sri Lanka, in the early half of the last millennium, seeking opportunities to perform the nadaswaram. The temple festival season extends from February to August. “Unlike in India, where temple authorities want new artistes every year, in Sri Lanka, we are called over and over for every occasion,” Balamurugan says.

With his base at Yazhpanam, some 400 km from Colombo, Balamurugan is a globe-trotter. He performs regularly in temples in India, Australia, Malaysia, Switzerland, Denmark, Singapore and the US. “I get invited to temples and cultural centres run by Sri Lankan and Indian communities. These temple festivals run to more than 10 days and we usually play on all the days. In Hindu temples in Jaffna and Sri Lanka, we perform many times on the same day for festivals, grihapravesams, marriages and all family occasions.”

So how is the performance platform in his home? “Sri Lanka does not have too many sabhas but there are numerous temples and many opportunities to perform. Sri Lankan arts, music and dance are different from ours. Some of the native Simhalese show an interest in our arts.”

The wizard waxes eloquent about his formative years. “With my guru Alavetti N K Padmanathan, I learned barely four varnams and seven or eight kritis. I stayed with him during my gurukulavasam (tutelage) for four years. I used to get up listening to him, who, at the age of 60, would practise from four am to 6 pm. So it was not rote learning, but assimilating by constant listening, practise and guidance. The same with my father, Subbuswamy Pillai, who was my first guru and taught me a few songs. My father was an expert not just in the nadaswaram but also in thavil, nattuvangam, ghatam and ganjira. The foundation they laid in my evolution in music was so strong that once I was on my own, I could learn by myself. He used to guide me from note to note and tell me to go for a slow progression in alapana.”

Balamurugan goes into the specifics. “My guru used to advise me to blow (the instrument) from my lower belly. During this period of sadhakam, I learned very few songs. My father used to advise me to play the ‘sahitya’ in the vocal style and not merely play the notes of the ‘sahitya’. Whenever I used to grumble that I did not know the notes of a song to play it, he used to tell me to just play by intuition and that the notes would fall in place,” he explains.

Tapes of Maharajapuram Santhanam and Madurai Somu were his other masters. Balamurugan would listen to their tapes over and over again and learn new songs. There was no one else in Sri Lanka he could approach to learn new songs.

At home, they did not have electricity nor could he afford to buy batteries. So, he found a way to play the audio cassettes. The tape player was attached to the dynamo wires of a bicycle, which he would pedal non-stop to learn the songs.

Yazhpanam P S Balamurugan

Yazhpanam P S Balamurugan   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

His own lack of interest in attending school and the tense situation there made him drop out after fourth grade, a decision he regrets now. “I practised long hours without really bothering if I would indeed become a musician,” he says with a glint in his eyes.

“In nadaswaram, my manasika gurus were T N Rajaratinam Pillai and Karaikurichi Arunachalam. I used to listen to their tapes endlessly. Interestingly, I was more interested in playing the thavil and would sneak out to play the instrument at concerts. But my father was the one who sternly told me that I should play nothing but the nadaswaram. He also felt that I did not have the stamina, as I used to be very thin, to play the thavil,” says Balamurugan.

“When I was disheartened and could not play fast phrases as these masters, my father used to guide me with the intricacies and motivate me to try harder. This was his method of teaching that has stood me in good stead.” Balamurugan has also performed frequently in Chennai, and his music was embraced by one and all. But he is most joyous at temple concerts where he “forgets himself”.

“We play songs based on the rituals of the temple, festival and pooja. But at sabha concerts, I am more cautious to prevent making a single slip. A rough planning goes into both, but I don’t decide all the songs earlier. Sabha concerts are attended by connoisseurs, where many of them know about me and my art. So I try to do things differently, bring more variety in pallavi, kritis and bhajans. But temple concerts are attended by all. As much as the potential for music, I give weight to people’s happiness and try to play songs that they like,” says the musician.

His nadaswaram videos are shared and enjoyed on social networking websites. “Yet, it is a painful fact that nadaswaram has lost its prime place it once had in concert platforms in the country. Is it to do with the brahminical orthodoxy?” Balamurugan wonders. Unlike vocalists, almost every nadaswaram player is from a non-Brahmin background.

He attributes his vast manodharma to the many hours of ‘sadhakam’ that he did in his formative years. “What our mind creates, should come on to our fingertips. When I try out a difficult raga, I know how seriously I should approach it. I go with the resolve to tackle it well. If I have internalised it well, I am able to do it. A raga like Kanakangi, the notes of which fall quite close, cannot be explored as much as Kharaharapriya, Kamboji or Shankarabharanam. However, I strive hard to explore every nuance,” he says.

It is a challenging yet exciting musical journey, and Balamurugan treads the path with élan.

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Printable version | Aug 8, 2020 9:12:33 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/nadaswaram-player-yazhpanam-ps-balamurugan-braved-a-civil-war-and-testing-times-to-play-his-way-to-the-spotlight/article25787454.ece

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