Music

A maestro for a best friend

S. Balachander. Tha Hindu Archive

S. Balachander. Tha Hindu Archive

On December 31, 1956, my husband and I arrived in Madras. He had visited the city on business many times, but this was my first trip. We stayed at the Ambassador Hotel on Mount Road (now Head Office of Indian Overseas Bank.) Next door, the Victoria Technical Institute was being given its final touches.

In the first week of our arrival, a gentleman came to our office Patel India Ltd (Agents for Gevacolor film stock). His visiting card read ‘S. Balachander’ and he had come to purchase negative for a film he planned to write, direct and act in. He chatted with my husband and when told we were newcomers, promptly invited us home for dinner.

A spontaneous gesture, which I did not appreciate at that time. I was part of a large extended family but we had led a sheltered life. So I was not prepared for any kind of socialising.

He and his wife Shantha received us at their 31, Sullivan Garden residence. He greeted us with, “Call me SB.” We walked into a roomful of strangers, who welcomed us with a smile. We didn’t realise it that day, but this was the beginning of a meaningful friendship. Contrary to my fears, it turned out to be an informal evening of fun, laughter and excellent food. SB was a larger-than-life personality – an extrovert who enjoyed entertaining. Meticulous planning went into his parties. There was usually a theme – game or quiz, which meant that all of us had to mingle and get to know each other. He also chose different venues for his parties. He was methodical and precise at organising. One party I remember vividly was on the beach at Mahabalipuram, a full moon silhouetting the Shore Temple. The catering van went ahead and about 35 of us drove in a convoy. No toll gates, no vendors, no need for security despite the many VIPs attending.

SB was a chess prodigy at 4, a child star on stage and screen, he could pick up any musical instrument and master it within days. As a young lad he had toured Delhi, Bombay and Lahore. All this we learnt from others, because he was not the one to keep talking about himself.

SB had a reputation of being eccentric and rude, but we never saw that side of him.

Shantha did not stand in his shadow. She was her own person with her individual take on people and situations which did not always mesh with his. She had a great sense of humour, was a voracious reader, wanted to and did study further. She was always enthusiastic about trying out something new. In time, we came to know other members of the family. One person I looked up to with great respect was SB’s elder brother Rajanna (S. Rajam). He was an uncomplicated man, gentle and good-natured. He was a poet, singer and painter. He painted the ten large panels depicting Dasavataram which were fixed to the ceiling in the Balachander home, and are still in place.

It was at our request that SB arranged a private showing of Andha Naal , his film inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon .

I made my debut as an ‘actress’ in SB’s film Bommai. A crowd scene at the airport was being filmed and he asked all of us friends to take part. The directorial instruction, “just be natural” was the most difficult thing to be in front of a camera. It was my first and last appearance in a film. SB had acted and made films, had seen success and failure. At a certain point after much introspection, he decided to devote himself completely to music – in particular the veena. We attended some of his concerts and he took us to listen to other artists whom he admired. Punctuality was his hallmark. At one of his concerts (as invariably happens) late comers were straggling in. He stopped playing and waited for them to be seated, and then affecting a polite tone asked, “now shall I continue?”

Every Friday at 4 p.m., SB would go up to his puja room and play the veena for hours. People on the street would silently walk in, sit on the stairs or wherever they found space, listen in enchantment, and leave as quietly as they had come. SB was one of the first Carnatic musicians who toured the U.S., Russia, Middle East, China, Korea and Japan. He rarely played at wedding receptions and social functions.

In January 1982, when my husband died suddenly, SB was recovering from a surgery. Despite the pain and weakness, he and Shantha came to the funeral.

SB recovered from his surgery and continued with his tour programmes. On a Government-sponsored tour of Russia, the last stop was Baku (on the Black Sea). Shantha was to accompany him on the tambura, and Guruvayur Dorai on the mridangam. As they got off the flight and drove into the city, they saw huge posters all over, featuring Shantha prominently in a beautiful Kanjeevaram sari, while below, in one corner there was a small picture of SB. An embarrassed Shantha tried to explain to the interpreter but in vain.

At Warsaw, there was a diplomat who came backstage during the interval and complained to Shantha that ‘that gentleman is playing too loud, and we can’t hear you’. Shantha tried to tell him that ‘that gentleman’ was the star and she was only an accompanist.’ The diplomat then glared at SB,

insisting, ‘we want to listen to the lady.’ No one enjoyed telling these stories more than SB.

Accompanied by Shantha and their son Ramu, SB flew to Sweden to perform there. On his return, he went to Hyderabad with his accompanists. Then he was to go to participate in a workshop at the Indira Gandhi University at Bhilai. During the stop-over at Nagpur, SB said he felt uncomfortable but kept going. On the trip he made new friends, and did a programme for Doordarshan. But his hectic schedule was to take its toll: one night he collapsed. He was rushed to a local hospital but it was too late. SB was gone. Music had lost one of its greatest exponents.

In 1957 when we came to Madras, our plan was to stay for two months, expand the business and return to Bombay. We never did go back, Madras became home. What kept us here was the depth of friendships we formed.


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