Music

A wizard and his veena

Maverick: Veena Balachander. Photo: Special Arrangement  

Many epithets have been ascribed to him -- eccentric, emotional, iconoclastic and forthright. And a (self-taught) genius. Every one of these aptly describes Veena S. Balachander.

“He is a biographer's delight,” says author Vikram Sampath, whose latest book “Voice Of The Veena: S. Balachander” was just released. The tome, Vikram says, “opened up a new world for me, and yes, it is sure to stir up a hornet's nest. A self-taught artist who excelled in whatever he did, Balachander was known as much for his super skill at playing the veena as he was for courting controversy. Be it the then headline-hitting Swati Tirunal issue or the raga-kriti topic, Balachander was vociferous in his opinion.” In fact, the strain of court cases and the ill will he had earned in the process, left him a broken man, when he passed away in 1990, at 63.

The Bangalore-based Vikram has authored two more books -- a biography on Gauhar Jaan, the first ever female artist to have her voice recorded, and a history of the Mysore Royal Family.

Fascinating moment

What prompted Vikram to put on paper the story of this dynamic, multi-talented man? “Remember the clipping ‘Bhaje Sargam' which was a tribute to India's musical genius? Towards the end, I remember watching this stern looking, elderly man with powerful eyes plucking the strings of his veena. It was a fascinating moment for when he looked up at the heavens, it seemed like the man and his instrument had merged into one. That montage left me curious.”

When Vikram began taking music lessons from Jayanthi Kumaresh, he discovered that she had come under Balachander's tutelage for about two years. “She would always pepper the class with some interesting and illuminating anecdotes about ‘SB Mama.' Like the way he would decide which kriti to teach on a particular day. He would pick up a book and open the page at random. The kriti on that page would become the lesson for the day…”

Stories such as these spurred the 30-year old to dig deeper into the life of this maverick artist. “He's a biographer's delight. He had this habit of putting down his thoughts on paper and so, every day of his colourful life has been recorded complete with paper clippings, drawings and comments, into eight albums.”

Of course, Balachander's family and associates were only too happy to re-live their memories. Says Vikram, “Shantha mami (Balachander's wife to whom Vikram has dedicated the book) would sit with me for hours, and she gave me access to his albums. Her recollections painted the humane side of the man. She helped set up interviews with fellow artists and friends, and even suggested that I meet people who did not agree with the maestro to get a view from the ‘other side'.”

From the book, we learn that Balachander was born in 1927 in Madras, was a child prodigy and self-taught musician. When he was five, he played on the ganjira and started accompanying his elder brother S. Rajam, a vocalist. He taught himself to play a host of instruments including the tabla, mridangam, harmonium, dilruba, shehnai and the sitar. In fact, he played Carnatic music on the sitar – perhaps the first to do so. By then, Balachander had also starred in several films as a child artist. And later on, he acted in nearly 18 films, and directed quite a few path-breaking films such as ‘Avana Ivan', ‘Idhu Nijama', ‘Andha Naal', ‘Bommai' and ‘Kaithi', under the SB Productions banner. That he was a brilliant chess player who defeated many stalwarts from across the world is a lesser known facet of Balachander.

Even as his attention was diverted towards cinema, Balachander continued to experiment with Carnatic music. Once he discovered the majestic veena, his interest in other instruments waned. The veena became an indispensable part of his personality. He went on to become an accomplished vainika, boldly changing the grammar of instrumental music, and contemporarising the veena. And created the Balachander bani.

Balachander was a man with intense emotions. He cherished his friendship with Chembai. He loved watching the TV programme ‘The World this Week.' He was good at languages. He was a devoted family man who adored his son and would write unusual letters to him filled with puzzles and quizzes. He once picked up more than 50 pairs of Kolhapuri chappals at a shop because he liked them! Vikram's book has plenty of such interesting tidbits.

If his veena concerts are legendary, so are his clashes with well-known organisations and musicians of the time in his lifelong quest for perfection and truth. He was the sentinel of classicism and fought for what he considered a cause. As the maestro himself would say, “Veena is Balachander, Balachander is Veena.”


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