Friday Review

Riyaz and raags

Pandit S. Ballesh with his son Krishna Ballesh. Photo: R. Ravindran  

Nearly a dozen students sit around their guru, and engage themselves in interpreting raag Malkauns. They are there on request for a photo shoot. What starts as a posing session becomes a serious class where gurus and sishyas forget the presence of our photographer and get completely immersed in the music.

The place is a music room on the third floor of a traditional home on a rather non-descript lane in Saligramam and the school is the Tansen Academy of Music. And the driving force? Hindustani vocalist and shehnai maestro Pt. Ballesh and his son Krishna Ballesh.

Pt. Ballesh, among the handful of disciples of Ustad Bismillah Khan, has, for over 10 years, been training students in Hindustani music. In Chennai, the bastion of Carnatic music!

Taking his dream to the next level is Krishna, a software engineer, who has had the privilege of training with Ustad Bismillah Khan for nearly seven years. It is his passion for music that has proved pivotal in the establishment of the academy, which today boasts over 300 students. The school is hosting ‘Ras Barse’ Utsav tomorrow to pay tribute to Ustad Bismillah Khan (on his 99th birthday) and shehnai ustad Sanna Bharamanna, Pt. Ballesh’s father.

For Pt. Ballesh, it’s been a rather eventful journey. Born to Pt. Sanna Bharamanna in M.K. Hubli, a small town in Karnataka, the shehnai maestro traced his lineage to court musicians. He started learning from his father and strengthened his musical roots with stalwarts such as Dr. D.P. Hiremath (Kirana gharana), Pt. Puttaraj Gawai (Gwalior) and Kothanda Salunke Maharaj (Patiala), besides the Ustad (Benares gharana).

Says the soft-spoken Pt. Ballesh: “The most valuable lesson I learnt from all my gurus is the importance of practice. They would insist on at least four to five hours of riyaz every day. Today, I realise how much that has helped me.” Playing often for AIR Dharwar and at local concerts for special occasions honed his talent.

A fan of Ustad Bismillah Khan, Pt. Ballesh’s life changed following a meeting with the legend in Dharwar in the early 1980s. A beautiful guru-sishya relationship was born that lasted 35 years. “I grew up listening to his concerts on the radio. We did not have one at home, so I would travel some distance just to listen to him playing, recalls Pt. Ballesh.

“When I got a chance to meet him, my excitement knew no bounds. I still remember the first time I met him. Just as the curtains went up, the power failed. So, I walked backstage and found the Ustad sitting on a chair, smoking! Somebody introduced me to him as a shehnai player. He was impressed and told me to meet him later. The Puriya raag he played that day still rings in my ears! A few months later, I met him again, and he invited me to Benares. I think I was 17 or 18, when I finally went to Benares and spent time learning from him,” he adds.

According to Pt. Ballesh, the shehnai has to be learnt by observation. “I would accompany ustadji and watch him closely. Every blowing technique, the way he would hold a finger for a particular note, the way he would tune the reed… every small aspect counted,” he says.

While Pt. Ballesh had deep classical roots, he was fascinated by cinema. “I watched a Kannada film called ‘Kittoor Chennamma.’ I was amazed by the background score. There was so much to it.” It was this love for film music that brought him to Madras, in the early 1980s. “My brother Veereshwar Madri was instrumental in my making it here,” he acknowledges.

Though he does not recall the first film he played for, Pt. Ballesh knows it was for the Kannda composer duo Rajan-Nagendra. “It was at Prasad Studios for an Anant Nag film,” is all he can say. “I was nervous. Those days, every recording session would have nearly 50 musicians. Even if one of them played a wrong note, we would have to start all over again!”

Obviously all went well, for ever since, Pt. Ballesh has become almost indispensable and even synonymous with the shehnai among the film composing circle. He has worked in several language films for music directors such as Rajan-Nagendra, Hamsalekha, O.P. nayyar, Naushad, K.V. mahadevan, M.S. Viswanathan, Ilaiyaraja, Ramesh Nair, A.R. Rahman and Yuvan Shankar Raja. And he continues to work even now with son Krishna.

So how did he become a teacher? “A few years ago, a young lady came all the way from Canada in search of a Hindustani teacher. I was asked if I would teach her. I saw that she was serious about the art. So I trained her free for one year. Her name was Dharini and she was my first student.” His film work has meant less time to train students. But now, sons Prakash and Krishna have taken over. Krishna, who is getting advanced lessons from Ustad Rashid Khan, is a chip of the old block, literally.

The Tansen Academy offers classes in Hindustani vocal, harmonium, sitar and tabla in different locations such as IIT Madras, Saligramam, Virugambakkam, Adyar, Gopalapuram, Velachery, Chetpet, Alwarpet, Nungambakkam, Chrompet, Tambaram, Thoraipakkam, Porur, Vanagaram, Mylapore and Anna Nagar.

For more information, call 9884295357, 044-23765849.

Award for artists

Shehnai maestro Pt. S. Ballesh, tabla artist Ustad Nazim Hussain, trustees of BK Shehnai Foundation and student body of Tansen Academy of Music, have jointly organised ‘Ras Barse Utsav – 2015,’ a Hindustani music festival and a tribute concert in honour of Ustad Bismillah Khan and Shehnai samrat Pt. Sanna Bharamanna, tomorrow (Apr. 11), 5.30 p.m., at Chinmaya Heritage Center, Chetpet, Chennai.

On the occasion, Pt. Ajay Pohankar (Kirana Gharana) will be presented the Kala Puraskar and Bhimanna Jadhav and Suresh Raj, the Yuva Kala Puraskar. Veteran musician M. Balamuralikrishna will give away the awards.

The guests of honour are playback singers S. Janaki, Vani Jairam, H.K. Choudhary, director of Income Tax (Exemptions), A.K. Choudhary, Development Commissioner, MEPZ (SZ) and M. Vijayakumar , IAS, secretary, TNPSC.

A video presentation on Ustad Bismillah Khan will be screened on the occasion. Hindustani music concerts of Surmani Bhimanna Jhadhav, Pt. Ajay Pohankar, Shehnai –Sitar jugalbandhi by Pt. Ballesh and Ustad Shafique Khan (Dharwad) have also been lined-up for the evening.

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 12:08:24 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/riyaz-and-raags/article7085063.ece

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