One hundred years of GeNius Balasubramaniam!
Random thoughts on a maestro’s centenary…
Carnatic Music’s princely hero – he of the golden voice and the killer good looks, he who danced with the raga devatas and entranced the rasikas – the one and only GNB would be 100 years old this year! ‘GNB’ to you and me, ‘GN’ or ‘GN Sir’ to his colleagues and students, Balasubramaniam was arguably one of Carnatic Music’s very few self-made geniuses.
Several years back when I first started listening to Carnatic Music, I was hooked by three regal styles. I was fortunate enough to experience two of those in person – the languorous bass gait of MDR and the sprightly energy of Semmangudi – at close quarters in the Navaratri Mandapam at Trivandrum. The third was always an enigma that gripped me when listening to a programme titled “Sangeetha Sudha” that was aired at 8.45 pm daily on Vividh Bharati’s local segment. They had a tendency to repeat a given set of albums at regular intervals and I remember looking forward to the next repeat broadcast of the lovely cadences of “Thamadamen Swami”. I used to relish the unique rocking movements of that booming voice as it explored the highs and lows of Todi. That was my introduction to the genius of GNB. Not having seen any pictures of the master, that Todi somehow formed a mental image in me of a king of music seated on a throne and singing full-throated to a spellbound darbar! Much later when I first saw a photo of GNB, I was struck by the similarity between my mental image and the actual visage. My mental picture became much clearer the other day when I met GB Bhuvaneswaran, the master’s son. The tall, silver-haired Bhuvaneswaran bore a striking resemblance to the face in the old B&W photographs, complete with the vermilion dot and an aristocratic bearing! One could visualize the majestic voice toying with the notes and an imaginative mind conjuring effortless brighas to give the rasikas a thrilling roller-coaster ride. The audiences of yore were said to sway in a mesmerized trance to the music of the handsome god on the dais!
The difference in GNB’s approach to ragas is perhaps exemplified by his handling of Yadukulakambhoji. Yadukulakambhoji to me was long synonymous with that other singular genius, MDR. Slow, tranquil, soothing – these are some of the adjectives that sprang to one’s mind when this lovely raga was mentioned. Addicted to MDR’s approach, I was blown away when I first heard GNB sing Ninnu Sevinchina or Etavuna Nerchitivo… the tranquil river suddenly became a bubbly stream, the mature adult suddenly became a playful toddler who darted hither and thither. There were incredible highs and lows but the speed thrills did not rob the raga of its beauty thanks to the driver’s splendid handling. The lively cadence still retained a magic soothing effect. Savor it here:
The genius shed his mortal coils at an impossibly young age in 1965, while at the peak of his musical prowess, robbing us of several more decades’ worth of musical gold. The Carnatic fraternity is now gearing up to celebrate the centenary of the master who took its placid world by storm, ushering in not a whiff of fresh air but a gale force wind of innovation. Let us savor those marathon 4-hr recordings complete with monumental RTPs and remind ourselves that innovation did not mean jettisoning traditions. With several memorial events lined up, albums waiting to be released and memories waiting to be relived, let us bow once again to the original “brigand” – he who re-wrote the rules and ruled the roost; the prince who would be emperor if alive today – GeNius Balasubramaniam!
– Ramanathan N. Iyer