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Tuesday, February 23, 2010



Sangeetha Kalanidhi G N Balasubramaniam (GNB)

This is the story of a phenomenon. A phenomenon is often something extraordinary, beautiful and mysterious. GNB, whose birth centenary is being celebrated in a grand manner everywhere today was born on 6 January 1910. A child prodigy, an outstanding musician, a great composer, a film actor who had the distinction of acting as Dushyantha opposite Smt M S Subbalakshmi in Sakuntalai, a poet and a man of letters and above all a Devi Upasaka, GNB was indeed a multifaceted genius.

The words of the great British Painter Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) are wholly applicable to the life and extraordinary achievements of GNB: ‘Genius is supposed to be a power of producing Excellencies which are out of the reach of the rules of art; a power which no precepts can teach, and which no industry can acquire’. What the great British painter is trying to say is that a genius must be born; it never can be taught.

Likewise the beautiful observations of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) fit mathematically into the matrix of the original genius of GNB: ‘To carry the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood, to combine the child’s sense of wonder and novelty with the appearances which everyday for years has rendered familiar, this is the character and privilege of genius, and one of the marks which distinguish it from talent’.

I have used the word matrix of genius above deliberately. The word matrix refers to the freedom of expression of a great artiste—the indispensable condition, of nearly every form of freedom. All the means of action for a performing artiste like GNB—the shapeless masses of words, tunes and tones—the materials—lie everywhere about him. What makes him an extraordinary genius is his inborn celestial fire which enables him to change the flint into the transparent crystal, bright and clear—that unquenchable fire is genius. GNB displayed with tremendous verve, energy and passion this kind of celestial fire right from the days of his childhood till the date of his untimely death on 1st May 1965.

Every year, a Music Festival used to be organized at the Kapaleeswarar Temple, Mylapore during the Vasantha Utsavam. In 1928, Musiri Subramania Iyer who was scheduled to sing at the Festival was unable to perform on account of sudden illness. Shri.A.K.Ramachandra Iyer, a well known patron of arts and culture called on G.V.Narayanaswamy Iyer, father of GNB, at his house in Triplicane and requested him to substitute for Musiri Subramania Iyer.

Narayanaswamy Iyer could not comprehend the request and was as confounded as King Dasaratha when Sage Viswamitra wanted him to depute his young son Rama. Shri.A.K.Ramachandra Iyer and the authorities conducting the Vasantha Utsavam pointed out to GNB’s father that Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar had shot into fame only in similar circumstances by ascending the dais when the senior Vidwan Madurai Pushpavanam failed to turn up and had never an occasion to look back. The parallel thrilled the heart of the father. He immediately acceded and his young son GNB gave his first public concert in 1928 at Kapaleeswarar Temple Mylapore. GNB was accompanied by his father’s guru Madurai Subramania Iyer on the violin and Puducottai Vakil K. Rajamani on the Mridangam.

Here there was GNB —fair in complexion, with sharp and handsome features, wearing glittering diamond ear-rings and a prominent ‘Tilakam’ on his forehead. His melodious voice engulfed the large Temple courtyard and he treated the large audience to vibrant music, spanning three octaves and ‘kalas’ effortlessly and reeling off swaras in lilting cascades. K.S.Muthuraman, a close associate of GNB recalled this performance thus: “GNB Sang ‘Vathapi Ganapathim” after the Varnam and took ‘Panthuvarali’ for elaborate treatment. ‘Chintayamam’ in Bhairavi and ‘Neeirangayenil’ in Atana stood out for sheer beauty. The articulation was perfect and the lip movements added a divine charm to his handsome face. I can say that this performance was the foundation stone of the musical edifice built by this great musician”. All in all it was the scintillating maiden performance of an original genius who was let loose into the firmament of Carnatic Music and inaugurated the GNB era.

Years later GNB recalled his first concert with great humility and reverence in these words: Ongoing to the Kapaleeswarar Temple, I worshipped the deities and after a respectful obeisance to the audience, took my seat on the dais. Indeed I felt a sense of excitement. I closed my eyes for a moment, thought about my parents, teachers and other elders. I also offered my respects to the violinist Madurai Subramania Iyer. My friend, Rajamani of Puducottai, a student of law, played on the Mridangam. Before I had completed the Varnam, my excitement had died down and I could feel a sense of total involvement with my singing. I sang for 3 hours. I was happy I was able to conclude the performance on a satisfactory note, by the grace of God and by properly utilizing the gift of my voice. After the performance, the elders assembled there praised and blessed me. My friends and relatived congratulated me. I could feel a sense of will power and strength of mind, having taken command of the situation. I can still recollect, with elation, my happiness on that day.”

In 1930, GNB completed his BA (Hons.) Course in English Literature in Madras University. His father urged him to take to law as his profession. GNB himself preferred to be a musician. All his friends and admirers and also all the Vidwans who were close to G.V.Narayanaswamy Iyer insisted upon GNB taking music as his profession. When GNB’s father hesitated, it was Rt. Hon’ble V.S.Srinivasa Sastry who ultimately prevailed upon Narayanaswamy Iyer to allow his son to purue the profession of music.

In 1930, GNB studied for a while in the Music Department of the Madras University which had just been started, with Tiger Varadachariar as its head. It was the good fortune of GNB that Tiger often allowed GNB to take the classes whenever he was deputed for some other work. As GNB was a man of creative genius, he converted this opportunity to get himself fully acquainted with the best aspects of Tiger’s music, adapting it to suit his own métier I the light of experience.

GNB with M.S. Subbalakshmi in Sakuntalai

Right from 1930, GNB was giving many performances in marriages and Sabhas in the company of violinist Varahur Muthuswamy Iyer and mridangist Madras Venu Naickar. In 1933, his friend Rajamani invited GNB to give 2 concerts. When one of the concerts at a marriage started, the great maestro Dakishnamoorthy Pillai came in and sat in the first row. After hearing GNB sing with gusto and unique eloquence for 3 hours, Dakishnamoorthy Pillai rushed to the stage and told GNB with all warmth and affection: “You seem to be a man of destiny. I have no doubt that you will very soon reach the topmost position in the world of music.” How very prophetic were the words of Dakishnamoorthy Pillai ! GNB was only 23 years old at that time!

Between 1934 to 1937, GNB acted in a couple of films. Though his talent as a musician was not fully exploited in these films, a few duets he sang along with M.S.Subbalakshmi and the short viruthams in Kamboji and Bhageswari ragas became really immortal. Maharajapuram Santhanam told me at the Collector’s bungalow in Tirunelveli in 1976: “I started taking to music seriously only after hearing the lilting Kamboji viruthum of GNB in Shankuntalai”.

In 1938 GNB was invited to sing at a festival in Thanjavur which was organized by the great mridangam player Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer and all the senior Vidwans at that time attended the concert. All of them were enchanted by GNB’s rendering of Bhairavi Raga, Andolika Raga and Kalyani Raga. With GNB striding the music world like a colossus in 1938, many young aspirants of the music world literally got nervous and started wondering wether they could pursue that profession at all.

The Music Academy in Madras invited GNB to give a major concert in the Music Academy in 1937. In 1927 itself as a young lad of 17 GNB had been awarded the Academy’s Gold Medal for his excellent singing. GNB’s debut in the Music Academy was a major land mark in his illustrious career. He never looked back thereafter. His rapid ascent to the top position in the Music World was achieved with electronic speed. In 1940-41 he toured the whole of South India and gave memorable performances in many towns and villages, in temples and festivals. GNB was usually accompanied by Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai on the violin and Palghat Mani Iyer on the Mridangam.

GNB’s bracing, resonant and impressive voice and his special style rich with brisk ‘brikas’ and pleasing delivery of kritis was a satisfying and thrilling experience to the vast concourse of admirers. His unique style, regulated tempo and masterly delivery were the delights of the audience. His mellifluous voice would traverse the 3 octaves and the 3 kalas with ease. His ‘brikas’ were infectious and he kept his ears and mind open to what was best in other musicians.

Navarathri Concert At TrivandrumPalace –Gnb Accompanied ByPapa Venkatramayya OnThe Violin And Palghat ManiIyer On The Mridangam

In the early 1940’s GNB was invited to sing at the Palace of the Maharaja of Travancore. Gayakashikamani Harikeshanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar was the Principal of the Swati Tirunal College of Music at that time. When GNB sang one of the Kritis of Muthiah Bhagavathar viz. ‘Sarasamukhi’ in the rare Raga Gaudamalhar, Muthiah Bhagavathar was lost in wonder and delight by the Raga Alalpana of GNB. He rushed to the stage and embraced GNB and said “I bless you with all my mind and heart. May your fame spread more and more! Though I have composed the Kriti, I never knew or believed that such possibilities existed within the rare Raga Gaudamalhar.

I have been singing with one of the 4 tamburas specially made for me and named as ‘Rama’, ‘Lakshmana’, ‘Bharata’ and ‘Satrugna’. I am presenting my Tambura ‘Bharata’ to you as your devotion to music is similar to the devotion of Bharata to Rama.’

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