Song of Surrender

Monday, 19 May 2014

TR Balamani

By V Ramnarayan

(Text of a speech at TR Balamani felicitation function at the Music Academy mini-hall on 17 May 2014)

A recent letter from an irate reader—is there any other kind of reader?—criticised us roundly for doing a cover story on the Gandharva Mahavidyalaya, Delhi. He faulted the Vidyalaya for failing to produce topnotch musicians in its seventyfive years of existence. The same criticism can be laid at the doorstep of many a formal institution teaching the performing arts.

I wonder if it is at all the objective of teaching institutions to produce performers of calibre. Or, turning the question on its head, can great artists be churned out by institutions? Can even a guru ever take credit for an illustrious sishya? Can an illustrious performer produce another illustrious performer?

These are questions without easy answers, but there have been exceptional institutions in the history of classical music. They were made exceptional by exceptional teachers. Gurus like Musiri Subramania Iyer and his own sishya Govinda Rao, for instance. Look at how many outstanding musicians, and even more important, outstanding gurus, such teachers and such institutions have produced.

TR Balamani is one such product of a great guru and a great institution like the Central College of Carnatic Music of yore. She herself has clear views on the role of the guru. In an interview for Sruti, she said to K Venkat:

The onus of producing students of high calibre lies with the guru. The guru must guide and groom the students correctly right from the inception. A guru must set a strong foundation by teaching varnams in great detail. A wealth of music resides in the varnams, and learning and practising as many varnams as you can will set a strong base in order to build a  musical edifice.
Balamani also belongs to another rare breed: the wonderful gurus of Bombay. Again how many of them went from Kerala via Madras to Bombay! These teachers much beloved of their students not only passed on their musical treasures to their little wards at their little Bombay flats as in the case of Balamani, TS Krishnaswami, Bombay Ramachandran, Alamelu Mani or more recently Vamanan, to name a few, but many of them also taught at institutions like Shanmukhananda Sabha, Bharatiya Fine Arts Society, and Fine Arts Chembur.

Much of my knowledge of Balamani came from talking to Bombay Jayashri whom I interviewed for Sruti. She would recall how immaculate her guru’s planning and time management was, how considerate she was of her young pupils.

She spoke of the idlis and hot drinks that would be ready for her at Mami’s pattu class for her to have before going to the afternoon shift of her school. How Mami would have finished her day’s work before 9.30 am and the kitchen would be spanking clean, all set for the class.

Teaching methods may vary and so may the gurus’ ways of appreciating or motivating their students. Many traditional gurus are deeply proud of their disciples’ achievements but are rarely effusive in their praise. I remember as a teenager taking a what I thought was a brilliant diving catch in an intercollegiate match back in the 1960s and everyone praising me to the skies—except my young uncle who was playing for our opponents the Madras Christian College. In the evening, on our way home he said to me, ‘Anda catch nee sumara pidichaeda (Roughly, “That was not a bad catch by you”).’

Later I had the privilege of playing with some great captains and mentors in cricket. My Hyderabad skipper ML Jaisimha was one such senior who rarely praised me. Actually the closest he came to doing so was when he cursed me for doing something wrong and followed up with “I didn’t expect this from you of all people!’ High praise!

I never did ask Jayashri about Balamani’s approach to this aspect of the guru-sishya relationship, but I can guess that she was perhaps a little softer in her approach without going overboard with praise. I know that she is enormously proud of all her wards who have distinguished themselves in different fields. We all know how gifted and accomplished Shankar Mahadevan is, what a mature vocalist Raji Gopalakrishnan is. Prasanna Venkatraman is one of our bright young stars, as we all saw from his nuanced, bhava-rich singing today—and of course Jayashri.

To me even more important than these well known performers are the many genuine rasika-musicians she has produced, the people who have a day job but can do their guru proud whenever they sing in informal settings. I know how sensitively Sabesh can sing, how aesthetically genuine Mala Mohan’s involvement in music is.

Going back to the Bombay school of Carnatic music, I must test your patience with yet another reference to cricket. In my playing days, Bombay was the most formidable team in India—don’t be misled by the way Mumbai Indians are playing these days. Visiting players were sometimes treated with contempt. I remember suffering from an upset tummy and asking for buttermilk at lunchtime on a hot day at Wankhede Stadium, and the official telling me rudely, "Not on the menu!" 

In Carnatic music, the story was different, and every musician, from Bombay Sisters to Prasanna Venkatraman had to migrate to Madras if they wanted to make it big. The story was however quite different when it came to teaching. Bombay produced, and continues to produce some of the finest Carnatic music gurus.

All these wonderful teachers have had one thing in common: the absolute love and support they enjoyed from their families—parents who encouraged them, spouses who stood by them, children whom they nurtured. These gurus also shared these precious family bonds with their students and their families to create an unusual network that transcends all manner of barriers—geographical, language, even genres.

Carnatic music is indeed indebted to these exports from Tamil Nadu. Thanks to the reverse brain drain that has been taking place in recent years we are now able to say today, welcome back Smt TR Balamani. May you continue your great work for years and years at Chennai.

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