By Sunil Kunnakkat
Bad news comes in threes, they say. My paternal grandmother passed away in 2014. Then my maternal grandmother in 2015. It had been a difficult couple of years, what with my parents, especially my mother, going back and forth to India and all.
Then came last Thursday.
"Oh, no." said my father. That's never a good sign, for he only says it if something bad has happened.
I turned around, and he looked distraught--in retrospect more for me than himself.
"Sad news, Sunu," he said, using my nickname. "Sreenadh uncle (of Shrutilaya.org) just sent an email saying Dr. Balachandran has passed away."
I didn't react at first. I didn't want to. Dr. Balachandran was a hero to me in ways I wouldn't come to grips with until the forthcoming days. In hindsight, he was relentlessly selfless, a quality that came with being a teacher. He carried no ego, nor elaborated on his qualifications as a highly respected acoustics engineer. He was a Ph.D after all.
I never thought of my Guru’s age; rather I always thought of him as young and vigorous, not someone of my grandparents' age. I would learn that Dr. Chetlur G. Balachandran was born in 1931, the same year and almost the exact date as my paternal grandmother. At times like this, one tends to look back, as I did about the decade or so that I spent at his feet.
When I was a child, my parents took me to Carnatic music concerts, mainly because my sister was working her way up as a classically trained dancer and singer. During one of the shows I saw a musician with a barrel drum, hands moving rapidly, producing rhythms and notes that sent my head spinning. I asked my dad what it was, and he said it was a mridangam and asked if I wanted to learn how to play it. The answer was a swift yes.
Within days I was in the apartment of Dr. Balachandran, who became my first and only mridangam teacher. I was seven years old. I saw him almost every Sunday morning until the end of high school.
My guru wasn't just a mridangam teacher. He taught me life lessons, unspoken by the way he carried himself, and the way he made me feel, like my drive was worth something. I am in large part the person I am because of my Guru. I was also learning about the intricacies of Carnatic music, the stalwarts of the genre (KVN and T.K. Govinda Rao, to name just two) with whom my guru played, and so on. More than that, I could talk with him about anything. As a kid we would discuss politics (our distaste for the Iraq war). We would watch tennis games together (he was a huge fan of Roger Federer). I loved trying to make him laugh and see the familiar twinkle in his eyes. Sometimes my guru’s son, Murali Balachandran, would join us and play the mridangam, or ghatam, or khanjira. Those days were a blast.
We were more than teacher-student; more often than not, I felt he and I were great friends despite the age difference, and that he was essentially raising me on those Sundays. He was the reason I developed an innate confidence when it came to playing drums of any kind. And then that expanded to the violin, and then piano, and now guitar. He could make me think, he could make me laugh, and he could make me practise until my hands were calloused and my lower body was numb. He is the most important teacher I have ever had, or ever will have. No one has come close and no one ever will.
He stressed listening to tons of music, to understand the meaning of the words and structure, analyze pitch and rhythm, and connect to the song until I was lost in it. I loved the legendary Palghat Mani Iyer but he would temper my fascinations, explaining that it was not just about having the most elaborate solos, but creating a backbeat for the song as well. I still unknowingly bite my lip the way my guru did when I perform. I can now close my eyes and see the patterns like puzzle pieces, where to place the hits and where to let the beat breathe. I didn’t think whether I was good enough or whether I could play or if this would lead to anything. I just did. There were no existential worries, only fun. His ability to instil confidence in me is what has struck me the most. I hope to write music for a career, and to this day I still get conflicted over what I am capable of. These doubts never surfaced when I was with my guru. He must've seen that I had something, or maybe he chose to believe in me. Now I'll never be sure what it was.
|Sunil, at age 11, with his Guru in 2004|
There is one memory that sticks with me the most. When we played together, I would have to replicate his "riffs" or fills. One time he pulled something out of his hat that was impossible for me to replicate at the time. I was quite young but didn’t want to fail, and tried as hard as I could to recreate it. My hands went stiff, and after relentless attempts I started to cry. I was so frustrated that I was failing, but I remember his entire demeanor changed. He went from playful and energetic, to sympathetic and caring. He knew how to shift his persona to let me know it was OK if I didn’t quite get it, and that I wasn't any less of a player because of it.
If I remember correctly, he gave me some water and time to relax, and we tried it again. I don't think I got it that day, but I wasn't mad anymore. Within a few weeks, after practicing with him and on my own time, I got it down.
In that one session with him, there were at least three life lessons:
- Don't be hard on yourself, and
- Don't give up.
He would impart these sorts of lessons for over ten years. The more I think about our times together, the more I regain my confidence pursuing what I love, and the more grateful I become. After I went off to college, I saw him only twice. I always regretted that I didn't reach out to him in recent years, but work or something else always got in the way. What I wouldn’t give to spend more time with him, exchanging riffs back and forth like the sparring partners we were.
I saw my master one last time at the viewing. It was then that I fully realized I would never see the twinkle in his eyes again, and the emotions I had been repressing this whole time began to bubble up. I wanted to feel numb but couldn’t. I sat down with my dad and watched a photo slideshow of my guru over the years, and suddenly I saw a familiar face on the screen.
There I was, probably 8-10 years old, with my master behind me, his hand on my shoulder. We were both smiling, at a party with a bunch of kids, but somehow I made it into the slideshow. I don’t know why, and while I am sure I was not the deciding factor in choosing that picture, I took it as some sort of sign. I was grateful that it was up there. It summarized everything. In a sea of people, through whatever gigs I did or whomever I met, there was my master and I, and he was always looking out for me. When I got back into the car, I finally cried.
Though I've been avoiding it since the announcement of his passing, perhaps I will sit down and play my mridangam, this time with no partner in crime, and try to practise without my eyes welling up as it has so many times over the past few days. Maybe through going back to where it all started, I will find the answers that I need.
Rest in peace, Guru. And one more time, thank you for everything.