Song of Surrender

Thursday, 24 November 2016

A sishya moves on

Homage to Sangita Kalanidhi Balamuralikrishna

By Ragavan Manian 


I heard from Guruji’s family that he was no more, within minutes of his peaceful passing away yesterday, 22nd November. It was as if my autonomous nervous system took over when I found myself in his house in twenty minutes.

He was laid in the very same room where I had met him in 1986 for my first lesson, a dazed and star-struck 11-year old. Fast forward thirty-odd years; only this time I felt the little boy in me despair that the polestar of his musical life would not rise again to guide him. The first thought that I could verbalise from this heart-wrenching, soul-sucking feeling was “Guruji, how am I expected to carry on?”.

Over 24 hours have passed since then and I am no closer than before to a convincing answer to the question. I had wept with his sons and daughters, and their sons and daughters. I had clung on to Annapurnagaru, his loving wife who was like a mother to all his sishyas. We were all consoling, and being consoled by, each other. I witnessed the overwhelming display of adulation and sorrow that poured forth from all directions, from maestros to ‘ordinary’ men and women, from all walks of life. He had taught so many, and had touched so many people’s lives through his art. The grief is still very raw, but sharing it with the entire world eases it just a little.

I have had the privilege of discussing Guruji’s legacy with him on numerous occasions. I tried to recall some of those conversations with the hope that I would find an answer in them. In those discussions, his attitude had ranged from passionate to fatalistic. The range of attitudes was understandable, for he was impossible to classify. Most eulogies to him read like roster lists of awards and achievements, the breadth and depth of which boggle the mind. There can be no boxing his genius. Indian music was his second nature, and within this broad vista there was not a single idiom that he hadn’t fully internalised and worked his magic upon. Voice, instruments, opera, cinema, language, movement—he was monarch of all he surveyed. His purported muse was the ancient and revered Goddess of Music. Given this, how can anyone carry forth his legacy?

Nowhere was his genius more iridescent than on the concert platform. Having accompanied Guruji as saath or pinpattu on numerous occasions since my 15th year, I had made a hobby of observing his face and gestures from my unique vantage point. Like a trained astronomer detecting an astral shimmer by looking at it sideways rather than straight on, I’d looked lovingly at the smallest changes in facial expression, hand and body movement, and correlated them to a glide here, a crescendo there, a korvai here, a karvai there or an effective silence (recalling nisabdam, the ultimate syllable). I sensed that his gestures were somehow connected to a vast, deep, never ending font of creativity, the decoding of which would take a major breakthrough in AI to endeavour to crack! Therefore is it even humanly possible to recreate his on-stage magic, and keep his legacy going?

Perhaps the greatest lesson that Guruji taught was not musical, but behavioural. He would often joke that he never once practised his art at home because deliberate sadhana was habit-forming; and habits lead to addiction! Many years later I encountered similar veins of thought in the practice of Sahaja Yoga and Vipassana. He would not prepare ahead of a concert, choosing instead to act on the natural ebb and flow of the moment. From wondering if he was being flighty I have come to realise that this is how he connected with his childlike spontaneity. When during adolescence my performing sruti dropped from a soprano G (5) to a baritone Bb (½) in a matter of months, instead of advising me to try and sing in an accepted concert pitch of say C/C#, he asked me to “choose whatever suited your singing voice comfortably”. This ran against conventional wisdom, but after many years of studying voice production, I have now come to realise that his advice was in fact based on physiologically and aesthetically sound principles.

On reflection, the easier way to carry on might be to embrace the joie de vivre behind his steady flow of maxims and witticisms. His was a mind open to ideas from all directions, untrammelled by conventional boundaries, instead seeking purposeful amusement from all quarters. He admired, nay prised beauty from everyday experience. His compositions reflect his unity: gods and saints were treated to the same silken touch as railway stations and political tussles. He once told me that he felt no less than a Sankaracharya; for while seers were fully absorbed in the metaphysical, he was fully given to nadam. What seemed to me like a whimsical quip then, strikes me now as the musings of an evolved being, forever in the pursuit of happiness.


As it was with everything Guruji, his deceptively simple, fun-filled approach to living was the embodiment of the mystic ideal of swadharma. His fierce independence and individualism were his way of being in touch with his feelings, and acting in direct accordance with them. His was the living essence of a higher ideal. He was a great soul, and remembering his broad, ever-present smile would therefore be my first step towards “carrying on without Guruji”.

Ragavan Manian, a Carnatic vocalist, has been a disciple of the late Sangita Kalanidhi

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