SETHALAPATHI BALASUBRAMANIAN, "Balu Mama", as he was endearingly called, is one among the stalwarts that failed to make it into the pages of history.
The scene does not fade — that Melthundu around his shoulders, vibuthi smeared on his forehead and both hands moving in gesture of self-admonition as he tries to bridge the gap between imagination and execution. And when his eyes closed, he had found the rhythm enveloping the lyric and the listener in one grand sweep.
His multi-tasking functions were to imagine, to execute and to evaluate, all discharged simultaneously. He never sought fame or money but would often remind one that he owed his very existence to Carnatic music. (In his own words "Isai ennai theruvil nirka vaikka villai").
Balu mama was a direct disciple of Papanasam Sivan and the fervour of the original versions had to be heard to be believed. His manner of teaching would transmit the bhava directly and instantaneously to the learner. He sought to bring the best out of the learner and in fact, that was his policy. Musicians who "passed through" him were legion. Practice and learning sessions were known for their impromptu pristine sangathis that had in them an air of spontaneity, always allowing for the greatest degree of improvisation never following the cut and dried method. The cadences were both compelling and persuasive. And there was no giving up.
Notation method of teaching was not his style and the steps involved were, repeated listening leading to assimilation and then to imaginative rendering with altogether new dimensions. The concept was "oral tradition." The plain lyrics on the note book would be scanned (no spectacles please, even at 67) for errors. Corrections would be made followed by some unambiguous yet friendly instructions. His was a method of exerting influence without appearing to do so. The mind and heart were clear and pure. Yes, communicate what you have imbibed with ease and sincerity. Music, one could say in its altruistic form.
For him a learned musical culture played a vital role in the development of musical abilities. It was like an endless stream flowing and anyone with the inclination could gather and drink that pure music to their heart's content. No hide and seek. No wait and watch. Hurdle-free manodharma (in his own words "Alva thundu pola") that could stun you all the way. Two components, characteristic to any art, the learned and the innate, had played their respective roles in the evolution of music in him.
Viruthams were his forte and what was distinguishable was not so much the raga, not so much the long karvais, not so much the unalloyed sahithya, but a combination of all these pouring forth with verve and vitality. He used to be particular about the impeccable usage of `kurils' (take Pa in Paravai) and `nedils' (take Paa in Parvai) and the need to elongate the phrases only where it was really warranted. The emphasis would be on the musical quality of the words without taking anything away from their literary excellence. And to boot, he would sing vruthams in almost all ragas that would serve as prefaces to the most appropriate songs ("Palum theli thenum" of Avvaiyar for the song "Ganapathiye Karunanidhiye", of Papanasam Sivan in the raga Karaharapriya, "Ulagelam Unarndhu" of Sekkizhar for the song "Sabapathiku Veru Dheivam" of Gopalakrishna Bharathi in the raga Abhogi, "Pannum Bharathamum" of Kumaraguruparar for the song "Saraswathi Dhayai Nidhi" of Papanasam Sivan, in the raga Saraswathi)
Karaikkudi Dr. Subramaniam of Brahdhwani saw in him a combination of forthrightness and simplicity. There was no kalmisham and his voice was at once flexible and robust and the tradition he stood for and carried forward was an integral part of him, unlike the many superficialities on parade today. When everything these days hinges on presentation, Balu mama was `real', an era. His total involvement could make a conversation with him a memorable spiritual experience.
Vellore Ramabadhran, renowned mridangist, says that his association with Sri Balasubramanian spanned 50 years and felt that he had lost his right had when he heard the news of his death. Sethalapathi was a Gnanasthar in the real sense of the word and was uniquely privileged in accompanying Papanasam Sivan in his bhajans. He was also an uncompromising fan of Madurai Mani Iyer and often imitated him to perfection. Sanjay Subramanian whose viruttams would often bring in us a rush of ecstasy, says that if there was one person who inspired him to sing a lot in Tamizh it was Balu Mama.
Balasubramaniam hailed from Sethalapathi, also known as Thila Tharpanapuri. He had taken many of his friends to Koothanur near Sethalapathi where the presiding deity is Maha Saraswathi. His two sons, Ganapathy Raman and Sivaraman are mridanga vidwans of repute who have performed all over India and overseas. His real favourites were Madurai Mani Iyer and GNB (addressed as GN Sir). His recording sessions both at AIR and at other private studious were distinguished for their `single take.' Balu mama's another noteworthy tradition was the kind of exemplary hospitality that was shown whenever you visited him, certainly a rare commodity these days.
He fully comprehended and implemented the dictum that tradition can only be a continuous flow of creativity finding space for expansion within a given canvas. He `slept in music' on October 11 and the cross-section of musicians who had come to pay homage referred to him as the `gentle colossus' in the field to music.
And thus spake Balu mama's inner voice:
"I have had my invitation to his world's festival, and thus my life has been blessed. My eyes have seen and my ears have heard.
It was my part at this feast to play upon my instrument and I have done all I could.
Now, I ask, has the time come at last when I may go in and see thy face and offer thee my silent salutation?"
(Rabindranath Tagore in ``Gitanjali")
Article by ABHIMAANI ..in The Hindu..
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