Friday, March 21, 2014

The veena house

The house with the green gate caught my attention because of the nameplate. At first glance it looks like any other similar indicator of who the master of the house is. But a second glance showed that the name is not just letters, but a picture as well. And that picture was of a veena inside which was written 'S. Balachandar'. With such clues, there could only be one guess about whose the house was: Sundaram Balachandar, so closely identified with the instrument that he was always Veena Balachandar. 

Unconventional would only begin to describe the man. Maybe that was inherited from his father, who cast his older children as husband and wife in Seetha Kalyanam. The young Balachandar had a part as well, as a musician in Ravana's court. And a musician he was, indeed. Starting with the kanjeera at the age of 5, he learnt a variety of instruments: tabla, mridangam, shehnai and so on, become a full fledged solo artist on the sitar before his teens. All of those faded into the background when he discovered the veena. Spurning a formal course or guru, he taught himself the veena and mastered it within a couple of years. His energy went into the veena as well as several other maverick causes that he associated himself with: trying to prove that there never had been such a ruler as Swati Tirunaal, the impossibility of inventing new ragas, insisting that the Tamil Nadu state award for dancers should be Natya Kalanidhi rather than Sangeetha Kalanidhi and many other such flavour-of-the-season follies. And then there were his movies.  Anadha Naal, which had no songs at all, Avana Ivan, and a few others, where he was scriptwriter, director, music director and any other role that he took a fancy too.

The controversies, more than his interests, drained him so much that he was called away much earlier than his equally talented, if maybe more restrained elder brother. Balachandar died in 1990, at the age of 63. Wonder what he would have made of all the current trends in Carnatic music - he would as likely have been its cheerleader as its opponent!

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