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Regal, enviable GNB!
By T.M. Anantharaman
BANGALORE, April 24: If Mani Iyer enthralled us with his lilt of swaras and joyful enunciation of many Thyagaraja compositions even though slurring over some words, another stalwart and contemporary of his era was the magnificent and regal vidwan G.N. Balasubramaniam (GNB). GNB had enviable personality. He was tall, handsome and had a deeply vibrant quality to his music laced as it was with verve, virtuosity and flamboyant flourishes commonly referred to as “brighas”.

Brigha-oriented sangeeham
It has been acknowledged that GNB’s ‘brigha-oriented’ sangeetham, in fact, was mainly responsible for giving a new dimension to Carnatic music and making it richer and vibrant. Aside from the fact that GNB had a powerful personality backed by a free flowing and rich-timbre- toned voice, he had an adventurous streak in music as well. Many of his compositions reveal this penchant for experimenting with new modes in his new compositions. He was a committed devotee of the Goddess (Devi) and believed and practiced ‘Shakti’ upasana and his kritis revealed both the adventurous spirit and the deep devotion that he had for Durga Ambal.

Delectable music
When I began learning Carnatic music at a very late age in my mid-40s, my guru taught me the GNB composition, ``Nee charanambuja munu” in raga Keeravani. It is one of the most memorable kritis in Keeravani and I still relish it utmost when I am in the mood to sing the kriti because it has simplicity of lyrical content even while bringing out the utter devotion that he had towards Goddess Durga Ambal or known also as Goddess Gowri. My guru Shri N.S. Subramaniam had a deep, sonorous voice, and when he used to sing, for example, he wanted me to give a lilt and emphasis to the phrase “neera jaakshi” as “neera—jaa—akshi” bringing out the full impact of the syllables.

I still remember with deep reverence the GNB kriti not only because it was among the very first that I learnt but also because my guru had taught me the beauty of GNB’s power-packed intonations at the higher octave but also the deep resonance that he could impart at the “manthara sthayi”. I revere GNB for the delectable musical fair which he gave to lovers of Carnatic music. One of my favourite pieces is the Dikshitar composition, “Kari kalaba mukham”, in raga Saveri rendered with usual flair and impact by GNB. It is simply awesome when he gets into the mood to render Poorvi Kalyani raga and the kriti “Meenakshi me mudam”, another Dikshitar masterpiece. Of course his tukdas are ever green and even today the rasika is swept into raptures listening to “Rada samedha Krishna”, “Thikutheriatha kaatil”, “Samaras paavana samraajya” and “Sonnathei seidida sagasama”.

Not many may know that GNB used to take a little bit of hot “sojji” (sweet kesari halwa type of dish) just before the concert to remove any hoarseness or harshness from his voice. His guru Tiger Varadachariyar apparently used to make fun of GNB’s “brigha-laden” voice but, over time, was convinced of its place in Carnatic music and GNB’s style of rendering these brighas in double quick speed. The crowds were glued to their seats as it were and were lapping up the fast-paced “thaans” with great glee.

Winning the hearts
My father-in-law Sri Viswanatha Iyer, known as Calicut Vichcha Bagavathar, was a contemporary of GNB and studied music along with him under Tiger Varadachariyar. He has narrated to me a remarkable anecdote involving all three of them. The trio was walking along streets of Triplicane one day in Madras (Chennai now) when they heard in a house a rich, reverberating voice which they found later to be that of the singer S.G. Kittappa. When Kittappa saw the musicians coming into his house, he stopped singing and bowed before them. Tiger Varadachairar asked him to continue singing and for over an hour they were regaled to an exquisite Sankarabharanam raga, the likes of which they never had heard before. Later Tiger Varadachariyar urged his disciples to bring into their music this kind of fervour of Kittappa. In time GNB of course eclipsed all expectations of his guru and carved for himself a permanent place in the hearts of Carnatic music lovers.

I will conclude my impression and say that no doubt one missed the fluency and flourishes that GNB used to impart while singing these ragas, kritis or swara-phrases. His was truly hauntingly melodious music fit for the very Gods in whose praise he was singing or composing the kritis. Long live GNB’s music.

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