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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Captured: Polymath S. Balachander and his great wars

Cinemimi [Saturday, February 11, 2012]
By Madhusree Chatterjee, IANS,

New Delhi : Storming the world of Carnatic music and Tamil cinema with his non-conformist, controversy-creating ways in the 1940s, polymath and veena exponent Sundaram Balachander steadfastly fought many "unholy cultural nexuses", earning his share of brickbats, says his biographer.

Vikram Sampath, the international award winning author of "My Name is Gauhar Jaan: The Life and Times of a Musician", has resurrected the rebel genius in his "Voice of the Veena: S.Balachander" (Rupa & Co), 22 years after the musician's death in 1990.

"Balachander was known as a 'controversy genuis'. He would often say that controversy came looking for him. Whatever he said about current issues - not personalised attacks - sparked controversy," Bangalore-based Sampath told IANS.

One of Balachander's famous struggles was against the tradition of "inventing ragas".

"Musician M. Balamuralikrishna had once told the Music Academy - the high seat of Carnatic music in Chennai - that he had invented a new 'raga'. Tamil Nadu had a ridiculous scheme that anyone who created a new 'raga' would be given an honorarium. Balachander argued that these things had existed in ancient treatises. He took it upon himself to fight the 'invention of ragas'," Sampath said.

Balachander launched a "media blitz" with the publication of an exhaustive booklet which he read out in press conferences, he said.

"Balachander won the debate and Balamuralikrishna had to bite the dust. Balachander had also protested the title of Sangeet Kalanidhi that the Tamil Nadu government had conferred on Bharatnatyam danseuse Balasaraswati, saying it had to be changed to Natya Kalanidhi to include theatre and other performing arts artistes. But the establishment snubbed him," Sampath said.

Balachander remained a "perennial rebel and anti-establishment", the biographer said.

His most talked-about battle was against an erstwhile Maharaja of Travancore, Swati Tirunal, whom the musician sought to remove from the pages of history of south Indian culture and arts.

Balachander alleged in a thesis that the young Travancore "maharaja Swati Tirunal (1813-1846), who was hailed a musical maestro and genius of his time, was born out of a book in 1887".

"The campaign remained his obsession for at least eight years. He wrote to the president and the prime minister of India, screamed and shouted in the press. In his later years, Balachander became a recluse and his family distanced itself from the Tirunal episode...," Sampath said.

The crusade also turned out to be his last. Balachander died during a concert in Bhilai at the age of 63 in 1990 around the time he was still sparring "about the existence of the maharaja".

Balachander's contribution to Tamil cinema was no less than his effort in transforming the "veena" from a chamber instrument to a concert instrument.

"He made a paradigm thematic shift in Tamil cinema in the 1950s and 1960s when the mythological tales occupied the screen. He directed thrillers inspired by Hollywood classics. His movies were technically brilliant, though in terms of cinematography he was self-taught," Sampath said.

Balachander's cinematic cornerstone was "Andha Naal (1954)" - a slickly-produced, murder mystery starring Sivaji Ganesan.

"He was an actor, director, musician, composer, script-writer and producer... multi-faceted," Sampath said.

Putting together Balachander's life was easier than recreating Gauhar Jaan in her historical context, the biographer said.

"He (Balachander) documented his life in eight gigantic albums. He put his horoscope, press clippings and day-to-day events with annotations and personal comments in the albums that had to be lifted by at least three people... It was practically from the horse's mouth," Sampath said.

The biographer, who had earlier authored a book on the Mysore royalty, "Splendours of Mysore: The Untold Story of Wodeyar", is planning to tap into the history of the region again.

"I want to write about Tipu Sultan but I think I will have to move out of the country before I begin the project," said Sampath, who has courted his share of controversy for his articles on the late 18th century ruler of Mysore and has seen his effigy being burnt for his stand.

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