G.N. BALASUBRAMANIAM (1910-1965)
A genius and a pathbreaker
- V. RAMNARAYAN
He was among the most imitated vocalists in Carnatic music. Not only did some of his students start out, understandably, as carbon copies, many young musicians to this day try to mimic his inimitable style. India’s midnight’s children and younger citizens are unfortunately too young to have heard him live extensively, but some retain a few vivid images from childhood, and remember being exhilarated by his wonderful voice. Much of what we present here of Gudalur Narayanaswami Balasubramaniam, we owe Sruti’s articles and the GNB workshop, a brilliantly original effort in late 1992. Lalitha Ram, a die-hard fan and biographer of GNB, and a commemorative volume being brought out by the GNB family (with important contributions from several musicians, critics and rasika-s) have been other valuable sources.
Issue 7 of Sruti (1 May 1984) profiled GNB, carrying the following articles: GNB and his Great New Bani by P.N. Venkatraman; GNB: A Garland of Anecdotes by K.S. Muthuraman; and GNB: His Mind and Art by T.S. Vedagiri.
Born to G.V. Narayanaswami Iyer and Visalakshi on 6 January 1910, Balasubramaniam, called Mani at home, studied at the Hindu High School, Triplicane, Madras, Madras Christian College (where he completed his B.A. Honours in English), and briefly at Annamalai University. (A detailed biography is being serialised in Sruti, this issue carrying the fourth instalment of the story). GNB was eager to pursue a career in music, while his schoolmaster and music enthusiast father wanted him to take up a proper job. Mani had a natural flair for music and did not undergo rigorous gurukulavasam, though he did have lessons from Madurai Subramania Iyer and Karur Chinnaswami Iyer. Both his parents were musically talented and had many opportunities of listening to giants like Fiddle Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer, Flute Sarabha Sastri, Nagaswaram Tirumarugal Natesa Pillai and Harikatha expert Tiruppayanam Panchapakesa Sastrigal. When GVN, as Narayanaswami Iyer was often called, became a maths teacher at the Hindu High School, and became involved in the Sri Parthasarathi Swami Sabha, he came into close contact with great musicians. GNB recalled in a 1967 article, “Violinist Karur Chinnaswami Iyer lived next door to us in Triplicane. I lived in an atmosphere drenched in music and this helped me to nurture, develop and sustain my ardour for music.” His kelvi gnanam was sharp and inspired, enabling him to learn the more advanced aspects of music without the help of a guru. In his own words, “Without so much as any basic training, I acquired swara gnana which I humbly feel was due to the benediction of elders and savants. Whenever I listened to good music, I had an inner feeling that I could visualise it in the imagery of swara-s. What my ears would be hearing would be picturised in my mind’s eye in swara forms.”
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