Did His Fans Kill GNB?

After SRUTI published its comprehensive feature on GNB and his music last May, someone who was very close to the late maestro said: " Y'know, GNB was killed by his rasikas. I wish SRUTI would examine that aspect sometime soon. " It was an intriguing comment, suggestive of the travails a successful artist has to face. As GNB's seventy-fifth birth anniversary was being celebrated around now, we felt it was time to look into the question. Rather we tossed it in the direction of one of GNB's disciples, Tanjavur R. Kalyanaraman, and asked him to consider it in light of his intimate knowledge of his master's values, attitudes and experiences. What follows is his report; we have retained the question posed as the caption.

My Guru G.N. Balasubramaniam who, as a musician, was honoured with the coveted title of Sangita Kalanidhi by the Madras Music Academy, had pursued education through the university level and obtained the B.A. Honours degree — the equivalent of an M.A. degree — in English literature. In the process, he had acquired an intellectual discipline which he utilized, in his own music, to remove the shackles'of sampradaya without sacrificing its spirit and to give Carnatic music a totally modern outlook without violating its chastity. The fusion of his intellect and his aesthetic musical sensitivity made him a musician extraordinaire. And the listeners, for their part, were not only attracted by the fresh outlook and the highly pleasing quality of his music which emerged as the GNB bani and gained an enduring place for itself, but they also understood his music more than those of many others because of its riddle-free and educative expression. Conservative musicians used to say that GNB sang in the nagaswara bani. My guru wasn't upset by this because he was proud of this attribute on account of the nagaswaram's tonal fulness and power and its kalapramana characteristics.

In his own music he had introduced and developed, in both the slow and fast tempos, the facility and grace of the great nagaswara vidwan Rajaratnam Pillai. GNB used to speak very highly of Rajaratnam Pillai as a glorious example of lakshya gnana (experiential knowledge) and was humble enough to declare openly that he was a follower of that great nagaswara vidwan's lakshya gnana. By fusing this lakshya gnana with the unshakable lakshana gnana (technical knowledge) of his own, he introduced a new -style which took the audience by storm. The influence of Rajaratnam Pillai's music on my guru can be understood from the following incident. When the news of Rajaratnam Pillai's demise was conveyed to him, he rushed to TNR's house. On seeing the body, he could not control himself and wept openly and lamented that music had perished with the maestro. G NB had the greatest regard for the senior vidwans of his time and often spoke highly of them.

Feeling that he was just being polite and was perhaps even exaggerating, we — his disciples — once asked him what attracted him to their music. GNB's Birth Anniversary The main hall of the TT K auditorium of the Music Academy in Madras was filled to capacity by admirers of the late G.N. Balasubramaniam and the style of music he evolved. The occasion: a celebration of the seventy-fifth birth anniversary of the late performer-composer. T h e date: 6 January. T h e event was organised by the G.N.B. Trust and by GNB's disciples. Speakers on the occasion included industrialist S. Narayansamy, who presided; Music Academy President T.T. Yasu; Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer; violinists T.N. Krishnan and V. Sethuramiah; and M.L. Vasanthakumari. T h e speakers all paid tributes to the musical values and achievements and personal qualities of GNB. The programme concluded with a concert by MLV. G.B. Doraiswamy, son of GNB and an official of the G.N.B. Trust, announced that a brief biography of GNB would be released later in the month. 

He patiently explained the good points in their music, convinced us that he had incorporated them all in his own music and suggested that perhaps that was why we his disciples liked his music that much more. T h e true artist that he was, GNB was never fully satisfied with his performance. Not for him was the stance of egoism and self-congratulation. There was a great deal of poignancy to his feelings in this regard. GNB's appearance on the platform was always commanding and glamorous, with his fascinating personality and impeccable white khadi attire. His mere appearance on the stage gave one the impression that he was brimming with confidence and pride.

But only a handful of his associates were aware that this exterior masked the inner humility of an artist who often felt he was unable to meet his idealistic targets, as also the tension he felt because of his responsibility to the listeners. I was aware of this personally because, whenever I complimented him on any raga he had wonderfully elaborated, he used to say that he was not at all happy as his voice on that day had not cooperated with him. We were aware that it was his sensitivity which was responsible for his feeling of dissatisfaction even when he had thrilled the people in a big w'ay. Evidently, a flash of nuances would illuminate his creative mind as he was delineating a raga and challenging his musical might. While thunderous applause followed, only he would be aware he had one more chord to touch or a few more ideas to explore but could not.

Moreover, as the years rolled by, his body could not cope with the demands of his spirit and he felt keenly his inability to approach anywhere near what he wanted to offer. The music with which he had thrilled the audiences in his heydays was so fascinating and alluring that, even long afterwards. the listeners would expect nothing less, forgetting that the human body — and the voice in particular — cannot maintain the same standard forever. Actually, his music was ripening on account of his intellectual approach and outlook, but his fans still wanted him to produce thrill-oriented music replete with exciting briga-s, rather than the sedate and solemn music he craved to offer. Yielding to the wishes of his fans, he now and then overexerted himself and strained his voice beyond its limit for which he used to feel very sorry and suffer later.

In fact, it was this inordinate demand that was responsible for dampening his spirit and enthusiasm. Because of the compulsions of a professional career, he wasn't quite free to sing according to his own wishes and confessed time and again that he was continuing to sing only to meet his worldly commitments. Roundabout 1964, in a concert down south, yielding to the insistent demands of his fans, he went on singing for over five hours without respite. The accompanists, who were not all that good, didn't provide adequate help and he had to shoulder the entire burden of the concert almost all by himself. In the end, while the audience was extolling him for what was a brilliant concert, he felt so exhausted and enervated that he remarked poignantly: "The rasikas have finished me today by getting what they wanted". In fact, his health took a bad turn after that programme and he died in a matter of months. It has been suggested by someone close to GNB that the great master was "killed" by his fans. Perhaps this is putting the matter too starkly, but it is a fact that, towards the end of his innings, GNB made the sorrowful remark to a close associate "My musical ideas have fully matured now, but I'm too frail of the body to translate them."

Open Mind

GNB had an open mind in judging the music of the junior vidwans, including his disciples and used to compliment them generously. To cite an instance, I gave a night concert at the Music Academy in 1964 connection in Trivandrum as the principal of the Swati Tirunal college of music. After listening to the direct radio relay of my programme between 9.30 and 11.00 p.m., he wrote me a letter the next day, congratulating me on the concert on the whole and in particular appreciating my rendering of Samaja varagamana. My master's version of this composition in Hindolam was very popular but my rendition that night had a lot of additional embellishments in the fast tempo, so I was really apprehensive he would be annoyed. On the other hand, to my great surprise, GNB said in the course of his letter: "Though you have changed the sangati-s in the Hindolam song, I appreciate your venture for creativity in rendering it extraordinarily well. Keep it up, my boy!"


Ariyakudi, GNB and Sruti

SRUTI's endeavours to bring out enduring classical values would have appealed to Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and its modernism would have won the approval of G.N. Balasubramaniam, if either of them had been alive today. In their own times, both of them had, however, problems with sruti. GNB struggled constantly — and sometimes failed — to achieve alignment with the tambura sruti. Ariyakudi had difficulty in dwelling on the basic shadja without osscillating and in staying in long karvai-s in swara-s beginning from the base till about the panchama, but ran the gamut through the difficult regions and the lower reaches of the octaves in such a manner that the listener came to look upon this aspect as his bani. In both cases, the little deficiency in regard to sruti was more than made up by numerous plus points.