T.R. Balamani

T.R. Balamani in conversation with K. Venkat
T.R. Balamani has long been a name to reckon with in the Carnatic music scene in Mumbai. She is a versatile guru, having trained three generations of disciples in Mumbai, many of whom are renowned performers and teachers. Recently she relocated to Chennai where her daughter lives in an apartment at Mylapore. Excerpts from a conversation with the veteran:
How did your musical journey begin? Who were your gurus?
I grew up in Kerala. My father T.S. Ramanathan encouraged me to listen to a lot of music even as a child. We were four girls and two boys, in the family. We only listened to Carnatic music. My father was a double M.A. –  in Sanskrit and English Literature – from Annamalai University. He was well versed in ragam singing, and could render many small kritis very beautifully. Though he had not learnt the lakshana of music, he had a strong sense of the lakshya. We absorbed a lot of music instinctively from him, whenever he sang at home. As my father used to visit the music department at Annamalai University, giants like Sathur A.G. Subramaniam and others became his close friends, and would often visit our home in Kerala. All these associations, as well as my father’s abiding interest in music, inculcated a passion for music in me and my siblings from a very young age. I began performing at the age of  nine. Initially my father was a little reluctant to allow me to perform as society was more orthodox then, and girls who performed often were frowned upon by polite society.
My first guru was Narayana Bhagavatar. He taught me some ashtapadis and small songs. Whenever he used to pass by our house, he would come in and ask my father, “I want to hear Balamani sing. Will she sing for me now?” He showered me with affection and encouraged me to sing whenever the chance came by. Soon my father began supporting the idea of me performing. I began performing with my sister, T.R. Sarasa, under the name “Thatthamangalam Sisters”. My father was a Post Master in Tripunithura, but refused a promotion as he would be transferred to different towns, and he did not want any kind of break in my music training.
Once we all travelled from Tripunithura to Cochin to listen to Palghat Rama Bhagavatar. All my siblings were as smitten with music as I was. We eagerly went to the concert venue, well before time. I remember Rama Bhagavatar sang Kharaharapriya that day, followed by Tyagaraja’s Rama nee samanamevaru. I was awestruck with his handling of the raga and the kriti. My father had to report early to work the next day. He looked at me at one point during the concert and on observing that I was listening to the music dumbstruck with wonder, he smiled and sat through the entire concert with us. That was the kind of sacrifice he was ready to make for us. I  choke with emotion when I think of those days.
I completed my SSLC at Tripunithura and secured good marks. I had a choice of either continuing my academics, for which I would have had to enrol at the Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam, or continue my musical journey. I wanted to chose music. My father suggested that I join the Central College of Carnatic Music, in Madras. I readily accepted. I moved to Madras soon after and stayed in a hostel, while studying at the Music College.
I remember when I first went for the interview, I was apprehensive about what I might be asked to sing. I was told that the standard expected of the students was very high. But with the blessings of the Almighty, the interview went smoothly. I was directly enrolled in the 4th  year. I passed out in 1957 with flying colours. Though the principal Musiri Subramania Iyer encouraged me to answer my theory papers in English, I was adamant about writing them in Tamil, as I wanted to master the language. 
My mentors at the college were Musiri Subramania Iyer, Tirupamburam Swaminatha Pillai and T. Brinda. Swaminatha Pillai was very affectionate towards me and taught me many rare pallavis. I also learnt from Chittoor Subramania Pillai. I had opted for the veena as my subsidiary elective in college and thus got to learn from M.A. Kalyanakrishna Bhagavatar and Devakottai Narayana Iyengar. I learnt the Kalyani Ata tala varnam Vanajakshi as well as many kritis like Janaki ramana (Suddha Seemantini) on the veena.
A couple of years after passing out, at the instance of Musiri Subramania Iyer, I applied for the Central Government scholarship. The panel of examiners were an intimidating lot – Musiri, Kumbakonam Rajamanickam Pillai, Pazhani Subramania Pillai, and Parur Sundaram Iyer. After being grilled extensively for almost two hours, I was informed that I was selected. Learning from Musiri was an experience in aesthetics. He could paint myriad nuanced hues in an apparently simple phrase, during raga alapana or niraval. He was very appreciative of my niraval singing. After class, I would serve him some tiffin that I had prepared and brought from home. He savoured my cooking. It was a great blessing for me to serve him in whatever capacity I could. I cherish those times. In 1961 I completed my advanced training under Musiri sir. In 1962 I got married, and soon after moved to Bombay.
Was your husband supportive of your musical pursuits?
Oh yes! My husband was very passionate about music, and never once did he discourage me from pursuing music. As much as my parents supported me in my music before marriage, my husband was equally supportive after marriage.
How did your musical journey progress after you moved to Mumbai?
After moving to Bombay, Devakottai Narayana Iyengar, who was then principal of Bharatiya Fine Arts Music School in Matunga, contacted me and requested  me to teach in his institution. My husband was at the time not very enthusiastic about my leaving the house to go and teach music. He preferred that I teach from home. Ultimately, at the insistence of Narayana Iyengar, I began teaching at Bharatiya Fine Arts, and taught there for a few years. I never had any ambitions of becoming a famous performer myself. My heart was always in teaching and training the next generation. I used to regularly send my students to the music competitions held in the sabhas of Bombay. They used to invariably win the tambura prize.
Great legends like Dr. S. Pinakapani, Voleti Venkateswarlu and Nedunuri Krishnamurthi would  often visit us, when they came to perform in Bombay. Once K.N. Mani recorded me singingManavyalakincha in Nalinakanti raga. On that occasion I had ventured to sing niraval and swaras for that song. He played that recording to Nedunuri sir, and the latter was impressed. He insisted on meeting me. I went to Mani’s house to meet Nedunuri sir and we got about to discussing music. When he asked me to sing, I sang the famous Sankarabharanam pallavi “Chakkagaani bhajana’. After that, every time he visited Bombay, he would always stay with us in our modest little apartment in Matunga.
Once I was asked to perform at Bharatiya Fine Arts, in memory of my guru Musiri Subramania Iyer. My husband informed the sabha organisers that T.K. Govinda Rao was a better choice, since he represented the pristine bani of Musiri. But the organisers were persistent,  so I agreed. As luck would have it, Govinda Rao was present in the audience. I went up to him before the concert and introduced myself. I informed him that I had learnt under Musiri sir while studying at the Music College and then for a few years as a scholarship student. He was very encouraging and told me that it would be a pleasure to listen to any musician trained by Musiri sir. I have a liking for calculations in music and that day too, I sang a pallavi in Dharmavati as the main piece, replete with many rhythmic calculations. After the concert, Govinda Rao came up to me and told me that it was my guru bhakti that had enabled me to perform music of such high quality. After that he became a family friend. Musicians like Madurai Sreenivasan (Cheenakutty) were also very encouraging of my pallavi singing. Once I sang a concert on the radio, featuring rare ragas like Narayani, Sumanesaranjani, and Rishabhapriya. Dr. S. Pinakapani, after listening to the broadcast, called up the radio station and enquired, “Who is that bold woman who performed today? I must meet her!”
Did your daughter take to music as naturally as you did?
My daughter Ranjani Chander picked up music naturally, listening to me sing and teach. Even when she was a baby, I used to take her to all the concerts that happened in Bombay, and she could recognise almost every major raga from very early on. She sang before Voleti sir when he visited us. She was quite young then. He was impressed and blessed her. She has a voice ideally suited to Carnatic music. She has a lot of azhuttham (depth) while singing, something that is essential to our music. She even teaches now.
What is the proudest moment in your career?
The day I was presented the first M.S. Subbulakshmi Lifetime Achievement Award by Shanmukhananda Fine Arts, Mumbai. K.R. Atmanathan presided over the function and presented the award to me along with V. Shankar, the Shanmukhananda president. A few days before receiving the award, I managed to get MS Amma’s phone number from Shanmukhananda and I called her to convey my gratitude. She was such a gentle and humble human being. A rare gem! That is one telephonic conversation that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
Among the women vocalists of your time, whom did you idolise the most?
I always had a soft spot for D.K. Pattammal’s music. I loved the depth and the bhava in her music. I also loved to listen to her intricate pallavis. Once, Pattammal was to visit Ernakulam for a concert. A friend of my father’s hurriedly came home that evening and asked me if I would play the tambura forPattammal. It was like asking me to have paal payasam! I jumped at the opportunity without a second thought. My father arranged for Pattammal and her husband Iswaran to come home to have some coffee and tiffin. When they came, and I finally saw her in person, I could not help myself. I became emotional. Pattammal was most affectionate. She enquired why I was crying. So my father told her that I was smitten with her music, and could not control myself, as I was meeting my idol for the first time. He asked her if after tiffin, it would be alright if I sang a couple of songs for her. She immediately obliged. So I sang Brovavamma in Manji. Pattammal was deeply impressed. Both she, as well as Iswaran, showered their blessings on me.
How did your performance at Cleveland come about?
As already mentioned, I never had any desire to perform, either in India or abroad. But one fine day in 2009 or was it 2010, V.V. Sundaram and his wife Gomati contacted me over the phone and asked if they could meet me in person. They came and met me, and informed me that in recognition of my contribution to music, they wished to award me the Sangeeta Ratnakara title that year, to be followed by my concert. That was the year they celebrated Vazhuvoor Ramiah Pillai’s centenary. As I am asthmatic, I was initially very reluctant as I was afraid the cold climate might affect me. But they were extremely insistent and I could not refuse after a point. They made all the arrangements and the entire trip was extremely comfortable. They also arranged a solo concert for my daughter. I was very touched by the speeches at the felicitation function. Many famous artists like Neyveli Santhanagopalan, Nagai Muralidharan, Mannargudi Easwaran, and Flute Ramani were present. They asked me to present a lecture demonstration. I told them that I was not used to doing so, and requested if I could address a question-answer session. They readily obliged. I remember Santhanagopalan asked me, “What is the secret of training so many great students?” I replied, “There is no secret to this. It is all hard work (both mine and my students), and the blessings of my parents, gurus and God.”
How were you able to mould so many students to become top-class performers?
I have always treated my students as my own children, my extended family. With God’s grace I have been blessed with students who are equally affectionate towards me. I have never had a student who was a laggard, or was disinterested. They have all been so sincere. All my students are equally important to me  – Shankar Mahadevan, his brother Mani Mahadevan, Bombay Jayashri, her brother Sabesh, Raji Gopalakrishnan, Susheela Raman, Vasumathi Badrinath, Prasanna Venkataraman, my daughter Ranjani, and so many others. They worked extremely hard to master whatever I taught them. It would be unfair if I was to take full credit for their success. But I would also like to add here that my students are not only good performers, they are also good teachers. I have trained them that way. I take great pride when I see my students’ students coming out today as good performers.
How important is it for a student to know  to read and write notation in Carnatic music?
It is extremely important to inculcate reading and writing notation among students from the beginning. If a guru teaches the student a varnam or song, with the notation in hand, we can ensure that the student rehearses the  composition correctly, even in the absence of the guru. This is of course subsequent to having learnt the composition from the guru in person. Notation cannot replace the guru’s importance, but it is vital in maintaining purity of pathantaram. Even years after they have learnt a song, my students can sing it perfectly. They can also teach it correctly to their students. Also I never allow my students to record any class, since the notation, coupled with their memory, is a complete guide.
What about gamakas in notation?
This is up to the guru. The guru must first teach all the nuances of the song and then introduce the notation as a guide to remembering. Notation cannot take the place of the guru. Personally I do not notate gamakas, as in my opinion it is unnecessary.
What are your special insights into teaching methodologies in Carnatic music?
The onus of producing students of high calibre lies with the guru. The guru must guide and groom the students correctly right from the inception. A guru must set a strong foundation by teaching varnams in great detail. A wealth of music resides in the varnams, and learning and practicing as many varnams as one can, both in Adi tala and Ata tala, will set a strong base in order to build a  musical edifice. Every varnam must be practiced assiduously in three speeds. Only then can you hope to master the foundation. The guru must insist on inculcating values like sruti suddham (fidelity to pitch), azhuttham (depth) and saukhyam (ease of rendition) in students right from the beginning. Also the guru must be able to gauge each student’s abilities and accordingly teach them, making learning a pleasurable experience for the student.
In earlier times, we were never taught how to sing raga alapana, or niraval. We were expected to grasp these things as we listened to the guru sing, either in class or in concerts. 

We were also expected to observe this in other singers. But today things have changed. I have taken raga alapana, niraval and swara kalpana classes for my students on innumerable occasions. I generally taught in groups, singing a phrase and then asking a student to repeat it. I would then sing another phrase and ask the next student to repeat and so on. So by the time I finished with the last student, we would have covered six or seven sangatis in that raga. I would develop the class like this.
Also, when I take a particular raga in class, I will first teach a varnam in that raga. Then I will go on to teach three or four kritis in that raga. By the end of the fourth kriti, the student will have a clear idea of the contours of that raga and its specialities. I have always given my all while teaching my students, no holds barred! 
Have you taught instrumentalists too?
Yes, after all, I myself learnt the veena at the Music College. I have students who play the veena, violin and flute.
Do you approve of Carnatic musicians pursuing other genres of music?
I have no such reservations. Each one’s calling in life is different and the paths they cut out for themselves are unique. Some of my own students have been successful in other genres. Bombay Jayashri has had many successful ventures in film music. Shankar Mahadevan, though a good Carnatic vocalist, has now become internationally renowned as a Bollywood and pop singer. My grandson learns the Western keyboard and my granddaughter loves Shreya Ghoshal. I never interfere with their musical choices. I even had some Hindustani singers who learnt Carnatic music from me. Reewa Rathod, daughter of  Sonali and Roop Kumar Rathod, and Sanjeev Chimmalgi, disciple of C.R. Vyas, learnt from me for some time. Sriram Parasuram first introduced them to me, when they evinced an interest in Carnatic music to him. I think music has no boundaries. At their core, all kinds of music speak a universal language.
Today voice culture has become quite the fashion among young Carnatic vocalists. In your opinion, what do you feel is the best way to utilise the voice in Carnatic music?
I think the most important aspect of voice culture in our music is azhuttham.  and full throated singing. Every gamaka, every phrase must be executed with that weightiness and breadth of voice that makes our music unique. I do not support artificial singing, or singing frivolous phrases. That won’t last long. While shouting is unnecessary, full-throated singing in a melodious, well-modulated manner is essential.
How would you guide a student who is weak in laya to sing pallavis?
I would introduce singing in four speeds in the varnams itself. I would often ask my students to singViriboni in 4-kalai tala, and maintain the tala speed while steadily increasing the speed of their singing. This is the concept of anulomam used in pallavi singing. So if the varnam is taught thoroughly like this, pallavi singing becomes very easy.
Do you have any advice for today’s Carnatic youth?
I will advise them to listen to music of the highest standard, especially of the old-time stalwarts. The teachers today must inculcate that sense of discrimination among the youngsters to emulate from the music of the titans of yore. They must eschew unnecessary antics and pursue pure music. That will ensure that the best musical values are passed on to future generations.