Asian Music and Dance

Veena Vidwan S. Balachander In Concert – Dhyaname

The South Indian veena player S. Balachander (1927–90) was one of the subcontinent’s most remarkable, maverick and acclaimed instrumentalists. The veena (or vina) is the South’s foremost fretted, stringed instrument and he counts among its foremost exponents from the age of retrievable art – in the Walter Benjamin sense, i.e. one we can listen to, rather than only read tales of. Like Tansen and Paganini, Balachander deliberately upset the amla cart. Aside from the vina, he bucked the trend and tradition by playing Carnatic-style on the northern sitar, as opposed to a Hindustani musician presenting a southern rāgam in a northern style. 

Veena Chakravarthy S. Balachander In Concert’s undated recording consists entirely of a raagam-thaalam-pallavi (RTP) in rāgam Sri. (Shri or Shree are alternatives.) RTP was his trademark. Whereas for most South Indian musicians, that would be the recital’s extemporised centrepiece, the filling in the flat bread sandwich, so to speak, Balachander regularly dispensed with shorter introductory and valedictory expositions and went straight for the jugular, making one extended raagam-thaalam-pallavi the point and purpose of the entire concert. This Shri, although in the central tānam movement he slyly conjures a ragamalika (‘garland of rāgams’), clocks in at one hour and twenty minutes by the time the tape runs out and unspools. He has already made his point, but you can’t help wondering where he went next… One of the most singular aspects about this playing is its extraordinary visuality. Listening to this Shri, you will see notes flying skywards, as if he was releasing notes like you would cup and release a dove to fly away.

Veena Vidwan S. Balachander In Concert – Dhyaname is also of undated and unnamed provenance and again is “re-mastered from personal collections of the maestro” (vidwan means ‘maestro’, chakravarthy ‘emperor’). An unnamed mridangam player supplies the rhythmic support and delivers a beautifully contoured percussion solo on ‘Kante Judumi’, the fifth track on the second CD, egged on by Balachander. But this double CD collection is something completely different. A rarity in Balachander’s recorded output, it comprises sixteen interpretations of compositions by Thyagaraja (1767–1847). Alongside saint-composers Muthuswami Dikshitar (1776–1835) and Syama Sastri (1762–1827), Thyagaraja is one of the Triveni (‘Trinity’) of the Golden Age of South Indian music whose compositions continue to reach to the present and future. Here Balachander sticks close to the proverbial hymn-sheet, keeping his interpretations tight to the texts and taut. That said, the shortest timing on disc one is in Dhanyaasi at a pretty luxurious seven-and-a-half minutes. During the exemplary ‘Thava Dasoham’ you can hear him murmuring to himself – the way musicians do when they forget the microphone. It is an intimate performance.

It is an unashamed cliché to call a musician ‘the Jimi Hendrix of the etc’ but on this occasion bear with me. Hendrix actually did listen to Carnatic music, well, definitely, M.S. Subbulakshmi. What Balachander pulls out of the bag during his half-hour exploration of Latangi is stupendous. Sparks soar. Veena Vidwan S. Balachander In Concert – Dhyaname’s second CD in particular is high-carat gold and unmissable.



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