D Balakrishna, the son of late Mysore Doreswamy Iyengar – a doyen of Carnatic classical music – speaks on his association with classical music, his father and contemporary musical trends
D Balakrishna, the son of Mysore Doreswamy Iyengar, a doyen of Carnatic classical music, seems to be a man of surprises. If the fact that his father did not pressurise him to become a musician makes for an interesting revelation, the mridanga, and not the veena, was the first musical instrument he was instructed on cannot but make one’s jaw drop in surprise.
Classical music to Balakrishna was introduced through listening sessions of the compositions of the then great musicians. He says that this was because his father was “insistent that I have an ear for good music”. The veena in the household – that of his father – he recollects, remained out of bounds to the entire family. Balakrishna was soon drafted under the mridangam vidwan C K Ayyamani Ayyar, a contemporary of the late Palghat Mani Ayyar. Learning the mridangam, he adds, helped him master the concept of laya (rythm). “A vainka’s biggest handicap is to maintain the laya,” his father – considered as the torch bearer of the ‘Mysore’ style – used to say. The decision was, after all, embellished with foresight.
The veena, although, continued to remain elusive to Balakrishna.
It was left to Iyengar’s uncle to bring the household veena within Balakrishna’s reach. Spellbound by an impromptu veena recital by his grandson, the uncle urged his nephew to tutor his son. The baptism by the lute took place eventually, followed by exacting training regimens, of which Balakrishna has to say, “Praise from my father never came easily.”
Lavish indeed were the audiences of Balakrishna’s early concerts – where he played the veena alongside his father – in cynicism. “Iyengar’s son is a carbon copy of his father,” declared rasikas. He, however, remembers the kind words of Prof Narayana Rao, professor at the department of mathematics, University of Mysore, and a connoisseur of music, who had commented: “Balakrishna has an inherent individual style of playing the veena.”
This was also a phase when a young Balakrishna wanted to break free and perform individually. However, the heads of music sabhas were not very forthcoming. "It was either I perform along with my father or not at all; this was, after all, natural as he was the then leading artiste,” he avers. Also, Iyengar did not want to exercise his clout and request the heads of music sabhas for a chance for his son to perform.The training regimen his father had made him undergo suddenly seemed like child's play, compared to the conundrum he was confronting.
Just as Balakrishna was nursing ambitions of becoming a professional musician, he landed a job in the Reserve Bank of India, to which he remains eternally grateful. “My father was immensely happy that I took up the job as he said, ‘You can play the veena professionally without being a professional musician.’” An undeterred Balakrishna did not allow music to take a backseat. Apart from his solo performances, he has collaborated with other artistes, such as violinist M Chandrashekar and Sarod maestro Pandit Rajiv Taranath.
“The composer Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar laid the structure for the present system of kacheris (concerts),” elucidates Balakrishna. Question him whether today’s concerts lay lesser emphasis on technicalities such as a ragam-taanam-pallavi or a neraval, and he avoids being judgmental. “Composed music has gained precedence over improvised music. Today’s musicians, me included, are, after all, artistes, not Upasakas,” he notes. He pauses and adds, "It seems so difficult to imagine that the legendary composer Mahavaidyanathan Sivan, at a concert of his, offered to give away his concert fees when he got to know, much to his chagrin, that his audience was being imposed an entry fee of about 25 annas!"
On the role of Bhakti (devotion) in learning music, the vainika says, “Gaining mastery over music is possible only through Bhakti which leads to Nadopasana (salvation through music).”
The influence of cinema on music, Balakrishna says, has resulted in “hitherto unknown krithis becoming widely popular after they were employed in movies”. He cites the spiral in popularity of Brochevarevarura, the Thyagaraja Krithi in raga Kamas, after it was employed in the devotional movie Shankarabharanam. "A R Rahman’s remix of the Oothukadu Venkatasubbier krithi Alaipayuthe Kanna, in the movie Alaipayuthey, is an example of good fusion of vocals with the percussion," he replies instantly when asked shortlist a song that has struck the balance between satisfying the requirements of cinema, and yet retain its originality.
Balakrishna is surprised when questioned about his father’s association with the novelist R K Narayan. “From where did you know about this?” is his instant reaction. I add that the internet aided me in this regard. He reminisces, “My father was 18 years younger than Narayan. It was at a concert of my father’s did the friendship between the two begin.” Apparently, Narayan was so impressed with Iyengar’s prowess with the veena that he wanted to learn playing it. Their friendship continued until Iyengar’s death in 1997.
Featured in City Express, the daily supplement of the New Indian Express on July 31, 2011