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Sethalapathy Balasubramaniam

It must have been 1985 or 86. My grandfather Thyagu came into our house all excited. He had just visited his good old friend Neelu (Neelakantan who was the son of violin vidwan Tiruvalangadu Sundaresa Iyer) and had heard somebody sing. His name was Balu and he was a disciple of Papanasam Sivan. Thatha was just raving continuously about the bhavam, the intensity and the creativity of his singing especially viruthams. He immediately contacted Balu and wanted him to come home and sing and all of us to hear him. I had not seen Thatha so excited about a musician since he first heard TN Seshagopalan and thought that the void caused by the loss of GNB to the musical world had been filled! One evening Balu mama was invited home and he came with his son and mrudangam artiste Ganapthyraman. he sang for about an hour and a half and it was a very new experience for us. We were immediately hooked to his uninhibited bhavam laden style of singing and that Margazhi we started attending the Sivan bhajanai sessions on the streets around the Kapali temple. Day in and day out, my parents and I would get up 5.30 and go to listen to the bhajanai sessions. Balu mama was a cult figure then. There was a group of about 15-20 people who simply loved his singing and we joined that loyal band of fanatics. There were a few others who also sang in bhajan. there was of course Balu mama’s uncle Mani bhagavatar, who unfortunately passed away within a year or so of our joining the bahajnai sessions. Then there was Rukmini Ramani, Papanasam Sivan’s daughter with a few disciples of hers and her son the talented Papanasam Ashok Ramani. The popular star there was however Balu mama. The bhajanai attracted a lot of vidwans on a regular basis. Dr S Ramanathan would come. He would invariably sing Kumaran taal in Yadukulakambhoji or Aarukkutaan teriyum in Devamanohari. He would then request Mani Bhagavatar to specifically sing Paraamukham yenayya in Karaharapriya. DK Jayaraman came usually on January 1st. Mani Bhagavatar was a giant singer. A puny looking man, frail but a singing voice that was a 4 kattai sruti with a lot of volume and bhavam. He sounded a bit like the old Musiri 78 rpm records. he sang some interesting songs like Amba manam kanindunadu in Pantuvarali (made famous by MKT), Marundalitthiduvaai in Gowla and one of his specials, Kaadali raadhayai in Karaharapriya which brought Aruna Sairam to uncontrollable tears once. A few days into Margazhi and then requests would start pouring in for Balu mama to sing. His favourites were of course Todi, Kambhoji, Karaharapriya and Sanmukhapriya. He also loved singing Mohanam, Hindolam, Kapi Sindhu bhairavi, Behag and Suddha dhanyasi. I was a huge fan of several of his trademark viruthams like Oorilen kaani, Maarinindru ennai, Ullaasa nirakula etc. Somedays Lalgudi Swaminatha Odhuvar, the resident singer of the Kapali temple would join in, especially near Gajalakshmi textiles next the temple office entrance on North mada street and the two would launch into a virutham jugalbandhi. Whatever they sang, Keeravani and Kapi were a must! Personally for me Balu mama was like a manasika guru. I loved the way he articulated the lyrics when singing viruthams especially dwelling on specific words and enhancing them with a torrent of sangatis. He was a big big fan of Madurai Mani Iyer and also like GNB a lot. We even started collecting some of his recordings and one such I treasure is what he sang at the residence of Kothamangalam Seenu. I got this recording from Seenu’s son Ganesh who was my asthana tambura artiste. Unfortunately the days of Meltrack cassettes ensured that the recording was lost to me when I tried to hunt it a couple of years back! SVK of Ragasudha hall, liked his music a lot and invited him frequently to his house to sing. On one such occasion I was putting the tambura. There was an old friend of SVK’s, an amateur mrudangam artiste who was playing for him. Balu mama was really irritated with his playing and after a couple of songs just called out to Arun Prakash who was sitting in the audience and said “Antha kozhantha rendu paattukku vaasikkattum” (Let that child play for a couple of songs) Balu mama was quite a riot with his stories and anecdotes. he was very close to a mrudangam/khanjira artiste Tiruvarur Nagarajan and used to go along with him. Balu mama’s favourite story is how Nagarajan had the habit of talking to himself on stage. Especially in a kalyana kutchery playing for some one with the worst possible sense of rhythm he would mutter to himself “Mattinduttiyedaa Nagaraja! varuthappattu prayojanam ille!” (You hav got stuck Nagaraja. No point in regretting) Balu mama’s favourite description of Madurai Mani Iyer singing kalpana swarm was like 1 year old walking with small baby steps in an adorably rhythmic fashion! Balu mama once came to my concert at the TTD and mid way asked me to sing Tiruvadi sharanam! I hesitated saying that it may not be appropriate, but he just nodded vigorously and quipped “onnu paadinaa thappu ille” (Nothing wrong if you sang one) I will never forget how he came to my wedding and blessed us with a spontaneous virutham! What more can one ask for? Sanjay Subrahmanyan Download Kapali (an album of Papanasam Sivan songs) – Download other albums –


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