“Voice of the Veena – S. Balachander, A biography”, by Vikram Sampath, Rain Tree (Rupa Publications), 2012
S. Balachander, best known to many of us as a veena maestro, was very different from the musicians one usually comes across. He was much more than just a great vainika. A man with strong convictions, he stood up for what he believed was the truth, even if this meant he was standing alone against the rest of the world. He was often at odds with others and consequently, his was a life mired in controversies.
It is surprising to note that despite his monumental contributions to multiple fields, many of which he was self-taught in, and despite of his work having inspired so many people, not much has been written about him yet. It is as though many conveniently choose to forget/ ignore him and his contributions. Vikram Sampath’s latest book, the biography of this multi-faceted maverick genius, is thus a very welcome one.
It is not an easy task to write the biography of someone like Balachander and Vikram seems to have done a commendable job. He has tried his best to look at things impartially without seeming to get too much emotionally entangled with the subject. Sufficient details have been provided about the different things Balachander tried his hands at (carnatic percussion, sitar, cinema, veena etc) and about his key contributions to these, especially to the art of veena playing. Balachander’s mercurial rise in a field which was, at that time, dominated by very talented vocalists, his contributions towards making carnatic music internationally popular, his open mindedness at absorbing goodness irrespective of where it came from, his contribution to veena playing (including the changes he brought in to both the instrument as well as the to the style of playing), his tussle with the establishment and his involvement in controversies (including the Swati Tirunal one) are very well documented. The book also provides a beautiful summary of the changes that both Carnatic music and the environment in which it existed underwent over the years.
I would recommend this book as a must read for anyone involved with art music just for the collection of Balachander’s thoughts gleaned from his dairy/ album entries and his speeches, if not for anything else.