S Balachander

If there is one name that is applicable to the term "multi-faceted genius", that would be S Balachander. His life reads like a constant quest - and mostly successful, too! The context here might be that of a Carnatic musician, but Balachander was also a composer, film director, film producer, actor, chess player, and adept at playing a whole range of musical instruments, mostly self-taught. And what's more, he was good at all this too!

Born in 1927, he had made a name for himself in both films and music by the time he was in his twenties. He is reputed to have been fascinated by the veena, and ended up mastering the instrument by himself in a matter of two years. The result of this obsession with the veena was a playing style that had till then not been attempted on the veena. Though the essential characteristics of the veena remained, he made it produce gamakas and glides across almost one octave on a single pluck! Not just that, he also played entire phrases on a single pluck.

The experimenter that he was, Balachander was nothing if he did not constantly test the limits. On the veena, too, he tried out contact mics, extreme dynamics, daring phraseology, sometimes even haunting minimalism, as in his landmark recording of the 72 melakarta ragas. That recording was a tour de force in terms of range and approach, essentially 20-minute freestyle explorations of four ragas each, with fluid segues between ragas.

Naturally, such extreme experimentation saw its share of detractors, but it also forever changed the way the veena was perceived and played. Not the old techniques vanished, but the fingering was enhanced significantly by the extreme note bending possibilities opened up by Balachander.

"And the veena was never the same again" - not too many people would hear this statement and not think immediately of S Balachander. That's saying a lot.

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