I am such a devoted fan of Balamurali's, that I will go almost anywhere to hear him sing. Sadly, this includes such towns as dot the over-manicured and annoyingly perfect landscape (which many find pretty) on either side of those abominations that scar Long Island from end to end, the Long Island Expressway, and the Northern State Parkway. Let me curb myself firmly before this becomes a full-fledged rant against Long Island or its ugly step-sister,New Jersey. They don’t deserve a place in this blog.
I have remained a faithful Balamurali fan from my starry-eyed teenage years. I still get starry-eyed when I listen to his music. So while I gulped a bit at the prospect of driving for over an hour into the remote reaches of Long Island, I regained perspective quickly enough: this was not an expedition to stock up on Indian groceries (which we did once at the Long Island Patel Brothers, where the canyon-like stacks of dals and flours and rice, the fiercely competitive shoppers who swooped down with gleaming eyes to grab the best and freshest vegetables, the expert arguments on the best ways to prepare intricate and obscure regional dishes, only reinforced my feelings of utter inferiority and lack of expertise in these realms) or worse still, to go “outlet mall” shopping, which we also did once. Like Long Island and New Jersey, these topics don’t deserve a place here either. Balamurali does. He was giving a concert. And that was reason enough to leave the cozy cocoon of Manhattan and venture into the barren wastelands of Long Island.
Apparently, what we were in for was not a mere concert. This
was an “occasion”, in which Balamurali was being “felicited” for his
contributions to Carnatic Music. We were ignorant of this fact as we took in
the sights of the Long Island Expressway with glazed eyes and deadened souls.
Arriving at the auditorium, we walked into the kind of cauchemarish spectacle
that Indians are so good at putting together.
We winced at the shrill and tinny cacophony of music that blared out at
ear-splitting volume from the mega-sized speakers, the kind that has been
recorded on a scratchy old tape recorder in an open-air room, with creaking
ceiling fans, cawing crows, yelling vendors and tea-shop cinema music adding to
the din. A dance performance, by students of Balamurali’s friend,
Saraswati, was in full flow. It was an assault on the eyes and the ears. The
girls were dancing to Balamurali’s beautiful varnam in Shanmukhapriya, Omkara Pranava, and we could only marvel
at the depths to which such a lovely song could sink, at the mercy of bad
singing, sound systems and acoustics. Saraswati, who is of the fearsome Amazonian
variety that Balamurali seems to favor, was urging the mike technician to crank
up the volume still further.
There was wide-spread butchery all around: butchery of the
dance by the dancers, butchery of the music by the volume-mad technician,
butchery of our delicate auditory systems…Marooned in the Long
Island wilderness, we had no choice but to submit ourselves to
this abomination, this crime committed in the name of culture and
enlightenment. But worse was to come.
Our relief at the blessed silence after the last raucous
notes of the varnam faded away was mercilessly short-lived. We sat back in our
seats, savoring the silence, our embitterment at our fate – Long Island and
third-rate dancing do not a good combination make – melting away at the thought
of the Balamurali concert which would surely start in no more than a couple of
minutes, judging from the frenzied activity that seemed to be going on behind
the curtains on the stage. We had spotted the Great Man himself, arriving
through a side door, escorted by a bevy of beauties and several of the
organizers who were tripping over themselves in their excitement.
The curtains opened, and we beheld the scene in front of us
in horror. A dozen chairs were lined up on the stage. On them sat a motley assortment of men
and women, Indian and American, all looking more than a bit bemused. On one
side was the Head Organizer, hopping up and down in a frenzy of excitement and
self-importance. And Balamurali sat in the middle, smiling beatifically.
Allow me a short digression on Balamurali. I cannot express
enough how much I LOVE his music. But here is also what I like about him: he is
child-like, in the best sense of the meaning of the word. In all the years that
I have seen him, he has not lost that air of enjoyment of his environment, that
simple gladness in where he is and whom he is with and what he is doing. He has
a child’s lack of jadedness and cynicism, simple pleasures seem to give him
enormous joy, and the genuine wonderment and delight at his own amazing feats
of musicianship are so infectiously joyous that you cannot help but laugh and
smile along with him. He is like a small child discovering new tricks with a
favorite toy. He knows that he is something special; but he holds that knowledge
without pomposity or boastfulness. He knows
that he produces sublime music, and bubbles over with his enthusiasm to share
it with the whole world. I have never seen another musician perform with such
uninhibited exultation in the sheer beauty of what he has created. And he
weaves a spell of enchantment as he draws everyone into his rapturous world,
his violinist, his mridangist, his audience, as he conducts and controls this
perfect rhapsody of music which makes you think deep, wandering, inchoate
philosophical thoughts. (And makes me sound like a babbling idiot.) Balamurali does this to you.
I know, there are Balamurali-bashers out there, large
numbers of them, who will scoff at everything I have said (except the babbling
idiot part). They will say that he is an
abomination, a blot on Carnatic music’s pure and tradition-rich landscape, a
charlatan who has dared to tamper with a precious heritage which has been honed
to perfection over the ages. They will snort and say that he is a vain,
womanizing alcoholic, an egotistic false god who has tried to insert himself
into the holy trinity of Dikshithar, Thyagaraja and Syama Sastry. To them I
say: there are six billion people on this planet and we do not all have to
think alike. You think what you want, and I will think what I want. And in the
matter of Balamurali at least, I know I am right.
Anyway, back to the stage where the men and women were
introduced, in painstaking and painful detail, to the audience. The organizers
had managed to gather a distinguished assemblage consisting of a consulate
official, an airline official, a couple of Councilmen, a Judge, State Assembly
speakers, a Mayor from a "picturesque seaside village" in Long Island,
and representatives from Tamil and Telugu Cultural Associations. Each of them
made a speech. All claimed to be
admirers of Balamurali, although several could barely articulate his name.
Balamurali bowed his head humbly and gravely brought his palms together to
acknowledge the accolades that were heaped upon him. He continued to smile
beatifically, and the smile did not waver through the excruciatingly long and
boring award ceremony in which everyone on stage garlanded everyone else with gaudy
tinsel malais and everyone made more
speeches and the Head Organizer was practically apoplectic with exhilaration
and enthusiasm. The audience sat, in a stupor of lethargy and sluggishness,
stunned into listless apathy by the utter nightmarishness of it all.
Our tickets stated that the concert was to begin at 2 o’clock. It was fully 4.25 when every permutation and combination of garlanding
and speech making and award-giving had been completed, and the stage was readied
for the Balamurali concert.
He had to wind up by 5pm.
So, he sang just three songs. And when
he cleared his throat and sang his first Saa,
a tremor of pure joy went through me and as if a magic wand had been waved, the
horrors of the past couple of hours were immediately forgotten.
His first song was Omkara
Kaarini, his own composition in a ragam of his own creation, Lavangi. I have heard it several times over the years, and they were all there - the
magical touches, the little musical jokes, the vocal gyrations, the perfect
control, that deep voice which makes everything drop away so that it’s just
you, floating on the waves of his voice….it was perfection. I am not gifted
with adequate skills to describe how that music sounded or how it made me feel,
but if you are a fan of Balamurali’s music, and have been drawn into his spell,
you will understand. I was a starry-eyed teenager all over again.
Next, he sang Bhadrachala Ramadas' Paluke Bangaramayana,
another old favorite, and then he ended the concert with his rollicking,
rousing thillana in Katanakutuhalam which had everyone in the hall tapping
their feet and laughing at his musical antics.
And that was it. Three songs. 35 minutes and it was over. And
for this we ventured into Long Island and endured more
than 2 hours of unspeakable agony.
But it was worth it.
Balamurali: I don’t know why you agreed to fly halfway
around the world to a godforsaken town in Long Island to
do this. You, who have received some of the world's most prestigious honors in
glamorous and glittering venues, came to this little town, and accepted your
award with grace and genuine appreciation. You did not merely go through the
motions. You sang with passion and joy, and that afternoon, Long
Island glowed with your radiance.
Thank you, Balamurali.
A disclaimer: Lest you get the impression that I am a snobby Manhattanite, allow me to assure you that I am not. I live in Manhattan, and I am a tolerant, fellow-human-loving person. It's just that Long Island does strange things to me. As does New Jersey. They can't help it.
(C) Kamini Dandapani