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Music > Review
07 March, 2020

Sethalapathi Balasubramaniam - an epitome of “vidhya dhanam”

Balasubramaiam was affectionately known as Balu mama. The moment you mentioned “Sethalapathi” the entire music world could make him out at once. And he was known for his simplicity and spontaneity. Viruthams were his forte’,  lovely pieces of poetry from Kandaralangaram, Thiruvasagam, Kandhar Anuboothi and such, that could be rendered in ragas of his choice - all impromptu decisions that kept the listener guessing. It could be more in line with the raga (song) that would be sung following the virutham with a meaningful link to it.

Many eminent performing musicians (both past and present) must have learnt particular songs from him for some exceptional reason. Here was a man who willfully and piously practised “vidhya dhanam” without any quid pro quo, save the love and affection of the receiver. If you wanted the notated song that wasn’t his specialty. On the other hand he used to be particular about the correctness of the lyrics, the “kurils” and “nedils” of Tamil with the diction as perfect as it ought to be. He was a true liberal. He may seem the man most traditional by appearance, vibuthi (விபூதி) smeared all over his forehead and seen only in veshti (வேஷ்டி), but the man had the most modern outlook after all. This you could get to know after a few sessions with him. A virutham would have been taught in Mohanam on day one; day two you could on your own try it in say Kapi and present it to him. The only consideration he looked forward to was that your presentation had to be aesthetically fulfilling. No disrespect meant here.  Some however stayed away from him rather wary of his off the cuff nuances and subtleties.

Recording both at private studios and AIR were invariably “single-take” sessions always, that would leave the recording staff stunned by the vision, approach and memory of this man. Those who accompanied would be left with moist eyes wondering at the emotional involvement of this genius. Song after song would emanate without any “assist” paper or notes for guidance.   

 “Outlook” that carried a write-up about him in 2017, had mentioned that “the man largely remained obscure despite his huge potential to gain a big name in South Indian classical music.” He slept in music in October 2004, at the age of 67. 

Two concerts were held to mark the occasion of his birthday at Ragasudha Hall,  this year (2020). The one in the morning was by Injikudi Subramaniam on the nagaswaram, with Ganesh Prasad on the violin, Poongulam Subramaniam on the mridangam and Guruprasad on the Ghatam as accompanists. The second in the evening was a vocal concert by Thirumala Brothers, P B Srirangachari and Embar Kasthuri. The accompanists for this concert were Anayampatti Venkatasubramanaim on the violin, P B V Krishnamachari on the mridangam and Manikandan on the morsing.

Years back a tribute that appeared in The Hindu to Sethalapathi, after his death had quoted Tagore’s words: 

"I have had my invitation to his world's festival, and thus my life has been blessed

My eyes have seen and my ears have heard

It was my part at this feast to play upon my instrument and I have done all I could

Now, I ask, has the time come at last when I may go in and see thy face and offer thee my silent salutation?"

Nothing need to be said further!


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