It is normal for Carnatic music lovers settled abroad to long to hear artistes from India. Not often do music buffs in India eagerly await a foreign musician’s performance.
In the 1960s and 70s, however, music lovers looked forward to the visit of a thavil player, master drummer Yazhpanam Dakshinamurthy, from Sri Lanka. Now, they eagerly look forward to a musician from the same place — nagaswaram artiste Yazhpanam P S Balamurugan.
Several Videos of Balamurugan’s playing have gone viral on social media like Facebook and Twitter in the last couple of years. His renditions of films songs on the nagaswaram are quite popular. The tone of his instrument is unique and sweet, while his raga delineation is remarkably imaginative. They have made discerning fans sit up and take critical note of this whiff of fresh air in the music world.
Balamurugan, currently the asthana nagaswara vidwan of the famous Nallur Kandaswami temple, looks back at his musical journey:
“Our ancestors were from Avudayar Koil in Pudukkottai district. My grandfather was a thavil artiste. It was during his time that we migrated to Sri Lanka. My father Subbuswamy Pillai was also a nagaswaram artiste. In addition, he was an expert in playing instruments like thavil, mridangam, ghatam and Khanjira. I started learning this art from him when I was eight.”
Balamurugan’s growing up happened during the bloody Sri Lankan civil war. Well into his late teens, his life and activities remained confined within a radius of 20 kilometres from his home.
“Many of our friends and acquaintances were killed. We were never sure if we would live to see the next day. But my father was particular about music and used to insist on my practicing it regularly. He wouldn’t allow me to listen to any nagaswaram tapes other than the ones of Thiruvavaduthurai Rajaratnam Pillai. ‘Keep listening to these repeatedly; even if you are unable to grasp the nuances completely, somehow, atleast a fraction of his playing will percolate into your mind. However small that is, it will do you a lot of good’, father used to tell me. The relentless practice that I undertook even in those difficult times has stood me in good stead. Thanks to those long hours of practice, I am able to meet the demands of playing even three concerts in a day”, recalls the 38-year old-Balamurugan.
Balamurugan has undergone special training under Alavetti Padmanabhan. He played the support role for some years in the concerts of his guru and later with Vidwan Ganamurthy, who was quite famous in Sri Lanka. Subsequently he set out on his own at the age of 23, and has been giving concerts ever since. His first trip abroad was to Singapore to play at the kumbabhishekam (consecration ceremony), of the Singapore Shenbaga Vinayakar temple. Since then, he has been on demand worldwide and has been regularly performing in countries such as London, Australia and Canada. He has received many invitations to play in India and especially in states like Kerala and Andhra where he has performed numerous temple concerts.
After listening to his nagaswaram playing, many senior and reputed thavil vidwans like Haridwaramangalam A K Pazhanivel, T A Kaliyamurthy, Thanjavur Govindarajan and Mannarkudi Vasudevan have willingly accompanied him in concerts.
Thavil vidwan Kovilur K G Kalyanasundaram recounts: “When I went to Jaffna in 2006 for a concert, Balamurugan played the role of a supporting nagaswaram artist. The melodious tone of his instrument and the maturity with which he handled the opportunities that he received during the various pieces was extremely impressive. When an opportunity came in 2009, I invited him to perform in India. Subsequently, we have played together in many occasions. Today, he is popular and often invites me to perform with him in Sri Lanka. It is indeed satisfying to watch his remarkable growth. Apart from me, famous thavil vidwans such as Mannargudi Vasudevan and Thiruppungur Muthukumaraswamy frequently visit Sri Lanka and perform with Balamurugan.”
Recalling his experiences of playing in India, Balamurugan says: “When the thavil maestro A K Pazhanivel heard us in 2013, he was impressed and immediately arranged for our music programme on Pongal day in Sun TV. This year, we got an opportunity to play in Thiruvaiyaru Thiyagaraja Aradhana for the first time.”
Talking about playing film music, he says: “Today it has become necessary for us to play film songs, especially in concerts in Sri Lanka, to attract the younger generation. When the organisers themselves are demanding film songs, it is really difficult to refuse. Although I play film songs, my real interest is in raga exploration and playing authentic Carnatic music compositions.”
Speaking on the music that has influenced him the most, he adds: “The raga delineations of great vocalists like GNB, Madurai Somu and Seshagopalan have left a deep impression in me. I also love the style of Maharajapuram Santhanam in singing kirtanas. I try to follow them in my renditions.”
It is only a matter of time before Balamurugan gets invitations to perform in well-known carnatic music sabhas, in India and in countries like America.
Here’s some news for music lovers in Chennai: his concert is scheduled on November 3rd at Raga Sudha hall, Mylapore.
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