Drawing parallels between Balabhaskar and Mandolin Maestro U Shrinivas is unfair. But for reasons unknown and obvious, the news of Balabhaskar’s death brings to mind the life and music of U Shrinivas. Child prodigies with strong backing in Carnatic music, they both experimented with fusion and (famously) shied away from films. Both played electronic versions of their instruments. Wired or not, the instruments stayed connected with them, as if an extension of their bodies. Both met similar fates of untimely departures. Both had sincere smiles adorning their faces.
In a cultural scenario where mediocrity ruled the roost, Balabhaskar (Balu as he was fondly called) stood apart with a distinct edge. With the funda of classical music imparted from his maternal uncle, violin maestro B Sasikumar, Balu ventured into music from his childhood. He started performing at the age of 12, and released his debut album whilst still in campus. Three of his music albums featuring romantic tracks – ‘Ninakkaay’, ‘Aadmaayi’, and ‘Heart Beats’ were instant hits. It was the video adaptations of Balabhaskar’s tracks that heralded the genre of music videos in Malayalam. He also composed for films from the age of 17 but he did not stay on.
Also read | Violinist Balabhaskar passes away
Focusing instead on live performances, he in fact ‘re-chorded’ several popular numbers on violin to become one of the best-loved entertainers of Kerala. His much-lauded fusion outings were with percussionists Ustad Zakir Hussain, Fazal Qureshi, Sivamani, Mattannoor Sankaran Kutty and keyboard player Stephan Devassy. Balabhaskar composed the signature tune of ‘Soorya Dance and Music Festival’ — a 42-year-old cultural festival of Kerala featuring masters from across India. He also performed at the festival regularly.
“I see him watching me when I play my violin,” Balabhaskar once said about his maternal grandfather Bhaskara Pillai whom he is named after. Bhaskara Pillai was a musician and played a variety of instruments including the native South Indian Nagaswaram. The grandfather did not live to see his grandson who claimed to have seen the grandfather during his violin ‘Sadhakam’ (practice) sessions.
Also read | Who was Balabhaskar?
It was Bhaskara Pillai’s son B Sasikumar who was destined to hand the legacy over to the nephew. Balabhaskar followed B Sasikumar’s school of music and played concerts with him frequently. B Sasikumar, a versatile composer, has set to tunes many a krithis in Malayalam, which his disciples including Balabhaskar popularised — for example, ‘Shantham Satchinmayam’ set in Dwijavanthi Raga.
It is his training in classical music that gave Balu wings to fly. And it also kept him grounded. He had a penchant for learning and encouraged others to do so. It is perhaps the deep rootedness and devotion to music that made him a misfit in the film industry, where compromise remains the go-to word. He complained, at times, about the way musicians were treated, but never gave up hard work.
Balu constantly reminded himself that he had a long way to go in music every time someone praised him. He believed in ‘Sadhana’ and was always aware that there is no easy route. A realisation that seldom went with the celebritydom he belonged to.
Balabhaskar chose to play ‘Film Music on Violin’ to composing for films for reasons known only to him. But the choice he made to stay away from films did two things to the artiste in him. One, it drove him to pursue music relentlessly, keeping desires of being acknowledged in the backseat. Two, while in search of an alternate for cinema, he realised the show business potential of playing ‘Film Music on Violin’.
While it gave a generation of audiences a chance to relive their film favourites, Balu found a space to diversify and experiment at any time and every time he touched the violin. For a pro like him in classical music, it was child’s play. It gained him immense popularity, in fact much more than a super hit film score could have ever given him. So much so that, even his obituary notes today highlight his non-film achievements. A rare honour for a young, classical musician of our times.
With Balabhaskar’s demise, Kerala has lost an ace musician, someone who could have been a flag bearer of all forms of music ranging from classical to contemporary and folk to fusion. The void this youth icon has left behind is huge and saddening. Not because of the music he did so far, but for the promises the future held. And the loss, at this point, seems irreplaceable.
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