Balaji Jagannath and the art of learning by listening

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1923
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K Raman speaks to the violin virtuoso on how he perfected his instrument

Though the violin is an instrument with western origins, it has had quite a chequered past in India.

The instrument came to India when the Trinity of Carnatic music was at their peak of glory. Swati Tirunal, a great patron of Carnatic music, heard the violin being played by Vadivelu of the Thanjavur Quartets who were then Asthana Vidwans of the Travancore Royal court. However the credit for popularizing this melodious instrument goes to Baluswamy Dikshitar, brother of the composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar.

Gradually it became an integral part of the Carnatic music ensemble. Many eminent violinists have played this instrument to perfection, and among them is a highly gifted violinist who lives in Sydney – Balaji Jagannath.

I noticed very fine qualities in this violinist when I heard him for the first time. ‘Sruthi Sudham’ (pitch perfect) conventional and controlled playing is his hallmark.

Balaji says he showed an interest in music at the age of five, when he accompanied his three sisters to vocal music classes conducted by Kasi Viswanatha Bhagavathar. Whenever the family went to visit their grandparents at Srirangam they learned music from Embar Raghavasimham. Balaji and his sisters were fortunate to get Banglore Thangammal and her daughter Malathi Laxman as music gurus.

“It was their open outlook and ‘Paadantharam’ that got me interested in Carnatic music and the violin,” says Balaji.

Balaji’s sisters practised vocal music for at least an hour every day – this was basically restricted to varnams and kritis, since manodharmam (improvisations) was taken up only after they started learning from Smt Thangammal. His parents were taskmasters as far as music practice was concerned, so he was always exposed to music and music-related discussions. “Kelvi gyaanam” (learning by listening) is perhaps the one unbroken thread in my musical upbringing,” he says.

It was Balaji’s sister who introduced him to the violin, since he apparently showed some talent for “swara-gyaanam”.

For Balaji the initial efforts were understandably frustrating. The violin is a demanding, unforgiving instrument, and it took him some months to coax a few decent, clear notes out of it. His parents were always supportive though they did not tolerate shoddiness, and he was expected to be perfect even if he was in the early stages of learning and was playing only “sarali-varisais” or even “geethams”.

Balaji says his favourite violinists were Voleti Sri Venkateshwarlu and Tanjore S Kalyanaraman (vocal) and MS Gopalakrishnan. In particular, Sri MSG’s tonal excellence, imagination, bowing, and lightning brighas – both in Carnatic or Hindustani music – captured Balaji’s imagination. He was privileged to be blessed by him when he visited Jamshedpur (Balaji was 16 then. A couple of decades later, Balaji was fortunate enough to be taught by him at his Mylapore residence, and stayed in touch with him until he passed away in 2013.

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