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An Unique Era Ends – Marks the start of a New One

Brahmasri T S Balakrishna Sastrigal, eminent among the all time greats that this holy country has seen in the field of Harikatha, passed away on 11th June 2003 at Apollo Hospital after a brief illness at the age of 84.

A retired Senior Executive of State Bank of India, Brahmasri Sastrigal started learning the wide spectrum of fundamentals required for performing Harikatha at the very tender age of 8 under the guidance of his father, himself a doyen in Puranic Upanyasakams called Brahmasri Sambamoorthi Ganapaadigal. The enlightening package included Vedas, Puranas, Sastras, Karnatic Music, and Multiple Languages like Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, Malayalam, Kanada and English.

Being a bank employee his virtual induction to performing Harikatha was initiated at the age of 23 by his father in law, himself an exponent in 18 Puranaas called Srivatsa Somadeva Sarma. Spanning over almost 6 decades, the service Brahmashri Sastrigal rendered to the society through his sole stirring Musical Discourses is inimitable and unparalleled.

His repertoire was spontaneous yet comprehensive, down to earth yet profound, innovative yet authentic, Always creative thus always fresh. His audience felt as though they were literally transported to Ayodhya or Ashoka Vana or Asthinapura or to the battlefield of Kurukshetra through his extremely sensitive and dramatic description of the sequences of Ramayana and Mahabaratha with a reverberating voice and lilting music. While his imaginative unfurling of each of the characters in any epic provided the audience an easy access to truth and reality, his uncanny humorous interludes not only made them laugh their heart out but also think after they laughed.

His portrayals ranged from Valmiki and Kamba Ramayanam, Mahabharatham, Srimad Bhagawatham, Devi Bhagawatham, Skaandham, Naaraayaaneeyam, Naayanmargal charitham and above all his master piece – Thyagaraja Charitham. He was a legend in the comprehension of Thyagaraja Krithis and therefore an easy reference point for all the Sangeetha Vidwans who wished to handle any aboorva krithi of Thyagaraja Swamigal. Infact, Brahmashri Sastrigal went on to conceive, design and perform his own version of Ramakatha choreographed with appropriate Thyagaraja krithis popularly known as Thyagaraja Ramayanam. While the great saint Thyagaraja did not himself wrote Ramayana, this Thyagaraja Ramayana was out and out the brain child of Brahmashri Sastrigal – his method of saluting the first among the Musical Trinities.

True to the width of his perceptions, the range of his audience also varied – from the elite of Music Academy to the mass of Royapuram, and Choolai, from the Asthikaas of Mumbai and Delhi to the village folks of interior Thirunelveli and Thanjavur, from the Asian Indians of United States of America to the strangers to Tamil in interior Kerala and Andhra.

Among the countless titles and honors that were conferred on him, the title "Harikatha Rathnakara" bestowed on him by both the Paramachariyals of Kamakoti and Sringeri simultaneously at Asthika Samaj, Chennai in the year 1966 stands out. Sangeetha Nataka Academy, Delhi honored him in1993. Music Academy, Chennai conferred on him the Sangeetha Kala Acharya Award in 1997. Tamil Nadu Government bestowed on him the Kalaimaamani Viridhu in 1972.

SRUTI-India's premier music and dance magazine Issue 227 – August 2003
We owe respect to the living. To the dead we owe only truth—Voltaire

T.S. Balakrishna Sastri: A Titan Among Harikatha Exponents the news of the passing away of T.S. Balakrishna Sastri on 11 June in Chennai came as a great shock to thousands of his rasika-s and a sense of depression crept in at the thought that they would not be able to listen to his performances any more. Such was the spell that this doyen used to cast upon his audiences.

Harikatha is a difficult art and hence the dwindling number of performers with the death of each stalwart. It demands extraordinary memory power, prowess in singing, erudition in puranic lore, the art of story-telling and much more. Harikatha cannot be learnt in a school or a college. The TTD started a college to train Harikatha artists but there were no students. The only institution that is functioning successfully is the Sarvaraya Harikatha Pathasala at Kapileswarapuram near Rajahmundry which trains Harikatha artists in Sanskrit and Telugu.

Balakrishna Sastri was born in 1919 at Tiruvidaimarudur with Vedic culture in his blood. His father was Sambamurti Ghanapati, an expert in a particular manner of reciting Vedic texts (ghanam). The sleepy small town of Tiruvidaimarudur near Kumbhakonam became a centre of music, dance and literature when Raja Amarasimha of Tanjavur, after being replaced by Sarabhoji II in 1798, made it his capital. He was a generous patron of the performing arts. One Ramadasa, a Hindustani musician, was his court musician and Gopalakrishna Bharati learnt music from him. Amarasimha's son, Pratapasimha, patronised several musicians like Ghanam Krishna Iyer who mentions him in his padam Niddirayil.

Young Balakrishnan grew up in an atmosphere of religious studies and Puranic lore and imbibed a sound knowledge of the epics. But he went for English education and with the help of Prof. McNicol of the Madras Christian College, he secured a job in the then Imperial Bank of India which later became the State Bank of India. After early lessons from a local teacher, Sastri had advanced grooming from Tiger Varadachariar and Mudicondan Sabhapati Iyer and became an excellent singer. With this background he took up Harikatha in his spare time and soon became a star performer. With the superb vocal support of his brother T.S. Valleesan, his recitals were a veritable feast to the ear.

The young and the old flocked to hear him. He had unbounded energy and stamina. After a full day's work in the Bank, poring over ledgers, he would go home, change and reach the auditorium on time, driving his own car, and perform for three hours.

About fifty years ago, I attended his Harikatha series at the Balasubramanya Swami Devasthanam at Eldams Road in Chennai and later at the Purasai Deiveega Sangam where he gave a Mahabharata series for forty days at a stretch. He was one of the few Bhagavatar-s who could handle the Mahabharata which is like an ocean. I was reminded of Pandit Khape Ramachandrachar of Kumbhakonam who knew the entire epic by heart and had the appellation 'Bharata Simham'. Sastri's treatment of topics like Vidura Neeti', 'Yaksha Prasnam', etc., was memorable.

He was an ardent devotee of Tyagaraja and later switched over to what he called Tyagaraja Ramayanam, a treat by itself. He even published a small critical edition of selected kriti-s of Tyagaraja.

The religious heads of Kanchi and Sringeri, sabha-s in Madras and the Eyal Isai Nataka Manram conferred titles on him. He received the central Sangeet Natak Akademi award for 1992. In 1997 the Music Academy honoured him with the title Sangeeta Kala Acharya.

It is sad to think that we shall miss him for ever.

T.S.PARTHASARATHY. : September 29, 2006, 9:07 am