Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cult Figure “GNB”

I recently happened to attend a Centennial commemorative programme on GNB at Krishna Gana Sabha (T Nagar, Chennai). The person who was sitting beside me will be in his 70s and told me that in those days he used to visit the live kutcheris/concerts of GNB and the quality of his concerts are on a very high plane and he is not hearing any such concerts like those currently. When he was giving the details of GNB his eyes were moistured. I felt the greatness of the GNB on that day. GNB came as meteor but stayed on till the end like a star. He did not undergo formal training - he was a Swayambhu, blessed by the Lord to spread music in this world. It was a humble beginning for him as a young lad from Tripilicane when stalwarts such as Ariyakkudi, TNR and Maharajapuram were ruling the roost. GNB held all his seniors in great esteem and yet created a style for himself. Thought of sharing about GNB. Please read on to know more about a cult figure called GNB.

Gudalur Narayanaswami Balasubramaniam alias GNB. GNB doesn’t hail from a grand music family, his father, Narayanaswami Iyer (Employed as Teacher in Hindu High School, Triplicane) was actively involved in the affairs of Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha founded in 1901 (It is the oldest surviving sabha even today). Mother Smt. Visalam. GNB was the eldest son in the seven member family. Completed schooling at Hindu High School. Briefly enrolled at Annamalai University in Chidambaram later discontinued. However completed his Bachelors Degree B.A. (Honours) in English Literature in 1929 from Presidency College, Madras.

GNB’s house became the natural choice of stay for many visiting musicians and young Balasubramaniam was thus exposed to the best of musical talents even as an infant. At a very young age he developed the uncanny habit of listening to any snatch of music and effortlessly visualising the notes on which it was based. This skill was to help in his matchless rendition of swaras later in his life. Mani learnt music formally from Madurai Subramania Iyer and also from Guruswami Bhagavathar, a disciple of Patnam Subramania Iyer. But most of his knowledge was acquired by listening assiduously to what was sung by the great musicians during their concerts and later internalising all that he had heard.

At the age of 18 when Musiri Subramania Iyer was constrained to cancel his performance due to ill-health. Musiri was supposed to perform in the annual Vasantha Utsavam of the Kapaleeswarar Temple in the year 1928. A.K. Ramachandra Iyer and Madurai Subramania Iyer convinced Narayanaswami Iyer to fill the vacant slot which became a turning point in the life of GNB.

GNB believed that an impressive stage presence was as vital as the necessary talent. He soon rid himself of his tuft and had his hair fashioned in the modern style. His toilette preparation prior to the concert was an event by itself. The hair had to be combed just right; the pleated angavastram had to be folded in a certain style around his neck. On his forehead would be the fragrant Javvadu Pottu and sprayed on his person would be the choicest perfumes. GNB’s perfume was a mysterious mix. Each month he would buy a range of perfumes to which he would add what was called the GNB kadambam which was a closely guarded secret. The heady end product ensured that his arrival could be sensed even a good distance away! Diamonds would glitter from his ear studs and also from the rings on his fingers. Tall fair and of perfect build he was an n idol in every sense of the word.

The first of the Carnatic greats to act in a film was GNB. His film journey started in the year 1934 when he was roped in to act as Narada in “Bhama Vijayam”. The film directed by M.L. Tandon and produced by Chellam Talkies was a big hit. GNB sang many songs in the film all of which were very popular. The orthodox community even boycotted him for his entering the tinsel world. GNB thus paved the way for many musicians taking to acting and singing playback. The second film “Sati Anasuya” produced in 1937 by the Coimbatore based Premier Cinetone saw GNB acting once again as Narada. It was in the third film “Shakuntalai” of Chandraprabha Cinetone produced by Sri T. Sadasivam husband of Smt M.S. Subbulakshmi, he became the Hero, by playing the role of Dushyanta and MS played as Shakuntalai. His later films “Rukmangadan” and “Udayanan Vasavadatta” in 1946 was fared miserably at the box office.

GNB struck a rapport with Palghat Mani Iyer and the concerts that involved the duo were a sellout. The interesting thing is that both would sit together and set up kritis and playing styles. Palghat Mani Iyer, coming out of Academy after playing for GNB in 1946, was heard saying "For others I play but in the case of GNB, he sings for me." Violinists who accompanied him include Kumbakonam Rajamanikkam Pillai, T Chowdiah, and Lalgudi G Jayaraman. On the Mridangam includes Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani Subramania Pillai, Ramnad CS Murugabhoopathy and Palghat Raghu. The prominent disciples are T.R. Balu, M.L. Vasanthakumari and Trichur V. Ramachandran. It is said that he gave importance to all his accompanists and also give good share of the fees he received. All of them have a very high regard for GNB.

His music was a trend setter. GNB never compromised in singing raga alapanas extensively, thus reviving the good old days of Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan, Madurai Pushpavanam, Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer and Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar notwithstanding his great respect for Ariayakkudi's music. He described Iyengar's music as the Gita of Sangitham. GNB paid equal attention to laskhiya and lakshana thereby making his music enjoyable for both the learned and the uninitiated. He broke the myth that commencing a concert with Sahana would end up a failure, by singing Tyagaraja's 'Eeevasudha' as the first piece and making the concert a success. GNB was equally at home in rare ragas such as Pratapa Varali, Gavathi, Dakka, Malavi (then rare), as he was with, say, Thodi, Kalyani or Bhairavi. His brighas were never plain flat notes but had gamakas in right doses.

The shower of bhrigas that GNB let loose set a new trend in performing bhrigas as his voice effortlessly swept and glided sometimes touching the shadja of the upper octave to the ecstasy of the audience. He dared to show that it was possible to sing pure carnatic music even while restricting the gamakas. In his pallavis, the intellectual approach to music that was the core of the GNB style was very much in evidence. He split the raga alapanas preceding the pallavai into two stages. These alapanas were detailed exercised followed by a detailed tanam. The tanam was his special niche and he brought about a grandeur to it that has since been emulated by most of the succeeding generation. The pallavis he sang were chosen to given him maximum scope to demonstrate his skills in neraval and swaras and ended in a series of ragamalika swaras. The song that followed would be set in the last raga handled in the ragamalika. If he sang shlokas he would follow the same practice and set the next song in the last raga of the shloka. The end pieces or tukkadas would be much looked forward to and GNB had a staple set of songs that were never the same when rendered by others. Those includes “Raadha Sametha”, “Dikku Teriyaada Kaattil” and “Kannane en Kanavan”

Many people don’t know that he is a composer. The reason for this his he didn’t sing any of his songs in his concerts. Also he did not keep a special “Mudhra” (i.e. his name or any special word) in his songs. Though there are more than 250 urupadis only few got published so far. The first publication came in the year 1956 as “Ghanabhaskara Manimalai” and second in 1971 and the third in the year 2005. He has composed in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit. Some famous urrupadis includes, among others “Amboruha-Varnam”, “Marivere Kadhi”, “Saraswathi Namosthuthe”, “Paramughamela Namma”. According to Professor Sambamurthi GNB compositions are studded with gems of technical beauties. His was good writer, artist and was worshipping Rajarajeshwari in his home in the form of Mahameru.

GNB never considered his music to be extraordinary. Such was his humility! The truth is that his music was outstanding. Taking into account all these aspects should we not dare to split the history of Carnatic music of this century as 'Before GNB' and 'After GNB'?


  1. Wow.What a nice article.I have heard GNB in person innumerable number of times and his music lingered long after the concert was over.His concert never sagged and he kept up the tempo right through.I have heard him speak at LYMA and he came out as no mean speaker.He was truly a prince among the musicians of his age.
    Thank you.Your blog is sparkling.Did you send the pieces to any of the Chennai dailies?

  2. Dear Mr Devan, I read your article on my brother GNB. and I found it to be very concise and at the same time exhaustive, leaving nothing of importance. Thank you so much. My father G.V. Narayanaswamy Iyer was Secretary of Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha and he retired as Head Master of Hindu High School, Triplicane.
    I would take the privilege , with your kind permission to correct only one error, namely, he graduated as B.A. (Hons) degree in English Literature from Madras Christian College and not Presidency College. I take this opportunity to thank you for the excellent article.
    G.N. Balakrishnan