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Balabhaskar and The Big Indian Band rocks Kochi at a show during the Suvarna Varsham exhibition
By Shevlin Sebastian
“Whenever I went to Chennai for work, I would make sure I would go past A.R. Rahman’s house,” says Balabhaskar, 29, violinist and front man of the popular The Big Indian Band. “It was like visiting a temple. I would see the house and feel good inside.”
Bhaskar heard the soundtrack of ‘Roja’ when he was in Class nine and became a fan. His next attempt to see Rahman was when singer Chitra Iyer [who sang the Rahman hit, ‘Alle, Alle’ in the Tamil film, ‘Boys’] took him inside the house. But Rahman was sleeping. “I was heart-broken,” he says.
But fate finally smiled on him. For the audio release of director T.K. Rajeev Kumar’s film, ‘Seethakalyanam’, Rehman was invited to Thiruvananthapuram. Kumar asked Balabhaskar to play a tribute on the violin. “It was a great opportunity,” he says. “I was playing Rahman’s songs, like Tu He Re from ‘Bombay’, and doing some improvisations. And I was thinking, ‘My God is sitting so close’. It was the greatest experience of my life.”
After the programme, Rahman invited the violinist to his room at the Muthoot Plaza. “One of the first things he said was, ‘Hey maan, you seem to be popular here. What are you doing?’”
Balabhaskar told him about his band and his music and Rahman responded by inviting him to visit his studio in Chennai. “He was so simple and humble,” says Balabhaskar, as he closes his eyes and a look of bliss appears on his face. “When I left, I was shouting on the road. I was so thrilled.”
Balabhaskar was recently in Kochi for a performance at Suvarna Varsham, the exhibition to showcase the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Kerala Police. The entry is free and the venue slowly fills up, before the show’s scheduled start at 7.30 p.m.
Asked whether he feels tense, the musician, who is sitting on the Marine Drive promenade, says, “Not at all. I meditate and try to get positive energy to flow through me.”
The band starts the gig by playing a fusion song called Surya, with the violin dominating but there is a pulsing beat, some sweet guitar riffs, ripples of sound from the ghatam and the tabla. The music is clear, loud, and filled with passion and soul.
It is only in the third song, ‘Funky Priya’, which has elements from the raag, Shanmughapriya, that the band begins to have an impact on the audience. In the middle of the song, there is a kind of competition or ‘conversation’, as Balabhaskar says, between the ghatam (played by Sudhir) and the tabla played by Mahesh Mani, one playing Carnatic and the other, Hindustani music. Balabhaskar exhorts them by saying, “Come on, come on.” This jugalbandi is what gets the crowd going: they clap and shout and sway to the music.
Earlier, drummer Nirmal Xavier, 35, described the instrumental music they play as “rock and funk based on Carnatic roots”.
Balabhaskar defines it as global music. “Take the song, ‘My heart will go on’ by Celine Dion in the film, ‘Titanic’. Whether you are an Indian or an American or a Japanese, you are affected by the song. You can feel the romance. It is sung with deep feeling. This is what we want to do: play with feeling and passion.”
In another song, the band begins with the classic ‘Where do I begin,’ from ‘Love Story’, and moves into a Tamil song, then to Tere Bina Zindagi Se Koi (Aandhi). In between, it is clear that there is a lot of inventiveness going on. Confirms Xavier, “Though we have an overall structure, we do improvise. So, in between, things are spontaneous.”
The effect is magical and the audience is steadily falling under the spell of the band. In this ocean of sound, a wife tells her husband, “I am sure I saw the shirt that Balabhaskar is wearing at Fab India today” (The violinist is wearing an open-necked striped red and black kurta).
The husband says sardonically, “I thought you had come to listen to the music.”
Later, a laughing Lakshmi, 27, who married Balabhaskar in 2000, confirms that the shirt is, indeed, from Fab India. They had met in University College in Thiruvananthapuram and fell in love. “I love Balabhaskar the person more than the musician. He is good at heart, frank, loving and caring, and, above all, he is my best friend.”
Lakshmi might like the person more but his musical talent cannot be ignored. He learned the violin at the age of four from his uncle, the well-known violinist B. Sashikumar. Music runs in the family. Balabhaskar’s grandfather was a musician and his mother was a singer on All India Radio.
Balabhaskar made a mark in school and university youth festivals and, at the age of 17, composed the music for the film, ‘Mangalyappallakku’. Later, he scored for ‘Kannadikkadavathu’ and ‘Moksham’. He has also brought out music albums, ‘Ninakkayi’ and ‘Aadyamayi’. Performing all over India, in the Middle East and Europe, he has notched up over 500 performances.
In Kochi, at 11 p.m., long after the show is over, Balabhaskar says, “It was not a hi-fi crowd, but I was happy with the reaction. Of course, it is always a tremendous high when you get a good response. But for that to happen, you have to forget the ego and let the music flow through you.”