Crafting a Great New Bhani
He was hailed in his lifetime and later as the superstar of Carnatic Music. Given the way he created a new style, left his mark as a composer, remained an active concert artiste and trained a large number of disciples, all within 55 years, Master Musician would have been a better appellation.
The family hailed from Gudalur and Mani was born on 6th January 1910 as the eldest son of GV Narayanaswami Iyer (GVN) and Visalakshi. Shortly after his birth, his father, who was a teacher in Kumbhakonam shifted to Madras and joined the Hindu High School, Triplicane. The venerable institution was playing host in those years to the Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, and GVN was active in its affairs. The family home on Sivaraman Street was where most musicians stayed when visiting the city. Neighbouring Big Street was home to a number of stalwarts such as C Saraswathi Bai, the Harikatha exponent and Karur Chinnaswami Iyer the famed violinist. GNB therefore learnt much through mental osmosis. Formal tutelage was under Madurai Subramania Iyer, a violinist of the Tyagaraja lineage. He was a neighbour and lessons were more of the nature of informal interactions and involved the learning the basics. By the time GNB was ten his musical talents had come to the fore and at the Hindu High School where he studied, he often acted in plays.
The boy sang naturally with ease and in the exuberance of youth, in great speeds. This worried GVN but Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar who was often a house guest, was all for leaving the boy alone and letting him find his own level in music. GVN was however keen that his son completes his formal education and after finishing school, GNB joined the English Literature course at the Presidency College, Madras. In 1928 while still a student his first concert opportunity came when illness forced Musiri Subramania Iyer to call off an engagement at the Kapaliswarar Temple, Mylapore. The organisers requested GVN to allow his son to sing in Musiri?s place. The concert of a college going student attracted enormous attention and the performance was successful. Within a short while many more offers came and GNB was on his way to a successful music career. Fulfilling his father?s wishes, he completed his BA (Hons.) degree thereby becoming the first graduate to take to music as a profession. He was also the first musician to identify himself by a set of initials rather than the name of a native village. In 1931 he enrolled himself at the Music Department, Madras University and benefited from the guidance of Tiger Varadachariar. That was also the year in which he made his debut at the Music Academy, Madras. Around this time he was married to his cousin Sundarambal.
Blessed as he was with good looks and a brilliant voice, it was but natural that the film world, which had burst into speech and song in 1931, should invite him. The opportunity came in 1934 when he acted as Narada in the Chellam Talkies? film Bhama Vijayam. By then he was already a 78 rpm record star and so the publicity for the film listed him as Hutchins Gramophone Plate Sangeetha Vidwan. The film was a success but GNB was socially ostracised for having taken to films. His music soon however won over all detractors and he went on to act in four more films namely Sati Anasuya (1937), Sakuntalai (1941), Rukmangadan (1946) and Udayanan Vasavadatta (1946). Of these Sakuntalai in which he co starred with MS Subbulakshmi, was the most successful.
The music career of GNB flourished unimpeded during the 1930s and 40s. He brought about many revolutionary changes within the accepted framework of music performance. The first was a very intellectual approach to raga alapana where he built it up step by step, almost giving a guided tour of the raga?s contours. His voice was naturally suited to the bhriga ? the singing of raga phrases in fast tempo and the audience took a great liking to it. With his coming, the bhriga became the rage. The bhriga also meant the speeding up of songs and this gave tempo to his concerts. The emphasis on speed of course meant a reduction in the gamaka or oscillation which was and is considered central to Carnatic Music. GNB therefore dared to create a new style where it was possible to remain within the Carnatic framework even while lessening the emphasis on the gamaka. 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 pallavi into two stages. These alapanas were detailed exercises in which he would at times demonstrate sruti bhedam or tonic shift to show shades of other ragas within the raga being elaborated. Alapana would be followed by an elaborate tanam which was always his special niche and to which he brought an unparalleled grandeur. The pallavis he sang were chosen to give him maximum scope to demonstrate his skills in neraval and svaras and ended in a series of ragamalika svaras. The song which 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. This included Raadha sameta, Dikku teriyaada kaattil and Kannane en kanavan.
GNB believed that stage presence was very important. Blessed as he was with great looks, he took care to ensure that he always appeared at his best. Every one of his tastes was expensive and extravagant, be it in the choice of houses, clothing, cars, footwear, watches and above all perfumes. Perhaps the only aspect, in which he was simplicity personified, was food. A devout man, he initiated himself into the Sri Vidya form of worship and spent many hours in pooja. He was also an inspired composer, but he chose not to use a mudra. He did not canvas his own songs and left it to those who liked them to bring them to the fore. His treatment of accompanists deserves special mention for he made it a policy of dividing equally amongst the entire team whatever remuneration was received. He did this not only when he was at the peak of his career but also later when ill health forced him to reduce his concert engagements and when he needed the money himself.
Awards came in plenty to GNB beginning with honours from the princely states before independence. He received the Music Academy?s Sangita Kalanidhi in 1958 and the President?s Award from the Government of India in 1959. He was Producer, Carnatic Music at the AIR from 1959 to 1964. He had a large retinue of disciples beginning with the first, TR Balasubramaniam, who was for many years his shadow before blossoming out as a concert artiste. Sadly he predeceased his Guru. Other included the genius ML Vasanthakumari, Palani Balu, the actress Ragini and Trichur Ramachandran.
GNB had a large family of ten children and many other dependants. A lavish lifestyle meant continuous pressure on earnings and while the going was good, GNB could manage well. Sadly, ill health began eating into his career in the 1950s causing a weakness in the upper register while singing. A stroke in 1959 put him out of action for a year. Coming back to perform in 1960 he still managed to recreate the old magic, but at the cost of his own health. In 1964 he moved to Trivandrum as Principal of the Swati Tirunal College. He passed away there on 1st May 1965.
Today, his recordings are legion and his fan following incredibly only grows. He is remembered by many not only as a great musician, but as a loving human being who gave of his best to please his audiences.