As one walks into the famous violin-shaped Chowdaiah Memorial Hall in Bengaluru, he/she is greeted by the sweet, melodious strains of another stringed instrument, the veena.
And it is also different from the veena played by most of the vidwans. The speed and sound from the instrument take us back to the nineties when the instrument was associated with just one name, Padma Bhushan Dr Veena Doreswamy Iyengar.
And the man strumming the veena on the stage, clad in a white kurta, brings to mind the legendary artiste. He is none other than D Balakrishna, the son and disciple of Iyengar, the asthana vidwan of the once glorious Mysore Royal Court.
He is truly the chip off the old block and is the torch-bearer of the Mysore Baani School of Veena. Having undergone rigorous training under his father, Balakrishna has given innumerable duet performances with him as well as solo performances. His artistry lies in his flair for purity of notes, expertise to rhythm and smoothness of style.
Balakrishna is, at present, focused on preserving and sustaining the authentic classicism of the Mysore Veena tradition (Mysore Baani). He is grooming disciples, many of whom are known AIR artistes. He has now set up the Doreswamy Memorial Trust which organises festivals across Karnataka.
Sitting in his house in Bengaluru’s Malleswaram, he recalls how his grandfather Venkatesa Iyengar and grandmother walked 130 km from Hassan to Mysore to earn a livelihood in the 1920s.
“In Mysore, they met Venkata Giriappa, a great veena player who agreed to teach him. In 1932, when Krishnaraja Wadeyar was the ruler of the state, he was inducted as a palace musician. Krishnaraja Wadeyar’s rule is considered the golden period of arts and culture. My father used to accompany my grandfather in his concerts. By 1935, at the age of 14, he was very popular in Mysore.”
My father is the pioneer of Mysore Baani. What actually is the Mysore Baani? “It is difficult to explain the distinct aspects of a Baani. It can only be heard and experienced. However, there are certain unique characteristics,” he says. The first one, he says, is the right hand technique. “The quality of ‘meetu’ (plucking of strings) is given importance. It should be firm, steady and soft. This ensures a continuous flow of sound. The plucking is done with natural nails.”
He adds that much importance is also given to the left hand technique. Difficult musical passages are negotiated with speed and ease. The technique of using left hand’s index and middle fingers, holding them apart, is another unique feature.
Balakrishna has accompanied his father in nearly 200 concerts. He says it was rough in the beginning. “He never planned any concert agenda. He would decide on a raga at the spur of the moment and we would be caught off guard.”
Balakrishna accepts that he became a veena player by chance. “I was fascinated by the mridangam at an early age and learnt it from my teacher. My father would never allow me to touch the veena. One day when he had gone out, I casually started meddling with the instrument. An uncle who came visiting saw some potential in me and persuaded my father to teach me veena. Thus my journey with the veena began.” Mridangam’s loss is veena’s gain, perhaps.