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“I Would Like To Be Known As A Versatile Artist!” Says Hindustani Vocalist Shri Bala Chandra Prabhu

Shuchita Rao

The Konkani Association of New England (KONE) in cooperation with Kala Tarangini held a Hindustani Music concert on the afternoon of Sunday, July 31 at the Holliston Town Hall. The featured artist was Hindustani vocalist Shri Bala Chandra Prabhu who rendered classical as well as devotional songs such as bhajan, vachana and abhang in Sanskrit, Kannada and Hindi languages by medieval age saint-poets such as Sri Purandara Dasa and Sri Bramhananda.  The artist commenced with a medium-tempo khayal in raga Brindavani Saarang set to ten beat cycle jhaptaal and then sang several devotional compositions in ragas such as Ahir Bhairav, Bhatiyar, Miya Malhar, Durga, Jaunpuri and Bhairavi. Endowed with a powerful voice that spanned multiple octaves with ease, Shri Bala Chandra Prabhu touched the hearts of listeners with his renditions several of which had the unmistakable stamp of the Kirana Gharana stalwart, Bharat Ratna, the late Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s singing style. New England residents, tabla player Shri Rajesh Pai on tabla, Shri Rama Rao on the harmonium and Shri Suresh Prabhu on manjeera provided great support to the vocalist. Members of New England Kannada Koota (NEKK) managed the sound for the program. Artist felicitation, vote of thanks and dinner followed the 3 hour long program which was organized well and also received extremely well by the audience. “This is the first full-length Hindustani concert that I have attended and I am impressed. I want to hear more of such concerts” said Acton based resident Smt. Sumana Bhat.

Shri Bala Chandra Prabhu hails from Karnataka, India, a region that has produced many stalwarts of Hindustani music such as Shri Sawai Gandharva, Bharat Ratna Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Kumar Gandharva, Vidushi Smt. Gangubai Hangal and many other musicians, poets and writers. The renowned musician, Pandit Vinayak Torvi from Dharwad, Karnataka has said “This region possesses a magnetic force that makes musicians and literary people gravitate towards it.”  

An MBA graduate from St. Joseph’s College of Engineering in Mangalore, Shri Bala Chandra Prabhu is now a full-time musician who performs classical and devotional music stage shows and experiments with electronic music at his home in Mumbai, India. He spoke to Lokvani about his background and life’s journey in music.

Q1.  Were you born and raised in a family of musicians? At what age did you start learning music?

A. My paternal grandfather, Sri Keshav Prabhu was a musician and composer who sang kirtans, vachanas and devotional compositions. When I was 12 years old, I started learning the basics of Hindustani music from my father, Sri Devadas Prabhu, who was also adept at singing devotional music. My father was actively involved with the local temple at Beltangadi taluk in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka (60 kms away from Mangalore city). I used to accompany him once a week to sing at the temple. My father was also very fond of Hindustani classical music and used to buy cassettes and tapes whenever he visited Mangalore city. He played them often at home and I loved listening to them.

Q2. Where and how did your journey as a formal student of Hindustani music begin? Who were your teachers?

A. Through my teen years, I wanted to learn to sing classical music and was in search of a teacher. My family relocated to the Hubli-Dharwad twin cities so that my older brother could study medicine. I attended a concert by the well-known Pandit Jayteertha Mevundi one day and was inspired. I approached him for lessons and he agreed to teach me. I pursued a bachelor’s degree in Hubli and took lessons once a week from him for two years. Towards the end of my bachelor’s degree, I became very interested in pursuing Hindustani classical music on a full-time basis. Pandit Jayateertha Mevundi was working for Akashvani at that time and had to relocate to other cities because of his job. I therefore approached his teacher Pandit Shripati Padigar, a resident of Hubli and a disciple of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi to teach me. He agreed. I won a 2 year scholarship from the Ministry of Culture, Central Government of India to pursue music full-time. The monthly stipend of Rs. 2,500 helped support my expenses. I learned from Pandit Padigar for three years and then he passed away quite suddenly. He was a saintly man, unmarried to the last day of his life, and one who was completely devoted to music. I have not felt the need to learn from anyone else since his demise because he has given me enough material to work through and master for the rest of my life.

Q3. Could you describe the method of learning classical music from Pandit Shripati Padigar?

A. I lived with my parents in Hubli. I used to reach Pandit Padigar’s house at 8AM everyday and learn until 1pm. I would then go home to eat lunch and return to my teacher’s home at 6:30pm. I would stay until 10:30pm each night. During these hours, my teacher sang on a daily basis. I (along with other disciples) accompanied him on the taanpura instrument and listened to him sing, occasionally providing vocal support. I then spent hours practicing music at home, perfecting the musical phrases that my teacher taught me during class and during performance. My teacher was a disciplined man and he was also strict - he would not proceed to the teaching a new raga unless I mastered the ragas had been taught to me previously. He also told us tell stories about life experiences with his teacher Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. He taught me various compositions in 40-45 ragas which I have carefully notated.

Q4. What are some important features of Kirana Gharana (stylistic school of music) that you learned from your teachers?

A. The slow development of khayaals where musical phrases are progressively developed to touch the notes in any raga in the ascending order is the hallmark of Kirana gaayaki. Ragas such as Yaman, Mian ki Todi and Puriya are popular with Kirana gharana musicians as opposed to composite ragas such as Jait-Kalyan that may suit styles of say, the Jaipur gharana. The alaaps (slow melodic elaborations) are unmetered and in a free form development style when presented in the vilambit(slow) khayals. They get more aligned with the rhythm when presented in Madhya and Drut layas (medium and fast tempos). I tend to sing some sargam(solfege) for a cycle or two while developing a khayal but not more than that. The founder of Kirana gharana, Ustad Abdul Karim Khan Saheb used to do that in his performances too.

Q5. Who are some of your favorite singers?

A. I like to listen to my teacher Pandit Padigar’s music. I also like listening to Ustad Amir Khan and Ustad Abdul Karim Khan. My all-time favorite though is Bharat Ratna Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. For me, he is a single point reference when it comes to knowledge pertaining to ragas.

 Q6. Did you get an opportunity to meet Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and to sing before him?

A. I have a story to tell in response to this question. One day, my teacher Pandit Padigar decided that I should go to Pune to give a performance. He asked his sister who lived in Pune to organize a concert for me (I was told that it was a rare thing that he requested someone to organize a concert for his disciple). He called his teacher Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and took an appointment with his daughter on the phone requesting her to take her father to that concert so that I could receive his blessings. I took an overnight bus from Hubli and reached Pune at 6:30AM on the morning of the concert. I received the unfortunate news of my teacher’s sudden demise from a cardiac arrest upon reaching Pune. My teacher’s sister’s family and I canceled the concert and took a cab back to Hubli at 8AM. My teacher passed away on Vaikunta Ekadasi day, in a seated position with a tulsi mala in his hands. I am still unable to understand why things panned out the way they did. I unfortunately did not get a chance to sing before Pandit Bhimsen Joshi because he passed away a year or two after that.

Q7. Have you been attracted to film music?  What do you think the future has in store for you?

A. I would like not to restrict myself purely to performing classical music. I recently sang for a Kannada movie “Niruttara” the music for which was composed and directed by the famous sitar player Pandit Niladri Kumar. I feel it is good to be exposed to different types of music. I have collaborated with Mumbai based electronic music bands such as “Bandish” and “Nuclea”and have traveled to cities such as Ahmedabad to do live stage shows. I  have given background music for short films and have also composed a couple Kannada movie songs. I am open to experimenting with music and would like to be recognized as a versatile artist!


(Photo Credits: Neil Pandit/Neil Pandit Photography. )

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