GNB- Much Ahead of His Time

By Ashok Madhav



Sri. G.N. Balasubramanian, popularly known as GNB, is one of the greatest maestros Carnatic music has ever produced. He was way ahead of his time as a performer, composer, thinker and a teacher. 2010 marks the birth centenary of this exceptionally gifted musician.


Growing up in a musical atmosphere surrounded by stalwarts like Karur Chinnaswamy Iyer, Konerirajapuram Vaidhyanatha Iyer, Ariyakudi Ramanujam Iyengar, Palladam Sanjeeva Rao, Tiruvaiyaru Sabesa Iyer etc, GNB had plenty of opportunities to listen and imbibe the best that Carnatic music could offer. As a precocious youngster, and without formal training, he was able to render kritis at a high speed. GNB’s father, G.V.Narayanaswamy Iyer being an academician wanted his son to pursue a career being a lawyer, though he was aware of his son’s enormous musical talents. Yielding to persuasive advice from friends, GNB was taken to Madurai Subramania Iyer for musical training.


GNB was a tall, handsome man who had a pleasing personality and scholarship that amazed not only cognoscenti but also the lay people. The first big break came to GNB all of a sudden in 1928. GNB was just 18 years old. Musiri Subramania Iyer was to perform at the Kapalishwarar Temple, Madras for vasanthotsavam. Musiri coul not make it as he was unwell. GNB was coaxed to perform on that day. Though, initially GNB was nervous to replace a well established musician like Musiri, his concert was highly successful, much to the delight of the organizers. Then there was no turning back for GNB. Offers for more concerts kept coming in and he was a busy artiste in a short span of time.


Despite being a busy musician, GNB did not ignore his academic life for he got his B.A. (Honors) degree in due course. He was meticulous in his music concert presentation. Being a tinker, his approach was always intellectual. He used to study a kriti, its ragam, contours of the pallavi etc., before he would present the kriti in a suitable way.


GNB introduced graha bhedam in his raga alapanas, which created controversy amongst academicians and scholars, if graha bhedam is permitted during a concert. His voice was resonant and strong and yet pliable. He could sing at lightning speed with brigas cascading one after another and his voice could traverse three octaves with ease. His singing style was so captivating, there was always a sell out crowd for his concerts. At some point in time, he was the highest paid musician much to the discomfort of some senior musicians.


GNB was adept in singing major ragas like Kalyani,Bhairavi, Shanmukhapriya, Kamboji,Todi,Shankarabharanam etc as well as minor ragas like Andolika, Malavi, Chenchu Kamboji, Narayani etc. These minor ragas were seldom handled by other musicians before him. He patterned his concert format after Ariyakkudi Ramanujam Iyengar, whom he revered as his manasika guru.


He popularized uncommon kritis like ‘Raka sasi vadana’(Dakka), ‘Bagayanayya’ (Chandrajyoti), ‘Emani pogadura’ (Veera vasantham) but added a few more sangathis to well known kritis like ‘Kaddanuvariki ‘(Todi), ‘Darini telusu’ (Shudda saveri), ‘Samaja vara gamana’ (Hindolam), ‘Manasa etulo’ (Malayamarutham) , ‘Ma-Ramanan’ (Hindolam) etc. In addition, he was creative  enough to embellish a few kritis with his chittaswarams. The following examples, ‘Vara raga laya’ (Chenchu kamboji),  ’Chalamelara’ (Marga hindolam), ‘Shobillu saptaswara’ (Jagan mohini) ,

‘E vasudha’ (Sahana) may be cited.


Generally speaking, GNB’s pace of singing was set in madhyama kalam, although he did sing vilamba kala kritis like  ‘Sri Subramanya namaste’ (Kamboji), ‘Balagopala’ (Bhairavi) etc. He was also noted for his RTP in many major ragas. After his RTP, he used to sing popular songs like ‘Karanam kettu vadi’, ‘Dikku teriyada kattil’, ‘Sonnadai seithida’ etc as raga malikas. He tuned many of these songs himself. He was also heard singing slokams as raga malikas.


GNB was a good composer of varnams, kritis, tillanas and introduced several new ragas like Shiva shakti, Amruta behag, Saranga tarangini,Chandra hasitam. Gavati (a Hindustani raga) etc and composed kritis in them.   Prof. P. Sambhamurthy has praised GNB kritis for their         technical beauty. One interesting aspect is he did not sing his own compositions in his concerts as a matter of personal conviction. He trained a number of disciples like T.R. Balasubramanian (who passed away in his late 30’s), M.L.Vasanthakumari, Tanjavur S.Kalyanaraman, Palani Balu, T.V.Vishwanathan, Trichur Ramachandran, Someshwara Babu and a few others.


There were comments made by some of his detractors that GNB’s singing is so fast laden with brigas, he does not care for gamakams. This notion is neither valid nor acceptable as he did sing ragas like Saveri, Nattakuranji, Yadukula Kamboji with ample gamakams.


He was fond of Hindustani music and he raved about the music of Ustad Bade Gulam Ali Khan, the noted Hindustani Classical musician. They had mutual admiration and regard for each other.


Unfortunately, he passed away when he was 55 years old. His demise was an irreparable loss to Carnatic music. He was a torch bearer and his style of singing “GNB bani” is still popular among many musicians and his compositions are admired and rendered by several musicians.


He was honored with a title of ‘Sangita Kalanidhi, by the Madras Music Academy and was awarded the President’s Medal at New Delhi. Many music organizations vied to honor him with their coveted titles.