G. N. Balasubramaniam (6 Jan 1910 - 1 May 1965), popularly known as GNB, was a legendary vocalist in the Carnatic tradition.He became the first superstar of Carnatic music, innovating the art through emphasis on laya control & reducing the gamakas which eventually made Carnatic music appeal to the lay and the learned alike.
Early life and background :
Balasubramanian was born in Gudalur,a small village near Mayavaram in Tanjore, India. He was the son of G. V. Narayanaswamy Iyer, who was a keen student of music. Throughout his younger years, he observed with utmost attention the techniques of the musicians of his day. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar became his manasika guru and inspiration.While his father dreamed of living in a villa at Luz Church road through GNB becoming a successful lawyer. The young musician in G.N.B made way for greater goals in life.He completed his B.A.(Hons) in English Literature at the prestigious Christian College, Chennai, and took up a short music course at Annamalai University.under the guidance of Sri T.S. Sabesa Iyer, but discontinued due to ill health. However, he joined the diploma course in music under Madras University in the first batch and Sri Tiger Varadachariar was the Principal . Within 2 years, he was ready for concert performances. With his debut in 1928, his climb to the dizzying heights of Carnatic music was almost meteoric.
Often criticized for producing extremely fast gamakam laden sangathis with strength and weight and with wide imagination, a voice as his, running at so fast a speed through the effects of Brighas, twists and turns would come in quick succession that he became an instant hit with both the lay audience as well as those initiated to the arts and science of carnatic music.
Film offers flocked to GNB for his charismatic looks and musical talent. He acted in films, including Bhama Vijayam ( Sathi Anusuya),Sakunthala (Udayanan Vasavadatta (with Vasundhara Devi, mother of Vijayanthimala),and Rukmangada. In "Sakunthalai", he appeared as Dushyantha, alongside the vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi. M.S. Subbulakshmi was fascinated by his music and embraced his style completely in her early years as mentioned in the book M S - A Life in Music by TJS George. After a short stint in the film industry, GNB returned to the Carnatic music fraternity, due to the overwhelming demand for his performances till his passing in 1965.
As a critical musician with a revolutionary approach to Carnatic music, G.N.B made sure that many of his musical feats were technically and methodically feasible. With his charismatic speaking style & writing, he made his ideas clear and all opposition against his style faded quickly. With his charm, fame and yet humble personality, potential disciples flocked for his guidance in music.
He was also the first major Carnatic musician to moot the idea of Indian music as a single entity rather than separating it into Hindustani & Carnatic systems. He was very attentive in understanding why HIndustani music concerts is so well loved by south Indians. By emphasizing on the richness of the composition together with expansive improvisation passages, he forever changed the way, Carnatic music was sung. His grasp of tala was unprecedented for he understood the magic of singing in the 2nd & 3rd kala which had a mesmerizing effect on the audience that he performed. Sometimes, reaching the 4th kala in brisk succession would also arouse the ecstasy of his audience.
Though GNB's music is often fast pace & rich with swara prastharas, he has also rendered numerous compositions in strictly in the 2nd kala and not letting speed destroy the lyrical beauty of Carnatic compositions. Most of these compositions are the ones that he popularized and revived from the Trinity's repertoire with devoted support from the percussion wizard Palghat Mani Iyer. The duo would work out exactly how a composition needs to be arranged and configured to unravel its richness before being performed. Even with an almost unprecedented musical accumen, such conformity to his concert planning for his compositions often surprised his counterparts.
A well-known example of many such arranged pieces is the swara passages (chittaswaram) that GNB composed for the now popular Vara Raga Laya composition set to the challenging Chechukhamboji raga by St. Thyagaraja. The chittaswaram has acquired a synonymous status with the composition itself and many popular musicians today sing the swara passages in the same way that is arranged by GNB, because of its rhythmic dynamism and unusually beautiful swara combinations of the raga.
His introduction of shruthi bedam, a technically challenging approach of shifting raga from one to another by taking the last note of a raga as the tonic note and starting another raga with it. Though challenged by many of his counterparts as absurd and a taboo for it was claimed that it never existed, GNB identified literary and historical evidences to support the existence of this method in early Indian music. Today this method is almost used in the renditions of most popular Carnatic musicians. The Music Academy, after detailed discussion agreed with his approach to sruthi bedha, as St Thyagraja himself is said to have used it in one of his songs. The Academy, however warned that all and sundy should not try it, as it may land them in trouble.
His performances with accompanists like Mysore Chowdiah who played with a 7-string violin and then the rising violin star Lalgudi Jayaraman are legendary for the excellent effect they share in bringing out expansive raga alapanas with full flung crescendos and gamakas. Lalgudi Jayaraman would later become one of the most celebrated classical violinists in the world.
His humility also made sure that he gave ample performing opportunities for young upcoming musicians like Palghat R. Raghu, Lalgudi Jayaraman, M. S. Gopalakrishnan, his disciples T.R. Balasubramaniam, M.L. Vasantha Kumari, T. S. Balasubramaniam and the late Tanjore S. Kalyanaraman, Tanjore.S.Kodandaraman, an All India Radio violin artiste, also shared a part of his glittering limelight.
He composed over 250 compositions krithis with rich prose and musical weight in Sanskrit, Tami and Telugu. GNB also composed kritis and invented new ragas. He taught a number of students during his active years. Most famous among them are M. L. Vasanthakumari, Radha Jayalakshmi, Thanjavur S. Kalyanaraman, Trichur V. Ramachandran, T. R. Balu, T.S.Balasubramanian, and Ragini.
GNB worked as the Deputy Chief Producer of Carnatic Music, in A.I.R Chennai for a number of years alongside Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer who was the Chief Producer for Carnatic Music and Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna who the Producer for Light Music and joined the Swathi Thirunal College of Music, Thiruvananthapuram as Principal in March, 1964 state Kerala.
Given the unusually high demand for his performances, his health deteriorated and worsened by an episode of a major stroke in the late 1950s, he died on 1 May 1965.