How this artiste survived Sri Lankan civil war to hit the high note

Balamurugan is a performer in demand across the world

As a boy, P.S. Balamurugan led a peripatetic existence. His family had to constantly look for areas where the Sri Lankan Army wasn’t shelling so that they could move there and be safe. But the 37-year-old grew up not just with bombs and bodies including of civilians, but with music too.

“There was no guarantee we would survive. I have seen innumerable deaths. But my father P. Subbasamy Pillai was particular that I should not give up my pursuit. I always carried my nagaswaram with me and used to practise regularly, sometimes under a tree,” said Mr. Balamurugan, who was in Chennai recently to perform at a marriage in the family of nagaswaram artiste Semponnarkoil S.R.G. Rajanna.

Mr. Balamurugan’s ancestors were from Pudukottai and had migrated to Sri Lanka. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were either nagaswaram or thavil players in Sri Lanka.

A native of Nalloor, Mr. Balamurugan learned from Alavetty Padmanabhan, a well-known nagaswaram player of Sri Lanka. He stepped out of Sri Lanka for the first time in 2003 when he got a chance to perform at the Shenbgavinayagar temple in Singapore.

Now a globe-trotting artiste who sometimes performs up to four concerts a day today, Mr. Balamurugan said expatriate Tamils settled in various part of the world had ensured that nagaswaram players were in demand across the world. “Every year I play during the 10-day festival at the Singapore temple. I have visited most of the countries where Tamils live. Even in Sri Lanka I play three concerts a day,” said Mr. Balamurugan.

Mr. Balamurugan is versatile and excels in the elaborate rendering of rags, which is unique to nagaswaram. He also indulges audiences by playing hit film songs.

Sticking to tradition

In Tamil Nadu, nagaswaram artistes gave up the habit of performing without wearing shirts but Mr. Balamurugan continues to follow the tradition. “Not wearing a shirt is convenient especially when you play outdoor and at temple festivals. You sweat a lot while standing and playing these heavy instruments,” he said.

There was a time when nagaswaram and thavil players from Tamil Nadu would visit Sri Lanka regularly and stay there for six months. But the war put an end to the exchange of musical ideas.

Asked how he improved his repertoire, Mr. Balamurugan said he would regularly listen to late vocalists Madurai S. Somasundaram and Maharajapuram V. Santhanam. “Their way of rendering offers enormous scope for improvisation that is necessary for an instrumentalist,” he said.

Mr. Balamurugan has some peeves about his playing conditions. “The trustees of the temples sponsor many musicians and we have to play as a group. Also, I play keerthanas, but the audience expects more film songs,” he said, adding that his best moments have come while performing pure Carnatic concerts in the company of well-known thavil players like Mannargudi Vasudevan, Tirukadaiyur T.G. Babu and Swamimalai Gurunathan.

He regularly visits Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. “The organizers in these States pay well. Chennai sabhas are yet to recognise us adequately,” he said, before rushing to take the train for another concert

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