My blog describes itself as celebrating excellence in the less discussed. I have usually discussed comparatively unsung heroes such as Madhukar Rajasthani or Lucila Pacheco or highlighted the unsung works (Utkala Bhramanam) of famous creative geniuses or comparatively lesser discussed aspects of some of them (Kavichandra or Ravi).
Sangeeta Sudhakar Balakrushna Dash does not quite belong to any of those categories. Not only is he popular across Odisha; unlike, say, Kavichandra, his work and his contribution is well-acknowledged by people from Shyamamani Devi to Lopita Mishra. He is everyone’s Sir.
Yet, on his birthday, there is little news about any celebration.Media has almost no coverage except that of the awards announced in his honour by a Foundation named after him. However, that itself is not surprising about Odisha and Odias. And I do not want to go into that aspect in this post. I have already done enough of that in my post on Kavichandra.
What I wanted to highlight, on the other hand, is this: despite all the acknowledgement about his contribution to Odia music and despite the huge respect for him as an artist and an individual, we (that is most common Odias), still know very little about the immense talent (ପ୍ରଚଣ୍ଡ ପ୍ରତିଭା) that Pandit Balakrushna Dash possessed. The same is true about about many of his direct and indirect contribution to Odia music.
This post is not about measuring/analyzing his entire contribution. It will be a presumption on my part to even try doing that. All I will do here is to highlight a couple of lesser discussed/known aspects of his numerous contributions, without any claim whatsoever about the importance of these aspects vis-a-vis other known/unknown and acknowledged/unrecognized aspects of his music. I must admit that the headline is not quite apt for the post; a better suggestion is more than welcome.
First, let’s attempt to understand his music a little better. What kind of music is Pandit Balakrushna Dash’s music? Especially if he is so many things to so many people: a great performing virtuoso himself; a popular composer of the masses; a leading innovator; and a revered guru.
We all know that it is Pandit Dash who shaped/established what has come to be known as the Kataki style/school of Odissi singing, known for the importance that it attaches to bhava (mood), as compared to the dominance of layakari in the Puri school led by Simhari Shyamsundar Kar and the gamak-pradhan style of Dakhini school (of Tarini Charan Patra and others) ostensibly influenced by the Carnatic style.
Apart from the subtle musical differences, what does it translate to, practically? That becomes clear if we look at the repertoire of the songs that Pandit Balakrushna Dash is famous for. Despite singing traditional Odissi, Champu and Bhajans written by the medieval poets, his signature tunes are not those but a Bitilata jamini; a Nayana sunayanare; maybe, to a lesser extent Aakula rajani pahi jae... All these are in modern Odia language, written by modern Odia poets. The first two are by Kavichandra Kalicharan Pattnaik while the last one is by Narayan Prasad Singh.
Listen to Bitilata jaimini carefully and you are bound to notice the influence of Ka karoon sajni, one of the most well-known thumris of Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, who was Pandit Dash’s guru. While the influence of his training in Hindustani music (and thumri in particular) is clearly visible, a discerning listener of thumris and Odia music would notice that Pandit Balakrushna Dash’s own singing had little similarity with the Punjab ang (full throated, faster tempo) thumri style sung by Khan Saheb. In fact, I often feel traces of Purab ang thumri when I am listening to him, though the uniqueness of his Odissi style is clear. It must be said that the bhava in Odissi music is more about the stress on the mood of the entire lyric rather than a lot of emphasis on a few words. So, Odissi compositions are full length songs and not just three-four lines for music to ride on, unlike in most of thumris.
Pandit Balakrushna Dash’s evolution could be compared more with his mentor R C Boral, whom he assisted for some time in Kolkata and who, despite having strong background in classical music, is today identified as one of the founding fathers of Bengali (and even Hindi) film music. Pandit Balakrushna Dash, surely, is one of the two founding fathers of Odia film music in particular and modern Odia music in general (the other, of course, is Pandit Bhubaneswar Mishra, with whom he scored music for the 1954 Odia film, Kedar Gouri and 1957 movie Bhai Bhai, before going solo in Sri Loknath in 1960). And like Boral and Sachin Dev Burman, Pandit Balakrushna Dash himself rarely sang in movies despite being the most prolific composer of Odia film music in the 1960s. He sang less than ten songs in films in the entire two decades of 50s and 60s.
In short, not only was Pandit Ballakrushna Dash doing his experimentation, he was very clear about what exactly he was trying to achieve. That becomes even clearer when we carefully examine his selection of songs. While others kept to Upendra Bhanja, Gopalakrushna, Kavisurya, Abhimanyu Samant Singhar, Dinakrushna and Banamali; Pandit Balakrushna Dash was the principal voice for the songs of Kavichandra, who himself was a great experimentalist and to whom goes the credit of ushering in modernity in Odia music and theater. Just listen to these songs — Bitilata jamini, Nayana sunayanare, Patha anai jhuri, Tore jhuri sangata…and you will appreciate what I am saying. They were all songs that carefully transformed us to modernity while keeping the base of our tradition.
And with what superb elan, Pandit Balakrushna Dash composed and sang them? The idea here is not to rake up a controversy. But just listen to Nayana Sunayanare and listen to Abhi na jao chhodkar, scored by Jayadev for Hum Dono, more than a decade later…and you will never ever say Bollywood never got its inspiration from Odia music!
Though I am not sure about the fact, apparently Bimal Roy had offered Pandit Balakrushna Dash to score music for his films. But Pandit Dash did not like leaving Odisha and settling in Bombay. If that is true, that opens up yet another aspect of this great individual.
Another aspect of him that needs a mention is that while he was singing/teaching Odissi and composing for films, he never forgot the palligeeti. In fact, he popularized it. His Asa jibana dhana mora pakhala kansa is an anthem; probably as popular as a Bitilata Jamini. Here too, combination of his music with Kavichandra’s lyrics was a winner. Another such combination, Chaiiti ratile mahula katire was also very popular. In fact, Asa jibana dhana, along with Mudhi nadia and Chaka pari basi tha—the trilogy of songs celebrating traditional Odia food—are today seeing renewed interest among Odias, as many, especially those leaving outside crave for the food.
Among his lesser known works is a beautiful album called Geeta Bhratruhari, released by Saregama in the 90s, in which he set into tune a selection of songs from the Odia translation of Bhratruhari’s Shatakatrayi, in traditional Odissi style. He himself sang a beautiful song, Naba jaubani e, one of the most explicit in the album, from the Shrungara Shataka. The translation was by late Janaki Ballav Pattnaik.
The contribution of Pandit Balakrushna Dash cannot be emphasized enough in a post like this. I promised not to get into this but it is difficult to resist asking this question: when will we learn to respect our talent? On one hand, all of us are very sensitized to the demand of Odissi music being accorded classical status. On the other, we do not even care for stopping for a moment and pay our tribute to the greatest name in Odissi music in modern times. And we blame everyone other than ourselves for our problems!