When my mania for Carnatic music began, I was bequeathed a large selection of MP3s by a friend. As the music was transferring, file titles flickering in and out of existence on screen, I noticed one unfamiliar name and asked: “Who is this Balaji Shankar? I haven’t seen him performing anywhere.” My friend, with the sort of immersion in work that does her credit, replied distractedly: “He used to sing in the 1990s. He doesn’t any more.”
Why he doesn’t any more lends an atmosphere of poignant mystery to some of the most breathtaking singing I’ve ever heard. Balaji Shankar’s voice—and I have searched in vain for other, less metaphysical ways to say this—is filled with light. It glides effortlessly from absolutely perfect note to absolutely perfect note, soars and swoops with aquiline power, and refuses to hurry or muddle itself. The voice on those MP3s is the purest gold, without a fleck of grit. (“And he was so good looking too,” my aunt once said sadly, by way of non sequitur.)
Vanishing Act: Balaji Shankar in concert. Photograph from The Hindu
In Doordarshan replays of old concerts of the late D.K. Jayaraman, I started noticing a young Balaji sitting behind his guru, lending vocal support. During one concert in Mumbai, Jayaraman referred to him affectionately as his “kutti shishyan”, or young disciple. By the time he started performing solo, Balaji had, very evidently, soaked up every milli-ounce of that musical heritage.
His singing was Jayaraman redux—shorn of frippery and gimmick, always elegant and simple but weighted with emotion. Coupled with that voice, the result was goosebumps and magic. His rendition of one song, Ananda Natana, in the raga Kedaram, special to me already, threatens to move me to tears even now, a hundred listens later. It cannot often be said of somebody who hasn’t been heard performing for years, but people—enthusiasts as well as professional musicians—say it repeatedly of Balaji Shankar: If he were around, he would be the leading vocalist today, firmly on his way to becoming an all-time great.
But where did he go? In the very late 1990s, he vanished leaving behind only tangles of rumour: that he was forced out by ugly music-world politics, that he had lost his voice, that a marriage went awry, that he was—most horrifically of all!—pursuing an IT career. The world of Carnatic music is a small one, but even within those confines, his absence remains a mystery.
During his near-decade of being away, public memory has not forgotten Balaji. On the contrary, later arrivals such as myself have joined the others in thrall of his music. Online forums discuss sightings of him as mountain climbers would of the Yeti or Bengali historians of Subhash Chandra Bose. One gentleman heard that Balaji had moved to London to teach young children. Another claimed, last year, that he had joined fellow students of Jayaraman in a pilgrimage to the samadhi of the 19th century composer Muthuswami Dikshitar.
In December 2006, I joined the mountain climbers and Bengali historians. From the Music Academy balcony during T.N. Seshagopalan’s concert, a friend and I thought we spotted Balaji, seated in the spillover crowd near the dais. At that distance, and with only the memory of a few photographs to go by, it was impossible to be sure. A few days later, somebody else confirmed that he’d seen Balaji at another Seshagopalan concert. There may still be hope. The curtain may still rise on a Balaji Shankar performance, he may still sing the Kedaram live, and we may still marvel at his improbably romantic story, of how he was lost to us and how we found him again.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org