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Birth anniversary special: V Balsara, the music director who did not want to remain confined to a studio

On Balsara's 96th birth anniversary (he was born on 22 June 1922), renowned tabla player Dipankar Acharya and noted music arranger Durbadal Chatterjee speak about working with the multi-faceted musician in Bengali cinema.

Roushni Sarkar

Vistasp Ardeshir Balsara, better known simply as V Balsara, was often fondly called ‘gentleman musician’ by his contemporaries.

Balsara was one of the founding members of the Bombay Cine Musicians’ Association (1952) and the Bombay Cine Music Directors’ Association.

According to renowned tabla player Dipankar Acharya, current working president of the Cine Music Association of Kolkata, who also worked with Balsara, “Many of the stalwarts of classical music such as Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia were a part of CMA, Bombay.”

Adept at playing the harmonium from a young age and later, the melodica, accordion, piano and other key instruments, Balsara began his film career by assisting music director Ustad Mustaq Husain on Badal (1942). Balsara's first independent work was for the film Circus Girl (1943), for which he composed the music along with Vasant Kumar Naidu. He was credited on the film as VA Valsara.

After working for several Hindi films in the 1940s, Balsara joined HMV as orchestra director in 1947. He continued to arrange music and play for the RK Films banner and for legendary music director Naushad.

Dipankar Acharya

Balsara came to Calcutta after a meeting with Pandit Gyan Prakash Ghosh. Acharya said, “Ghosh had gone to Mumbai for some film related work, when he met Balsara. As the latter expressed his wish to work in Calcutta, Ghosh invited him to the City of Joy. Balsara worked with Ghosh for a few Bengali songs, rendered by Begum Akhtar and by Ghosh's wife Lalita.”

Balsara then started performing on stage with the assistance of noted sitar players Satinath Mukhopadhyay and Utpala Sen. “He would often play the lead on the piano or the harmonica and conduct the orchestra as well. He used to do a lot of live shows,” said Acharya.

The success of his live performances soon led Balsara to form his own group Saaz Aur Awaaz. It comprised orchestra, voice harmony and dance performances. "Singer Mahendra Kapoor and Naushadji’s sister Dhanwajji were part of the group," informed Acharya.

Balsara worked extensively with prominent Calcutta music director Nachiketa Ghosh and arranged music for most of the film songs and basic recordings of Hemanta Mukherjee, better known to Hindi film lovers as Hemant Kumar.

“Balsara da was Parsi; however, after coming to Bengal, he not only learned the language but could also speak and write fluent Bengali, such was his determination!" said Acharya. "He arranged for many songs of Tagore and also composed the music for a number of his poems, such as Debotar Grash. HMV released those records.”

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Balsara composed music for many popular songs, like 'Jetha Ramdhonu Othe Hese', sung by Talat Mahmood, 'Line Lagao', one of the most popular songs rendered by Aparesh Lahiri, father of music composer Bappi, 'Ay Khuku Ay' by Hemanta Mukherjee, and many hit songs by Shyamal Mitra as well.

“He wrote numerous books on learning key instruments," said Acharya, adding, "In those books, he described the simple ways of learning and also noted down various instrumental progressions.”

In Calcutta, like in Bombay, Balsara became one of the founding members of the Cine Music Association of Calcutta (1962). “I was the secretary and Balsara da was president of CMA Kolkata for 14 years," said Acharya. "I used to work under his guidance. Besides, as a tabla player, I worked with him in numerous works for Satinath Mukhopadhyay and Utpala Sen. Balsara da was renowned for his background scores in films. I have worked with him for Tarun Majumdar's, Anjan Choudhury's and many other directors’ films and was fortunate enough to play in his live orchestra shows. I learnt a lot from him.”

Acharya said Balsara was also a very witty man. "He used to cut jokes with a very straight face," he said. "He was like a father figure to us, but he used to treat us as friends. He also had an extraordinary sense about the capabilities of an artiste and knew how to extract the right input from them. He was always punctual. If there was an invitation or a recording, he would reach 5-10 minutes before the schedule and wait. Even if someone died, we would find Balsara da present at the funeral before everyone else!”

“I remember one incident. Once I got late for a recording by 10-15 minutes and he did not allow me to play for the song. Later, he paid me, but his real motto was to teach me a lesson about punctuality. He also told me that he was taught the same lesson by Hemanta da, when he got late for his work once,” added Acharya.

According to noted music arranger Durbadal Chatterjee, who also worked with Balsara, “He used to never mix work with his personal life. He used to come out of his house in the morning and spend the entire day in his office. He used to regularly walk the 3 km from his house twice and would say this is my only regular exercise. Many people thought his office to be his home. There was a corner in his office where he had put up photos of many deities and of musicians who had passed away. First he used to do puja and offer prayers for all of them and then he would get on with his routine."

Durbadal Chatterjee

According to Durbadal Chatterjee, "He used to practise throughout the day or would go out for recordings. Apart from that, he used to keep writing. Besides writing books on instrument lessons and on guidelines for playing Indian ragas on Western instruments, Balsara da also wrote his autobiography Nana Ranger Dinguli, which was published later. He was a unique personality."

Apart from his proficiency in key instruments, Balsara could also play the violin though he never had formal training for it. “He used play a lot with my father, violinist Moni Chatterjee," said Durbadal Chatterjee. "I and my brother learnt a lot of the technicalities of music arrangement and patterns for practice from him.”

Durbadal Chatterjee had a different version regarding Balsara’s shift from Bombay to Calcutta. “There were some issues in his family that prompted him to move to Calcutta," he said. "After his arrival, he fell in love with the city and decided to stay on.

"He worked with Hemanta da for 22 years. Balsarada was popular for his regular live shows all over the country. I remember him telling me, 'Sara jibon khanchae bajale hobe na machae otho [Don’t confine yourself in a studio, do live performances on stage]',” said Chatterjee.

Durbadal Chatterjee vouched for Acharya’s account of Balsara's humour. “Yes, he was very witty. When there used to be football matches between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, he would say, 'Let me know which team has Parsi players, I will support them'.”

The music arranger fondly recollected, “In those days, we used to be free after 5pm after our work at the studio. We used to sit for adda [a gathering] at a gully [lane] near his office. He used to blow the whistle and we would be alert that Balsara da was coming, so we used to throw our cigarettes. He would sit amidst us and talk about his days in Bombay. Before bidding goodbye, he would disappear for some minutes, then blowing the whistle he would throw a couple of packets of cigarettes at us and leave." This was Balsara's way of compensating the young men for the cigarettes they had to throw away upon his arrival.

“Let me tell you one memorable incident," said Durbadal Chatterjee. "He used to play at weddings as well. On one such occasion, while he was playing, someone whispered something in his ear. He told his fellow musicians to continue and promised the client he would return. He returned after half an hour and finished the concert. The next day we learnt that somebody had whispered the news of his son’s death. However, since he had already made a commitment and taken money, he came back for the concert!”

Acharya, too, recounted a story of Balsara’s commitment to his work. “Both me and Balsara da used to work for Salil Chowdhury," he recounted. "The day Chowdhury died, we [musicians] decided not to work and to keep our studios closed. As we went to pay our last respects, we found Balsara da there. Later that day, I heard that Balsara da was carrying on with his work in his studio and felt bad that he did not discuss the matter with me. I happened to use a few harsh words for him in the heat of the moment. The next day, Balsara da came to my house. He apologized to me holding his ears, but also advised me not to stop working for any reason. He told us to strictly follow the advice on his death.”

Apart from his live orchestra, albums such as Sound Of Music, and his contributions to film music, Balsara was one of the pioneers in playing Indian classical music on Western instruments, according to music director Indrajit Dey. In fact, Balsara and noted pianist Soumendra Deb first played a piano duet concert in Bengal in the 1960s. The trend of using Western instruments for Indian music is now widely used by the current generation of music directors like Dey and musicians such as R Prasanna.

“All of us, the musicians of our era, miss Balsara da a lot,” concluded Durbadal Chatterjee.