Balakrushna Dash: The Icon And The Iconoclast

Balakrushna Dash’s arrival in Odia music was iconic. As a young singer and composer, he started his career in Odia films with a golden mike. Whatever he composed or sang, was an instant hit. In his thirties, he was the most sought-after music composer in Odia cinema, Odissi dance and All India Radio. His voice was as deep as the Bay of Bengal and his tonal sweetness was as great as the water of Mahanadi. He was the first Odia superstar in the world of music. In a way, he was the first modern composer who had a profound understanding of folk and classical traditions of Odia melody.

Before his arrival, modernity was seen as an object having the potential to pollute pure music. Balakrushna Dash’s predecessor and one of the greatest singers in Odia, Nimain Harichandan sceptically saw modernity as the killer of pure music and in that context wrote – “With the advancement of civilization we are becoming too lazy. Earlier, we used Behela (desi version of Violin), Sitar and Tanpura as accompanying instruments for singing. Now Harmonium has replaced all these. Harmonium is easy to play and needs no rigorous practice. The presence of gramophone records is also killing the great tradition of our music. It seems that gramophone may one day kill the musical tradition of our ancestors.”  ( Bhanja Pradeepa- June-1936)

Balakrushna Dash was much ahead of his time and was the first iconoclast who demolished the boundaries between water-tight compartments of Odissi music. His gipsy kind of wandering life taught him to learn every kind of music and use it as it suited to the situations. He was born in Balakati, a village near Bhubaneswar on May 15, 1923. He lost his parents in early childhood and become an unprotected orphan. He travelled aimlessly from Bhubaneswar to Cuttack, Kendrapada and Kolkata. Music was in his blood. By luck, he met the regal Odissi maestro of Kendrapada Guru Gokul Shrichandan and started learning Odissi music from him. Looking at the immense potential in little Balakrushna, Guru Gokul Shrichandan sent him to learn Hindustani from the great maestro of Kolkata, Pt Raichand Boral and the great Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. He was the first major Odissi musician who had equal training and practice in Hindustani.

After learning from Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Saab, the bright Odia young man came back to Cuttack and become an associate music director in the second Odia film “Shri Jagannath”. From 1950 to 1975, was the era of Balakrushna Dash. He composed hundreds of songs in Odia films, for All India Radio and accompanying musical scores for Odissi dance ballets and dance dramas. He was the teacher and guide of every musical talent in Odisha. As a musical legend, he renovated (in many cases reinvented) the Odissi music tradition. His film songs are a brilliant mix of classical, semi-classical, folk and modern music. He was absolutely conscious that his prime audience, the middle-class Odias are exposed to contemporary Bollywood and Bengali music and they will not appreciate the imitation of that. That’s why he composed music which had a base in Odissi tradition and blended with the poetic sensibilities of modern times.

He was the Renaissance man in Odissi music. The Odissi that we heard today is his single-handed contribution. The Odissi musical tradition, which was fragmented and conservatively dealt with by the local maestros got a brilliant facelift in Balakrushna Das’s compositions and the use of modern technologies in recordings set a new score of popularity. He was blamed by many conservatives of his time for Hindustanised Odissi music, but that was the strength of Balakrushna Dash. He knew that music is an endless flow and can never be confined to a particular frame. There is always a common ground of exchange and dialogue amongst the musical traditions of India. Balakrushna Dash competently set up a dialogue between Odissi and Hindustani which enhanced the glory of Odissi.

He was the greatest icon of Odia music who acted as the iconoclast and architect of a new Odissi era.

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