S. Sivadas 
Opinion

Melancholy thoughts on the highways

Recovering from the unprecedented floods that hit large parts of Kerala and the remarkable way civil society rallied to help those in distress the state was witness to a couple of road accidents that snuffed out the lives of two remarkable persons soon after. The passing away of the young violinist and singer Balabhaskar who succumbed to injuries in a car accident which killed his daughter had sent shock waves across the state. His family was returning after a temple visit for the daughter’s birth 15 years after the marriage, when the accident happened. Among those who paid a visit to the hospital were the State Chief Minister and Finance Minister.

Since the incident  video clips of his concerts have been passed around through social media by his fans and thousands of people,  including celebrities and singers, have expressed their grief and paid tributes, with veteran singer KJ Yesudas and music director M Jayachandran, actor Dulqar Salman and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor joining in.

As a prodigy he had shot to fame when he composed music for a Malayalam film at the age of 17, and he was also known for his stage performances and concerts in and outside Kerala and his fusion music had been a rage with his fans.

Pinarayi Vijayan, the Chief Minister, said his death ‘comes after the death of his daughter Tejaswani and has caused immense sadness to the Malayalees. With the passing away of Balabhaskar, who was active for a quarter century, the music world has lost a talented artist.’

In another poignant setting Jose Mathew and seven members of his family gathered at the St. Thomas Church at Poonthura to bid farewell to a young man who had saved their lives during the floods a few weeks back. Stranded on the terrace of their house for four days when the floods hit the state, the ‘Coastal Warriors’, led by Jineesh Jeron, arrived there and rescued them. Mathew remembers Jineesh as the daring one to jump on to the terrace unmindful of his safety and rescue them. One memorable image is of him in neck deep water holding aloft 86-year-old Rachal on a chair and carrying her to a boat.  Among those his team rescued were a group of 28 children in an orphanage that even the Navy personnel were unable reach. Jineesh had given up his studies to take up fishing to support his two younger brothers.

This 23-year-old died after his motorcycle was involved in a road accident and there were heart rending scenes when the body was brought to the church. Johnny, a member of their group, recalled, ‘He had a big network of friends and he was popular among the kids and he was a dancer and a cricketer as well. He was always the first to volunteer for anyone in need of help.’

Despite the development and big ticket schemes like the Quadrilateral Project that was the pet scheme of one Prime Minister, when it comes to road safety India's record has been indeed dismal. According to the National Crime Record Bureau report there were in all 496,762 accidents involving roads and those related to railway crossings and the highest fatalities have been reported from Tamil Nadu, UP, and Maharashtra. With 182 million vehicles for its 1.30billion population, the accident rate comes to .8 per 1,000 vehicles.

More than three decades ago, Chennai’s December Season was not as vibrant as it is now when over five dozen sabhas used to organise the festival across the city in a 41-day span. During one such Margazh festival in 1984, the city received the shocking news of the death of Jon B. Higgins, 45,who was killed in a road accident in his native US.

The December 7 tragedy gave the world of Carnatic music more reasons than one to mourn. Higgins was not just a pioneering Westerner to had carved a niche in South Indian classical vocal; he was considered a reasonably known artiste in the field where ethnicity was generally counted as a reason for comparatively easy grip over the form. For buffs, he was simply, Higgins Bhagavatar.

He was planning a protest concert in South Africa against the racist regime when, while walking his dog on a road near his home in Connecticut’s Middletown, Higgins was fatally hit by a drunken driver.

Higgins’s tryst with Indian music studies made deeper inroads as a Wesleyan scholar who was taught by ethnomusicologist Robert E. Brown  and mridangam percussionist T. Ranganathan and later his brother T. Viswanathan (on a Fulbright scholarship that brought him to India). Soon, Higgins gave a performance at the Tyagaraja Aradhana in the saint-composer’s birthplace of Thiruvayyar, a taluk under which Maharajapuram village fell.

Higgins also learned Bharatanatyam under the renowned T. Balasaraswati, who is a sister of Ranganathan-Viswanathan, and even wrote a dissertation on the dance’s music.

Carnatic music lost an illustrious musician when the car of Maharajapuram Santhanam collided with a stationary tractor near Tindivanam, over a 100 km south of Chennai in 1992.This extremely popular vocalist was also a classicist and a torch-bearer of a mellifluous style of rendition initiated by his father Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer.

Santhanam, who collaborated with Amjad Ali in bringing about a fusion of both strands of music, did spend his early years in another country. Born in Sirunangur village along the fertile Cauvery belt, he spent five years in Sri Lanka, where he taught music by serving as the head of the department at the Ponnambalam Ramanathan College of Music, Jaffna.

At a remembrance meeting for the Carnatic maestro, where Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and Dr Raja Ramanna  paid homage, the nuclear scientist lamented that despite the  advanced scientific achievements they had not been able to device some mechanism to bring down the fatalities on the roads. Just expanding the network and bypasses and cloves are not enough. They had to see that the alignments are right and there are no fault lines. One study they did in Tamil Nadu made some corrections and brought down the accident rate remarkably.

Two decades earlier killer roads had snatched away another remarkable musician, Ustad Amir Khan, in Kolkata in 1974 at a time when the Hindustani music was seized by a revolutionary spirit and when radical changes were being made by singers like Kumar Gandharva, disregarding the traditional and conventional styles  and were trying to evolve their own particular improvisations and fusions. With his sheer skill and devotion Amir Khan had been able to win over many of the critics and connoisseurs.  Born in Indore his ancestors had been musicians to Mughal courts and his father was a sarangi player of distinction. With a mellifluous voice that he had cultivated with rigorous practice he could hold the audiences in thrall with the extreme delicacy and purity of notes.

When going through grand schemes like road networks and high dams as the country catches up with for lost time, it is also extremely essential that some fine tuning is done so that the costs of these schemes could be cut down. There is no way the human cost can be computed or compensated. That a nuclear scientist like Dr Ramanna has been able to put his finger on the point shows how these could be done with some thought and imagination. The losses of such  musicians and valiant youngsters could never be replaced, but certainly steps could be taken to reduce the enormity of these accidents.