An Organizer of International Repute
Guest : Cleveland Balu
An Interview with Cleveland Balu by Naadhabrahmam Editor, N. Subramanian
N. Subramanian : Your name as "Cleveland Balu" was introduced here in the Chennai Music circuit through the Jaya TV's coverage of the 2003 Thyagaraja Aradhana Festival in Cleveland, and high commendation from eminent artists like Shri TRS. Can you please enlighten our readers with some more information about yourself and your background?
Cleveland Balu : I am from Cleveland, Ohio, USA, and I retired as a Divisional Financial Manager after 30 years of service with the City Government. Currently I am an Adjunct Professor in a Private University. My wife Gomathy and I visit India almost every year. I have always been involved in cultural and social activities throughout my life.
N. Subramanian : How did you get involved in carnatic music and particularly in the Tyagaraja festival in Cleveland?
Cleveland Balu : Always I have had a good interest in music per se and I used to enjoy film music of yesteryears as well. As it goes with most of the families in Tamil Nadu, I used to be a silent observer of music classes that my sisters used to go through, and my mother had the traditional music training in violin, veena, and vocal music. In the USA the scope for involvement in such activities is all the more, as our communities miss these sorely. As long as there is someone prepared to spearhead such activities, things fall in place. I enjoyed working with people and made it transparent that my involvement in organization has no personal stakes such as my prestige, fear of critics and criticism, pressure for headcount to define success and so on. I had no claims to leadership or organizational expertise, but played my role strictly when chosen to lead.
The Thyagaraja Festival in Cleveland had its humble beginning initiated by Sri Ramnad Raghavan, who wanted the core Bhajan group in Cleveland to try practicing the Pancha Ratna Kritis to kick-start the festival. Now it has completed 27 years and it keeps going, thanks to commitment of scores of volunteers and the nucleus leadership provided by VVSundaram, Toronto Venkatraman, and their families along with host of friends and well-wishers of the Festival.
N. Subramanian : The Festival in Cleveland has become much sought after event for many of the artists to participate and perform and is there any particular explanation for the same?
Cleveland Balu : I feel it is due to the genuine atmosphere created by the festival attendees who want to enjoy the concerts and appreciate the performances. Also the warm hospitality exuded and friendly surroundings, and the festive environment with chances of reunions among long-time friends seem to be catalysts for Cleveland festival. Though the same artists may be going around the country, many want to be at the Cleveland festival, which has become a showcase. We are thankful for the support. The Cleveland Festival tries to replicate Thiruvayaru to the extent possible and people seem to like it. One more fact is that the hosts of the festival - The Aradhana Committee, the Greater Cleveland Siva Vishnu Temple and the Cleveland State University - provide very congenial atmosphere for everyone to feel at home.
N. Subramanian : You sound very simple in explaining the success of the Cleveland Aradhana, but what is the secret for the smooth operation of artists' scheduling, when so many eminent and established artists seem to be lined up every year?
Cleveland Balu : The operational success is attributed to the selfless commitment of the volunteers to the tasks they are assigned to with minimum duplication and overlapping. Discussions take place regularly and consensus is reached on artists and their scheduling in Cleveland. The hospitality arrangements and the venue are well-coordinated both by my wife and me and the artists by VVSundaram and Toronto Venkatraman. The flight details and the related items are attended to by Karthik Venkatraman, along with other packaging details. In Cleveland, scores of volunteers keep the programs going on day-day-to basis. There is very little room for the egos of volunteers to play neither any big role nor are there any occasions for the clash.
N. Subramanian : Amidst your myriad duties as the lead organizer, you seem to find time and also enjoy performing on the stage as an accompanying artist (Kanjira player).
Cleveland Balu : Before I even venture to respond to your curiosity, I should state categorically that I do not seek a chance to accompany nor do I have any preference with regard to the artists. I declare that I am not a vidhwan. I play for my "athma tripthi" and to prove my point, I try to play what little I know rather than to "show off" to the gallery. I simply enjoy being on the stage as much as off the stage. I strongly feel that any concert is a team effort, where there is very little room for individual 'show' of superior talents. In this context, the concerts by the stalwarts like Semmangudi, Chembai, Aryakudi and others were pleasing to the audience and were successful in general. Individual egos did not show up at the concert.
N. Subramanian : Do you have any statement, which I can call your 'signature' statement and any other views with regard to other opinions about Cleveland Festival?
Cleveland Balu : I believe in organizational success than in individual 'name and fame'. You should have faith in the organization you want to be associated with and always work and hope for its success sincerely.
Be involved in anything as long as you are comfortable and be able to contribute with purpose, rather than to play "god" or to prove any point.
I have been hearing comments that the Cleveland Aradhana ends up with the same crop of artists year after year instead of promoting youngsters. My answer to that is not 'old is gold', but that traditional and classical carnatic music from the senior vidhwans should be enjoyed as long as these vidwans are in their prime health and general well-being. The youngsters have age and strength to their advantage and we all will have ample time to hear them. There is no other design or predisposition in this regard as far as Aradhana organizers are concerned. I cannot thank enough the services of Sri Srimushnam Rajarao and Dr. N.Ramani as well as VVSundaram and Toronto Venkatraman. I also thank Jaya TV for their coverage though till now we have not had a chance to see the TV replay of the Cleveland Aradhana Festival. But we enjoyed their company and efficient cooperation while they recorded our ten day program. We also sincerely thank Subhashree Thanikachalam for all her hard work.
N. Subramanian : As the editor of Naadhabrahmam, I sincerely thank you for sparing time to speak to us. We wish you the very best in your multifaceted career - that of a Professor, organizer and last but not the least, as a percussionist.