SANGITA KALANIDHI Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna was one of the most charismatic Carnatic vocalists of the 20th century. His compelling presence in the field continued into the new millennium, with his progressively fewer appearances on stage adding an exciting new dimension to his aura. His passage from his debut as a child prodigy in the 1940s to elder statesman status in the recent past with the timbre of his powerful voice undimmed meant that he had a large fan following that ranged from loyal octogenarians to adoring teenagers.
In addition to being a charming and sometimes idiosyncratic singer, he was also a versatile composer and creator of ragas (a claim that was contested by some of his seniors in the field). Balamuralikrishna was often a controversial figure, too, an innovator who questioned the so-called tradition in a manner that shocked the purist. (He once said that tradition was to him merely the grammar of music, the seven swara s and the laya systems. He recognised no other constraints in interpreting music.) “We have a weakness in Carnatic music,” he told an interviewer, “It is sampradayam , or tradition, a much misunderstood word.” “Did Ariyakudi sing like Maharajapuram?” he asked. “Chembai [Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar] like GNB [G.N. Balasubramaniam]? Each had his own sampradayam .” This was a reaction to the orthodox mainstream of artists and aficionados who charged that his music was not strictly traditional. Although he crossed swords with those who questioned his authorship of new ragas, he forgave and forgot easily. Balamuralikrishna filed a defamation suit against Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer for derogatory remarks he made against him and forced him to apologise in writing before the presiding judge but later, the two became good friends. When Semmangudi, hurt by a critic’s call for his retirement, threatened to withdraw from his December season concert at the Music Academy in Chennai, Balamuralikrishna was instrumental in persuading the doyen to change his mind.
Balamuralikrishna’s very vocalisation was different from that practised by many of his seniors and contemporaries in Carnatic music. With a voice that easily traversed three octaves, he revelled in displaying his virtuosity in his concert singing without ever sacrificing the emotional quotient of music. While he used the capacity of his lungs to good effect to give full expression to the resonance of his voice, he was not quite as open-mouthed as his Hindustani counterparts, whom he often engaged successfully in jugalbandi . He enunciated the lyrics in his native Telugu perfectly and was quite at home in songs in Tamil, Sanskrit, Kannada and Malayalam, or even Hindi and Marathi. The manodharma , or improvisational, sections of his concerts were distinctive, whether in raga alapana , niraval , swaraprastara or in the various parts of a ragam-tanam-pallavi . He was as much a master of laya or rhythm as he was strong on sruti suddham , or fidelity to pitch.
A Sangita Kalanidhi and Padma Vibhushan awardee, Balamuralikrishna achieved almost every distinction that a practitioner in his field could hope to achieve, but remained the eternal outsider, questioning established values, interpreting classical music in his own, largely self-taught ways, always giving originality greater importance than conformity. He was interested, and more than dabbled in, a variety of genres of music that went beyond Carnatic music to embrace film music, fusion and jugalbandi , even Rabindra Sangeet.
Genuine child prodigy Born Muralikrishna to vocalist Pattabhiramayya and vainika Suryakantamma, daughter of Prayaga Rangayya, a composer, on July 6, 1930, at Sankaraguptam, a village in Andhra Pradesh, he was a genuine child prodigy who ascended the concert platform at age nine. The prefix Bala was added to his name on that day, an altogether aesthetic alternative to the tag “Master” usually prefixed to a child artist’s name. The expanded name stayed with the perennially youthful vidwan who passed away on November 22, 2016. He is survived by wife Annapoornamma, three sons and three daughters.
The occasion of Balamuralikrishna’s debut was the anniversary of his teacher Parupalli Ramakrishnayya Pantulu’s guru Susarla Dakshinamurti Sastri. The young boy started singing at 9 a.m., and instead of closing in half an hour as scheduled, went on to enchant the audience for two and a half hours. According to the official programme, his recital was to be followed by a Harikatha, a religious discourse, but no one in the hall seemed to mind the boy’s apparent lack of a sense of time, and the harikatha was never told.
Balamuralikrishna made such a tremendous impression on the audience that a whirlwind of concerts followed in and around the region. He broadcast from All India Radio for the first time in July 1941 and many more radio concerts followed. With his precocious talent winning over the hearts and minds of music lovers, he was received with love and warmth of feeling everywhere, the first major milestone of his young career coming at the Tyagaraja Aradhana at Tiruvaiyaru in Tamil Nadu when he was barely 11.
In time, Balamuralikrishna grew up to become a confident purveyor of a brand of music that acquired the dimensions of an original style, so different from the famous Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar school of music, the Tanjavur bani that inspired the likes of other stalwarts of Andhra Pradesh such as Dr Sripada Pinakapani and his disciple Nedunuri Krishnamurti. If the traditional approach was marked by an emphasis on azhuttam , a stylised method of stressing the syllables—vowel or consonant—in both composed and creative content, and gamaka , a way of shaking or oscillating the notes, Balamuralikrishna seemed to favour the relatively plain notes, which he virtually breezed through rarely twitching a muscle, so to say.
The best among the orthodox practitioners insisted on revealing the form of a raga in the opening phrases of raga alapana , and maintaining the fidelity of the raga in both the composition and improvised sections by repeatedly visiting the fundamental phrases of the raga in strict conformity to its grammar, and enhancing the beauty of the music with nuanced variations on the theme along the way.
Balamuralikrishna, ever the iconoclast and rebel, was different in his approach. A firm believer in innovation, even invention, he could manipulate the notes allowed in a raga in ways different from the traditional, in ways that gave the raga a form at variance with the known. It was as if a sculptor took the correct dimensions of his subject and gave it different features. His voice remained strong and malleable throughout his career.
Versatile composer As a composer, Balamuralikrishna was versatility personified. While still in his teens, he was advised by his spiritual guru Vimalananda Bharati to be a pioneer like Tyagaraja in Carnatic music. Balamuralikrishna’s response was to compose a 72 melakarta ragamalika . He said: “Muttuswami Dikshitar composed asampurna melas , while Kotiswara Iyer concentrated on notes. I wanted to establish the raga swarupa .” His tillanas are much sought after by musicians and dancers alike, and his contributions to film music as composer and singer were quite brilliant.
His rendering of “Oru naal pothuma?” in a ragamalika composition in the 1965 Tamil film Tiruvilaiyadal has been a super hit through the decades. In the movie, he lends his voice to the character of a Hindustani singer who loses a contest to Siva masquerading as a Tamil vocalist, but to serious rasikas Balamuralikrishna has been the winner all the way. “Film music has what Carnatic music needs: voice control, modulation, sruti and sahitya clarity.” Sacrilegious, but true according to voice experts. Balamuralikrishna inherited a love of verse from his poet-grandfather. He recorded his songs in his beautiful handwriting in a notebook. He stressed that his lyrics were all about subtlety of expression. “You’ll know this song is about Venkateswara though I don’t mention his name or the seven hills.”
Like the cricket legend Sir Garfield Sobers, who rarely attended net practice in his mature years, Balamuralikrishna eschewed elaborate preparation before his concerts, preferring to give free rein to his imagination and creativity on stage. He joked that he never practised his art at home because deliberate sadhana was habit-forming, and habits led to addiction! He loved the good things of life, and offered an ever-smiling countenance on and off stage, wearing his deep knowledge lightly, and the seeming effortlessness of his singing with pride.
He was known for his immaculate diction and emotional fidelity to the lyric, especially while articulating Telugu compositions. His vocalisation was different from the norm practised by other musicians, and complexity seemed to fascinate him, as seen in the way he rendered the manodharma segments of music. His complex offerings of alapana , swara singing, and ragam-tanam-pallavi attracted his legion of rasikas . Precision and range marked each of these components of his music making, even if the liberties he took with musical convention tended to cause raised eyebrows.
Balamuralikrishna was also a brilliant instrumentalist. He could play the violin, the viola, the mridangam and the kanjira. He provided accompaniment on one or other of these instruments to such icons as Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Chittoor Subramania Pillai, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Voleti Venkateswarlu and K.V. Narayanaswamy.
Supreme confidence and a certain belief in the mystic and romantic appeal of his music marked Balamuralikrishna’s approach to his life. He once spoke of “a gorgeous woman in silks and diamonds” who went up and sat next to him during a concert in Kerala. As Balamuralikrishna sang a kriti in the raga Kalyani, the woman’s presence energised him. She was none other than the raga Kalyani, he claimed.
To what did he owe his longevity as a performer? “My father’s guidance and guru’s blessings. My guru Parupalli Ramakrishnayya Pantulu had amazing vidwat .”
Caring teacher According to Ragavan Manian, a young disciple, Balamuralikrishna’s “deceptively simple, fun-filled approach to living was the embodiment of the mystic ideal of swadharma . His fierce independence and individualism were his way of being in touch with his feelings, and acting in direct accordance with them. His was the living essence of a higher ideal.” Ragavan echoes the feelings of scores of students who adored their guru. He on his part was evidently a loving and caring teacher.
Balamuralikrishna served AIR for quite a few years. His devotional music programme Bhakti Ranjani of AIR, Vijayawada, included songs which he himself tuned and sang. The programme enjoyed a huge following in the 1960s and 1970s in Tamil Nadu and several other cities across India where Tamils resided. Balamuralikrishna was a serious believer in music therapy, and authored government-approved programmes that ran for a while. His celebrity patients included the former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M.G. Ramachandran.
Writing in Shankar’s Weekly in 1964, Aeolus (the nom de plume connoisseur S.V. Seshadri chose for himself) said: “What are those powers in Balamurali’s music which deserve to be called great? Its youthfulness and vitality? Its comprehensive sweep and variety? Or its casualness and suavity? Or its sense of affirmation and joy? It could be said without a nagging feeling of overstatement that, to Balamurali, music is not a profession or an art but a way of looking at things. He could resolve the pathos of life into the ‘madhyama’ of Devagandhari, its terrific urgency into the ‘dhaivata’ of Todi, its basic tranquillity into the ‘gandhara’ of Sankarabharanam, its joy into the gamut of Mohanam, and its sheen into the ‘nishada’ of Kalyani. But Balamurali does not confine himself to these profound aspects of life alone. He interests himself as zestfully in a hundred inconsequential aspects of life—its humour, irony, laughter and queerness. And more than all, he is keenly aware of the enormous inconsistency of life, and of the ridiculousness of sententious pronouncements on it.”
Vidwan Balamuralikrishna’s quest for beauty, his fearless experimentation, his willingness to collaborate with artists belonging to other genres, his zest for life and his appeal to the young gave him a larger-than-life aura. He was in every respect an original in music, someone who enjoyed his art and shared it wholeheartedly with listeners.