A humble tribute to the legendary singer from South India
on his first death anniversary — 22 November, 2017.
The moment you think of Balamuralikrishna, a flashily-attired Carnatic vocalist with red chandana botuu dot on forehead and a smile all over the face singing a devotional kruti of Tyagaraya flashes in one’s mind. This child prodigy, who is comfortable at any scale and any range—was effortless and sounded beautiful in whatever scale he sang in—having trained by Guru Parupalli Ramakrishna Pantulu belonging to the sishyaparampara of Tyagaraja, enthralled the audience—audience from mass and class equally, for over seven decades with his huge repertoire of varnas, padams, jhavalis, keeratanas, krutis, tillanas and what not in his amazing voice.
His stage manners often make one wonder: Is this resonant voice that can soar and croon, that can thunder and soothe at the same time emanating from this man sitting right before us with a gracious smile all over his face? But that has certainly helped his audience to connect with him—connect to his concert instantaneously, for his child like smile made even a novice to classical music believe that it is no big a deal for him to rhyme along with his presentation. At least that’s what I often experienced whenever I had the pleasure of sitting among his audience. It simply kept me at ease with myself and that made all the difference to the evening.
Another distinct feature of his rendering of krutis is: Unlike most of the Carnatic classical singers, he pays utmost concern for diction and pronunciation of lyrics rightly—importantly with no truncation of words in the anxiety of creating swaras—so as to bring out the innate bhava of the kruti that he is singing in tune with its spiritual depth and when the same is presented in his deep mellifluous voice combining sastra (grammar: sruti, laya…) with melody with an uncanny sense of creativity and musical imagination, it simply made rasikas and rustics to sway alike their heads in pure joy. His execution of swara-prastrara apparently very simple in structure but its capering phrases and their component notes, skipping through octaves have always posed a challenge to his accompanying artists.
To highlight his unique feature of singing—bhava, raga, tala, samyuta (all the three in sync with each other) singing—let me draw your attention to his rendering of one of the very popular and most moving composition of Tyagaraja in raga Aabheri that overflows with bhakti and rakti: nagumoomu ganaleeni naajaali delisi / nanu brova raaraadaa shriiraghuvara nii (Sri Raghupati! knowing my pitiable state when I cannot see your smiling face, why do you not come to save me?). As is expected, he starts singing it in a low key and in a slow pace, enunciating the words in such a style that it makes the audience enjoy its undertone—the vipralambha shrungara rasa in its subtlest form. As he then comes to anupallavi, suddenly soars to the very skies so effortlessly in one sweep and as he so clearly enunciates: Nagaraaja- dhara needu parivaarulella / ogi…., (bearer of the Mandhara mountain, do not all the men in your service give you good counsel? How could they be like this?), we the audience get drowned in bhaktirasa. Then climbing down he sings the first part of charanam—khagaraaju niiyaanati vini …. (Is it that Garuda, the lord of his species, having heard your command, did not go fast enough? Did he say that heaven is far from the earth?)—in a slow and calmer mood as though in hope and expectation of god gracing him with his benevolent smile. It is when he reaches to the last part of charanam that we chance to experience the unique beauty of his rendition, for he at once takes us to the heights of ecstasy by crooning the words, jagameelee paramaatmaa evaritoo moralidudu—O Lord of this world, whom else can I implore? —in his baritone voice reaching the high octave, and mind you emoting grief and disappointment but all in an entreating tone. Thus, moving through low and high octaves in an evocative tone of grief, vexation, melancholy, sorrow, hope and expectation, Balamurali—painting the verse with such emotional rendition—lulls the audience into an alluring experience. And the beauty is, as the accompanying artist takes over to round off the presentation he, simply like an accomplished child, flashes an all innocent smile. It is perhaps, a reflection of his experiencing the bliss of what he is rendering first before it passes on to his audience. That is his signature style of presentation!
Balamuralikrishna, unlike many other traditional Carnatic classical singers, is always ready to experiment—come out with something altogether a new. Driven by a child-like enthusiasm, he created even new ragas like Lavangi, Mahathi, Manorama, Murali, Omkari, Prathimadhyamavathi, Rohini, Saravashree, Sumukham, etc., besides popularizing rare raagas such as Narthaki, Sunadavinodini, etc. He is also credited with innovating Tala Systems. He is considered as a composer far excellence for he has composed in all the 72 melakarta raagas, besides creating exquisite tillanas.
To him tradition simply means “the seven swaras and the laya systems” and he “does not want to impose any further limits and constraints on interpreting music”. From many of his interviews, it becomes evident that for him the driving force behind the music has always been a ‘relentless innovation’ rather than ‘static tradition’. Driven by this philosophy, he perhaps, reveled in militating against the tradition-bound zeitgeists by supplanting in concerts the compositions of that great trinity with his own. Sometimes, he used to even present more of his own compositions rather than the traditional krutis of the trinity, which, of course, obviously roused controversy. He won’t hesitate even to add a little dramatic and folksy tinge depending on the composition of the kruti that he is singing even in his concerts, for he is always conscious of his genius and yet, of course, never arrogant in his disposition.
His mellifluous rendition of Jayadeva’s ashtapadis—Krishna’s overtures to Gopikas, the evocative lyrics of sringara rasa in soft Sanskrit words—or the woes of Bhadrachala Ramadas under incarceration of Golkonda nawabs, or the rustic philosophy of duality in the world made naked in ‘tatvalu’ from concert platforms, all set to tune invariably by himself, were so well received by his audience that no one listener ever felt it as an aberration from the tradition of the concerts of Carnatic music. In all this unorthodox style of his presentation of Carnatic music, his innate understanding of the music ‘given’ by the tradition and its ‘interpretation’ with the acquired wisdom, and its acceptance by his audience, what becomes obvious is: Karneshu ata iti karnaha—whichever is pleasant to the ear is the music.
In the same vein, he even performed jugalabandhi with a number of Hindustani classical musicians like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Kishori Amonkar, etc. He performed concerts only with harmonium and ghatam as accompaniment. He even performed concerts with the accompaniment of veena, flute and just with the tambura as accompaniment. He was always ready to experiment with new ideas: once he performed with Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia in 3 sruti and with Kishore Amonkar in 51/2 sruti. He is perhaps the only Carnatic classical singer who sang a composition standing with mike in hand.
With all these innovations, experimentations and the resulting contradictions, he—with his mastery over the usage of vocal chords that can traverse more than three octaves (?) with complete ease—could still make the elite and the mass alike to sit and listen to him with their heads nodding, he could raise their energy to dramatic proportions to applaud even, and leave a sonorous memory that lingers long after, all because of his immense Kalpana Shakti, power of imagination and a spiritual voice with which he could ensure that no two renditions of a raaga or a song were the same.
This versatile genius can even play musical instruments like violin, viola, mridangam and kanjira with equal ease. In his young age, he had even accompanied many stalwarts of Carnatic music like GNB, Chembai, Ariyakudi, Semmangudi, etc. in their concerts. He even composed music for films, besides singing for films as playback singer and even acted in a couple of films. Nothing relating to art and its expression is a taboo for him, or considered it as antithetical to its classical counterpart or as a threat to his standing as a classical singer, and instead he performed whatever he undertook with reverence and with an infectious happiness and a smile on lips.
In his long musical odyssey that started at a very young age of nine and continued till his death, this Messiah of music—for whom music is all that he is and that everything else about him is of little importance to anyone, especially himself—has won many awards: Padma Vibhushan from Government of India, the “Chevalier des Arts et des Letters” from the French government, Sangeetha Kalanidhi from the Madras Music Academy and seven doctorates from various Universities.
Balamurali, the torchbearer of innovation in Carnatic music, who pioneered presentation of the fundamental commonalities inherent in the South and North Indian music to the rasikas from across the country is no more with us physically, but his spirit—the voice—is very much etched in our memories and it always stirs up delight. The best tribute that we can pay to this versatile musician is to encourage innovation and experimentation in music and its presentation, for music, as Edward Said said, though “premised on individual performance”, it “like literature, is practiced in a social and cultural setting.”