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When one day is not enough

Sudha G Tilak | Updated on January 15, 2018

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One of a kind: With his prodigious talent M Balamuralikrishna achieved stardom early, but that didn’t stop him from experimenting and creating newer works Photo: R Ravindran

Inventive, collaborative and appealing across mediums, Carnatic legend Balamuralikrishna was an artiste of his times and beyond

In the world of performing artistes there are many kinds. The moody, crabby, introverted, excitable and showy are easily marked. However, nothing betters an artiste whose charisma and charm equal his prodigious talent. Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, who passed away on November 22 at 86, was one such.

“He was an individualist and, as a consequence, his musicality and approach to the art form is inextricably connected to the person. Anyone who tries to mirror his music is, inevitably, a pale shadow,” says the Carnatic vidwan TM Krishna.

The air crackled whenever Balamuralikrishna walked into a performing hall in Chennai in his glimmering silks and bejewelled medallions, attracting a legion of female and male rasikas alike.

Given the superstar of his times that he was, the hangers would walk in a hush around him; the fuss and felicitations overflowed every time. Apocryphal tales swirled around him, but those inside his charmed circle were always full of praise for his magnetic qualities, especially his ready smile, charming candour and persuasive powers.

Balamuralikrishna carried a heavy cache of top national and international awards easily on his shoulders. The accolades were testimony to his musical abilities since childhood. The shadow of his mother’s death soon after his birth was lifted as the little boy in Andhra Pradesh, who dropped out of school early on to take up music, was deemed a prodigy. Public recognition of his musical genius came at age 15, and he was conferred with the prefix Bala to his name, to mark his youthful entry into the stately world of Carnatic music. The spotlight never turned from him after that, during his decades of performances.

His concerts were indeed performances, his exuberant personality combined with his majestic timbre adding sparkle to the musical energy. And everything else paled before his electrifying presence on stage.

“Balamurali was a radical who brought to Carnatic music a sound that was entirely his own,” says Krishna. The legendary singer’s voice would thrum and engulf an audience with its musicality and sheer golden tonal beauty. The dexterous voice claimed as much of his musical profile as his talent. It exuded passion, an aural quality that sat well with his romantic persona, of a life lived and loved to the hilt.

Despite his early stardom, Balamuralikrishna’s restless spirit saw him experimenting and creating newer works. He could play over five musical instruments including the veena and violin; his prolific music-making includes 400 compositions (varnams, javalis and the popular thillanas) in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Sanskrit and also in the Carnatic canon’s fundamental 72 melakartha ragas.

For the critics and audiences used only to artistes who sang of deities and the songs of composers from another era, Balamuralikrishna’s output of contemporary ragas — which he invented, composed and sang on stage — took some getting used to.

Why is he singing his “own songs”, they demanded indignantly.

He once told a TV interviewer, “There is nothing like purity in music”; singers and composers must be true to their individuality as musicians and build upon it, he explained.

“His musical compositions and poems that he set to music will be rediscovered by innumerable musicians, each one giving them their own perspective,” says Krishna. True enough, his songs are today performed by many others. He was inventive not just with the music, but also the venues, as he embraced settings beyond the confines of the music sabhas. He set up a music academy in Switzerland, sang Rabindrasangeet in Bengali and sat at jugalbandis with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Zakir Hussain.

Classical Indian music, especially Carnatic music, lays emphasis on purity, spirituality, devotion and tradition. Artistes often speak of their musical careers in terms that approach the sacred. Balamuralikrishna made it human and approachable. As a nod to egalitarianism, in the 1980s he anchored the TV programme Swararaga Sudha, which made Carnatic accessible to all through film music and songs.

Like the time the Italian operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti came together on stage with black musician James Brown, Balamuralikrishna lent his voice for Ilayaraja’s ‘Chinna Kannan Azhaikiran’, a song that brought the folk hero music director and the Carnatic vocalist together for onscreen musical alchemy.

It’s quirky that in the popular imagination, Balamuralikrishna the classical musician is best encapsulated through a famous song in the Tamil film Thiruvilaiyadal (1965). A haughty outsider (read Hindustani musician from north India) holds a concert at the court of a Tamil king. Thespian Baliah essayed the role; Balamuralikrishna was the playback singer.

The song went: “A day isn’t enough to hear me sing... for indestructible is my art, and the naysayers can only scramble and leave.”

Sudha G Tilak is a Delhi-based journalist

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Published on November 25, 2016
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