Variety

The musician who loved motor cars

M Ramesh Chennai | Updated on January 15, 2018

BL23_BP_BALAPTI11_22_2016_000276B   -  PTI

One of the striking aspects about Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, one of the greatest Indian musicians of our times, who passed away on Tuesday, was his schooling, or the lack thereof: it lasted exactly six months.

No matter how superbly the boy could sing prayers at the school assembly, the headmaster could not countenance keeping on the school’s rolls the student who would turn in blank answer sheets at examinations.

The headmaster called Balamurali’s father, Pattabhiramayya, and gave him some sage advice: your son is a musical genius, why waste him in schools?

A primary school turned him away, albeit respectfully, but later in life, no fewer than five universities honoured him with doctorates. Classrooms and blackboards were probably irrelevant to him, for he was born to sing. Even within the realm of music, his formal training – under Ramakrishna Panthulu – did not last more than six months.

Therein lies embedded the defining trait of Balamurali’s personality. Knowledge, be it of letters or of notes, came naturally to him. While he benefited from a musical heritage – both his parents were consummate musicians – he trained himself in several languages well enough to compose songs in them.

They included Sanskrit and English (the latter, upon a resolve, after meeting a British lady whose adulation he could not respond to). For seven decades, this flashily-attired man who loved to wear a red ‘ chand pottu’ dot on his forehead, enthralled lovers of Carnatic music with his amazing music, but his contributions go beyond musical notes. He militated against the tradition-bound zeitgeist of the mid-20th century by supplanting in concerts the compositions of the venerable trinity (Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshithar and Syama Sastri) with his own, and claiming to have ‘invented’ new ragas.

Balamuralikrishna was probably one of the two iconoclasts in the world of south Indian classical music in the 20th century, the other being Veena Balachandar, with whom had a running battle over the composition of new tunes.

When Balachandar and others objected, claiming that new ragas could not be ‘invented’ since all ragas always exist in nature, Balamurali countered that he was the one who pulled them out of books and gave them life. Indeed, a clutch of ragas have their rather ornamental names inextricably linked to Balamurali. No concert artist can sing Lavangi, Mahati, Manorama, Pratimadhyamavati, Janasammodini, without the audience being reminded of Balamuralikrishna.

While artistes bickered over technicalities, connoisseurs loved him. He was nice and amicable to talk to, there was never any in-your-face arrogance, even though he was always conscious of his genius.

He could also play a clutch of instruments. What burnished his halo was the fact that he sang for movies. It was probably no coincidence that he sang the famous number, Oru naal poduma?, voiced for a film character who boasts of his unbeatable musical prowess.

By the time Balamurali announced his early ‘retirement’ from active concert singing in the mid-eighties (observing that the “dignity of professional musical concerts had deteriorated to a very low level”), he had around 25,000 concerts to his credit. Not surprising, since he began at age nine.

Apart from his splendid singing, Balamurali will be remembered for his immense compositions, especially in the 72 melakartas, or the fundamental ragas of Carnatic music, from which thousands of other are derived, thus keeping alive several fundamental ragas that would have otherwise disappeared. “There were no proper compositions in the melakartas to show the real picture of the raga,” Balamurali once said in an interview. “That is why these compositions are so momentous.” (The only other person to have composed in the 72 basic ragas was Koteeswara Iyer.)

Perhaps the ability to compose was a legacy handed down from the great saint-composer Tyagaraja himself. Balamurali’s guru learned from Parashurama Shastri, who was a disciple of Venkata Subbiya, a student of Tyagaraja.

Balamurali liked to live it up. It is said that he was crazy after cars, and till 1995, would never allow anyone else to take the wheel. He loved to eat deep-fried foods or ice-creams — stuff that most vocalists avoid out of a fear of roiling their throats.

Balamurali was once asked what he cherished most about his life. His response: it was the pleasure of seeing his compositions sung by others in his lifetime, an honour that was not given to the great composers of yore, such as Tyagaraja or Purandara Dasa. That was the essence of the man: proud and happy.

Balamuralikrishna is survived by wife, three sons as well as two daughters.

Published on November 22, 2016

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