The evening of 22 November, 2016, saw one man’s name dominate the shared mental space of the Indian South: adorned and adored vocalist, composer, and teacher, Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna passed away. Today, we collectively revisit his legacy and pay homage to the legend whose music touched so many lives.
The news broke at about 5.30 pm, after which the (mononymous ‘Balamuralikrishna’) sir quickly dominated the news cycle: “veteran Carnatic singer passed away at 86;” the great “scholar, singer, guru . . . a game changer” was being mourned by civilians and celebrities alike. (While we’re on the matter, dear Deccan Herald, might I suggest renaming your article? Figure of speech aside, he may have passed away, but he is still very much here, in our psyches. He has become the number one searched term here in the South, where I write from, and is the fourth most discussed topic in the entire subcontinent. (Listen closely — I can almost hear the feet of sabha directors shuffling to arrange for memorial concerts already, can you?).
The Legend Behind the Man
His tale as we know it to be, is quite legendary. On the east coast, in Andhra Pradesh, you will find the Godavari river breaking out into her many tributaries. Squarely placed in between the southern most streams, with a base made of the Bay of Bengal, resides the village of Sankaraguptam, where Balamuralikrishna was born. Folklore leads its natives to believe that Lord Shiva spent time here once, when in hiding from a boon gone wrong. Such is the village to house the fitting beginning for the legend. More than half a century later, he would be given the keys to the landmark city of Vijayawada, about 150 kilometers away from his birth village, as the crow flies. The government would name him an ‘Honorary First Citizen.’
So the story goes: his mother, Suryakanthamma, was a vainika. Her father — Balamuralikrishna’s maternal grandfather — was a composer named Prayaga Rangaiya. His own father, Mangalampalli Pattabhiramaiya, was a multi-instrumentalist, playing his wife’s signature instrument, the veena, alongside the violin and flute. Balamuralikrishna was not afforded the chance to grow up in the arms of his mother. On the thirteenth day of his life, she is said to have complained of a headache. She passed away three days later. His mother’s elder sister, Subbamma, took over the responsibility rearing the child. She named the young one Krishna, but called him Murali. Hence was born the name ‘Murali-Krishna.’
He is said to have stopped school at age 10 (fifth standard), at the advice of the principal, who insisted the young boy instead focus on music. His father, charged with continuing the family’s musical legacy, would later choose to enroll his young son under the tutelage of Parupalli Ramakrishnaiya Pantulu. His guru, PR Pantulu, traced his own lineage to that of Thyagaraja, claiming a relationship that was only thrice removed. This would place Balamuralikrishna as the fifth sishya of a paramparā that could claim the legendary member of the Carnātic trinity as one of their own.
In a 2011 cover story for Sruti, one reads the fantastical story of his first concert, and the creation of his moniker:
On 18 July 1940, on Ashadha Suddha Ekadasi day, exactly nine Hindu calendar years after his birth, Muralikrishna ascended the stage – with Kambhampati Akkaji Rao (veena) and Radhakrishna Raju (mridanga) as his accompanists. He paid obeisance to his guru seated in a corner of the platform. The Kalyani varnam Vanajakshiro was the opening item, followed by Sobhillu in Jaganmohini.
Young Murali’s music seemed to challenge the audience: “Are you looking for melody? It is inborn. Do you expect mastery over laya? It is there in abundance. Sruti, laya, arithmetical manipulations – are all at my beck and call.” Though the allotted time was thirty minutes, the concert crossed three hours. The audience was unaware of the passage of time.
When the recital came to an end, Pantulu stood up to say a few words, but his voice choked. Tears rolling from his eyes, he rushed into an adjacent room, carrying Murali on his shoulders and started to weep. Musunuri Bhagavata took Pantulu’s place and spoke at length about Murali’s music. He said, ‘This boy reminds us of the young Muralikrishna of Brindavan, who swept away the universe with his sweet music. This young Muralikrishna may henceforth be called “Bala Muralikrishna.” Hope you will all agree.’ From that day, Murali came to be known as Balamuralikrishna.
(I highly recommend this article for those interested in learning more about the myth of the legend that he is).
The larger-than-life details don’t stop there. He started performing at 6, says one. Seven, says another. He performed and composed before he started to receive training, says one. He has over 400 compositions to his name. He has performed over 20,000 concerts says a grieving Tamil Nadu governor – nay, the number is closer to 25,000 says another. He accompanied the legends of his day in violin, we read. “And mrudangam!” cries another. “Did you know about the time he played the viola for Ariyakudi?” (I didn’t. Did you?)
Kamal Haasan called him a “maha-guru,” the “great teacher.” Tamil Nadu claimed him as one of their Kalaimamani-s, the nation claimed him as a Padma Vibushan. Even in France was he claimed, with the Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. (For a full list of his impressive accolades, might I suggest this link).
The Spirit Behind the Pioneer
It is important for us to remember that Balamuralikrishna transcended the realm of Carnātic music, in that he did not play only by its rules. He sang memorable numbers in Bollywood movies, building an impressive fan base out of Carnātic rasika-s and film fans alike.
Many opinions of him are floating around now, but the chorus largely sings the tune of a man whose voice they can still hear in their hearts. The sopranos sing of a Carnatic musician. The baritones sing of a Bollywood actor who sang. The tenors sang of a prolific composer. The altos sing of a game changer. Jayanthi Kumaresh says of him: “there are musicians who flow along the current of the wave that music is. But there are those who create a change in the wave.” Says Aruna Sairam: “His was a free mind — his music wasn’t pocketed into any particular set-up. Also, he was aware of the knowledge he was sitting on. It was because there was his childlike approach that made everything sound effortless.”
A strong sense of identity is consistently found in him across the span of his eight-decades: in a telling interview for The Hindu, Gowri Ramnarayan wrote six years ago that “[he was] convinced that his love for verse, [made] him excel in handling the Trinity. ‘When I sing Sadasiva Brahmendra or Jayadeva, [says Balamuralikrishna], you will think that the composers would have sung like that.’”
He tells Gowri:
"I flew into the skies with ‘Sogasu Nee Somma Kalyaniragini.' The moon melted like butter, the stars ran helter-skelter trying to find the source of the music. The woman's half-closed eyes brimming with feeling energised [Lord] Brahma into fresh creativity. The woman was none other than Kalyani Raga. Others saw her too! . . . My love songs will make you feel I have a lover beside me. Can't sing without experience!"
This honesty when describing one’s own sense of self is refreshing in a cultural norm that expects humility to trump pride, even at the cost of authenticity. When asked if he regretted any of his bold choices, he says to Gowri: “I am content, won't change even the controversies. They improved my knowledge.” Balamuralikrishna did not buckle to the will of controversy. Many may have agreed or disagreed with his choices, but his public persona has been largely consistent: a feat for someone in a largely populist and group-think-led world.
Improvisation is a skill possessed by practically every Carnātic musician. But to do so with the intention of crystallisation, to unabashedly pen their own compositions, is most certainly not. In a genre where the likes of the Carnātic Trinity dominate — not only with their compositions, but with the tales of their divine lives — to compose can be seen as your attempt to rank yourself self amongst them. This can be a dangerous move in a world where the composers of the past have risen steadily to the status of sainthood; the aesthetics of Carnātic music has strong lines of Hindu (if not Brahmin) sensibilities woven into its fabric. To compose, then, can require one to defend their own divinity as per the understandings of a largely Brahmin sensibility — piety as it is understood here, rarely allows for the brand of pride and self-confidence that Balamuralikrishna showed throughout his career.
All that aside, a mind preoccupied with the mundane details of how to circumnavigate this issue has not transcended it. In this way, Balamuralikrishna did surpass it. He would have proudly told you himself, that he has many compositions to his name. As the reader may already know, he even has rāgam-s to his name — an uncommon pursuit for the Carnātic composer. He is said to have composed the rāgam Mahati at age 24.
Some of his creations have been contested. Two years ago, SH Venkataramani chronicles of a “Stormy Exit:” Balamuralikrishna had just announced a retirement of sorts, where he would continue singing in radio programs, television shows, and abroad. When asked why he swore off public concerts in the motherland, he was quick to retort that “the dignity of professional music concerts had deteriorated to a very low level and become commercial, communal and political.” This might have been a hard swallow for the rather insular sabha scene, where criticism is not taken lightly. Venkataramani writes: “It was Balamurali's claim of having created new ragas that got the tradition-bound music circles of the south truly up in arms against him. Balachander vehemently contended that some of the ragas already existed.” In a largely gratification-driven world, that his creations were being spurned didn’t seem to deter him. Other rāgam-s of his include Lavangi, Manorama, Murali, Omkari, Prathimadhyamavathi, Rohini, Saravashri, Sumukham, Sushma, Ganapathi, Siddhi, and Pushkara Godvari.
In fact, the same Sruti article I mentioned before writes of how “in 1944, Balamurali provided viola accompaniment to Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and Chittoor Subramania Pillai.” Viola — would you believe it? Let’s put this in context: pioneers who picked up non-traditional instruments include Sukumar Prasad who started playing the guitar in the 1970s (who would later accompany Balamuralikrishna). There is, of course, Guitar Prasanna who debuted in in the late 1980s. We have our late Mandolin Srinivas who debuted in the late 1970s; saxophonist Kadri Gopalnath became a part of the public sphere in the 1980s. Balamuralikrishna picked up a viola to accompany someone a good three decades before any of this had begun.
My own grandmother, Seetha Doraiswamy, played the jalatharangam. Although she technically debuted at 1937, she didn’t really resurface for another 40 years until her familial obligations were over, in the late 1970s. Regardless, for the purposes of the exercise and tracing the trend of playing innovative instruments in the Carnātic scene, the jalatharangam is not entirely a non-traditional instrument to begin with. But bear with me, as I explain why I am reminded of her: to pick up a non-standard instrument and venture to play your own music on it requires a child-like curiosity, and a clear understanding of one’s own language. There has to be a love for the growth of what is yours. You have to love it enough to not let its limitations limit you. I bring this up because I know this, from having seen my grandmother’s own work — existing outside of the box has its advantages, but the disadvantages can easily topple the scale. I can only imagine the look on attendees’ faces a young man ascended the stage to play a viola (or as my mother called it once, the “periya (big) violin”) for the likes of Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar .
Nearly 72 years later, do we have any viola players playing in our Carnātic circuits? As an amusing aside, I wonder how the landscape of our collective music experience would be different had he instead chosen to go down that route. Would “Viola Muralikrishna” have moved us just as much? What would we have done without his trademark bass voice, which effortlessly glided between three octaves? Who would have instead been our Narada in Bhakta Prahlada? Would as many people know and love reetigoulai, without his Chinna Kannan Azhaikiran? To recount all of this, Oru Naal Pothuma?
Let us remember during this time, as we are flooded with information of him, that no matter what thinks of his musicality and how he lived his life, that this was a man who dared to be innovative.
Can we say that we dare to do so in our everyday lives? Do we boldly take credit for our work? Playfully approach things after decades of training? Innovate?
The Human Behind it All
For those who know him — or of him — we will always have those memories to hold on to. My older cousin tells me once of when she was driving in a late-night, darkened Chennai. She saw a car nearby driving with the lights on. As she peered in, perplexed, she recognised his face. We are all now recounting our memories of him, as thousands of pictures and stories are being shared.
I met him as a child. I was young, perhaps teetering on 10 years of age? To be completely honest, I don’t recall why I was there, but I do remember being upset. I was missing my scheduled weekly allowance for doing non-school or music related activities, yet I was standing in for Tukaram Ganapathi Maharaj, a harikathā exponent. I believe I was there to receive an honour on his behalf. The honour, of course, was to be bestowed by a certain M Balamuralikrishna.
It was loud; people were yelling over each other. Everyone was scurrying. The chaos broke suddenly; the sea of people parted to form a clear path as he came into the room, in a feat of wordless organisation that struck me to be no less miraculous than the many ancient stories of parting seas.
This was indeed an amusing picture: here came a legend, for whom the people collectively silenced themselves, and respectfully sat in awe. And I still sat, uncomfortably under layers of clothing, pouting — mourning the loss of my weekly free-time. Perhaps he picked up on this. I did not know then Balamuralikrishna the legend, but I did know the grandfather, who sat with me kindly.
He did not stay for long. We went on stage, he opened the large silk cloth — the ponnādai, as it were — and with a seasoned flourish opened it and covered me in it, as he towered me. “Smile,” he directed, turning to the camera. I did. Somewhere, in the crowd, my dear friend Bhavya’s mother could be heard telling my mother: “Let her be upset now, it’s okay. One day, she will know the worth of that picture.” As we all look back now together at his prolific career, I wonder if I comprehend the entirety of it, even now.
That’s my first memory of him. Tell me yours?
Ganavya Doraiswamy holds degrees in psychology, and graduate degrees in performance (Berklee College of Music), and ethnomusicology (UCLA). She has lately been on the road with Quincy Jones’s production company for Tocororo, an album that hit #1 in jazz charts.