M Balamuralikrishna remembered: Carnatic music gem with a personality that belied his physical presence

Carnatic music is rather fortunate to be overflowing with great artistes and M Balamuralikrishna, who passed away earlier on Tuesday, was one of its icons.

Apoorva Sripathi November 23, 2016 09:04:19 IST
M Balamuralikrishna remembered: Carnatic music gem with a personality that belied his physical presence

Carnatic music is rather fortunate to be overflowing with great artistes and Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, who passed away earlier on Tuesday, was one of its legendary icons.

A native of Sankaraguptam from East Godavari, Balamuralikrishna, who was a 5th generation descendant of the saint-composer Thyagaraja in the guru-shishya tradition, was equally skilled at playing the violin, the mridangam and the kanjira, as he was with singing. Having been an exponent of classical music for seven decades (his first foray into Carnatic was when he was six) — including more than a glowing 25,000 concerts and 400 compositions — Balamuralikrishna was a true exponent of the genre; an example of the endurance of music. His 400 compositions include varnams, kritis, and tillanas, in various Indian languages and in all the 72 melakarta ragams.

Though Telugu by birth, Balamuralikrishna sang effortlessly in many languages, including Tamil, Kannada, Sanskrit, Malayalam and Hindi.

Balamuralikrishna didn't just stop with Carnatic like many of his contemporaries — a nonconformist, he experimented with Hindustani, jugalbandi, playback singing and even acting, making his debut in the film Bhakta Prahlada as the Sage Narada. His renditions of 'Oru naal podhuma' for the Sivaji Ganesan-Savitri-starrer Thiruvilaiyadal and the Reetigowlai-based 'Chinna kannan azhaikiran' (Kavikuyil) still mesmerise audiences. (The song 'Kangal Irandal', another enchanting Reetigowlai composition, from Subramaniapuram, which closely resembles the aforementioned, was composed by James Vasanthan, who got the legendary musician to sing 'Anbaley Azhgagum Veedu', for Pasanga.)

As a believer that "change is an integral part of life and the musician is no exception", Balamuralikrishna was a keen improviser on stage. Lending weight to that argument is mridangam vidwan Umayalpuram Sivaraman, a veteran of more than six decades in the industry, who has accompanied Balamuralikrishna on various occasions. "One of the moments that remain etched in my memory has to do with his composition 'Brihadeeswara' in Kaanada raagam, and I was accompanying him on stage. The song has a slow tempo to it and I generally play fast talams. He was thrilled with the tempo I gave and he remarked 'I probably composed the tempo for Sivaraman to play'. It's unfortunate that such a great mahavidwan has been snatched from our midst."
It's not just the realm of Carnatic music that they share, as Umayalpuram tells me, they have a "60 year friendship" between them. "Be it a vaggeyakara, a musician par excellence, a composer or just a fine human being, Balamuralikrishna is one of the finest jewels that God created for music. His loss to me is not just professional; it's personal as well — we belong to a mutual admiration society."
Be it the Padma Vibhushan in 1991, the Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government in 2005, or the Sangeetha Kalanidhi (bestowed by the Music Academy in Chennai), Balamuralikrishna has never gone after awards, pursuing music as the true goal — Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa was vocal that the legend be conferred with the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honour. "By conferring the award on him, India will only be honouring herself," The Hindu quoted her as saying.
Contemporaries like Umayalpuram aside, Balamuralikrishna evokes inspiration among his juniors too. Padma Shri awardee and Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam confers the title of "genius" on him. "The word truly applies to him; sometimes we apply the word too casually. He is an important link to the great masters of Carnatic music and in his loss we have forfeited a musical giant."

The Hindu BusinessLine recalls a lovely story about Balamuralikrishna: his formal education that lasted all of six months. Credited with creating ragams like Ganapathi, Sarvashri, Mahati and Lavangi, the singer used to hand in blank answer sheets during examinations when he was a student. This prompted the headmaster to advice the former's father, Pattabhiramayya, a musician in his own right as was his wife, to hone Balamuralikrishna's musical genius.

It's hard to find a picture of the singer in which he's anything but cheerful; his face adorned with his wide charismatic smile.

Padma Shri and Vibhushan awardee Sudha Raghunathan talks in awe about the legend's "sense of abandonment" when it came to performing. "There's absolutely no fear in what he expresses; he embodies courage and faith, which is very important for a performer. He might be 5'5 tall, but his personality belied his physical presence." Sairam adds, "He was an extremely childlike human being; even though it may appear that all of what he did was easy and simple, a lifetime's work has gone into it. He had a prime pursuit of excellence."

And age didn't render his work futile — in fact, he was more active than ever in his later years, performing concerts with an obsessive gusto. "Despite his old age, his voice had the same reverbrating multi tonal richness till his last day. The astonishing thing about his voice is that he could hold a note for a long period, putting the syllable suspended in mid air. It is as though he could nail a particular note on the wall, and say — stay there as long as I command," adds prominent Carnatic music singer, Papanasam Ashok Ramani.

With inputs from PTI and Vishnupriya Bhandaram

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