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A musical colossus

By Garimella Subramaniam

Balamuralikrishna. — Photo: N. Sridharan

CHENNAI, JULY 5. As the musical virtuoso Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna steps into his 75th year on July 6, he has reason to look back on his life with pride, and perhaps some dismay. Fifth in a line of direct disciples of the saint-composer Thyagaraja, he symbolises versatility as a Vaggeyakara, creator of new ragas, playback singer and music director. He is equally adept at playing the violin, the viola, the mridangam and the kanjira. However, the orthodox response to his originality has at times been lukewarm. Yet, his rich and electrifying voice, an innate ability to communicate deeper human emotions and ease in traversing the three octaves have mesmerised connoisseur and commoner alike for over six decades.

In 1938, at the age of eight, Balamuralikrishna stormed the world of classical music with a full-fledged concert in Vijayawada. Perhaps not many people then expected the meteoric rise of the child prodigy. But at 15 he stunned even the pundits of music and lyric with his compositions in all the foundational 72 Melakarta ragas of the Carnatic system. The Janaka Raga Manjari was published in 1952 and recorded as Raagaanga Ravali in a nine-volume series by the Sangeeta Recording Company.

His kritis, numbering nearly 400 in Sanskrit, Telugu and Tamil, span the whole range of the musical lexicon and are paeans to the plurality of deities in the Hindu pantheon. Two compositions must figure among the most uncommon in the Carnatic genre. The Todi song Maa Maa nini, is a swara sahityam from beginning to end. The notations in this piece convey meaning as lyrical expressions. His tribute to the socialist experience in the erstwhile USSR, set in ragam Kedaram, is also unique to the Carnatic tradition.

Characteristic of Balamuralikrishna's musical journey has been his non-conformism, spirit of experimentation and boundless creativity. The ragas Sarvasri, Lavangi, Sumukham and Mahati that he innovated represent his quest for new frontiers. Sarvasri and Lavangi are set to three and four notes respectively, in ascending and descending scales. They were once regarded an act of sacrilege by the orthodox. But then, any serious appraisal of a contemporary work of art must be historically informed. Innovation of new ragas was the defining characteristic of the Thyagaraja legacy. The physicists M.V. Ramana and V.N. Muthukumar have thrown light on this aspect. According to them, the more than 700 Thyagaraja compositions available today are set in 212 ragas. Of them, 121 had but one composition and Thyagaraja was the first to compose kritis in 66 ragas. Significantly, the ragas Vivardhani and Navarasa Kanada - which are innovations by Thyagaraja - have just four notes on the ascent. They were the first of their kind in the 19th century. Arguably, Balamuralikrishna's own ragas merely take Thyagaraja's endeavour to its

culmination. Ranjani, another Thyagaraja creation, boasts of over a hundred kritis today, including Balamuralikrishna's Vande Maataram, andee maa taram.

The real issue underlying these controversies appears to have been a challenge to his philosophy of music; nay, that of the Trinity. Balamuralikrishna has long held that Carnatic music today is an entity outside the strictly religious domain. He remarked once that those who believed that concert singing denigrated the essence of Carnatic music should confine their singing to puja rooms. This was in response to criticism that the intermission, characteristic to the Balamuralikrishna concert but unusual for a kutchery, degraded classical music to the level of entertainment.

This apart, his overall pragmatism has evoked recrimination from purists who are in fact behind the times with respect to Thyagaraja. The gradual shift away from the Bhakti tradition in Carnatic music was evident even to the Trinity. Indeed, they had contributed to this process by introducing the sangati in singing compositions. Today this is one of the hallmarks of a Carnatic concert, and Balamuralikrishna embellishes his performances with rich improvisations. Here again, his sparing use of the sangati, with a sensitivity to the lyrics, is evident to the discerning listener.

An enduring legacy of Balamuralikrishna is the wider accessibility of classical kirtanas to the public. Many of his contemporaries tend to treat classical and popular music as watertight compartments.

Balamuralikrishna's kutcheris combine sophisticated vocal skills and rhythmic patterns of classical music with the popular demand for entertainment value.

Often, he draws liberally on musical phrases from folk tunes of lore in order to delineate a less-known raga. Not surprisingly, even his critics are hard put to dismiss his craft or his conformity to the tenets of traditional Carnatic music.

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