M. Balamuralikrishna on his train journeys to Madras, the joy of performing at prestigious sabhas and his passion for driving cars

I loved train travel. I would take the passenger train from Vijayawada, my hometown, at six in the evening and reach Madras at six the next morning. I enjoyed sitting up through the journey and staring out of the window. It was thrilling to see the hustle and bustle at stations when the train stopped. I was in my early teens and used to make several trips between Vijayawada and Madras with my musician-father — I recited the names of the almost 45 stations en route to Madras like a musical verse in one breath. I can still do it. There are often requests from listeners and friends to hear this.

At age eight, I performed full-length kutcheris. I also played the violin, viola, flute, veena and mridangam. One of the reasons why Madras was the preferred destination of the practitioners of classical arts was that All India Radio station was located here — the only one in South India then. There were no recorded broadcasts; it was very much like a stage performance. You had to be well-prepared and meticulous about every detail.

Every time I returned to Vijayawada, the happy thought of the hoary sabhas and the heart-warming response of the discerning rasikas were something I longed to come back to. In 1964, I decided to make Madras home.

Ever since my first visit to Madras in the early 1940s, it was my dream to drive cars on the city's calm and clean roads. The punctuality and cleanliness during the British regime are worth emulating.

I bought a house for Rs. 50,000 next to where the Music Academy is presently located. It was a desolate area with very few houses and buildings around. Many people advised me against staying there. But I went ahead as it was centrally-located. The massive TTK office and residence and the Music Academy came up later.

There were just three significant sabhas in the city. Artistes performed only when invited. Seeking opportunities were unheard of.

Madras offered a perfect ambience to explore the art form and develop a personalised style. The receptive rasikas and their earnest ‘sabash’ gave the courage to look beyond the usual. And I expanded my repertoire with new ragas and compositions. The audience appreciation was often backed by theoretical understanding of the art form.

Jugalbandi is not a contemporary musical jargon. South met North in a resounding manner, with legendary Carnatic and Hindustani musicians sharing the platform in good-old Madras. The creative bouts were challenging but, at the same time, friendly. There was respect for each other's vidwat and style.

I remember the year I presided over the Music Academy session (sadas) Bharatanatyam exponent Padma Subrahmanyam presented ‘Sukhalasya' — the concept of movement for dance. During the course of the performance, she said that it was possible to dance to any raga alapana. I got up and sang Yadukulakamboji and she performed to it wonderfully. There are many such instances of artistes indulging in generous give and take.

Music lovers too made dedicated efforts to travel long distances to attend kutcheris. A tram ride was a favourite leisure activity for many. It was real fun. Every two years I would go in for a new car. I have driven a Morris Minor, Baby Austin, Ambassador, Fiat, Volkswagen Beetle…

I was not much of an outdoors person. So, I have no recollections of eating out or going to the beach or watching a movie. I would visit Semmangudi (Srinivasa Iyer) sir, who lived nearby and was fond of me. People not only lived in large spaces they also had large hearts to play host to a constant stream of relatives and friends. Life and art were not about trappings.