The endearing Carnatic vocalist Balamuralikrishna continues to have a huge fan following. Listening to the maverick musician at 83, Deepa Ganesh feels that his pursuit of music now is as obsessive as it was during his heyday
Why was I thinking of the late Pandit Bhimsen Joshi as I sat there listening to the Carnatic maestro M. Balamuralikrishna? In many ways, the non-conformist Balamuralikrishna, is similar to Bhimsen Joshi. For him, like the legendary Joshi, the outcome is less important than the journey itself. At 83, Balamurali was bringing everything into his music that he brought in his heyday – he dared the three octaves, sometimes more; he challenged the violinist and the percussionists with his calculations, and brought the most unanticipated moments for listeners and accompanists. The last jugalbandi concert of Balamuralikrishna and Bhimsen Joshi was in Bangalore. Bhimsen Joshi was ill and on a wheelchair. Balamurali stole the initial moments and one actually felt that it was going to be his concert, before the indomitable Bhimsen Joshi let out his characteristic roar and simply took over. That evening, these two maverick musicians, had greatly enjoyed each other’s passion.
At the recent concert organised by Sri Rama Lalitha Kala Mandira, the audience who were drawn from various other cities also, relished the remarkable spirit of this musician with a huge following. Balamuralikrishna was cheerful, lively, yet there was something mellow about his musical demeanour. He was not singing off his hat, merely from the habit of his golden years – he was in a reflective mode. He was constantly discussing with his disciple Veera Raghavan, there were long pauses, silences and it would perhaps be simplistic to attribute all this to his age.
Balamuralikrishna’s journey has been characterised by his free spirit, his defiance towards the power centres of music, alongside his penchant for experimentation that flows from his vast creative abilities. His student Prince Rama Verma, in his essay on his guru Balamuralikrishna, speaks of how he had been kept away from performing at the prestigious Navarathri Mantapam, but in no way had this upset him. One may have disagreements with Balamuralikrishna’s music, but even his bitter critics may have to agree that his music stems from an obsessive pursuit.
The concert opened with a lively Kannada composition in Mohana raga “Paalisemma Muddu Sharade”. Shorn of all embellishments, the piece was simple, and resonated with chaste notes in Balamurali’s voice that showed no signs of ageing. It soared to the upper octave and sunk with ease to the mandra, which is his signature threshold.
For many years now, Balamurali, a vaggeyakara himself, sings mostly his own compositions. With over 400 compositions to his credit, Balamurali is also a creator of many ragas. Even in this concert, he mostly sang his own, but all in well established ragas. Balamurali brought back the mood of the Eighties with his two most popular compositions, “Ee pariya Sobagu” and “Satyavantarigidu Kaalavalla.” His alapane for the raga Hamsanandi was slow, and contemplative – it had the graces of Hindustani style. As Balamurali took the raga through its various contours, one could imagine why the puritans of the Madras music durbar were left shocked by this unusual musician’s unconventional approach. When he ventured into swaraprastara at “Gaganadali…”, there were a bundle of surprises awaiting the accompanists while Balamurali tried various mathematical possibilities.
“Amba Mamava” in Ranjani was a sparkling reminder of the Ranjani ragamalika, “Ranjani Mrudu Pankaja Lochani”. In his Hindola rendition, Balamurali was constantly trying to craft new idioms and work new expressions. The tani for Hindola was a show stealer. Arjun Kumar on the mridanga and Giridhar Udupa on the ghata elevated the concert with their brilliant performance. Balamurali who was enjoying every bit of it (particularly his exchanges with Mysore Manjunath on violin), made encouraging remarks throughout. “If I don’t sing ‘Satyavantarigidu Kalavalla’ then I will be disappointing many,” the affable musician remarked, referring to the hundreds of requests that he had received. The charming tillana in Kuntalavarali was happy and pleasing.
Balamurali is clearly a man of few words. But the smile on his face rarely fades. The endearing musician refuses to sing Mangalam these days. Ask him why, and he says, “I have stopped singing Mangalam because I want to sing a lot more. I want to do more research and propagate Indian music,” says Balamurali, who believes that Indian music is the basis for all music.
Heap praise on him, and Balamurali will make it seem it has nothing to do with his self. “I don’t sing, music sings. If my music is successful, it’s because of listeners,” says the very same Balamurali, who believes that tradition gets renewed with individual talent. Like Nietzche said, ‘One is fruitful only at the cost of being rich in contradictions.’