Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna speaks to Gowri Ramnarayan on compositions, controversies and his latest Yagnaraman Lifetime Achievement Award.

What honour does Sangita Kalanidhi, Padma Vibhushan, Chevalier des art et des Letters Dr. Balamuralikrishna, the only artist to have received several national awards, cherish most?

Noting his special bond with the late Yagnaraman of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, the vidwan says, “He gave me the first choice of dates, and visited me on the morning of the concert. I gave a benefit performances for his sabha, launched many of my new ragas and compositions there, as also a series without mridangam and violin, with veena, flute or ghatam, finally, without any accompaniment.” Sadly, a misunderstanding resulted in a rift, healed when Balamuralikrishna visited the dying Yagnaraman in hospital. “When his son Prabhu asked me, I agreed at once to accept the Yagnaraman Lifetime Achievement Award (July 4).”

No stranger to prodigies, Carnatic music has also seen talent snuffed out by over-exposure. How did Balamuralikrishna manage to sustain his art through eight decades? “My father’s guidance and guru’s blessings. My guru Parupalli Ramakrishnayya Pantulu had amazing vidwat. Though a member of the Music Academy’s Experts Committee, he was never invited to perform there. Didn’t approach anyone either.”

Such a vidwan naturally directed the child’s precocity into lakshya and lakshana channels. Spiritual guru Vimalanda Bharati deemed that the boy should establish a new era in Carnatic music, just as Tyagaraja had done. Realising that melakartas offer perfect training in clarity and precision, the teenager produced an imposing 72 melamalika. “Dikshitar’s are asampurna melas, while Kotiswara Iyer concentrated on notes. I wanted to establish the raga swarupa.” He explains, “We can sing any genre -- fusion, jazz or jugalbandi -- but Hindustani or western musicians can’t sing our style. They don’t have this system.”

What about the controversies over his compositions and new raga creations? “Critics have become followers. They even compose tillana, varnam and dance compositions like mine!” he laughs.

Balamuralikrishna is convinced that his love for verse, inherited from his poet grandfather, makes him excel in handling the Trinity. “When I sing Sadasiva Brahmendra or Jayadeva, you will think that the composers would have sung like that.” Opening a notebook filled with beautifully handwritten songs, he explains that his own sahitya is suggestive, not literal. “You’ll know this song is about Venkateswara though I don’t mention his name or the seven hills.” His sahitya has been the subject of doctoral study, most recently by the Telugu poet Ramalinga Sastri.

Asked to sing at Raghavendraswami’s temple, the vidwan found himself flowing into Anandabhairavi (‘Manchirozidi’) with swarakshara ripples. At an open-air concert in Kerala, the crescent crowded with stars above the temple gopuram, a gorgeous woman in silks and diamonds found her way through the thousands-strong audience to sit beside the singer. “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 Brahma into fresh creativity. The woman was none other than Kalyani Raga. Others saw her too!”

The vidwan sings ‘Kanipinchu’ next, describing a dark night where everything vanished, even heartbeats. “My love songs will make you feel I have a lover beside me. Can’t sing without experience!” he chuckles.

His empathy with Tagore’s Nature worship reflected in his Rabindra Sangeet won tearful commendation from a disciple of Gurudev. “I am the only non-Bengali selected to record 30 songs of Tagore in a project to preserve all his compositions.” He recalls performing as a soloist in the Gitanjali Suite with an acclaimed British choir.

As producer, AIR, and head of its light music unit, Balamuralikrishna was able to experiment with a new musical vision in Madras, Hyderabad and Vijayawada. “We have a weakness in Carnatic music…” he pauses. “Bhakti?” you ask. “No, sampradayam! A much misunderstood word,” he replies and adds, “Did Ariyakudi sing like Maharajapuram? Chembai like GNB? Each had his own sampradayam.”

Television shows record the vocalist accompanying himself on mridangam and viola. “For crispness and clarity, every singer must know tala vadyam,” he asserts. “I have accompanied all the big vidwans on the violin,” he exults. Finding an old viola at actor Suribabu’s house introduced him to a majestic, male counterpart to the violin.

Balamuralikrishna’s fame was enhanced by filmdom. “Film music has what Carnatic music needs: voice control, modulation, sruti and sahitya clarity. I can vary my vocal projection according to each mike, in auditoria, radio and TV. I learnt to compose for various situations.” He welcomes technological advance. “That’s why we have so many Balamuralis now!”

Music therapy was a passion, with celebrity patients including M.G. Ramachandran. “Not a simplistic this-raga-cures-that-illness process. It is about how, when and where you present what kind of music.” His meticulously planned therapy projects in Bangalore and Hyderabad were cancelled by new post-election governments.

If he could live his life again? “I am content, won’t change even the controversies. They improved my knowledge.”