An unassuming genius

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Interview M. Balamuralikrishna, who charmed the audience during a recent U.S. tour, credits his musical brilliance to his mother's boon.

An Instrument for music: M Balamuralikrishna.
An Instrument for music: M Balamuralikrishna.

During his recent U.S. tour, Dr. Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna rendered an exceptional juglabandi along with Ronu Majumdar on the flute. They were accompanied by Abhijit Banerjee (tabla), B.U. Ganeshprasad (violin) and T. Murugabhoopathy (mridangam).

The concert was organised by Indian Fine Arts, Austin, Texas, whose Directors, Raj and Janaki Nagarajan, hosted the maestro for the first time in the U.S. 38 years ago.

Poet Usha Akella , on behalf of IFA, tried to get an insightinto the octogenarian musician and the man in a rare interview. He answered questions with charm and humour.

His wisdom was evident and he resonated with something beyond the familiar plane of consciousness. Excerpts:

You were the earliest initiator of juglabandi with Hindustani musicians such as Pt. Bhimsen Joshi, Pt. Chaurasia, Smt. Amonkar and Pt. Jasraj. You have a special relish for crossing genres. What makes jugalbandi successful?

Carnatic music, as it is called, is the base for world music. If we know Carnatic music well, all other music is in our grip. But for others it is not like that. Carnatic music means karaneshu attati iti carnataha . That which pleases your ears is Carnatic music. It may be Hindustani, Western or Persian music, it may be anything… If it is good and you enjoy listening to it, it is Carnatic music. There is nothing like a separate Carnatic music. Don't confine Carnatic music into a small area.

Your association with IFA goes back a long way. What is your overall experience of U.S. audiences versus Indian ones?

It's the same. They are our own people.

Your first concert was at age 8, mastery of 72 Melakartha ragas at 15 and you have performed at over 25,000 concerts. In the West one thinks of Mozart who seemed to have that inexplicable musical genius at a young age. How do you describe your talent?

(Laughing) I don't know. It happens.

Your effortless style makes it easy for even a novice to take up classical music . They just have to listen to you and the gates open wide.

That is because most people normally put Carnatic music in a room and lock it. I've sung with all musicians including the French and British… one should only know Carnatic music well.

You have done more than 400 compositions in all the Melakartha ragas? Personally, what are your favourite ragas?

I can't say because all ragas are my children. I can't say which child I like…

Your bhava is exquisite. Where does it come from?

Every raga has a shape and if you can imagine the shape… bhava flows. You are the same person changing dresses everyday. Music is like that in relation to ragas.

You have done work on music therapy?

I am not using it. It is too costly. But my experiments were successful.

While reading your biography I read that you lost your mother early?

Yes, when I was 15 days old. My mother played the veena and my father, the flute. When she was pregnant, they thought if it was boy they would name him Murali Krishna and if a girl, Saraswati. My mother, predicted everything about my life before her death. She said her veena in some form will always be with me and that I would become one of the world's great musicians. I feel that came true in the form of Dr. Saraswati who takes care of everything.

Did your father bring you up? My mother had five sisters. She was the youngest. My eldest aunt was a widow. She took care of me. I think of her as my mother.

Your compositions have beautiful lyrics…

I don't have any knowledge. I have gone to school for just three months. I don't know how I am able to speak in English. I have not studied Sanskrit… I don't know how, my compositions have poetry.

As a child do you remember the moment when you knew music was going to be your path?

I gave my first concert when I did not know anything. I never imagined I would become a musician.

What do you feel is your contribution to Carnatic music?

I made all music into Carnatic music (smiling). I brought that awareness.

That is phenomenal.

I don't know anything… I don't know music… I am an instrument. Like that violin (pointing to one), It doesn't know music. Somebody plays it. It makes music. Like that I am an instrument for music. Music uses me if it wants me. So I never feel I am great. Dr. Saraswati is responsible for what I am today. That's what my mother predicted. I never aspire for anything. Whatever I want comes to me.

If I had not become a popular musician I would not have been disappointed. It just happened. I keep my mind fresh and free, that's why I don't look my age (smiling).

When you start to sing…you are a child of God.

It's my mother's boon.



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