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An unassuming genius

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Face-to-face M. Balamuralikrishna, who charmed the audience during a recent U.S. tour, credits his musical brilliance to his mother's blessing.

HUMILITY IN GREATNESS: M. Balamuralikrishna.
HUMILITY IN GREATNESS: M. Balamuralikrishna.

During his recent U.S. tour, Dr. Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna rendered an exceptional jugalbandi 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 insight into 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:

Congratulations! It was a stupendous concert. You, along with Ronu Majumdar, brought the audience to its feet. I need poetry to express myself… every word blooms as a flower when you sing, realising its fullest potential in meaning. There is only one Balamuralikrishna, a rare genius.

Bala! Bala! (laughing) I am only Bala when it comes to music.

You were the earliest initiator of jugalbandi 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 to 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.

I have had the pleasure of enjoying Lavangi at most of your concerts. I was astounded to hear that you composed the pallavi, anu pallavi and charana in three circumambulations at the Meenakshi temple. Is this right?

At the Brihadeeshawara temple… the arohana and avarohana came to my mind. The song has become popular because everybody dances to it now. Unless there is a song you can't establish the raga.

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.

Every time I listen to you, I feel boundaries collapse and you touch the source of music, of nada and bring your music back from that realm.

Music is like that. You can't put it in a box and lock it.

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.

Personally, have you achieved everything you wanted to as a musician?

I have to achieve more and more (smiling).

So what is left?

We are growing everyday… everything is growing. Growth is in nature. Look at the world... and around you… there is always something new.

There is no end ?

No. You can't lock Carnatic music in a room.

Only a few have the capacity to unlock it.

I know what I sing. Every day the sun rises and sets. But every day is different. If music is not like that, it's not music.

I read that you have done work on music therapy.

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

I am interested in the man behind the artist. 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 went 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.

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

It's my mother's blessing.

That which pleases your ears is Carnatic music. If it is good and you enjoy it, it is Carnatic music…


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