Versatile and fearless, Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna speaks of the Season, artists and his passion — art.
Everything I did was deprecated by the media and others. I think I derived my strength from it.
A rich baritone, loads of charisma… He walks tall in the raga-sphere. Meet the Big B of Carnatic Music, Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna. He has enriched the classical repertoire with his inimitable compositions. A child prodigy, he has sustained his talent even in his grey years.
The only Carnatic musician to be conferred the “Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres” by the French Government, the youngest Sangita Kalanidhi besides doctorates from several universities (“though I never finished schooling”...) Walk into the first floor drawing room of his modest house on Cathedral Road and you are surrounded by the awards he has won.
For a long time, he has not been a part of the Madras Season yet you see and hear him enough. He is a sought-after name for chief guest at music and dance programmes. Where there’s art, Balamuralikrishna is.
“If people want to hear me, sabhas would have invited me to sing,” he says when asked about not participating in the Music Season. Not the one to sugar coat his comments or be diplomatic, he adds, “I am not desperate. I have done almost 20,000 concerts. It’s strange that artists have to apply like one does for a job to get an opportunity to go up on the stage. Many of them pay and perform. It never happened in our times. The deserving always got a chance. Where’s Carnatic music heading?”
Put off by the chaotic growth of sabhas and cutcheris, the veteran vocalist is optimistic though that it is a passing cloud.
“Anything too much is not good. Sadly, artists think more the concerts, more the popularity. There’s no point doing 20 ordinary concerts. They owe it to the art to improve the standard of listening.”
Music is not as simple as learning and performing. Values and ethics enhance its aesthetic quality, stresses Balamuralikrishna. “For instance, when I was awarded Sangita Kalanidhi and presided over the Music Academy conference, that year I did not perform in any other sabha. We need to honour the prestigious title. Also, once you start making compromises for seeking kutcheris, you will be caught in a rut. Rasikas should have the urge to see and hear you.”
But to follow the mind one needs to be fearless and have immense confidence, quite like this versatile performer (he can play the viola, veena, mridangam and kanjira). “Everything I did was deprecated by the media and others. I think I derived my strength from it. There was brouhaha over my singing my own compositions. I wondered why I cannot choose words to express myself. That’s what Tyagaraja did. He described Rama the way he saw him. Ironically many of my works are now being used by musicians and dancers. It’s heartening though. I never expected to reach where I am today. I learnt music without knowing it will one day become my calling.”
From a small village (Sankaraguptam) in Andhra Pradesh to criss-crossing the globe, his music is not constricted by language, genres and geographical borders. “We are getting carried away by the on-the-move musicians. Most of the Carnatic concerts abroad are being organised by NRIs. The defining moment is when an artist is invited to a foreign land and applauded by the foreign nationals. They should forge artistic alliances and find new audiences by introducing people of other nationalities to our arts.”
Unlike many of the veterans, he is open to creative experiments, particularly fusion. “I have performed with British musicians. I have sung Rabindra Sangeet and French numbers too. Most often I include local flavour in my concerts to connect with people.”
Balamuralikrishna has a different take on tradition. He strongly feels in the name of tradition we let stagnation to set in. And those who talk constantly about it are not sticking to it either. “If you are a true traditionalist don’t accept money for concerts.”
So what’s his definition of tradition? “Style. It varies from person to person. Without it music will be monotonous,” smiles Balamuralikrishna even as he tells one of his admirers on the cell phone in Telugu, “No, no I am not singing. I am only a guest of honour at the function.”
And the maestro says people don’t want to hear him!