A practice in freedom

Not attached to results (clockwise) Balamurali Krishna (top) celebrated his music; with his favourite composer Ilaiyaraja; at a recording with G.K. Venkatesh, Dr. Rajkumar, G.V. Iyer and Pt. Bhimsen Joshi; paying obeisance to Pt. Bhimsen Joshi after their jugalbandi

Not attached to results (clockwise) Balamurali Krishna (top) celebrated his music; with his favourite composer Ilaiyaraja; at a recording with G.K. Venkatesh, Dr. Rajkumar, G.V. Iyer and Pt. Bhimsen Joshi; paying obeisance to Pt. Bhimsen Joshi after their jugalbandi  

Dr. M. Balamurali Krishna, the star Carnatic vocalist, is no more. He belonged to that rare class of musicians who, despite their idiosyncracies, kept their core unsullied

A couple of months ago, a television channel played an interview of Dr. M. Balamurali Krishna from their archives. The interviewer, conscious of the legendary status of the musician before her, posed questions to him in high seriousness. With his never fading smile, BMK had comfortably sunk into the lounge sofa. The early years had been traced, and then came the Madras moment. “How was it moving to Madras?” she asked. “It was nothing. I just drove my car to Madras,” he replied settling into his smile again. She was visibly confounded. “So how did you learn music?” she moved to the next question, concealing her perplexity. “It came to me, I didn’t learn,” he smiled again. “Practice?” She probed. “I never practiced,” came the reply. The entire interview more or less moved on these lines – BMK snug in his one liners. For the viewer it was surely great amusement; BMK did say a lot without saying much. Probably in his Seventies by then, BMK had spent nearly six decades in music, exactly the way he wanted to. With a huge body of music, innovations, experiments, interviews, controversies… all before the world, speaking may have seemed a weary proposition to him.

The non-conformist, affable maestro is no more. A man of few words, BMK can at best be reconstructed through stories, and his undiminished popularity as a musician. In the mid-Eighties when BMK was in his peak, we watched this musician who sounded like no other with open-jawed wonder. He was what Parveen Sultana was to Hindustani music, a flamboyant persona and a felicitous voice to match it. Thousands thronged the concert pandals, not just to hear but to also see him. He wore silk kurtas in striking colours with an impeccable white dhoti. His gold ornaments were always strategically positioned. If the modern Carnatic musicians pay much attention to their concert attire, the precursor of this trend is certainly BMK. Those were also the years when BMK sang the poet Jayadeva, and when he uttered the word Radhika, loaded with sensuousness, the audience heaved and sighed, and hummed along. He was a redoubtable presence and it was hard to escape BMK’s charm. In all these years -- from my years as a kid to now -- if something has remained unchanged it is the crowds that thronged BMK’s concert. They came in hordes and continued to remain mesmerised. The nature of his music also remained at a constant.

If in his personal aesthetics BMK resembled Parveen Sultana, in his philosophy of music he was close to stalwarts like Bhimsen Joshi and T.R. Mahalingam. For him, like these musicians, the outcome seemed less important than the journey itself. Even when he was well into his eighties, Balamurali was bringing everything into his music that he had 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 result was at times disastrous, but that anyway wasn’t the point.

I recall the last jugalbandi concert of Balamuralikrishna and Bhimsen Joshi in Bangalore. Bhimsen Joshi was ill and was brought on a wheelchair. Balamurali, in shining yellow kurta and a gold chain, paid his respects to the doyen and plunged into his characteristic self. Breezy swaras, gentle short, light phrases, lilting notes… within moments he had won over the audience. Bhimsen Joshi was quietly watching this for a good 20-25 minutes, and all of a sudden, the indomitable Bhimsen Joshi let out his distinctive musical roar, and what till then had seemed like a BMK concert, had been taken over by the Hindustani master. It didn’t seem to trouble BMK at all, his smile widened and he remained awestruck by the grandeur and spirit of Bhimsen Joshi’s music. For the rest of the concert, the audience watched the two maverick musicians, enjoying each other’s passion.

Speaking on similar lines, his disciple Prince Rama Varma in an essay on his guru, speaks of how BMK was happy to be left to the music of his belief and the rest did not matter.

He had been kept away from performing at the prestigious Navarathri Mantapam for several years, but in no way had this upset him. He neither expressed bitterness nor did he nurture malice.

Balamuralikrishna’s journey has been characterised by his free spirit, his defiance towards the power centres of music, alongside his penchant for experimentation that flowed from his vast creative abilities. In an interview to Sruti, the journal of music and dance, Balamurali had said: “Please don’t throttle innovation in the name of tradition.”

BMK, in fact, in his early days had contested the notion of classical itself.

He was among the few Carnatic vocalists who sang for cinema and had been criticized for it too. “What is classical according to you?” he had asked. “I will tell you. Whatever stands the test of time is classical. There are film songs that remain evergreen after three decades and that is classical. Cinema is such a popular medium because it carries many rasas. Try infusing similar variety into classical music, it will scale dizzying heights,” he had said emphatically in the Sruti interview. He was aware that such a license would bring bad music, “but the listener will throw it out, and keep the enduring one.” For BMK, Ilaiyaraja was among the greatest composers. “I have sung in several parts of the world. I can say with confidence that there is no match to Indian classical music. If someone has explored and mastered it fully, it is Ilaiyaraja,” the maestro said in perhaps one of the most generous compliments a “classical musician” has ever paid to a “film music composer”.

This radical, intelligent musician broke many walls and believed that the final test of his music was in the listener’s response. But BMK, who always had a huge following, did not elevate his music after the success of the initial years. He played the same cards and the charisma of innovation slowly wore out for many who had watched this unusual genius with interest.

Many like me, outgrew his music, however the attraction towards Balamurali the phenomenon, couldn’t be surpassed.

BMK has left behind several students, each of them trying to sing exactly like him. It is perhaps possible to imitate his voice, his tonal modulations and mannerisms, but the self which permeated into his music, will be hard to reproduce. During a live concert, calling his Anna on stage to sing, Ilaiyaraja said BMK was Chinna Kanna (Chinna Kannan Azhaikiran) personified. In every sense, that is a description which cannot be bettered.

His music remained the same largely; his unfading innocence and essential human goodness also remained unchanged, even with his huge success.

I had interviewed BMK a few years ago. As I was leaving, he suggested I take a picture with him. “Don’t you want one for your album?” he had asked. In the most unforgettable manner, he asked: “You will remember me, won’t you?” Was that an oxymoron?

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 3:03:37 PM |

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