Balamuralikrishna (1930-2016): An Ode to a maestro

Torchbearer of innovation

About 75 years ago, to be precise on July 18, 1940, at 8 a.m. the ten-year-old boy Muralikrishna took the people of Vijayawada by surprise. He started with the varnam “Vanajakshiro”, rendered it in three speeds and then presented a kriti in raga Jaganmohini ,“Shobillu Saptasvara” of Saint Tyagaraja. He continued further for two and half hours. That he had taken the world of Carnatic music by storm on that day was evident after that full-fledged concert, when he emerged younger. The occasion on that day at Vijayawada was the aradhana celebrations of Andhra’s most respected musician, Shri Susarla Dakshinamurthy Sastry.

After that concert, the boy went on to become the foremost disciples of one of the most accomplished musicians of Andhra Pradesh Shri Parupalli Ramakrishna Pantulu, himself the organiser of his guru’s aradhana celebrations that day. Balamuralikrishna is the fifth descendant of the disciples of Saint Tyagaraja. Manambuchavadi Venkatasubbayya, a cousin and disciple of Tyagaraja, was the guru of Balamuralikrishna’s great guru Shri Susarla Dakshinamurthy Sastry.

The strengths of Balamurali Krishna include a musical acumen which showed up as his ability to retain and reproduce music heard just once, his ability to handle more than one musical instrument, his ability to compose from the age of 15 and finally, his gifted voice manifested as his ability to utter clearly, pronounce faithfully and accent correctly the lyrical phrases along with the nuances of the underlying musical notes and microtones.

His daring efforts to tread unchartered territories in music and to look at music as a whole being larger than the mere sum of parts are also his strengths.

He had the fortuitous opportunity to observe, listen to and accompany the greats of the earlier generation. He thus learnt from their music renditions, the subtle aspects of melody, rhythm and presentation. With that, he could also gauge the Carnatic music concert scene then in terms of repertoire, style and audiences.

He was lucky to have as his guru Shri Ramakrishna Pantulu. One day, the young disciple heard a rendition of the renowned violinist Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu being played in a cart on the street outside the guru’s house. He took a violin and instantly played the entire rendition which the guru heard from inside. The guru remarked, “That was a very nice rendition, a copy of the original. There was nothing of Murali in it.” The young Balamuralikrishna took that as an instruction to him from the guru to be original. Since then he has worked to present music in a style of his own—distinct.

The voice that captivated the hearts of the people of Vijayawada three quarters of a century ago, has gone on to captivate audiences around the world in many genres of music — Carnatic classical, film, devotional, folk and jugalbandis.

His approach to music has been unique – an approach in which every facet of music and its adjacent areas have been explored, experimented and exploited by his malleable silky voice. And with a rare musical imagination. All with the single aim of presenting music in its purest form: melodiously, rhythmically, timely, lyrically, with clarity of diction, and always creatively to highlight the importance of performing here and now. Most importantly, what amazes a discerning observer is the relaxed ambience on the stage even when he is presenting an intricate svara prastaram or a difficult pallavi.

There is never a dull moment in his concerts thanks to his pleasing countenance and smile.

Is it ever possible to forget the umpteen concerts of Balamuralikrishna be it at the Madras Music Academy, or the Krishna Gana Sabha, or the Indian Fine Arts Society — all in Chennai or in Bangalore, Delhi and Vijayawada? Or for that matter the innumerable concerts at less-known venues? In every concert there is something novel, something thought provoking.

Any discussion of the music of Balamuralikrishna is incomplete without the mention of his association with the All India Radio. It started with his first concert as a boy of 12 years. Then as music producer. Some of the finest programmes and productions of his have been aired from the 1950s. And in many of them the distinctness of his contribution or his association is evident.

The highlight of his music has been that every section of the audience, from the lay listener to the well-informed listener, from the practising musician to the performing musician, from the die hard fan to the brazen critic, has something to enjoy, think about, recall and savour. Various concert recordings, professional and amateur in calibre, and the various commercially available recordings have been regaling the listeners to no end, if discussions on e-groups are any indication.

As a composer, he has composed some unique compositions that highlight the greatness of music and the best philosophies of our country. Here again, the subtle interweaving of the beauty of lyrics and the magic of music serve to make the compositions melodiously rich, rhythmically elegant and lyrically elevating.

Unlike many of the Carnatic Trinity compositions, which are addressed to gods and goddesses, Balamuralikrishna’s compositions are meant for concert singing for audience appreciation.

It will not be an exaggeration to say Balamuralikrishna has been one of the foremost interpreters of the sublime kritis of Saint Tyagaraja. At Chennai, recently on July 6, during his 85th birthday celebrations, he spoke sparingly. He said, “I want to do much and with the confidence that I can do a lot, but today I am unable to speak. When love and happiness become much, one cannot speak.”

And then, as always as he does with a smile on his lips like in his music concerts, came the apt punch line when he said, “I have indeed become a child, a baby, for I am told I was born at 6.40 p.m. in the evening, just a few hours ago.” The whole audience broke into a roaring laughter for that seemed yet another of his most creative muktayams that we have been so used to—this time not with the notes of music but with those few words.

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Printable version | Oct 1, 2020 11:31:04 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/music/on-mangalampalli-balamuralikrishna/article7481511.ece

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