I know, this is my third post on Balamurali on this blog - the last two hot on each others' heels. (Here are the earlier ones.) But, after listening - repeatedly, obsessively - for an entire morning, to a sublime jugalbandi between Balamurali and Hariprasad Chaurasia, after concocting a fresh set of excuses for not writing something new, after I "discovered" this piece, languishing on my hard drive, I decided to put this up, with the promise (which, of course, comes with the usual caveat that promises are meant to be broken) that this will be my last post on Balamurali.
If you ask any connoisseur of Carnatic music about Dr. M. Balamurali Krishna, chances are that you will get one of two reactions: impassioned praise and declarations that he is the best singer of all time, a genius who is Lord Krishna reincarnate; or downright scorn, and assertions that he is a charlatan, a disgrace to the ancient, timeless traditions of Carnatic music. It is very unlikely that you will encounter a tepid or indifferent response. Such has been, and continues to be, his impact, on Carnatic music.
Dr. M. Balamurali Krishna was born in 1930 in the south
Indian state of Andhra Pradesh to a family of musicians. His mother died within
a few weeks of his birth, and he was brought up by his father and aunt in a
home which was suffused with music. By the time he was two years old, it was
very evident that he possessed extraordinary musical gifts. His father was a
music teacher, and Balamurali was able to perfectly reproduce the songs he
heard taught during his lessons. His father persuaded one of the best teachers
of the region to teach the little boy, who turned out to be a dream student
with prodigious talents. He gave his first full-length recital at the age of
eight where he was recognized as a musician of immense potential, and was
blessed by the leading musicians of the day. So successful and popular was he
that he stopped attending school before the age of 10, and devoted himself
exclusively to his music. His musical gifts were wide-ranging – he possessed a
wonderful singing voice, but, nervous that this might not be the case once his
voice broke, his father had him learn the viola, violin and mridangam as well,
and he excelled in all of them. By the age of 14, he had composed fairly
complex pieces which were received by an adoring public with appreciative awe.
As a young adult, Balamurali moved to Chennai, the center of
the Carnatic music universe, the place all aspiring Carnatic musicians flocked
to – success here ensured that one’s name would be forever engraved in the
Carnatic music hall of fame. Balamurali’s career, fame and popularity
skyrocketed as the crowds marveled at his rich, deep voice, which could
perform, with flawless ease, any vocal maneuver in a three-octave range, the
exuberance with which he performed and his sparkling creativity. He was a
prodigy who continued to bloom, who continued to get better by leaps and
bounds. He possessed immense charm and his youthful good looks had people
going to his concerts by the droves.
But Balamurali was not content with merely being an excellent singer. His was a restless, intensely creative and curious intellect which chafed and strained against the boundaries and expectations imposed upon the genre by the tradition-loving, innovation-leery public. The typical Carnatic music concert-goer had very strong (and fixed and rigid) views on what should be performed at a concert. They felt that the current repertory of songs was fully adequate, so there was absolutely no need for any new songs to be composed. In addition, they believed that only certain ragas were fit to be sung at a concert. And they deemed that the 72 Melakarta raga system, a classification scheme of all the notes of the octave, was water tight. They were wholly convinced that every raga that could possibly be invented was already part of this system. That Carnatic music was perfect the way it was, and that there was no need to tamper with it or add anything to it. And that all it needed was well-trained musicians to continue its traditions. Too much deviation from what they deemed appropriate was frowned upon.
Into this rigidly structured world came Balamurali, brimming
with ideas, eager to stretch the boundaries, to push Carnatic music to even
greater heights. He composed over 400 songs, in his native Telugu, as well as
in perfect Sanskrit and Tamil, songs which were every bit as melodious,
devotion-filled, lilting and beautiful as those of the great Trinity of
Carnatic music composers, Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshithar and Syama Sastry. From
his research and studies, he revived many gems of songs by other unknown
composers, rescuing them from obscurity and showing the world what they had
missed with his exquisite renderings of these songs. He dusted off many of the
forgotten songs of the Trinity and presented them at his concerts.
The man who had dropped out of school before completing 6th
grade became a true scholar of this genre. He decided that that the 72
Melakarta system was not all-encompassing, and that there was room and scope
for more ragas. So he invented over a
dozen ragas, giving new meaning to the idea and definition of a raga. He also invented new talas (rhythm patterns).
And he shared all this with his listening public – his compositions,
long-forgotten songs, the new ragas and talas.
Audiences reacted strongly. Many people were dazzled by his
efforts and could not praise him enough. They found him and his music stunning,
invigorating, exhilarating, thought-provoking, magnificent. He was a spark of
electricity, a jolt of excitement in a staid, stagnating field. An equal number
of people were enraged and appalled by him.
They felt that he was a poisonous influence, someone who had no respect
or regard for the traditions of this ancient music. He was upsetting a stable
equilibrium, tampering with things he had no business tampering with.
Balamurali was unfazed by the criticism. He basked in the
adulation of his admirers. He had started down a path, and there was no going
back. He had the gifts to contribute an immense amount to this genre, and he
was not going to squander them away merely to appease a disapproving public. He had the greatest respect for the
traditions of Carnatic music, but he also used them as a springboard from which
to enlarge the scope and explore new areas of this music.
attracted large numbers of young people who loved his flamboyance and the
infectious joy with which he sang. His diction, in whatever language he sang,
was flawless, something that, sadly, was far too uncommon among his peers. He
never hit a wrong note, he never missed a beat in the tala. He had perfect
control over his voice, which spanned three octaves – another rarity among his
peers. He was a trend-setter in this area – many younger musicians who came
after him made the effort to pronounce the words of the songs correctly, and
trained their voices to achieve control.
There were so many other areas in which Balamurali tried to make a difference. Most of the top singers of Carnatic music chose the best violinists and mridangists (drummers) as their accompanists, hoping to attract even more crowds with the added impact of so many famous musicians performing on the same stage. Balamurali never did that. Instead, he picked obscure, never-heard of violinists and mridangists, and provided them with opportunities that exceeded their wildest dreams and expectations. Another example was in his introduction of a short interval during his concerts. There is an unfortunate tendency for the audience to walk out during the tani avartanam, the solo percussion piece played by the mridangist, using this as a de facto intermission. In order to prevent this and to encourage people to stay in during the tani avartanam, Balamurali announced the interval just before the item with the tani avartanam, so that the audiences had less of an excuse to go out.
His ever-curious mind has led him to perform with Hindustani
musicians, and he was one of the pioneers of the Carnatic-Hindustani jugalbandis (improvisatory duets); he
has learned and recorded the Bengali songs of Rabindranath Tagore; he has even
tried his hand at jazz.
For all the detractors and people who shuddered with horror
at the mention of his name, Balamurali achieved great popular and critical
success. He provided wonderful entertainment while maintaining the highest
standards of classical Carnatic music. Awards were showered upon him, including
several doctorate degrees, recognizing his invaluable contributions.
Today, at the age of 78, Balamurali has not slowed down one bit. He is exploring new areas, and is deeply immersed in research on music therapy. He continues to give concerts, although they are far and few between. If you can attend one of his concerts, do so. It will be an experience you will never forget.