I am sure that most of us remember our adolescent years as some sort of a long-playing horror show. Mix together mood swings, temper tantrums, unreasonable parents, pimples, a body that sprouts strange things, sniggering siblings, and the whole wide evil world that seems intent on taking you by the scruff of your neck and rubbing your face into the muck, and whirl all of this at a blinding pace around a sullen, glowering teenager, and it seems a miracle that most of us somehow emerge unscathed.
My own adolescence was no different. But, twinkling through the dirt like rare and precious gems are memories – of a person, my acquaintance with whom was the shining highlight of those years. My friends went into rhapsodies over film stars and cricket players. I went weak-kneed and starry eyed over Dr. M. Balamurali Krishna.
I remember vividly the first time I heard him live. It was at the Music Academy in Madras in 1976, the year of the Academy's Golden Jubilee celebrations. My mother and I sat somewhere in the back of the hall, far enough that from where we sat, Balamurali looked like a young man in his twenties (he was actually 46 that year). We were smitten – by his charm, his smile, mischievous and boyish, and most of all, by his voice, so deep, so rich, that voice that surely sang only for me…..He was in top form that day, at his peak, and my mother and I staggered out when he finished, in a spell, all aglow. He sang a slokam that he had composed and set to music especially for the occasion – “Sangeetha Vidwat Sabha Jayathi”. I remember it to this day and it still gives me goose pimples. It echoed in my head all night long, and the next day, I knew I had to do something about it. I could not bear the thought that I might never hear that slokam again.
I opened the Madras telephone directory – and there he was. M. Balamurali Krishna – with an address and a phone number just like anyone else. I could not believe it. I called up; somebody picked up and politely told me to wait while he went to fetch Balamurali. BALAMURALI. The Best Musician in the Universe. The Most Charming Man in the World. The person I fantasized about being marooned with on a deserted island, who sang to me while the endless ocean lapped at our feet and the moon glowed overhead. And, a few minutes later, there was Balamurali on the phone. Talking to me. An awkward, gawky, good-for-nothing teenager with stars in her eyes and a voice that was high-pitched and stupidly giggly and shaky with excitement. I babbled and burbled and he listened patiently and thanked me. He did not hang up and say he had to go. He kept listening as I babbled some more, just so there wouldn’t be any uncomfortable silences, so that he didn’t think I was more of an idiot than I actually was. In my delirium, I blurted out, “I LOVED your slokam, Sangeetha Vidwat Sabha. You HAVE to record it!” What I meant was, go to a recording studio and record this so that I can buy it and listen to it and the rest of the world can buy it and listen to it too.
He misunderstood me. He said, “Of course, come to my house any time with your tape recorder, I’ll be happy to record it for you”. I was thunderstruck. HE (the Best Musician in the Universe, the Most Charming Man in the World…….) was asking ME to go to HIS house so that HE could record something just for ME? The poor man. What a torrent of giggling, what imbecilic gibbering, what a great many stuttered thank you’s he had to endure! He assured me, over and over again, that I had not heard him incorrectly, that he meant what he had said, that I was most welcome at his home so that he could record the music for me.
And so it was that early the following day, my mother and I made our way to his home. Where we were not thrown out and told that we were crazy to expect a great man like Balamurali to have anything to do with us. Where we were welcomed in politely and asked to please wait for a few minutes. Where it was just a few minutes later that we were asked to go upstairs, and where there was Balamurali himself, smiling that same impish, boyish smile, welcoming us and not sniggering or looking at me derisively while a jumble of gibberish poured out of my mouth. He asked me where I studied, and what my interests were, and he listened, with every impression of interest, to my garbled prattle. I asked him half-witted, inane questions which he answered seriously and thoughtfully. He recorded the song for us, singing full-throatedly, his eyes closed, his voice rich with emotion. He could have been on any stage in the world, singing to a packed hall, not in a little bare room singing into a tiny tape recorder to two star-struck females.
More babbling, more incoherent drivel, and the visit was over. Balamurali gave us his full attention, and he never gave us the impression that he was in a hurry to get away, even though his phone rang continuously and a stream of well-wishers dropped in.
Many were the nights when I sat huddled under a mosquito net with the radio pressed to my ear, marooned on my imaginary deserted island listening to Balamurali on All India Radio. His music sprang from a well that was always fresh, always scintillating. Every other musician paled in comparison. I bought every tape of his I could find. Over and over I listened to his Annamacharya kritis, his Ashtapadis, his Bhadrachala Ramadas kritis. I marveled that any human being could make the kind of music he did. I despaired at my own musical efforts – I decided that if I could not sing like Balamurali, then a musical career was not for me. I set the bar sky high, and only Balamurali exceeded it by more than I imagined possible. Nobody else came close.
I was a shy and awkward teenager, intensely self-conscious and ridiculously under-confident. But somehow, I plucked up the courage to pick up the phone and talk to Balamurali about a divine song of his, a concert that I had attended, a new tape that I had bought. He always listened and we had fun conversations that made my spirits soar. Once, I listened with incredulity to an All India Radio broadcast, as the radio announcer said, vocal: Dr. M. Balamurali Krishna, viola: Dr. M. Balamurali Krishna, mridangam: Dr. M. Balamurali Krishna. At once I picked up the phone and asked Balamurali, how did you do this? He chuckled delightedly at my astonishment and explained how he sang and played the mridangam first, then recorded the viola separately. Then he asked me if I would like to hear him play the viola. So back to his house I went, where, from a beautifully polished locked cupboard, he took out, with infinite care and gentleness, a black viola case. Inside, encased in pink satin, was a gleaming viola, buffed to a mirror-like sheen. Balamurali took it out tenderly, gingerly, and played a song on it. The room throbbed with the rich, deep sound, a beautiful song played just for me. I was dumb-struck by the sheer loveliness of the sound. How is this different from a violin, I asked him. And from the top of a dusty almirah, left open to the elements, he pulled out a violin, covered with a thick coating of dust, with one of its strings broken and hanging free. A starker contrast to the viola would be hard to imagine. And the miracle was that from this dusty, broken, out-of-tune violin, Balamurali produced sublime, celestial music, smiling mischievously at my open-mouthed amazement, at his musical sleight of hand.
Once I heard him sing a newly composed thillana – he called it Gathibeda Priyaragamalika thillana, and I had never heard anything like it. I listened, enthralled, to the incredibly clever shifting of rhythms, the many ragams, the unimaginably beautiful melodies. And I resolved: I am going to dance this thillana.
The next morning, I was back at his home. I announced to him that I wanted to be the first to dance his thillana, that I had never heard anything like it before. Would he teach it to me? He was delighted, as if he were a nobody and I, a world renowned dancer. With considerable patience, he guided me through the treacherous paths of its ever-shifting rhythms and complex melodies. In turn, I taught it to my dance guru and the musicians of the orchestra. Balamurali was as excited as any of us about the progress of the choreography and practice of his thillana. He promised that he would be there at my performance, to see his creation performed and interpreted in another form.
The day of my performance dawned – bright and sunny, gloomy and wet, blazing hot – I have no memory of these facts. There were the usual arguments and tears, panic attacks and last minute memory lapses that come before any performance. All of us – my parents, my dance guru, the musicians, and needless to say, I – were in a ferment of excitement and terror-stricken hysteria. All of us wanted us to show Balamurali what heights his thillana had inspired us to, the vision we had of the beauty of his music.
The performance began, and soon, the panic and hysteria were forgotten as we lost ourselves in the dancing and music. Two people, an aunt, and a friend who was an avid lifelong admirer of Balamurali's, had been posted at the entrance to the sabha, to receive Balamurali and escort him to his seat. He knew that his item was the final one, and we expected him to arrive only well into the second half.
He came a few minutes after the program started. What a flutter and a flurry there was when he arrived! The friend – the avid admirer – normally, a silent, stoic sort, blubbered incoherently. The aunt was struck speechless. Balamurali just smiled graciously, and refusing all offers of coffee, tea, Fanta, Horlicks, Bournvita, sweet lime juice, bajji, bonda, samosa or murukku, sat down, and indicated that all he wanted was to watch the performance. He sat through it all – the alarippu, the jatiswaram, the shabdam, the varnam, the interval, the padams and finally, at last, his thillana.
I think we were all inspired that day. The orchestra, enveloped in the glow of the presence of greatness, performed as it had never performed before. Countless times, Balamurali had given me such joy through his music. Perhaps I could repay that, in however tiny measure, through my dance. I poured everything I had into that performance, and in the final item, the thillana, we soared to heights we had never dreamed we could reach.
After the performance, Balamurali came up to the stage, and expressed his appreciation to each and every one of us. He clasped our hands and told us, individually, how much he had enjoyed the entire performance, and how happy he had been to watch his thillana sprout wings and soar in its new form. I will never forget the sight of our violinist, clutching at his hand and gazing at it in speechless joy. When he finally found his voice, he declared that he would never again wash his hand which had that day been blessed by the touch of a great man. I wonder how long he maintained that resolution!!
Oh, so many memories crowd my mind! I once mentioned, idly, in passing, to Balamurali, that I had tried playing one of his thillanas (another one, the thayaragamalika thillana) on the piano. Eagerly, he expressed an interest in listening to that. So, one morning, I picked him up and brought him home, chattering inanely all the way, and played his thillana for him on the piano. He was filled with curiosity about the piano, and wanted to hear more. How could one not be charmed by his boundless curiosity, his enthusiasm, his complete lack of arrogance, his playfulness, his love of life?
I really should stop. One of my last really close encounters with Balamurali was at my wedding. I was (naturally) very keen that he should sing at my wedding, but knew that top musicians like him charged a lot of money for their wedding performances. My parents were willing to do whatever it took to have him sing, but I was full of all sorts of principles and dead set against any extravagant expenses. My mother went ahead to ask Balamurali any way, to request him to sing at our reception. He agreed immediately – and refused to accept any payment. He refused point blank. For my family, he said, that was the least he could do.
He sang divinely, as always. It was a stunningly lovely performance. What marriage could not be a happy one, blessed with such music?!
After I got married, I moved to Delhi, then America, and my encounters with Balamurali became few and far between. Today, when I attend one of his concerts, I walk out and leave as soon as it is over. I don’t stay behind to say hello. I don’t want the present to intrude into my memories. I cannot bear the thought that he might squint thoughtfully at me and wonder who that familiar face might be. I cannot bear to have some of my most precious memories destroyed like that.
It was a strange relationship – a lopsided friendship between a starry-eyed teenager and an acclaimed musical legend.
When I listened to him, I was dazzled, as was Arjuna by Krishna, by the vision of the blazing light of a thousand suns.
I still am.