Home English Balamuralikrishna was a staunch radical among traditionalists.
My most enduring memory of the maestro would always remain his unflinching unconventionality towards the centuries-old music he practised throughout his illustrious life. For many of the 1960s-70s generation on this side of the peninsula, Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna was an early morning encounter set upon us by the family elders anxious to instil devotion and discipline among their to-be-rebel children. But the voice that resonated on the radio sets opened up a larger window into India’s age-old religious and cultural domain; raising more questions than urging meek compliance.
Down the years, Balamuralikrishna’s dynamic interpretation on stage of traditional compositions — imploring Rama and Krishna, Lakshmi and Parvati — would draw us youngsters to discover new, critical and dispassionate ways of approaching Carnatic music. A mellifluous recitation of Krishna’s overtures to the Gopikas in Jayadeva’s ‘ashtapadis’, or the woes of Badrachala Ramdas under incarceration were brought alive on the concert platform. Not only were the tunes he sang them in almost invariably set by Balamuralikrishna himself, such departures also imbued in his fans, if unwittingly, an introspective and critical stance on both religion and music. His sceptical and irreverential stance on the past could not be more relevant in our times when received wisdom is dominant.
Balamuralikrishna’s unorthodox approach underpinned his understanding of Carnatic music to represent anything that is pleasant to the ear. ‘Karneshu ata iti karnaha,’ he would often emphasise, was the original that made up the Sanskrit term. Given such a broad reading, he could not but refuse to accept the genre as being restricted to the compositions that are commonplace on concert platforms.
Such an outlook perhaps also influenced him never to regard the world of commercial film music as either antithetical to its classical counterpart, or the latter as a threat to Carnatic music. His understanding of an inherent capacity for coexistence enabled him to straddle these seemingly incompatible worlds with remarkable ease.
Balamuralikrishna was a staunch radical among traditionalists. The composer could profess and practise this unorthodoxy fearlessly and consistently because he seldom accepted or rejected musical custom and tradition for the sake of it. He simply re-interpreted each aspect as he deemed fit.
We would have nothing left today of the works of Tyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshitar if the great masters had not sung their own compositions. That was his familiar refrain when aficionados took exception to his increasing recitals of his own kritis at performances. As his popular appeal grew, the avant garde musical scales he created, comprising fewer than five notes, besides his electrifying ‘tillanas’ became the staple at his recitals.
He was under no illusion that classical music as practised today was nothing but a modern profession, like any other performing art, or any other arena of economic activity. Since the composers whose works we perform never sang for a living, he had little patience with those who harked upon conformity to tradition at the slightest hint of change in the evolution of this genre.
You could thus reason with him about what he sang and why, without the man seeking refuge in explanations about what has been handed down through generations. He thus appealed to your intellect as much as to your emotion.
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