A non-conformist, original ‘Krishna with the flute’ who made the singer larger than the song
What made Balamuralikrishna so different that his demise, which cannot be considered untimely at the age of 85, has created a rare sense of loss not just among classical music afficianados but a wider
What made Balamuralikrishna so different that his demise, which cannot be considered untimely at the age of 85, has created a rare sense of loss not just among classical music afficianados but a wider public in northern as well as southern India? Part of the reason must be his entanglement with the orthodoxies of the Carnatic Establishment where the slightest departure from the beaten track is frowned upon. A generation earlier, the great G N Balasubramaniam had to face displeasure from the sanctorum because he had got himself a BA Honours degree, something true maestros considered unnecessary, if not undesirable. But GNB’s sustained virtuosity didn’t take long to bring the barriers down.
Balamurali turned musician around age 10, so he had no time to go to college (which made his facility with spoken English all the more impressive). But he happily flaunted “Dr” before his name. He too earned disapproval from the Establishment because he dared to compose his own songs and work out his own ragas using only three notes instead of the five, considered the absolute minimum. He evolved into a daring experimenter, innovator, iconoclast, rebel. To make things worse, he was a Telugu trained under Telugu gurus. The Establishment, although unstinting in its veneration of Tyagaraja, had in effect developed a Mylapore gravitas so much so that it had initially looked suspiciously even at Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar because he was a hybrid from Palghat.
It stands to the credit of the Establishment, however, that it always bowed to the call of greatness. Traditionalist biases were set aside fairly quickly when women singers of superior talent came up, when university-educated singers proved their worth and when Balamuralikrishna, defiant as he was, proved worthy of his name—Krishna with a flute. To him, Carnatic music appeared to be a springboard to help him soar into his own realm of exploration. This antagonised some purists, but it also attracted listeners not brought up in the Carnatic milieu. Critics found his style of rendering classical ragas unclassically mundane; they accused him of indulging in vocal fireworks rather than pursuing musical fidelity. Actually the so-called fireworks were part of the Balamurali essence, integral to the originality that branded his music.
Lifting that music to magical heights was his voice, the unmistakable deep-pitched voice that had attracted public attention when he was not even 10 years old. The vocal boom stayed with him all through life, despite his refusal to do anything special to protect it. (Singers are known to go to great lengths to see that their throats are not exposed to potential harm. A Carnatic mridangam artist went to the extent of not wringing his bath towels so that his precious fingers would be spared unnecessary strain. Balamurali broke all the rules. Ice cream was among his favourite sweets). A reverberating wonder of manliness, the Balamurali voice would climb peaks and, the next moment, plunge into the meandering softness of controlled emotion.
No classical musician gave the impression as convincingly and as consistently as Murali Garu did of enjoying what he was doing on the concert stage. He conveyed a buoyancy, a gladness of spirit that proclaimed his joy as he sang. The pleasure quotient was high in his performance and the extent to which he could convey it to his audience was something of a wonder. He had also acquired amazing levels of breath control. He would stretch one single swara interminably (in the composition Sundari nee Divya, for example) as if musical artistry was above physical boundaries. For those who want to see two musicians enjoying themselves, there is nothing to equal the jugalbandis between Balamurali and Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. The best of these performances are not just for listening; they must be seen as well as heard if only to witness the abandon with which Bhimsen Joshi swings his hands and his head and his body in ecstasy as the two masters match each other. The pleasure they so obviously experience passes to their listeners and viewers overwhelmingly until eyes fill up with tears of joy.
In the end, music—like all arts—is meant to give pleasure. Balamuralikrishna derived more pleasure from his muse than any artist of his generation. He loved the good things of life. More importantly, he loved them without inhibitions and without socially correct pretensions. He never suffered from false modesty or from superior airs. He was simple, honourable, open. He died in his sleep. A good ending for a good man.