The singer and composer’s every creation and rendition challenged notions of tradition, convention and classicism that the Carnatic music world had nailed and fixed.
Why does a painter conjure images out of space, form and colour? What does a musician hope to achieve by romancing svaras within aural frameworks? If you ask a singer why she creates music, she will probably give you one of these superficial answers. “It is my profession, my work” or “I am here to make people happy, entertain them, provide enjoyment”. The spiritualist among them will say “it is nadayoga”. All these are perceived consequential states of art but not its soul, which is the driving need to experience beauty. Spending hours moving the swara Ni, dropping it just that wee bit only to allow its own elasticity to float the note back to its original position is a far deeper process. In that experience, there is an incomparable sense of the ‘intangible’. An energy engulfs the musician, surrounds his consciousness and, every time the movement falls in place, there is an unison, a completeness. There are some things in life that cannot be reasoned out, explained and concretised. We just feel it. One such force is the artistic endeavour. The musician makes beautiful music because it is there to be revealed.
These were the thoughts that filled my mind as I stood staring at the body of M. Balamuralikrishna, while the kirtana Vatapi played in the background. In front of me was a person who, even as a young man, had pushed, extended and even dissolved boundaries of melody, rhythm and text. Yet, until the very end, he sang like a young man who had just fallen in love. When we heard him sing, it seemed as if it was all a game, a joyful dance and he was certainly the unquestioned hero. Balamurali was a polymath; a master of the voice, viola, mrdangam, kanjira, poetry and a lot more. Though his musical guru was Parupalli Ramakrishnayya Pantulu, he was largely self-taught. He seemed to have had the inexplicable ability to imbibe the musicality and the technique from all that was around him. And astonishingly, when he allowed it to flow through his intellect, what we received was a completely new idea, a bold suggestion of an entirely new possibility.
I am not going to educate you on the numerous ragas and compositions he created, his experimental tala structures or the innumerable poems that he set to music, all this is public knowledge. But he brought into Carnatic music a sound that had never been heard. As a form, the Carnatic music of the last 100 years can be identified by a clear musical accent, intonation. Irrespective of the musician, they fall within this bandwidth. Balamurali did the unthinkable. At a time when the greats of the 20th century reigned supreme, this young man questioned this aural identity. His vocalisation, musical interpretation and acoustic intentionality were beyond Carnatic music’s imagined spectrum. With a voice that traversed over three octaves, his renditions were full of leaps, short bursts, long glides and open-throated pauses, giving the audience a musical experience that was revolutionary. He played hide-seek with ragas, teasing the audience. In his rendition of compositions, he took great care to split the words according the meaning. Rhythmically, his mathematical explorations were stunning, but never over-emphasised the structural. Balamurali’s voice allowed Carnatic music to flow into homes that had no Carnatic inclination. After M.S. Subbalakshmi, he was the only voice that the rest of India knew from the Carnatic fraternity.
Ironically, it was this very texture in his singing that the core Carnatic traditionalists found unacceptable. Balamurali’s music was considered light, semi-classical, lacking the weightiness of an Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar or a D.K. Pattammal. While acknowledging his intellect and vocal prowess, musicians and connoisseurs never accepted him in their inner circle. Many tried to dismiss his music as a circus act, vocal jugglery, a mere stunt. None of this worked, these naysayers just could not ignore, disregard or wish him away. His musicianship and unimaginable expanse as a musician, scholar and thinker were there for all to experience. No one had the courage to challenge him, as they knew only too well that he would come out victorious. Therefore his relationship with the Carnatic core was always tenuous; though, with age, he seemed to have surmounted that barrier.
Balamurali’s life was one of never-ending questioning. His every creation and rendition challenged notions of tradition, convention and classicism that the Carnatic music world had nailed and fixed. After a point of time in his musical life, his concerts were filled almost entirely with his own compositions. In a musical system that is burdened by a constant need to prostrate before the saintly musicians of the past, here was man who wore his ego on his sleeve. There was Balamurali written all over everything he did or sang. He never hid himself behind the music. It was very clear that you were listening to Balamurali music, not Carnatic music. He was, of course, criticised for it, but that did not matter to him one bit. The fascinating aspect of this genial genius was the fact that, though he was full of himself, his personality and music, he rarely engaged in pettiness. But, at the same time, he was not one to hold back his punches. His well-known spat with the other maestro Vina Balachander who questioned his claims of creating ragas was a public spectacle, in which Balamurali came second. He also did not care much for mere age-related respect, taking the godfather of Carnatic music Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer to court on defamation. This battle he won.
The unstated knowing in the classical circles is the accepted truth that our music is greater than all other forms. We believe the rest is beautiful, but ‘ours’ is the only ‘profound’ one. Balamurali never displayed this patronising, classist attitude. He considered all music beautiful and engaged with every form with passion, transforming himself every time into the musical genre that he handled. There was no discrimination of high and low art or the folk and classical — it was all just music.
Balamurali’s personal life was no less colourful. He was known as a women’s man and, much like today’s Bollywood stars, was always linked with one lady or another. There is a well-known story of a violinist in All India Radio who composed a song on him, with lines that mentioned his female interest and rendered it in his presence. Far from being insulted, he is said to have asked a colleague to buy sweets for the composer and all the other musicians present. He lived life to the fullest, enjoying its bounties without ever needing to hide or sweep anything below the carpet. Here again, he made a bold statement to the closeted Carnatic fraternity in which indulging in the pleasures of life were considered sinful, though many did secretly. The way he presented himself and his music, the sanctified was replaced by the pleasurable. His most bhakti-laden lyrics were full of shringara and his renditions only heightened its effect.
As a student of music, I am entirely convinced that he was also a serious researcher who had spent time understanding musicological history, digging into treatises. But he never made a show of it, just letting his learnings express themselves through his music. If I was to ask myself whether I have been influenced or internalised anything from his music, my answer would be ‘no’. I certainly do not agree with his musical approach. May be I am in part a stuffy Carnatic musician. Despite my personal preferences, there is no doubt we were in the presence of a very special human being, whose artistry cannot be explained by any rational analysis. For the non-believer, there is no real answer; for the believer the answer is ever so obvious.