Dr. M. Balamurali Krishna
A humble tribute to the legend and musical genius by Uma Prabhakar
Mangalampalli Balamurali Krishna (6 July 1930–22 November 2016) is a household name to Carnatic music connoisseurs and music lovers in Southern India and indeed all over the world. Who is not familiar with his renderings of Sri Bhadrachala Ramadasu, Sri Anamacharya compositions some of which he famously popularized not to mention the kritis of the Trinity, Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshithar and Syama Sastry, and that he popularized unique ragas and over 400 compositions of his own? You can find all his accomplishments, credits, awards he won, recognitions he received etc. in books, or on the web — just google his name and you get 357,000 results in less than 0.83 seconds (yes, I did that just now as I started to pen this tribute!)!! I would not be surprised if Dr. Balamurali Krishna (BMK) himself was not even aware of all the information there is about him! I enjoy and indulge in immersive musical appreciation that I have acquired through years of attending concerts and listening to classical music. I, not being a ‘trained’ musician, acknowledge my limitations of not understanding all the nuances to the fullest. With that disclaimer, this tribute to the musical genius, Dr. M. Balamurali Krishna will not indulge in regurgitating facts, stories and the like one can find virtually. Instead it represents my personal thoughts, interspersed with interactions and experiences that I have had with the maestro.
Since the sad news of his passing on, BMK’s fans and aficionados have been pouring their hearts out on social media, reminiscing about the maestro, sharing anecdotes, stories about him, photographs of themselves and their families with him and so on. Every morning I wake up to see these lovely stories on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp etc. I realize with awe and joy, what a solid man BMK had been to have reached out to so many people, in every nook and corner of the world, with his music and creativity both in the classical music as well as the non-classical space. I just wish to celebrate his life that was filled with music, fun and creativity that brought music to the common man and have taken the liberty of writing this tribute on impulse.
Most of us growing up Southern India in the 60’s and 70’s and with some exposure to Carnatic music have known MS Subbulakshmi, DK Pattamal, ML Vasanthkumari and Balamuralikrishna in the same breath. Even those of us who haven’t had a classical music background have also heard of his lighter semi-classical music, his compositions, and rendering of long-forgotten songs, new ragas and other renderings in films, on All India Radio, music shops etc. His deep and rich penetrating voice, the exuberant performances, the flawless ease and vocal maneuver in a three-octave range, displayed his profuse knowledge of music and sparkling creativity.
During my college years, I attended with my parents his music concert at the Keyes High School in Secunderabad. As expected the place was absolutely full; it was a great performance — sadly, I don’t remember the songs he sang, but I do remember my parents having an immersive and enjoyable experience. I also distinctly recall during one krithi, BMK mentioned that the song had been popularized in a particular raga, but that the original was in some other raga. The elderly hard core, tradition-loving, innovation-leery folks sitting in the audience were clearly annoyed at this comment and remarked amongst themselves in Tamil on how ridiculous and arrogant that comment was — loud enough for BMK to hear! BMK seemed to be unfazed by the criticism; smiled his usual charming smile and continued with his concert. The question of BMK’s music and attitude, among music connoisseurs has been controversial, either as impassioned praise and declarations claiming him to be the best singer of all time or, downright scorn, and assertions that he broke all timeless traditions of Carnatic music. Seldom has there been a tepid or indifferent response. Such has been, and continues to be, his impact, on Carnatic music.
In 1975, I saw the Kannada movie ‘Hamsageethe’. The music directors for the movie were BMK and TG Lingappa. BMK sang several compositions of Jayadeva, Puranadara dasa, Sadashiva Bharmendra and three of his own in true classical style even though it was a movie. In several movies prior to that, the classical Carnatic songs were rendered in ‘filmy style’, but not so in Hamsageethe. ‘Himadrisuthe’ in raga Kalyani made an impression on me and perhaps also inspired me to appreciate Carnatic music. Two years later, I had the privilege to hear the very same composition, in its entirety with alapana, elaborate neraval and swara kalpana, at another enthralling BMK concert at the Ravindra Bharathi venue in Hyderabad. From that day on ‘Kalyani’ has been my favorite raga to this day!
Few years later, I heard his recordings of Nanu paalimpa, Jagadanandakaraka, Dudukugala, Samajavara gamana and many, many more songs. I thoroughly liked and enjoyed his intellectual meanderings during krithis, his cheeky and playful swarakalpanas as he teased his accompanists and audiences with his creative and non-conformist variations of ragas etc. Younger audiences loved his flamboyance and the infectious joy with which he sang. His diction, in whatever language he sang, was flawless.
In September 1989, SRUTI had organized a two-part event comprising a Bharathanatayam dance by Saraswathi accompanied by BMK and a full length vocal concert by BMK. He was to be accompanied by D. Raghavendra Rao on the violin and Balasai on the flute. I served as the correspondence secretary for SRUTI at the time and was thrilled and ecstatic beyond words when it was decided by the SRUTI board that our family would be hosting the artists at our house in Harleysville, PA! BMK and party arrived at our house when it was still daylight and standing at our doorstep, he announced ‘Balamurali Krishna has come to your house’! I must have acted like a silly star struck teenager to that comment as we ushered them into the house. I had a huge spread for dinner and was making vadas for appetizers. BMK made himself absolutely at home walking up to the kitchen and helping himself to the hot vadas just as they came out from the fryer! I may have even asked him to wait until I was done- I still cannot believe I did that! After dinner, Saraswathi and accompanists went off to another part of the house to practice while BMK sat with us in our family room and chatted. A few other SRUTI board members also joined in. In those days, Prabhakar was into composing and even dared to ask BMK to sing one of his compositions! BMK of course was diplomatic and only corrected the compositions and told him they were too long! I broadcast the news about us hosting BMK to everyone I knew!
The SRUTI concert started with the dance performance of Saraswathi, while BMK sat in the background and started singing in his thunderous and voluminous voice, ‘Onkara Akarini’ in lavangi. For his own concert, BMK sang ‘kamalambam’ in Kalyani by Dikshitar since it wasthe occasion of Navarathri. He also sang a sarva swarakshara krithi, Ma Manini, in raga Todi — where nearly all letters of the lyrics match the notes. Earlier in the day, Prabhakar had been talking to BMK about swarakshara in krithis where one or two letters of the lyrics match the notes. Just before the concert, BMK told Prabhakar that he had a surprise item that he would perform. As expected, his concert was a real treat. Over the years, BMK has entertained SRUTI audiences in our area with several concerts, both solo and jugalbandis (with Bhimsen Joshi and Hariprasad Chaurasia), as we continued to enjoy the concerts and also several personal interactions with him. In 2011, he performed at the Delaware Temple for SRUTI’s 25th year anniversary along with Ravi Kiran on Chitravina.
We have seen his great respect for the traditions of Carnatic music, and how he has used it to explore new areas of this music. BMK led a rich and fulfilling life and his legend will live on in our hearts and memories forever. While we will miss him immensely, he is an experience that cannot be forgotten.
Uma Prabhakar is a scientist by profession and keenly interested in the cultural arts. She lives in Blue Bell with her husband, Prabhakar. Over the years, both she and Prabhakar have served on the SRUTI board in various capacities and are keen supporters of the organization.