For a better part of my childhood, I remember waking up to a Dr Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna composition every morning. My father is a huge fan of the maestro and Balamuralikrishna's cassettes were a familiar sight in the stereo. I sang along, striving to render the composition with the best possible sruthi and tonal quality, and became in the bargain, an admirer for life.
Which is why the news of Balamuralikrishna passing away, feels like a personal loss. It is like losing the voice you grew up with.
My own knowledge of Carnatic music is limited, unlike my sister who is an accomplished musician. But when you heard Dr Balamuralikrishna, you learnt to appreciate the variations and compared them with other musicians. The same composition sung by Balamuralikrishna would, in my opinion, be a few notches above in terms of experimentation, voice quality and sheer range. His ‘Yendaro Mahanubhavulu’, ‘Gananaayakam’, ‘Nagumomu’ and several Pancharatna krithis come to mind as the compositions that have enthralled lovers of Carnatic music for generations.
You closed your eyes and heard Balamuralikrishna and it was like being transported into another world. A world of devotional ecstasy, with his soothing voice for company. But check out the You Tube videos today and the sight of the musician with the beatific smile and a twinkle in his eyes, is one to behold. The manner in which he communicated with the accompanying musicians on the violin and mridangam, as he worked up to a crescendo, made his concerts a must-attend.
Years later, I interviewed him on two occasions and both times, it was tough not to look the fanboy on camera. It was a delight to hear him speak on how he did not prepare for a concert. “I see the audience and depending on how they react, I sing,” he said. Likewise, his take on the purists in Carnatic music, when I asked him about the criticism he faced from the so-called traditionalists who objected to his experimentation.
“There is nothing traditional. Everyone has the same two hands, two eyes, one mouth and two feet. It is like the basic saregama in music. Then you improvise on it,” he explained. Over the years, Balamuralikrishna's creative genius enriched the world of Carnatic music, embellishing it by creating several new ragams.
Hailing from East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh, Balamuralikrishna's parents were musicians. In fact, his original name was Muralikrishna and `Bala' was a prefix that he got when he was performing at a concert in Vijayawada at the age of 8. In the interview, Balamuralikrishna told me it is a reminder that the ‘Bala’ (child) in him should always learn.
Balamuralikrishna also experimented with the silver screen. He made his debut in 1967 in ‘Bhakta Prahlada’. But he is most remembered for the 1977 song ‘Chinna Kannan Azhaikkiraan’, in the Rajinikanth, Sridevi, Sivakumar starrer ‘Kavikkuyil’, with music set by Ilayaraaja. Then there is the equally popular ‘Oru Naal Podhuma’ number from the 1965 Sivaji Ganesan film `Thiruvilayadal'.
Incidentally, Balamuralikrishna also taught Carnatic music to actor Kamal Haasan in the 80s. Kamal was recovering from an accident at that time and start learning music from the legend. In an interview, Kamal said Balamuralikrishna's dream was to see him performing on stage, a wish he could not fulfil.
Balamuralikrishna's jugalbandis with Pt Bhimsen Joshi were a treat to watch. The two maestros collaborated to create a symphony, with their body language complimenting the delightful fare they dished out. Panditji's mannerism of moving his body sideways and Balamuralikrishna's wide smile, showed how much they enjoyed the meeting of their music and talent. Part of Doordarshan archives, they are a national treasure.
The two were seen together again in the ‘Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’ video. It starts with Pt Bhimsen Joshi and moves on to Balamuralikrishna singing at the beach.
As Balamuralikrishna garu joins Pt Bhimsen Joshi up there, one can only imagine what heavenly music the duo will conjure up once again. It will be ‘Mile sur mera tumhara’ time amidst the clouds.
An era has come to an end. He will be missed.