My friend Ramesh from our IIT days in the 1980s called me last evening on my father’s mobile as I was headed back to T'Nagar from Mandaveli with the terse line, ‘Dai, Balamurali poittar da’. ‘We had just spoken about him at length during our conversation at the IIT Alumni Club yesterday’.
I opened Facebook soon after reaching my parent’s place; sure enough there were messages from friends. There were pictures posted by NRI friends who had posed with the bard for photographs and some recent selfies!. There were newspaper reports shared on social media. There were also videoclips of the maestro’s performances shared liberally on Facebook; most noteworthy amongst these is a videoclip from the 1965 film Tiruvilaiyadal featuring the song Oru naal podumaa’.
An endearing song sequence in the film, this classic represents the anti-hero TS Baliah, arrogant to the core, throwing his gauntlet into the ring, declaring himself to be the lord and master of music itself. This dare is met later in the movie only by the illusion of the entire universe coming to a screeching halt in a pregnant pause in the midst of the protagonist Sivaji’s rendition of an advaitic Pattum nane, bhavamum nane.
Situation apart, every phrase in Oru naal poduma describes everything that is special about Balamurali’s music.
It takes a lifetime to discover his music; my good friend Prince Rama Varma, a staunch devotee and disciple of the maestro, has spent several years of his life doing just that: discovering and teaching Balamurali’s compositions.
Oru naal poduma declares that the singer’s voice is superior to the sound of the best of musical instruments. Isn’t it true with Balamurali? His honey-sweet voice captivated the hearts of millions. What a natural, supple voice rich in overtones, capable of superhuman acrobatics traversing three whole registers and more, making leaps between awkward intervals spanning an octave plus a seventh! And how sweet it was and how effortless the singing. And how incredible that a human voice would obey his complex musical orders.
This was a voice that endeared itself to connoisseurs of Carnatic music as well as to the millions that were mesmerized by Tiruvilaiyadal as well as the millions more that were dumbstruck by the Ritigowla stunner Chinnakkannan azhaikiran in the contemporary classical idiom in the 1976 film Kavikkuyil in the hands of the then emerging composer Illaiyaraaja.
‘Crowds will come running to see me’, declares the song. And so did the teeming crowds in Madras the bastion of the orthodox sabhas of cutcheri music to listen to a singer from the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh. Here was a musician who didn’t belong to the Kaveri delta, did not hail from an established Tanjavur lineage; it didn’t matter that he was a maverick in his own way. The crowds kept coming, even during his tour of the United States a couple of years ago.
Balamurali’s singing stood out. Markedly shorn of the heavy dose of kampita oscillation that brings the customarily expected Carnatic feel, his music had a fair share of precise straight notes that adorned the text that came to life with his bhava-filled rendition. It didn’t matter whether the text was written by Tyagaraja, or Bhadrachala Ramadasa or Sadasivam Brahmendra or Jayadeva or by Balamurali himself. His recordings have left a mark and his live performances have disappointed none. The singing appeared effortless, accompanied by a trademark youthful smile that adorned the maestro even when he was well in his eighties.
And there was his sense of humour.
I had heard of the time he apparently inadvertently stepped on the sharpened fourth, the prati madhyamam while singing Madhyamavati. Undaunted by this faux pas, the maestro carved out a few more phrases using the scale SRM#PNbS, spontaneously named the raga Pratimadhyamavati and oscillated between Madhyamavati and Pratimadhyamavati with a brand new composition minted right on the spot.
Echoing the words of Oru naal poduma, I have no choice but to add the cliched observation that it will take ‘more than days’ to explain the brilliance of his work. Innovation within the realm of the self-imposed bounds of the cutcheri was just second nature to him. Balamurali is credited with a few hundred compositions covering a range of compositional forms including music scores for films. His newly sculpted ragas found expression through his compositions; some like Mahati even made it into films and turned blockbusters.
And there were the sruti bheda pieces. A long drawn alapana in Abhogi with a sruti bhedam resulting in Valaji or the sruti bheda tillana with wicked twists and turns starting with a benign Kalyani immediately come to mind.
There was never a dearth of excitement in his concerts.
The driving force behind his musicality was his nonchalant muse. Beneath this virtuosity lay a progressive and adventurous spirit that did not believe in shackles or constraints of any form. Here is a quote from Sruti magazine’s interview with Balamurali Krishna in 1984. ‘Tradition is nothing other than the basic grammar around which a superstructure is built’. He goes on to say in this interview that anyone is free to innovate and that only those innovations that ‘are good’ will secure the approval of rasikas for sustained periods of time and continue as traditions; and anything that survives the test of time is a classic regardless of whether it is a composition featured in a film or whether it is an innovation within the cutcheri paddhati.
What could be a better way to pay a tribute to his unbridled spirit than quoting a dare that he throws at Sruti readers again in this ‘must-read’ interview in 1984. “Those who harp on tradition (and tradition, the way they understand it) should either go along with the traditional musicians to heaven or understand what tradition really is”.