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Balamurali Krishna: The child prodigy who broke the status quo in Carnatic music

The music legend died on Tuesday at the age 86.

Mangalampalli Balamurali Krishna, the last of the great Carnatic musicians who preserved the grand Andhra tradition of vocalism, whose initials “BMK” alone evoked nostalgia and anecdotes among admirers, died in Chennai on Tuesday. He was 86.

Balamurali Krishna was born on July 6, 1930, in the village of Shankaraguptam in the East Godavari district of coastal Andhra Pradesh. His father Pattabhiramayya was a skilled player of the flute, violin and veena, while his mother Sooryakantamma, daughter of the renowned composer Prayaga Rangadasu, was an excellent veena player.

Although music was a constant at their home, the father’s conservative Brahmin family always deemed it a “low habit”. Murali was admitted into a municipal school in Buckinghampet, but studies were never his strength. He dropped out after the fifth grade, at the behest of the teachers.

Searching for a suitable guru, the father approached Parupalli Ramakrishnayya Pantulu (1883-1951) to accept eight-year-old Muralikrishna as his student. Pantulu belonged to the “Shishya Parampara” (student lineage) of the saint poet Tyagaraja (1767-1847), one of the famous trinity of Carnatic composers, through Susarla Dakshinamurthi Sastri (1860-1917). It was under Pantulu’s tutelage that Murali blossomed.

Pantulu decided to debut his protégé at a music festival that he conducted in the memory of Susarla in Vijaywada on July 18, 1940. Listening to the young Muralikrishna there, the great Harikatha exponent Musunuri Suryanarayana Bhagawatar gave him the title of “Bala”.

Bala Muralikrishna was to remain the musical genius’ name for the rest of his life.

BMK debuted on All India Radio on July 2, 1941, and became an icon overnight. Invitations to concerts began pouring in. The following year, in January, BMK accompanied his guru to the annual commemorative concerts in honour of Tyagaraja in Thiruvaiyaru in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district. There BMK’s singing floored the legendary singer Bangalore Nagarathnammal, who constructed the samadhi of Tyagaraja. She is said to have carried BMK in her arms and predicted that the child would one day be a genius in the world of music.

Young and restless genius  

No other child could have been as busy as BMK was in his teenage years. The coastal districts of today’s Andhra Pradesh, which were once a part of the erstwhile Madras Presidency, were a hotbed of classical music and theatre patronage at the time. Every village had Sabhas, temples, and organisations that generously patronised music. BMK was a star performer everywhere.

From early concert calendars and show bills, we get to know that BMK, at the age of 13, gave more than 200 concerts a year. In 1944, he accompanied legendary Carnatic vocalists such as Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and Chitoor Subramaniaya Pillai on the viola. His swift growth was watched by all the legends of the era.

While BMK kept his passion for Carnatic music alive, he also gave in to the lure of popular culture. In 1967, he debuted on the silver screen in the famous mythological Telugu film Bhakta Prahlada, starring Anjali Devi and SV Ranga Rao. Playing the role of sage Narada, BMK sang his own songs in the film. Listen to one of his more popular numbers from the film:

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From then on, his ties with cinema grew deeper. As an actor, music director or playback singer, he contributed to over 30 films in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Sanskrit – he even essayed the role of an aged musician in the Malayalam movie Sandine Kendina Sindooram. In 1976, he bagged the National Award for best playback singer for his work in the Kannada film Hamsageete (1975). And a decade later, in 1987, he won a National Award for best music direction for the film Madhawacharya.

The path-breaking rebel  

From the 1960s to the ’80s, BMK invested himself into renewing the works of poet saints like Tallapaka Annamacharya, Bhadrachala Ramadasu, his maternal grandfather Prayaga Rangadasu, Sadasiva Brahmendra and the Kerala king composer Maharaja Swati Thirunal. Setting to tune hundreds of works, he alone revived hundreds of forgotten songs and grew the repertoire of the Carnatic genre.

The world of Carnatic music is as politicised as any other. But BMK decided to break status quo. He set to tune ragas with only four notes, named them, composed songs in them, and sang them at prestigious festivals and venues. This enraged many people.

The Carnatic community ostracised him, and his contemporaries distributed pamphlets among audiences at Madras Sabhas, calling him a madcap. They banned him from festivals and venues. But did any of this perturb him? No. In fact, it encouraged him to do more.

He created new Ragas like Lavangi, Mahati, Manorama, Mohanangi and many more. As a child, he had already mastered the complicated 72-Melakartha system of Ragas. He went ahead to compose in all of them – a feat no other vocalist achieved in the 20th century and a record no one has broken yet. It took a while for the world of Carnatic music to understand his genius and the depth of his musical scholarship. Impeccable diction of the lyric in any language, strict adherence to pitch in a melodic scale and effortless jugglery in the most complicated of rhythm became the quintessential Balamurali signature in Carnatic vocalism.

The composer

The word Vaggeyakara, loosely translating to composer in English, fitted BMK well. A Vaggeyakara is expected to be proficient in Raga music (melodic scales), Tala or rhythm, as well as languages like Telugu, which is the lingua franca of the Carnatic genre. BMK could easily play more than half a dozen instruments, including the violin, viola, khanjira (Indian tambourine), mridangam, veena. In later years, he played each of these instruments in an edited video that went viral online.

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He composed several songs in different genres. His compositions, including several Thillanas, continue to be performed at every other dance recital. He was also one of the first vocalists to sing the entire 12th century Sanskrit text Gita Govindam written by poet Jayadeva. And his collaborations with his contemporaries in Hindustani music – including his jugalbandi with Pt Bhimsen Joshi that was broadcast on Doordarshan – are legendary. Here is a video of the performance:

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Years later, Bhimsen Joshi and BMK repeated that concert with much bonhomie on stage. BMK was to the first Carnatic vocalist to perform jugalbandis with other veterans like Kishori Amonkar, Pt Jasraj and Hindustani flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia. Even younger artistes such as Ronu Majumdar, Ajoy Chakraborty found a generous collaborator in him.

BMK gladly experimented with a host of genres. Check out this song he sang in the Rabindra Sangeet Genre:

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Endless honours and titles

For someone who started so young, BMK achieved all the coveted awards one could think of in the world of Carnatic music. In his lifetime, BMK gave over 50,000 concerts worldwide. He was only 23 when he was honoured with the President of India’s gold medal in 1953.

Among other honours bestowed upon on him were the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1975, the Sangita Kalanidhi from the Madras Music Academy in 1978, the Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri. He was honoured with the Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French government in 2005, over two dozen honorary doctorates from various universities, scores of titles from music organiations and more. All of this sat lightly on his shoulders.

There was a time when Carnatic music was dying a slow death in his homeland. With the state and individuals ending patronage, the Telugus were disappearing from the world of Carnatic music. NT Rama Rao, then the chief minister, dissolved the state Sahitya Akademi and fought with artistes. Many writers such as Arudra and artistes such as Bapu decided to shift to Chennai. Disillusioned with the state’s attitude, BMK too moved to Chennai, the Mecca of Carnatic music, where famous musicologist BM Sundaram and Prince Rama Varma of the royal house of Travancore became his students. Several film actors like Vyjayantimala Bali, Kamal Hasan and dancer Kamala Lakshmanan also learnt music under his tutelage.

Known for his warmth, hospitality, a cheeky smile, and historical and musical anecdotes, BMK was everyone’s favourite in the world of Indian classical music. He sang till a month ago, with an extremely robust voice that effortlessly scaled three and half octaves.

This year commemorates the 250th birth anniversary of the poet-saint Tyagaraja, and BMK’s death has taken his soul to the feet of his Guru. With the demise of Mangalampalli Balamurali Krishna, the world of Carnatic music has lost one of the last great titans.

Veejay Sai is a writer, editor and a culture critic.

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