Carnatic keys

How musicians can pay a true tribute to M Balamuralikrishna’s unconquerable soul

The musician who demystified classical music for the ordinary listener was curious and questioning to the very end.

In the age of social media, hagiographical references and entirely inappropriate adjectives are used to describe those who have passed. Everything is polarised, and simultaneously exaggerated. Too often, the authors of these posts or articles reference themselves in order to ascribe a measure of greatness to the departed individual – as if by association, the former attains some permanent measure of glory.

Then there are those articles that are tokenisms, using words and phrases borrowed from others and containing elusive references to anecdotes that are mostly inane and apocryphal.

M Balamuralikrishna deserves better.

I cannot think of anyone more unsuited to write any form of tribute to him than me, but perhaps in that respect, as a layman and a fan of his spirit, I have as much right as anyone else. I join the ranks of millions of ordinary people who found him and his oeuvre extraordinary.

What does his demise mean to the ordinary person, one who perhaps had only heard of him, but was not deeply interested in either the genre he represented or his music in particular? In today’s world of quick news and jingoism, did Balamuralikrishna mean much outside of the exalted world of classical music?

Even without the analysis of his incredible versatility, best left to the more seasoned Carnatic musician, his inventiveness was legendary. Folks talk of the ragas and compositions he crafted, and as young children, we were taught some of his thillanas and varnams. We accepted them as a matter of course.

As a grown-up, I now realise the significance of his prolific output, and how much it has shaped the musical imagination of successive generations.

The superstar musicians of his time were also sceptical and critical of his creations. As a musician, his ideas seemed born of an overactive and creative mind, constantly seeking to create and engage. It also sought a certain validation, which it found in great measure.

Interesting conundrum

My favourite memory of him involves a time when my family and I found him in a railway compartment, much to our delight. He was disarming, courteous and a lot of fun. He was also extremely conscious of who he was, which at the time we found endearing.

Most highly creative people are extroverted, and he was a great example of that. The compartment we shared seemed too small for the expansive universe that he inhabited.

Balamuralikrishna represents an interesting conundrum and model for leadership: as a compulsive individualist and seeker, he was both composer and performer, vocalist and instrumentalist, proponent and critic, mainstream magician and maverick. Contrarian though these roles are at times, when seen in the context of the times and establishment politics that prevailed, it is easy to see that he had to don these roles to establish relevance for his wondrous output.

Much has been said about the “Madras mamas” (mama is Tamil for uncle) and their inability to see anything innovative in the right spirit. The establishment is frequently riled for its scant respect for true innovators, and its encouragement of mediocrity. But isn’t this true of every society?

Path-breakers and visionaries are often surrounded by other minds that are less agile. The aversion to change is rife in most communities around the world, and beacons of light such as Balamuralikrishna, become revolutionaries by sheer dint of their persistent refusal to be compartmentalised. In doing so, they create new platforms, and entirely new thought paradigms.

Balamuralikrishna’s versatility meant that he could don several roles, underscoring a mind and spirit that were agile and active. He had the attitude of a child in many of his activities – persistent and single-minded when motivated.

There is a lovely video of one of his performances, where he challenges his accompanists with rhythmic improvisations towards the end of his immortal Kuntalavarali Thillana. He is a child here, laughing with his audience (while still performing). There is something tremendously engaging in this show of wizardry.

He questioned and took stances that were bold and often unpopular. He was not a great fan of the famous Chennai music season, and vocally opposed the modus operandi of the sabhas. He would often remark that he was far more popular outside Chennai, than inside it. He may have been right. Whether or not it irked him is secondary to the fact that he was conscious of his role as the questioner.

Unconquerable soul

I met him last year at a public function. He was not very voluble, and he looked a tad frail. He asked me if I was the man who played the piano, and when I replied in the affirmative, he took me by surprise by asking me a series of tricky questions about piano techniques and its applicability to Carnatic music. His last question was perhaps the most revealing of all:

  “How much more can you do with it?”  

Something to ponder, but certainly reflective of his constantly curious mind.

Balamuralikrishna seemed ageless to many of us. When we were young, there was a programme on music that he conceived and presented on television, titled Swara Raga Sudha, in which he described ragas one at a time, explained how they worked, and showed both film and classical versions of the raga, to educate the lay listener. He would wear a quizzical smile through the show, his vocalisations and delivery legendary.

He looked much the same to me throughout his life, even into his 80s. Alert, energetic and surrounded by music.

As an adult, it strikes me that this ability to construct a meaningful dialogue with the world of popular music could not have been easy for someone from his generation. He did not seem to care, and in doing so, became a pioneer who created a conversation around classical music for the ordinary man.

He is known for his film song renditions, of course, but this essay is not about those. In this I would place the most significant lesson of his life and work to me, of creating your own platform, unmindful of what others may say or think. He created a “Blue Ocean” model of leadership, long before management science caught up with it. Balamuralikrishna created and played by his own rules with tremendous belief, guts and self confidence – something only true leaders do, in every field.

It is not a cliché to say that an era has ended. To me, a true tribute to his unconquerable soul would be more musicians who approached their craft with the same sense of conviction – to be compulsively creative and original in their search for meaning, and live life to the accompaniment of their personal truths with integrity.

The author is a well-known classical pianist and music educator.

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