Remembering a Meeting With Balamuralikrishna, a non-conformist in Music
Music used to be the food of lovely lives at a time when visual entertainment on the electronic media was nowhere in sight. A galaxy of gifted musicians, whotook listeners to a world beyond compare, had occupied centre stage then. Among the maestros of a receding era of accomplished singers, MangalampalliBalamuralikrishna’s name stands out.
One of the most gracious and mesmerising presence in the annals of music of all times, Balamuralikrishna had cast a spell on aficionados. A legend in his own life time, the doyen of music was at the centre of an unseemly controversy in the Eighties, around which time I had an opportunity to meet him. As a young journalist working for a national daily, it was a dream come true for me to meet the maestro at his residence in Hyderabad in 1990.
Apart from speaking out his mind on music related issues, he gave me an opportunity for a photo shoot, perhaps the only one of its kind. It so happened that he was resting at his residence when I called on him for the interview. The czar of music was quite informal in appearance and speech.
The maestro was in the news then as he had resumed singing in Andhra Pradesh after a self-imposed exile of seven years. The incident was a sequel to the action of abolition of Sangeetha Akademi by the then Chief Minister of the State, N.T.Rama Rao, the actor-turned politician. He had vowed to abstain from singing in Andhra Pradesh till the issue was resolved. Keeping his word, he began singing again after NTR lost the political throne.
We talked about a variety of topics on music. Music therapy was one of his pet projects. He wanted to take it to new heights, but felt crippled due to lack of funds.
Apart from the long-term silence, he had courted a controversy earlier over his claim of inventing new ragas. Lavangi, Mahati, Sumukham, Janasammohini, Revathi, Chandrika and Mohanangiand a host of other ragas that he claimed to have had created. Octogenarian Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, another doyen of Carnatic music, had challenged the claim. The enraged Balamurali filed a defamation suit which was settled “in court and out of court” later.
The singer was highly critical of the conformists who pitched for ‘purity’ of Carnatic music. Asked about it, the singer, visibly upset, said that purity means health, shooting back several questions, a la avatar of a musician-activist: Which music has not got synthesis? What is there in Carnatic music which no other music has? Did Thyagaraja say what he sang was Carnatic music?
(Balamuralikrishna’s musical journey had been identified with non-conformism, spirit of experimentation and boundless creativity. He had composed in all the 72 Melakarta ragas, spread over 400 odd compositions. His experimentation had encompassed Varnas, Krithis, Thillanas and Bhavageethas).
“Shall I take a photo”, I asked him at the end of the interview. He was slightly confused as he had not dressed up to face the camera. After a moment’s hesitation, he allowed me to click on, in the very same pose, clad in a dhoti, bare chested (dressed for home). It was an opportunity of a lifetime to have a rare photo shoot of a musical genius whom I admired much beyond words.
This facet of the personality trait of Balamurali, whose mellifluous voice had conquered music lovers everywhere, was unknown to me; but it was the rarest of the rare opportunity to watch him at close quarters, a moment worth cherishing all my life!.