THE TERM ‘CLASSICAL music’ can be a misleading label. Along with artistic sophistication and enduring appeal, it suggests an elitist aesthetic accessible only to a few. Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna’s music was the opposite of elitism. Few Carnatic musicians have ever managed to kindle public ardour as he did in his long and controversial career—so much so that critics were mindful of the implications of a negative review. A deep voice that could span three octaves and skip assuredly from one note to another many tonal intervals away was just one of the reasons for his meteoric rise. His rigour with sahitya (lyric), especially that of Tyagaraja, and diction did not just endear him to senior musicians, it also imbued his renditions with bhava (emotion), making him the darling of devotionally inclined concert-goers. Despite his technical proficiency, he had a way of introducing a raga in its barest, stripped-down form, drawing in the lay listener with its simple melody before delving deeper for the discerning audience. “The listening public today is a motley crowd—some who come only to relax, some who are interested in the technicalities, some who come only to compare, and a few who are there to pray, to contemplate the Divine. If you want your music to be ‘classical’, you must carry all these listeners with you,” he said in an interview to Sruti, a magazine on Indian performing arts, in 1983.
Balamuralikrishna ensured he got the attention of the cognoscenti, the classical music dilettante and the layman alike. The traditionalists of Madras disapproved of his penchant for composition, viewing it as an attempt to supplant the canon of works by the greats of Carnatic music. When he was awarded the Sangita Kalanidhi by the Madras Music Academy in 1978, veena vidwan S Balachander and reputed vocalist Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer took umbrage at his claims of having invented new ragas, some of which, like Mahati and Lavangi, have just four notes. The controversy passed without denting his popularity. Balamuralikrishna went on to charm India with his jugalbandis with Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Kishori Amonkar, and his 100-plus songs in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Sanskrit and Bengali films—the rare Carnatic musician to break boundaries between north and south Indian music, and film and classical music.
He easily shook off the poisoned darts shot at him and regaled not just listeners but also accompanists with his ready wit and easy manner. “He was always happy and his cool personality came through in his music. He did not complicate his life,” says violinist RK Shriramkumar, who remembers the maestro gorging on molaga bajji (chilli fritters) ahead of a concert at the Music Academy in December 1997. “It was my first time playing with him and I was petrified. He offered me bajji backstage and told me it was going to be alright. He was singing as a substitute for Nedunuri Krishnamurthy who couldn’t make it because of health issues. For a senior musician to do that, he must have had a large heart,” the violinist says.
Born to Mangalampalli Pattabhiramayya, a music teacher, in Vijayawada, he gave up school after Class V, devoting his life to the study and practice of music. He first performed at the age of nine and had composed kritis in the 72 melakarta ragas (parent ragas from which other ragas are derived) by the time he turned 16. Soon, he had mastered the violin and the viola and accompanied legends like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and GN Balasubramaniam. While he added many such feathers to his own cap, mention must be made of his service to music. An All India Radio employee, in Vijayawada and later in Chennai, he travelled across south India to collect compositions by Annamacharya and Bhadrachala Ramadas and set them to tune. They were broadcast through his programme, Bhakti Ranjani.
Balamuralikrishna interpreted Carnatic music with unexpected originality, and was unaccepting of any hindrance to his creative freedom. He threw himself into the ocean of swara without discriminating between major and minor ragas—he was especially fond of launching into detailed treatments of small or rare ragas like Jaganmohini and Vagadeeshwari. “He cared about his audience,” says Malladi Suribabu, a senior vocalist from Vijayawada. “He made eye contact with them and kept them entertained. He was a consummate performer, that was his secret.”