A Moment In Modernity

Balamuralikrishna has no predecessor or successor. But he represents a rupture

Written by S Gopalakrishnan | Updated: November 24, 2016 8:04 am
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Last night I listened to two tracks of the Tyagaraja composition, “Nagumomu Ganaleni”, in the raga Abheri. The first rendering was by a pre-Indian independence period star vocalist who made this particular composition timeless, Musiri Subramania Iyer (1899-1975). The second one was by Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna. Some years ago, when I got an opportunity to interview Balamuralikrishna, I had asked him why he deviated from the way Musiri had sung and made the kriti immortal. A smile playing on the corner of his lips, he said: “It was Musiri who deviated; I sing the way an ailing Saint Tyagaraja most likely might have sung in the 19th century.”

Such confidence that bordered on arrogance defined the modernist moment Balamuralikrishna came to define in Carnatic music. But he was a loner in history, with no predecessor or follower. Can a loner represent a modern moment? Balamuralikrishna had many students, but few can claim to represent his music. Balamuralikrishna’s music was unique and impossible to replicate; he could not be the beginning of a parampara or a school. Yet, I think he signifies a departure from the tradition because he modernised the way we listen to Carnatic music. Modernity in art refers to a relationship to time, one represented by a discontinuity, opening to a new and unique aesthetic sensibility. One can see it in its ideal form in Balamuralikrishna’s music.

When I met the maestro in his modest house in Chennai in the summer of 2012, he looked radiant in a yellow silk shirt and appeared to be in a buoyant mood. I asked him: “Are you not tired of your constant rebellion with the orthodoxy?”. His response was compelling: “I sympathise with them, they don’t listen to music.” The conservative core of the Carnatic music audience continues to have a disconnect with the maestro. As Pablo Picasso was called a show-off by many of his contemporary traditionalists, Balamuralikrishna was accused of singing for the galleries. Let me be honest, as someone who listens to both Hindustani and Carnatic classical music almost daily, Balamuralikrishna is not an any-time-musician for me, as Kesarbai Kerkar or Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer are. When people describe Kumar Gandharva’s emergence as a modern moment in the Hindustani vocal tradition, seasoned listeners do not feel any discomfort. But many in the Carnatic circle disagree when a similar observation is made about Balamuralikrishna. This is because the Carnatic maestro had moved away from the prevailing notion of classicism in the south.

Once a disciple of Kishori Amonkar, of a gharana known for its precise adherence to sruti, told me that she always asks him to listen to Balamuralikrishna’s music to understand the right sruti and voice-culture. The advice goes with Balamuralikrishna’s unique acceptance among Hindustani music lovers. No other Carnatic vocalist, perhaps with the exception of M.S. Subbulakshmi in the past and T.M. Krishna now, could attract non-Carnatic Indian music lovers. His voice culture, limited use of gamakas and the unique aalap style of ragas made it possible to bridge the two traditions.

I remember how he discouraged me from continuing my questions regarding his views about his seniors and peers like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Madurai Mani Iyer and G.N. Balasubramaniam. He, an artiste with high self-esteem, was tenacious enough to tell me “please don’t compare with me with my contemporaries… if you must compare me with someone, please do it with the Trinity (Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri, who constitute the 18th century trinity of composer-musicians)”.

He shifted from Andhra Pradesh to Chennai when he was in his 30s. It was while living in Chennai that he challenged many of the foundations of musical traditions that the city’s elite had been proud of for more than eight decades. I asked Balamuralikrishna whether he felt out of place in Chennai. His response was, “I live in music, geographical locations don’t bother me.” But a keen ear can observe an underlying Andhra school in his music that refuses to disappear in his “modern” constructs.

I remember a concert in the winter of 1998, when the maestro performed at Delhi’s Nehru Park. It was part of the early morning concert series. He took on the time-theory concept in the Hindustani tradition and told the audience that he was going to sing a night raga that morning. He explained that a true artiste would be able to create the sense of night in the morning.

With Balamuralikrishna passing at the age of 86, one more “incurable romantic” has left the scene. If Ravi Shankar could be called the Pandit Nehru of sitar, considering the many aspects of his music, Balamuralikrishna could be described as the Carnatic Nehru — easily the most popular, democratic, secular aesthete.

The writer, a columnist in Malayalam, is presently head of content, Radio Mango, Dubai

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  1. A
    Anand Pasumarti
    Nov 24, 2016 at 11:43 am
    Well Said ... There was never one and never will be like Sri MBK
    Reply
    1. D
      Dr. K
      Nov 24, 2016 at 11:58 am
      I heard both Musiri's and Bala murali krishna's rendering of Nagumomu. THe latter brought out the Bhava and feelings of Tyagaraja when he scripted and sang the Kirtana. Musiri,s was a mechanical rendering of the Kirtana. I could never understand the kirtana in its content and context when I listened to his rendering.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;This is what makes Balamurali unique in the history of Karnatic music.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Dr. K V N Rao
      Reply
      1. C
        C
        Nov 24, 2016 at 2:48 am
        Non sensical essay of a musical hypocrites trite views. BMK says others deviatedlt;br/gt; lt;br/gt;but fact remains it was he that deviated in spite of being blessed with a fine voicelt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;and talent. He went astray, merely to gain pority by short cut although he waslt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;talented enough to add lustre to the art. Tragic outcome.
        Reply
        1. K
          K P
          Nov 24, 2016 at 11:16 am
          Very Good write up on Dr Balamuralikrishna.
          Reply
          1. M
            Murthy
            Nov 24, 2016 at 6:45 am
            Carnatic Music cannot stand still, in the 19th century. Fair enough. But it is hard to tell which nuances are REAL contributions and which merely ping gimmicks. For instance, In Western clical music, you can play Beethovan, Wagner, Bach and Hayden only according to the notes they composed. You can not combine 'heavy metal' with Mozart and call it "Fusion'. Some South Indian artists of music and Bharatnatyam are reaching absurd levels in their attempt to be revolutionary. I am glad to say, BMK never went that far. But TMK has... he lost a lot of his Indian audience as a result. He had to go into political activism.
            Reply
            1. M
              Murthy
              Nov 24, 2016 at 6:35 am
              Indian Clical Music, especially Carnatic Music, does allow some room for individuality. But that freedom to put the singer's stamp on it has to be at the right context... BalaMuraliKrishna, seemed at times to exercise that freedom at the wrong context, like hanging a ear ring from one's lower lip. For instance, he claimed that he had 'discovered' some new ragas. He could handle those, being a genius. But not many other talented singers would want to sing his 'new' ragas. Even if sung, not many in the audience, even the experts among them, can recognise what raga is being sung. Just as in science, a discovery should be able to be replicated. As the author says, he brought a healthy Andhra style into the Madras Music scene. We should remain grateful for it. He gave many of us joy, we should remain grateful.
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              1. M
                Murthy
                Nov 24, 2016 at 7:59 pm
                Naveen, You may be reading into this, what is right. But, the writer himself, imo, did not think of this aspect. He may burst into laughter on reading your post. BMK did like the company of 'refined women' as you put it. The front row in his concerts had some of them. An Obituary is not merely for shedding tears, some other interesting aspects of the person can also be recalled in polite manner.
                Reply
                1. L
                  L Srinivas
                  Nov 24, 2016 at 4:25 pm
                  The article doesn't make sense. Is the writer perhaps a civil servant? 'Pandit Nehru of sitar' did not make any sense unless it was a subversive comment on Pandit Nehru's roving eye and by metonymy, to that of BMK. It's not clear if it made sense in such a short article.
                  Reply
                  1. M
                    Mahender Goriganti
                    Nov 24, 2016 at 2:40 am
                    No doubt about it, as I know him from his work. So is Modiji has no professor or predecessor as what he is doing is unprecedented.
                    Reply
                    1. N
                      nagarajabillur
                      Nov 24, 2016 at 1:01 am
                      Yes he was arrogant. Who else could be that arrogant. It was as if he alone can be arrogant. That he was a genius. Madras tradition hates anything else. T M K is an example.
                      Reply
                      1. S
                        Sitaram
                        Nov 24, 2016 at 4:16 am
                        A legend .. ped away, Music lives on.
                        Reply
                        1. S
                          sk
                          Nov 24, 2016 at 10:41 am
                          "Pandit Nehru of sitar"? What was that a reference to? Made no sense at all.
                          Reply
                          1. S
                            S.VISWANATHAN
                            Nov 24, 2016 at 12:25 am
                            Yes great man of music rested in the minds of music lovers. Pray GURUJI to. Keep his soul in peace
                            Reply
                            1. V
                              Venkatarama Muthuswami
                              Nov 24, 2016 at 12:44 am
                              BMK is a child prodigy. One of the rare genre that God bestows his beings to enliven beauty of life. Prayers and salutations to this mastero of our generation.
                              Reply
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