Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, who passed away on Tuesday at the age of 86, was an inimitable act. He was schooled the traditional way in Carnatic music, but his musical genius refused to be bound by any tradition. In fact, he reinvented the tradition itself for a generation of musicians and listeners as he charted out a lone course transcending genres and challenging established norms. He was, of course, a singer par excellence. But he was also a prolific vaggeyakara (composer), composing in not just rare Carnatic ragas but also inventing a few ragas in the process. In the distinct way he emphasised his individuality as a composer/musician in a performance space that seeks to erase the personality, Balamuralikrishna marked a moment of modernism in Carnatic music history. The tradition-blind Carnatic music establishment felt uncomfortable with his explorations, but his genius could not be stifled by snubs or strictures. His popularity as a classical singer was rivalled, perhaps, only by another legend, M.S. Subbulakshmi.
Balamuralikrishna was a child prodigy: He was only nine years old when he gave his first concert and 12 when he was broadcast by All India Radio. He arrived on the concert circuit when the titans of 20th century Carnatic music — Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer, G.N. Balasubramaniam, Madurai Mani Iyer, MS, D.K. Pattammal — dominated the scene. Blessed with a great voice, bhava, impeccable pronunciation, and imaginative rendering of ragas, Balamuralikrishna carved out his own space. He refused to be in awe of tradition and was always willing to experiment and expand his concert oeuvre. His impeccable renderings of Tyagaraja compositions apart, he was insistent on popularising the kritis of less known composers like Sadasiva Brahmendra and Bhadrachala Ramadas. Besides, he sang in films in all south Indian languages. His penchant to explore and innovate prodded him to collaborate with Hindustani musicians.
Balamuralikrishna espoused a cosmopolitan sensibility that refused to compartmentalise musical traditions or privilege any one of them. His music, surely, was rooted in the Carnatic classical tradition, but he recognised the universal in the notes. That gave his music and personality a rare luminosity.