Kunnakkudi Balamurali Krishna is one of the most thrilling carnatic musicians of the younger generation. A regular primetime singer in Chennai’s leading Sabhas during the Margazhi season and a top billing artiste in the carnatic circuit elsewhere, he has a steadily rising following among music lovers.
In the contemporary classical music scene, particularly among the younger generation, where it’s hard to locate the qualities that distinguish one singer from another, Balamurali Krishna stands out for his energy, out-of-the-box thinking and artistic enterprise. Although it’s very difficult to suggest a pecking order among the younger lot, given their musical legacy, skills and even unconventional attitudes, Balamurali Krishna is certainly one of the most energetic and innovative on stage, whether he is going solo with his elaborate alapanas, playing musical games with his Pallavis or singing in unison with his ensemble.
Trained both in Mridangam and vocal music by legendary Karaikudi Mani and PS Narayanaswamy respectively, Balamurali Krishna scores well in laya, the intricate use of gamakas and other voice techniques including tans employed by Hindustani musicians, reaching higher octaves and also in soulful singing. He is a thinking musician, who has also been influenced by the “problem-solving” approach of the past masters. The most interesting aspect of his music, however, is the unique emphasis he gives to the role of his mind in shaping his art.
We are in the last phase of the Margazhi in Chennai and you have been one of the busiest vocalists this season with back-to-back concerts. How are Margazhi concerts different from others?
It’s a season that all carnatic musicians look forward to, a culmination of the last 11 months of one’s music. Although we do perform in the city during the rest of the year, this is extra alluring, especially for musicians in Chennai like me who started learning at a very young age because we grew up listening to concerts in the season. As youngsters, we enjoyed the energy and the electricity. It was always special listening to the heroes we worshipped.
As a child, my main idols were Karaikudi Mani sir (famous mridangist) and PS Narayanaswamy mama, whom I still worship. I was fortunate enough to eventually learn from both of them. I started learning from Mani sir at the age of 13. My father used to take me to Shastri Hall to listen to concerts ever since I was five. Even today I have those thrilling memories. I hero worshipped many musicians to the extent of keeping their photos in my wallet. For people like me, Margazhi was special because you got to see your idols not on a monthly basis, but on a daily basis, and also because you could hear them present new things
What has been your special this season?
I usually try out new ragas. I am more into raga singing. I would like to explore them in detail. In a regular two-hour concert, my main raga should be at least 15-20 minutes. If it’s less than that, there will be a specific reason.
Even if it’s a light raga?
Yes. I have sung Subhapantuvarali for 25 minutes, Hamir Kalyani for 20 minutes, Lalitha for 15 minutes and so on. Elaborate raga singing is something I work on.
In terms of what’s new, it’s also about the Pallavis that I sing and the talas that I choose. My approach towards Pallavis has been changing radically for the last five years. In fact, so many things have been changing in the recent years – there are a lot of new ways to approach a raga.
Your Mohanam (at a concert) yesterday sounded so different
This is something I learned by listening to the music of masters such as Semmangudi, MD Ramanathan (MDR), GN Balasubramaniam (GNB) and so on. They all started the ragam in a similar way, their gamakas were the same, they sang in a sampradayik (traditional) style as we know it. Or their approach to music was what we think as sampradayik. However, they were all unique and different from each other.
The main basis of a raga is usually the Trinity compositions. So, it’s always going to sound sampradayik (traditional) for us. These days we try a lot of new things. The approach now is to have more variety than going in depth whereas the masters had explored the depth. In their time, they were the innovators and they also sang a lot of compositions that were contemporary then. For instance, MDR composed a lot of songs, they were indepth singers, but now people are trying more outlandish things. But if somebody could sing ragas in a sampradayik style without sounding similar, also not by trying anything “eccentric” why can’t we do it now? How did the masters do it? That’s how I started exploring ragas. It’s about understanding how much this music can offer you without ever going beyond certain boundaries.
The musician can choose the boundaries, I mean the approach towards a raga. I will have a boundary for myself. Take for instance Mohanam. The base will still be Mohanam, it will have five swaras, but then I can do whatever I want to with them.
How much of is it preplanned and how much happens spontaneously on stage?
With respect to manodharma (improvisation) singing. I do most of it on stage. Preparation for me is thinking. The only practice I do is warm up and voice exercises. Even on concert days.
But what about your regular practice?
I do it all in the mind.
That’s all? Isn’t it risky because you may get ideas, but you may not be sure if you have the skills to execute them on stage.
For that, you need to know your voice. In terms of this regular practice that you mentioned, I did all that when I was younger. For 13-14 years of my initial learning, I used to practice four hours every day. And it was rigorous. And there were many ways of doing it. For instance, my father used to record AIR concerts that were broadcast at odd hours and make me listen to them and practise.
Very interesting that your practice happens in the mind.
Yeah, probably in the last 13 years.
So you don’t feel the need to sing out a raga aloud or some difficult phrases at home?
For me, every moment I am awake, something (music) is going on in my mind. It’s happening even now as we are talking to you. I just got used to it. I can sing on stage anything I want to because both my mind and voice are prepared. As I told you, I do train my voice along with my mind.
But don’t you have to physically practise to learn a new raga, for instance?
I recently sang Vanaspathi. I knew the song that was composed in that raga for 13 years, but never sang the raga. Then, I fell in love with that raga, started thinking about it and sang it. Till singing on stage, I didn’t practise it physically. The whole practice – 100 per cent – of that raga alapana was in my mind.
Wow, it’s amazing that this is also possible!
I had a throat surgery a few years ago and a lot of thinking happened after that, during the therapy sessions. Till my surgery, I thought only about content on stage and I had a basic knowledge about how my voice should sound. I indeed used to feel that my voice sounded different in different concert halls of Chennai, but I had no clue why it happened – I mean the importance of voice.
After my surgery in the US, I had voice therapists both there and in Chennai, but both didn’t know Carnatic music and its demands and hence I had to think about it myself. What makes Carnatic music different from other forms of music, particularly Western, is the azhutham and the gamakas. They are the base for Carnatic music. That’s what makes Carnatic music sound so different. The number of gamakas, the oscillations, the number of different ways of touching a swara etc.
For those demands, there was no answer from my therapists. I plainly asked one of my therapists – this is the line I want to sing, this is how I want to sing, can you suggest a really good voice technique for me not to strain my voice, but still sing? For instance, I want to sing something full-throated from my chest, that’s when I feel it, that’s when I feel my audience will be elated. Give me a technique that will have a minimal effort on my voice. For a raga like mukhari it has have more azhutham.
But they had no answers and they couldn’t have answers because most of their theories were based on western vocalisation. Unfortunately for Carnatic music, there were no voice trainers then (I think there are a few now). We have music trainers, content trainers, but no voice trainers. For western music, more than the content, they train the voice.
But in our music, it’s a little bit of notation and 95 per cent internalising what goes inside that. And that experience and my post-surgery musings gave me a lot of insights into voice. That also made me understand why I sounded different in different concert halls. Therefore, I think a lot now, I sing differently and I am open to a lot of new things.
Do you listen to other forms of music
A lot of Hindustani than western classical
You employ a lot of express tans, like you did in the concert yesterday
Yes I do.
You are like guns blazing.
I practise those techniques a lot. I found a way to practise them myself because there’s nobody to train you like that here in Chennai. I have a number of inspirations such as the great maestro Bhimsen Joshi, Salamat Ali Khan, Bade Gulam Ali Khan and Amir Khan.
But More and more people are incorporating such elements into carnatic music now. Mostly in ragas borrowed from Hindustani.
For me, music is logic and logic is god and I have found a way to cultivate my voice towards that.
My guru PS Narayanaswamy was the best and he ensured that my basics were strong. As a teacher, he let us bloom and understood our thought processes. While learning and practising with him, the only thing he prevented us from doing were committing technical mistakes. He would always allow us to explore. He would sing in the class, he would sing neravals and swaras and they were great learning opportunities.
I have read that you and Abhishek Raghuram (another famous vocalist) were his students at the same period and he would allow you both to improvise in class. That he would be watching you and Abhishek doing improvised singing and would not intervene until there’s a mistake
Yes, he would sing, we would sing; he would ask us to sing just one avarthanam without any breaks and we would try to sing for 15 minutes back and forth. He would sing something new every single time and we would start getting repetitive or frustrated. That would compel us to try out new things, but for both of us, we needed logic. With logic, it’s hard to do, not to be repetitive. After about 15 times or so, he would smile and give us four swaras and ask us to sing with only those four. So you would start exploring within those four.
Just for swaras, no raga framework?
The tough part would be that he would ask us to do it in ragas such as Nayaki, Durbar, Kannada or Malavi. I would never forget Malavi. It was so tough.
That sounds very rigorous
It was really indeed rigorous and challenging, but enjoyable too. We had more energy and expectations from a class with our Guru than from a concert those days.
Your music is about extreme confidence, energy and power
What I was coming to earlier was that my fundamentals are strong because of my Guru. I also practised rigorously for years. So now, when I think of a raga, something that i have already sung, I am trying to understand the feel and how it would go. After that, it’s just manodharma. Nowadays, it also depends on my mood on that day, with whom you are singing, which venue, how my voice is responding etc. That’s how I go about exploring a raga these days. Sometimes, I have 15 minutes, sometimes 30 minutes and so on. That’s why I am able to sing whatever comes to my mind. See, on 90 per cent of the occasions, I just go there and sing because I know that the base is going to be right.
Going to the upper octaves like you do could be tricky sometimes because you may not touch the notes you want to
This is one of the things I learned after my recovery. I was singing in madhyamashruthi and till then I wasn’t able to explore beyond madhyamam and panchamam. Once in a concert I was singing Kamboji and that day my voice was not good with even the high Ga getting tough. I didn’t understand why, but now I can tell you that it was because Kamboji needs more azhutham and power on Ga rather than a high Pa as you do in a raga like Kalyani. That’s how the ragam goes. I didn’t understand that because for me it was the logic of the ragam. This is what I meant when I said I never thought anything other than content till I had my surgery. It opened a lot of things to me – voice projection, the environment of the venue etc.
So, that day I finished Kamboji and couldn’t sing in upper Ga. After it was over, I sang a song in madhyamashruthi and I suddenly realised that I could reach the higher notes while my mind was taking them as lower notes. It was because of my musical training. I realised that my voice was actually ready for those swaras and I consciously sang them thinking they were lower notes. It was all in the mind. You think you are at a lower note, but sing higher. Then I started consciously working on that. After a few months, it became very easy. Then I wanted to go there without “pre-emption” and after some time, I skipped the “pre-emption” and went to those notes directly. Now I do it easily. I always am open for some new adventure.
Don’t you get scared about possible failure whenever you feel adventurous?
No, I just sing.
But what about Kritis, don’t you practise them physically?
Of course I do. I do practise, I learn them well.
How long does it take?
Learning a kriti will take only an hour, but mastering will take a long time.
Seeing your skills in those kanakkus and korvai etc, I wonder if you studied maths and science
I studied commerce, but I love maths.
What’s your take on the concert format that some people have a problem with?
Let me give you this analogy: you give kids some limited space and a few toys to play with. Initially, they will feel very limited with the choices they have and even get bored, but after a few days, the kids will make their own rules and make it complex with a number of possibilities with which they are not bored anymore. And that’s how Carnatic music also is. The actual rules are much more complex than one thinks they are and they in fact offer immense scope to be creative. It’s an inherent strength.
Does popular music, say film music, attract you?
No, I just listen to some of it, that’s all. My music is all Carnatic and some Hindustani.
What makes you the happiest in a concert?
The first moment I feel happy is when the curtain rises. Right from the time I get dressed up for a concert, I get restless. The exhilarating feeling you get the moment you start singing is priceless.
What are your moments of euphoria in music?
There are many things that make me ecstatic. The best I get is when I feel choked with emotions while singing. You are trained to be controlled and you don’t explore on stage more than 70 per cent of what your voice is capable of, but you are still overcome by your own emotion of the raga. Sometimes it’s not even a raga, but a song that does the trick – say Mayamma in Ahiri. With that song, I have gotten stuck because I was overcome by its emotion. Once I had to keep quiet after one avarthanam because I had to get out of the zone and compose myself. I value those moments the most. Even more than the euphoria, it’s the excitement you get on stage. It’s priceless. It means that you are being touched by music.
Every musician will go through this. When you sing, in your mind you hear the “ultimateness” about your singing. See, you have been hearing music for long, so when you sing a sangathi, in your mind you hear the best version of the sangathi that you think you are capable of singing. At some point in your singing career, that bubble breaks when you actually hear yourself sing it rather than your own imagination doing it. Often, after you sing a concert when you listen to the recording, you may not be satisfied because you haven’t reached the ultimateness of your own singing that you had heard in your mind.
Once you reach the ultimate that you had in your mind, your ultimate itself will change. That’s how you keep getting better and better.
Coming to Carnatic music as a career, isn’t it a risky profession because of the limited market?
I grew up in a household with music and my father was a music teacher. Right from childhood, I wanted to do only music because that’s what made me happy. By the time I was 13, I was pretty certain about that, nothing else gave me this pleasure. Unlike in any other career, classical art is not about commercial transaction, but the pleasure of doing it.
How much does the audience-response contribute to the success of your music?
I am certainly conscious of their responses, but often I am out of it and I am in my own zone.
Does it distract you?
Of course not; Instead, I love it. I get pumped up. It’s a culmination of many things.
Sometimes something I do is the the ultimate for me, but not for them; and sometimes it may be great for them, but not for me. Sometimes I get surprised that they loved something when I least expected it.
Have you faced failures in the concert?
It happens all the time. Sometimes I am happy about my feeling, but not the way I sounded. Sometimes the voice and the tonal quality would have been very good, but my content wasn’t good. Some times, I do discard a lot of my own ideas.
Your inspiration within carnatic music?
Nadaswaram is a huge inspiration for me, mainly their never-ending exploration of the ragas. When it’s played during temple processions, there are rules that they have to keep playing the same raga till a certain part of the ritual is over. So they have to keep playing, which means they have to keep exploring without getting repetitive. And also there are specific ragas for specific days. That’s how certain ragas get more scope when handled by Nadaswaram players. A lot of musicians started developing ragas only based on that – Nadaswaram is their base.
Rakthi Vs scale?
From a voice point of view, it’s easier to sing scale ragas because the notes are plain. However, even in ragas with plain notes, it’s the singer’s job to give the rakthi.
I can give you an example. When i was young, I had heard the great musician RK Srikantan singing hamsadhwani. There’s this particular gamaka that I had never heard in hamsadwhani which inherently has very little oscillation. My Guru, who was present with me at the concert, was also surprised and asked me, “did you hear that?” That’s how great knowledgeable people add value. I have used that gamaka in my rendition of Vathapi (a popular composition in Hamswadhwani)
Evolution as a musician
What I would like is to get more soaked in the fundamentals of carnatic music so that the innovations are more original. That’s the only thing I want to do. I am insisting that with my students as well.
You have mentioned to me that you are greatly influenced by MD Ramanathan. Why?
He was an unbelievable musician. The moment he opens his mouth, he is in perfect pitch and the precision with the gamakas and how he delineates a raga were stunning. He did what he did 40 years ago with no support of technology.
You use borrowed techniques such as tans in your music, particularly in non-Hindustani and heavy ragas.
Earlier I didn’t know how to use those ornamentations, but now I do. Now, it has become more natural for me to sing those. I am not labouring them any more like I used to do. Earlier, I used to employ it only in Hindustani bhajans, but now it has become so natural to me that I have used it in Todi and Bhairavi as well.
Other than MDR, who are the masters who inspire(d) you?
My Guru PS Narayanaswamy, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, TM Thyagarajan, and TN Seshagopalan. My Guru was like a “model paper”. After he sang, there was nothing left.
Regarding Semmangudi, I get amazed the more I listen to him. He sounds simple and refreshing, but when I sit down to sing like him, I wouldn’t be able to do even a fraction of what he did. As a young boy I had even cried being unable to repeat what he sang although he sounded simple. He was deceptive, his speed was deceptive. He would have more space between avarthanams than I have. There’s some magic in his singing. A lot of problem-solving methods. The closest analogy would be like a defensive-looking straight drive by Sachin Tendulkar. It would look just like a nudge as if he was blocking the ball, but it would race to the boundary like a bullet. Complex things made look easy. Semmangudi was like that.
TM Thyagarajan, for me, was the father of modulation in carnatic music. The way he could push the limits. He had a very different thought process. Technically one of the most logical musicians. Very few people do a tightrope walk like him while singing a raga. Trying to repeat a sangathi sung by him is tricky because of his modulation. He may sound good and correct, but when we try to sing like him, we may go wrong.
As regards Seshagopalan, I don’t think any musician after the 1980s hasn’t been influenced by his thought process. He is a true force. His concert is like a treasure trove. Even a raga that he has sung umpteen times would sound new when you hear him sing again. He is just amazing.
Contemporary and young Carnatic musicians indulge in a lot of innovations now. Any thoughts on that?
There are many out-of-the-box things that are happening. In the olden days, ragamalika was an improvisation, now it’s very common. Similarly, we do a lot with the pallavis, different talas, different nadais etc. In fact, everybody is trying something new. It’s unbelievable. We have also been taking ideas from Hindustani, Western Classical, Persian music etc.
Have you done any crossover experiments?
Yes, I have had some gigs in the US. It may not always work for our vocalists with their instrumentalists because of issues such as pitch. I may not be able to match their pitch if their instrumentalists go beyond two and a half octaves. It works better for our instrumentalists though. If I were an instrumentalist, probably I could have done more.
I have noticed that you sing less number of tukdas (short popular pieces at the end of the concert). Why?
Because I sing ragas and don’t stop (laughs)
Any favourite raga?
Varali. Also Shanmughapriya, Subhapantuvarali and Todi – because of my love for nadaswaram. I can sing any number of Todis
How do you memorise all these details, the repertoire, the notes, scales, emotions, specific gamakas with certain ragas and kritis etc?
In Carnatic music, you learn by looking at the face of the Guru, not notations. I do that with my students. Listening and learning directly from the face of the Guru improves your absorption. It’s also accumulated knowledge. You never unlearn things you learn this way. They become part of you.
What’s your process of trying out new ragas?
You have to get your fundamentals right to know how to approach a new raga. You learn a new raga by listening to compositions without which you are never going to sing. There are phrases within the song that you take up for raga singing. For instance, in his Harikamboji composition, Thyagaraja clearly shows – through a certain phrase – how to delineate it differently from Khamas. That phrase gives you the lead as to how to approach Harikamboji. Such knowledge gets accumulated over a period of time. So when you have a song in a new raga, analyse the song first, you get the raga. I may like a song, it will be running in my mind for some time, and at some stage I start thinking that I would sing it as a raga.
So have you sung even these new ragas with just mind-practice? Without singing at home?
Yes. It may look easy outwardly, but it’s very tiring on the mind. Once you start thinking, you are always thinking about it and you cannot stop. But please note that even when I am saying that all my music is in my mind, if I sing the same raga five to six times in concerts over a period of a year or two, then my approach towards that raga itself will be completely different. What I am implying is that I do improve when I physically sing, but I can also sing without singing at home because I am sure of what I think. I recently sang a raga on stage that I had never attempted before, ever.
You have collaborated with Abhishek Raghuram. Do you discuss music with him?
We do, now and then. We would want to do concerts together only once or twice a year because we need time to plan together. Just because we learned together doesn’t mean we can sing together without preparation. We have different styles of singing and that’s what makes our combo interesting. Almost all the manodharma aspects in such gigs happen on the stage, but singing the compositions require coordination and practice together.
Is music as a career satisfying economically?
I do need to earn, but the driving force is not money, but the passion for music. If your profession is also your passion, whatever do you get out of it will be good enough.