As we were growing up, M. Balamuralikrishna was not a musician whom several senior members of the family particularly liked. Yet, he was someone with the charm of an enigma. Perhaps the ambivalence was to do with the more insidious politics of the world of classical/Carnatic music that had subconsciously informed our responses. Subsequently, one developed a greater appreciation of the individuated artist that Balamuralikrishna was, the headstrong courage he had and the confidence he reposed not so much in himself as in the music that he practiced. Perhaps it was this quality that made him an impish rebel in the world of Carnatic music
Born in a musical family, Balamuralikrishna was a child prodigy and displayed an absolute mastery over a range of instruments (he was an accomplished player on the violin) and in all the facets of concert performance associated with Carnatic music. His raga singing was soulful and imaginative, his knowledge of laya nonchalant, and his repertoire of kritis vast and his understanding of the compositions (especially those in Telugu) was deep. When he sang the Telugu kritis, the staple of Carnatic music, it was almost as if he were parsing them musically and linguistically. However, this did not immediately earn him accolades as the world of Carnatic music betrayed an orthodoxy that placed very different markers for endorsement. In some cases, it was lineage, leaving little room for auto-didacts who dared to question the discipline of an established tradition or transmission (an example being the veena maestro, Balachander for whom the gramophone was the guru). The courage to blaze a new trail in terms of style or in terms of creating new ragas or simply questioning the orthodoxy of behaviour, in sartorial choice, or having a young woman to accompany him on the drone was not seen to very kindly by the orthodox. On almost all of these counts, Balamurali was an enfant terrible of Carnatic music. What became obvious though, as years rolled by, was his extraordinary success, his crowd-pulling talent that recognised and endorsed his restless urge to experiment, to innovate, to play with raga and tala. There was a playfulness in the effort and that was perhaps the hallmark of his music and his style — by no means easy to emulate but easy to respond to.
Thus, even as the classical establishment did not take kindly to his experiments — the foregrounding of his own compositions at the expense of the more established repertoire, or to his advocacy of the light classical — it could not but accommodate him even when, for instance, he dared to do the unthinkable by suggesting how the compositions of the 18th century composer Tyagaraja were to be sung. Legend has it that the saint composer was very exacting when it came to the rendering of his compositions and that as a result, the same kriti was never taught to the same students. This led to different schools of the Tyagaraja tradition and an entire mythology about authenticity of the correct style was kept alive by the self-professed custodians of Carnatic music. For Balamuralikrishna, the exercise smacked of blind prejudice and of petty politics and he came forward with his own understanding of the compositions as he instinctively understood them with the advantages of being a native Telugu speaker.
It was, however, the claim to making new ragas that saw Balamurali at the centre of a really explosive controversy. For senior musicians, the claim to making new ragas was almost blasphemous and brought him into direct conflict with Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, the head honcho of the establishment at that time. The feud was bitter and very ugly. Later, however, they patched up and even performed in a concert together. When asked once what he thought of Balamuralikrishna, Iyer said “Romba buddhishaali” (very clever) with a twinkle that gestured to the child in both these artists.
Balamuralikrishna was definitely a path-breaker, he played the Carnatic, Hindustani fusion, he experimented with music therapy and lived life as he best knew it, giving expression to music in every way, often childlike, even if this meant courting controversies at every turn.