It is one of the saddest moments in the history of Indian classical music.
Dr. Balamurali Krishna, who rose as a meteor in the musical firmament came from an unknown corner of Andhra. He was simply an exception to the leading musicians then dominating the Carnatic music platform in early sixties. While many veteran musicians used their grammar skills and solid percussion support as their strategy to corner the concert market, Dr. Balamurali Krishna, with his gifted voice and musical breath control quickly drew the attention of all veteran musicians, emerging musical talents and music-loving ordinary citizens. While his voice and bhava-laden music attracted aspiring young talents, his creative swara kalpanas and brigas and bold alapanas on rare kritis arrested the attention of all musicians, scattered all over India.
At the tender age of 14, when he composed kritis in all the 72 Melakarta ragas, many professional musicians dominating the Carnatic stage were simply jealous of this genius. Even in the early stages of his career he made many bold and risky musical experiments with his concerts, introducing many of his own compositions and quite a few rare compositions of great composers. Often they were in many rare and unpopular ragas like Palamanjari, Naganandini, Gamanasrama, Chandrajyoti, Sindukannada, Aheer Bhairav and so on.
His creative chittaswarams and unique swara kalpanas for the well known kriti Vathapi Ganapathim, his emotionally choked rendition of the kriti Brihadeeswara in Kanada, his expansive alapana and swara kalpana for kritis like Kanugontini in Bilahari, Nagumomu in Abheri, Samaja varagamana in Hindolam, Kamalaptakula in Brindavana Saranga, all found new dimensions when he handled them. Through kritis like Entha Muddho in Bindumalini, Nanubrovamani Cheppave in Kalyani, and through folk songs like Yemi Sethura Linga, he catered to distinct tastes among audience – some looking for rare melodies, some looking for Bhakti in folk music, and some looking for sarcasm and social criticism by great the composers.
While many veteran musicians till then were least concerned about dissecting the sahityam at odd places to suit the easy flow of beats, for the first time in Carnatic concerts he made the beats subservient to sahityam. A large number of kriti lovers outside of Tamil Nadu (especially from the states of Andhra and Karnataka) would rush to his concerts just to quench their thirst in his sahitya bhavam, his intonations and emphasis on select words and would communicate with the audience, the meaning and bhava of the kriti afresh. In his rendition of ragas Abheri, Arabhi, Bilahari, Brindavani, Chandrajyoti, Gamanasrama, Kalyani, and Mohanam, he tickled with melody-choked voice, one’s musical ecstasy with unanticipated gamakas and sangathis of even very familiar kritis.
Till 1962, I was never exposed to the live performances of any musician outside Tamil Nadu. Balamurali and his music was simply unknown to me then.
In 1962, when I moved to Calcutta for graduate studies at the Indian Statistical Institute, I had the first exposure to Hindustani music via All India Radio, Calcutta. Their expansive raga alapana and the domination of pure melody to a lulling and pleasant, but somewhat repetitive Tabla was a great musical surprise to me. The instrumental music, especially of sitar and sarod were simply captivating. The vocalists that I listened to (both males and females ) had superb voice culture. Listening to live performances by veterans like Bade Gulam Ali Khan, Salamad and Nazakat Ali, Dagar Brothers, Chinmoy Lahiri, Bhimsen Joshi, Kishori Amonkar, Sandhya Mukherji and so on made me pine and pray for at least one or two musicians to emerge in Carnatic system with comparable voice culture. Almost every Carnatic musician that I had listened to prior to Calcutta days suddenly seemed to be quite second rate in voice culture. Only GNB ( 1950-51 period – Parthasarathy temple and Parthasarathy Swamy sabha concerts), and MS (1947-52 period- I could never afford to listen to her live concerts in India) and two young musicians via AIR in the same period ( Maharajapuram Santhanam and R.K. Srikantan) came to my mind as just comparable or the next best level of voices. The Bhajan singer Pithukkuli Murugadoss, with his melody choked voice (though not considered classical musician) and my true childhood inspiration M.K. Tyagaraja Bhagavatar ( via Siva Kavi, Tiruneelakantar movies ) were the only singers from the South who seemed to possess voices comparable to the great Hindustani musicians. I would truly pine and pray for the avatar of some South Indian classical musician with a captivating voice who will uphold Carnatic music and its unique gamaka sangeetam transcending regional and national barriers.
Dr. Balamurali Krishna was just emerging as a concert musician and my friends and fellow graduate students suggested that we should listen to recent music recordings from the south to spot the emerging talents. For the first time, some of us – South Indian graduate students- bought one 45 RPM and one 78 RPM record of Balamurali. We used to listen to them again and again over weekends. The 78 RPM record Yaamihe-Nata Bhairavi (Ashtapadhi), Dinnanata Dirana (Hindola Tillana to Lalgudi’s accompaniment) was like a musical down pour for a chataka bird waiting for a drop of musical rain from the South. While graduate students from Andhra were certainly aware of Balamurali as a musician, they were more after film music.
When I left for England in 1966, I carried with me the 45 RPM records of Balamurali containing Nagumomu (Abheri), Devadi Deva (Sunadha Vinodhini) and Neerajadalalochani ( Todi). I would listen to them again and again week after week and I never got tired of the same music. A good friend of mine, one Dr Balwant Reddy of the Economics department at the University of Essex, one day brought home, the first ever 33 RPM LP of Balamurali. The Brindavani tillana was so unique that I expressed my desire to listen to the LP again. In fact I heard this LP three rounds nonstop! Noticing my craze for Balamurali’s music, Dr. Reddy picked me up from my apartment the very next weekend and dropped me at his house and was gone to comb for me any other Carnatic music records from London. I was repeatedly listening to the first two kritis ( His own Varnam Saragunagavumu in Todi (Panchama Varja) and the kriti Mahadeva Sutham in Arabhi. I would lift the moving needle and go back to the beginning of the Arabhi kriti just after the line “Yedi korinaa yevani jeppinchina … adigina naadu” and was simply intoxicated by its sudden twists and turns. I wanted to listen to the same line again and again. I was insatiable. I tried to memorize the scintillating chittaswaram by first writing down the swarams and then join the singer till the end of the kriti and would start all over again. Having memorized the chittaswaram and the kriti, my musical fantasy was to simply surprise the potential girl I may marry and her parents with a fast rendition of the chittaswaram to every one’s surprise.
Right after my marriage in 1967, I was itching to meet Balamurali and get some clarifications on my musical doubts. Through a common friend, I managed to go to his house near Madras Music Academy. The first thing that struck me was the house name “Mahati”. My first question to him was about Sitar and how come we are not adopting Sitar and Sarode into Carnatic system? He said, “Sitar is not suitable as a pakka vadhyam for our kriti based music. Even Hindustani vocalists would not use it as pakka vadhyam for their concerts “. I queried him about our problem with instrumental soloists in Carnatic system. I queried him again – “In Hindustani music they have a large number of Sitar and Sarod soloists from Bengal, and how come we do not have any sizeable number of instrumental soloists in Violin, Veena and Flute? The few Vainikas I have listened to seem to have no dexterity with the instrument. Sitar and Sarod players seem to have mastered their instruments. If we could adopt western violin for our Carnatic concert platform, why can’t we adopt Sitar for our music?” He said, “Our folks are yet to master Veena, in spite of the frets being set to permanent positions. How do you expect our instrumentalists to handle Sitar whose fret positions are on the move all the time ?” Next I asked him about his house name Mahati. He said that he named it after a raga that he created with just 4 notes Sa, Ga, Pa, Ni in ascent and descent. Perhaps after listening to his kriti -Mahaneeya Madhuramoorthe in Mahati, many film music composers were anxious to introduce it in their movies. The film song Adisaya Ragam sung by Jesudoss is one such. I told him, “I love your Varnam Saraguna Gavumu in Todi. However, it sounds somewhat alien to the Todi varnams and kritis that I have listened to”. He mentioned that it is composed by skipping panchama (varjam) which is even otherwise only rarely used in popular Todi varnams. I wanted to know whether he has published any book in Tamil script, exclusively of his compositions. He lovingly picked up from his book rack the little yellow book “Murali Ravali” and donated it to me with an autograph. To this day I treasure this book as one of my rarest music collections. It contains, with notation, some of his original varnams, kritis and tillanas.
In 1971, my friend Narayanan brought from London a reel to reel tape of an AIR concert of Balamurali. The concert starting with his kriti Mangala Dayaka was simply mesmerizing me. As usual I would rewind the tape again and again to listen to the same kriti. So was another tape with a famous Tevaram “Van Taranga Punarkamala” that he set to music in raga Haimavati.
In 1975, for the first time, many celebrated musicians like Pandit Ravi Shankar, Bhimsen Joshi, Kumudini Lahya of the Hindustani system and Balamurali Krishna, Balasaraswathi and T.K. Murthy from Carnatic system were honored by the Sangeet Natak Academy. Open air free concerts and dance programs of these artists were arranged by the Sangeet Natak academy. I felt thrilled when (Bharata Ratna), Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was in the front row listening to the full concert of Balamurali Krishna.
To me and to my family, the years 1976-86 are still the most memorable days- socially and musically. With a small group of ardent music lovers we were often commuting our weekends between Madison, Chicago, West Bend and Purdue exchanging tapes and cassettes from each other. That is when we started planning for an annual Tyagaraja Utsavam in the Midwest. Any new music of Balamurali would be the top priority agenda of our musical conversation meets.
In the worst of the winter, one Friday, my friend Tyagaraja Rao called me and informed me that he had just received by post an AIR concert of Balamurali (starts with his kriti Ganasudharasa pana niratam). Next morning the temperature was 4 degrees Fahrenheit. All TV stations were warning continuously to avoid driving. By 8 AM, I was already on the freeway listening to the news. Dan Ryan was virtually empty and I drove all alone to S.T. Rao’s apartment in Purdue. He could not believe that I would risk driving all alone in such a weather to a new concert of Balamurali.
Balamurali made the first US tour in 1979. I decided to skip all academic activity and wanted to spend as much time as I can with him. In Chicago, sizeable chunk of light music lovers waited patiently till the end for his “Oru naal pOdumaa” and just that single song satisfied their long wait. Many music lovers who speak Telugu would wait patiently for his rendition of Nagumomu without any alapana or swara prastaram but just the kriti sung with intonation and bhavam. They felt their long wait was worth in gold. A rare composition like Palukutatse in Palamanjari or Dakshayani in the raga Naganandini kept the local musicologists spell bound. I contacted the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign music department and we had another concert there. He happily obliged my personal request with his kriti Mangala Dayaka in Arabhi. When he announced that the rhythm lovers would enjoy the Ragam Thanam Pallavi set to Kanta Jati Triputai in Sankeerna Gati, many American students trained in the grammar of Carnatic system were happily keeping to the beats.
In Urbana, when I expressed my desire to formally learn kritis from him, he lovingly took me to the Pooja room in Dr. Ranga Rao’s house (our host) and after my prostrations, he chanted some slokas and mantras in my ears. Even though I was longing for his musical association, with my conservative food habits, I was finding it somewhat embarrassing to be in a company of folks who were all the time keen on fussing over him with a generous supply of hard drinks. In Milwaukee, when he wanted me to get drinks from his bag that he got as gift from another host from another city, I politely refused.
“Raghavan, how can you become my sishya if you are unwilling to do even such a simple favor like this for a Guru?” He narrated a story to me about a movie called Hamsa Geete in Kannada language where an orthodox Brahmin sishya at the request of his music teacher would carry a live chicken to satisfy his teachers special culinary demand. I politely said, “I am sorry. I may have to remain just an admirer of your creative music”
The Milwaukee concert simply electrified the audience with his Tamil Kriti Pirai aniyum Peruman. Wherever I went and met classical music lovers, my first request was always for any new concert of Balamurali that they can share with me. In one of my academic visits to the Netherlands, my friend Raghuraman of Lieden surprised me with a unique VHS video gift- a Doordarshan jugal bandhi by Balamurali and Bhimsen Joshi in raga Yaman (Kalyani) followed by Balamurali’s Tillana in Hindolam. This seminal Doordarshan program is yet to be matched by any of the Jugal bandis that many other vocalists and instrumentalists including himself have attempted later with any number of artists of the two musical systems. I used to carry this video whenever I went abroad for academic visits and would play this video to many music loving North Indian and European friends.
While Pandit Ravi Shankar took Hindustani music to the Western audience, Balamurali took Carnatic music to the North Indian classical platforms. No other Carnatic musician has given joint programs with outstanding vocalists and instrumentalists of Hindustani system like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Pandit Jasraj, Pandit Hariprasad Chourasia, Pandit Ajay Chakraborti, Kishori Amonkar and so on.
His special AIR program on Utsava Sampradaya Kritis is the true inspiration behind Chicago Tyagaraja Utsavam’s (CTU) efforts in sprouting Carnatic music among our music loving kids in Chicago.
He successfully penetrated light music film songs via in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. The songs “Orunaal pOdumaa”, “Thanga radam vandathu”, “Chinnakkannan Azhaikkiraan, “Salalitha Raga Sudharasa Saaram” etc. are master pieces in film music. In recent years, many raising stars in Carnatic music, Bharata Natyam and Kuchipudi choose one or two rare varnams or tillanas of his creations as part of their performance. His Hindola raga tillana and Taya ragamalika Tillana are often sung by renowned Hindustani musicians like Ajay Chakraborti and Kausiki Chakraborti. We were very lucky that CTU was able to arrange his solo concert in 2006 as well as a Jugalbandhi with Ajay Chakraborti in 2007. Excerpts of his CTU program were also broadcast on Doordarshan.
Last year, when I was in India, I was very keen on getting a formal letter of appreciation from him for our 40th year (2016) brochure -Tyagaraja Vijayam. When I first met him, he was in a very depressed mood and asked me “Why are you here? Who wants me or cares for my music?”. With tears in my eyes I simply prostrated four times and did abhivandanam and recalled my 1967 visits to his house, the Chicago, Urbana, and Milwaukee concerts and all. I expressed my desire to get a blessing letter from him for our 40th year. He said, ” I cannot write by hand, but if you can bring a typed letter I will sign it”. When I suggested we would always love to have his concert again, his daughter interrupted and said, “Please don’t throw any such invitation to him as his health would not permit him any long travel. We are here to take care of him”. The very next day when it was close to 9 PM, with tears rolling down my eyes I went again to his house, with the typed letter. His son read the letter and our renowned musician happily signed the letter for CTU.
I wish that Government of India had recognized this renowned musician who truly integrated the two systems of our classical music with a Bharata Ratna award when he was alive.