While discussing the talent of Balamurali, we have to speak in the context of his contemporaries. The examination of the value of something (or someone) is always carried out with regards to the ecosystem of which it is a part. Value examination cannot take place in a vacuum. And even then, all such evaluations are subjective. Thus it would be foolish on our part to compare Balamuralikrishna with poets like Kalidasa or Kumaravyasa. We can compare him with people like Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, Shyama Shastry, Svati Tirunal, etc. And such a comparison shows that there is more beauty in the compositions (and poetry) of Balamurali. The reason for this, I find, is the environment in which he grew up – a richly Sanskritized Telugu being all around him. When compared to Tamil, Malayalam, and Kannada, it is in the Telugu language where we find the most melodious songs. The reason why the Telugu people have used—without hesitation—sublime and beautiful poetry even in film songs is seen in Srivijaya’s words “ಕುರಿತೋದದೆಯುಂ ಕಾವ್ಯಪ್ರಯೋಗ ಪರಿಣತಮತಿಗಳ್” (from Kavirajamarga). Thus perhaps Balamurali developed a good taste for literature. We can see this in all artistes hailing from Andhra Pradesh. The number of Sanskrit words seen in Telugu isn’t seen in any other language. Sanskrit naturally has a remarkable word generation capability, numerous hard and soft sounds, long and short letters, consonants and semi-vowels – such diversity and wonder makes it rather straightforward for one to compose poetry aligned to the melody. To a great degree, the Telugu people have retained this. It is not that their literature is flooded with arthalankaras (embellishments at the level of meaning; e.g. metaphor) but the natural beauty of shabdalankaras (embellishments at the level of sound; e.g. alliteration) in Telugu is a great gift of Sanskrit.
If we clinically analyze Balamurali’s Sanskrit compositions, one can find grammatical flaws. But this is probably to be expected in a person who often said that both language and its varied usages came to him as a boon rather than as a result of practice. However, it is ideal to have humility and gentleness in such matters. It is true that Balamurali didn’t have that. But these are peripheral matters. The melodic richness and the rhythmic calm that he brought in his compositions are extraordinary. For instance, in his Sarasangi kriti ‘Hanuma anuma,’ repeatedly he sings the note ‘ma’ (madhyama) corresponding to the letter ‘ma’ when it appears in the lyrics. He effortlessly composed such lyrics. He had the capacity to string together words and word bunches that were appropriate to jatis, to the tala and gati, or merely to notes. Thus he automatically brought about harmony in rhythm. Several beautiful word bunches can be seen in his compositions, for instance, “గాయక-కుల-వరదాయక-వర-వాగ్గేయకార-కుల-వందనీయ-మహనీయ-త్యాగరాయ.”
Though there is lyrical beauty in Balamurali’s compositions, in terms of lyrical content there isn’t much novelty. Apart from the compositions in praise of Tyagaraja or his guru (Parupalli Ramakrishnayya Pantulu) and a few in praise of music, most of his other compositions were in praise of various deities [his songs in praise of Russia or Kerala are exceptions, not the norm]. In this sense, he trod the path of the composers of the previous generations. It is immaterial here if Balamurali’s devotion to the Supreme was of a high degree. At any rate, songs and prayers that are in praise of the deities are always nice to listen to and are a great raw material for composing songs. Therefore, the great composers of the past and the tradition of devotional songs greatly helped Balamurali in his own composing. But time and again, Balamurali showed us that his brilliance in composing the tune outshone his poetic abilities. He was primarily a great singer. This we must not forget.
Balamurali’s service to light music is particularly noteworthy. When he was the producer of AIR Vijayawada, for several years he composed music for so many beautiful songs, stotras, and bhavagitas and took it to the masses. Particularly, his music for geyaprabandhas—like ‘Ekantaseva’—is remembered even today in so many homes of the Andhra country. He has set to music the beautiful devotional verses of many acharyas – that is one among his several contributions to music and culture. Just as an example, we can take his tuning of Shankara Bhagavatpada’s famous Shivanamavalyashtaka where Balamurali has used various ragas and in his composition, he seamlessly glides from one raga to another. Further, he brought newness to those ragas. The manner in which he aligns the Vasantatilaka poetic meter of the verses with the Chatushra gati of the rhythm is so beautiful and instructive at once (particularly to the keen connoisseurs). He famously set the lyrics of Jayadeva’s ashtapadis to tune. He also won a National Award for his music direction of the film ‘Hamsageethe.’ He won three National Awards – as a composer, as a playback singer, and as a classical singer (two under the film category and one under the singing category) – perhaps the only person to have achieved this feat. Balamurali would sing rare-raga kritis of earlier composers and receive praise from the composers themselves, their response typically being that he has sung it beyond what they had imagined. A well-known instance of this sort is when Balamurali sang the Sunadavinodini kriti ‘Devadi deva’ in front of its composer, Mysore Vasudevacharya. The great composer said, “My original composition was like an ordinary girl from a poor home married into a wealthy family; your rendition is like the same girl when pregnant with a child, joyfully returning to her parents’ home, wearing varied ornaments, and bringing unexpected happiness. That this song is mine is a mere fact but that it is yours is a value.” When a singer sings a song in a manner that goes far beyond even what the composer had imagined, then in some sense, the singer makes the song his own. This is an exceptional marvel and Balamurali did several of these. There is an episode of him creating a whole new raga called Pratimadhyamavati when he sang a ‘wrong’ note, by working around the note to make it appropriate within the framework of the spontaneously-created raga. Even when he performed a popular kriti or a popular raga, he brought much newness to it. In a particular kriti if the listeners expect several sangatis in the Pallavi or if the composer himself had created melodic variations on the Pallavi lines, Balamurali would sometimes keep that aside and focus on the Anupallavi. There he would sing special and self-created sangatis; similarly with the Charanam. Basically wherever the listener felt that there was no opportunity for a musical marvel, precisely there he would execute it! Instead of singing what the listener is expecting, he would sing something totally different but that wouldn’t result in disappointment at not getting what was expected but instead in a joy of surprise at unexpectedly receiving something that is ten times more beautiful than what was foreseen. This reminds one of Vyasa’s statement, सर्वं बलवतां पाथ्यम्. Nobody could sing the Mohana kriti ‘Nannu palimpa nadachi vacchitivo’ better than him. The two famous kritis in Hindolam – ‘Samajavaragamana’ and ‘Manasuloni marmamu’ developed in entirely different ways. Though they are based on the same raga, he would sing them differently, aligned to the inherent nature of each song. A pertinent example is his handling of the pancharatna kritis of Tyagaraja. Unlike most other singers who sang (and sing) with focus on the landing spots of the rhythmic cycle and care two hoots for the lyric, Balamurali sang them beautifully by giving the appropriate pauses between words and phrases, bringing the lyrics to life without ever sacrificing the melody or rhythm. Perhaps those listeners who are accustomed to listening to the mechanical rendition of these kritis with a focus on the tala might find joy in the incorrect breaking of the words in the lyrics merely to suit the tala. However, in Balamurali’s rendition, one feels the emotion of the song, the melody behind that emotion, and the fundamental spirit and peace behind that melody. This is a great service he did to Tyagaraja and his music. Even in composing tana- and pada-varnas, he brought newness in them – in terms of lyrics, melody, and rhythm. An example for that is his varnam in Gambhiranattai; in the charanam line – ‘Shive shive shive ve vela varala rashive’ – he uses yamakas (a traditional shabdalankara, or ornamentation at the level of sound). His compositions have many more such remarkable usages. He has composed pada varnams as well as javalis.
Once in Bangalore’s Gayana Samaja, when the veena vidvan ‘Sangita Kalaratna’ Doraiswamy Iyengar was presiding over the discussion (in the morning session), Balamurali claimed that anyone could create a new raga. He said that there was no beginning or end for creating ragas. When confronted with skepticism, he immediately offered to demonstrate it. He told the musicians assembled there, “Pick which notes you wish to have; you decide which notes should be the amsha, graha, and nyasa; which notes should have alpatva and bahutva.” Saying so, he accepted all their varied conditions and created a new raga. He sang in the newly created raga and even named it ‘Dorai’ after Doraiswamy Iyengar. Not stopping at that, in his concert the same evening at the same venue, he sang a detailed alapana in this new Dorai raga, followed by a kriti that he composed and svara kalpana. Many are such instances in Balamurali’s career.
Once when Balamurali was being honoured, I was given the task of giving the felicitation talk. On the spot, I composed poems in Telugu, Sanskrit, and Kannada in praise of him. He immediately said, “I will compose a song for you.” He sang a song in praise of Ganapati in his own raga Sumukhi and in the charanam line he spontaneously created lyrics, making a reference to me by means of a pun on the word ‘Ganesh.’ He was always a person who impressed his listeners by his marvels. Never was there a dull moment in his concerts. Whether it was for an hour or for three hours, we always felt the artiste apart from the art and both used to be hearty! It is a great achievement when an artist can showcase himself apart from his art, render his listeners speechless, gain appreciation from all quarters, and make everyone see him with a sense of having lost to him and yet feel delighted in it. In fact, herein lies the specialty of Indian classical art. Its greatness lies in the spontaneous creation of an art that is arrestingly amazing at every step and through that wonderful creation, giving rasikas unbridled joy.
Balamurali was open to all kinds of music and we see this in an incident from 2005, when he was given an honour in France. Before bestowing him with the award, his profile was read out. When it was announced that he had an AIR ‘A’ grade in multiple departments including singing, composing, mridangam, khanjira, viola, violin, and light music, someone in the crowd asked how it was possible. The questioner further asked, “We shall sing a song popular in our country. Will you be able to sing it or play it on the violin?” Without batting an eyelid, Balamurali replied, “I shall do both,” and did it after a single hearing of the song. Only then did he go ahead to receive the award!
No contemporary composer could match Balamurali in compositions that touch the listener. Even there, Balamurali shows both his humility and his pride. Just as an example, see the Kamas kriti ‘Amma… ni abhimanakumarudanamma’ where the lyrics say that ‘O mother, at birth you named me Balamurali and placed a flute in my hand!’ it is hard to say if he is praising the Mother or himself. However, this sort of self-praise can be seen all through Indian literature among earlier poets. Even arrogance turns into rasa when it comes through the medium of art.
The tillanas that Balamurali composed are extraordinary. Long back for a special program about Balamurali’s tillanas along with my guru Smt. Nagavalli Nagaraj, I remember that a great deal of analysis and practice went into it. The tempo in which he sang those tillanas is matchless. Typically one cannot even speak at such a pace; how then to sing complicated melodic patterns and percussion syllables? But Balamurali could do it without ever sacrificing the flavor of the raga. The name of the raga Kathanakutuhala has become Kadanakuthuhalam, a distortion made by Tamils. He has used this latter usage nicely in his tillana as ‘Madanakadanakuthuhaludu rammane birana birana birana rave,’ making a rather ferocious ‘Kadanakuthuhalam’ into Krishna’s madana (Manmatha, cupid) kadana (war, destruction) kutuhala (curiousity, fun). He also composed ragamalika tillanas, using the concepts of grahabheda, talamalika, etc. He composed in multiple languages and always ensured that the lyric was appropriated matched by the melody and rhythm. It wouldn’t be incorrect to say that nobody else could do all this. While composing a song in praise of Tyagaraja, he did so in the very style of Tyagaraja compositions. In the melakarta raga Sucharitra, he composed a kriti in praise of Muthuswami Dikshitar – in the exact same style of Dikshitar compositions. Thus we realize how carefully Balamurali must have observed and internalized the compositions and the styles of the various past-masters.
Balamurali’s contribution to film music is also of a high degree. Classical singers have rarely sung film songs and even if they have, the songs haven’t become popular. It is true that after Balamurali, a few classical singers ventured into film music and some even took it up seriously – however, none of them reach the level of Balamurali in the art. Therefore Balamurali’s contribution to films must be mentioned. It is quite remarkable that a top notch classical singer could become such a powerful playback singer. What this shows is that pundits and grammarians are not necessarily artistes. In this context, I am reminded of a verse from the Bhojaprabandha:
यत्सारस्वतवैभवं रससुधासिद्धं समिद्धाद्भुतं
तल्लभ्यं कविनैव नैव हठतः पाठप्रतिष्ठाजुषाम् |
कासारे दिवसं वसन्नपि पयः पूरं परं पंकिलं
कुर्वाणः कमलाकरस्य लभते किं सौरभं सैरिभः ||
A buffalo might be in the waters of a lake the whole day and yet it doesn’t obtain the fragrance of a lotus. Similarly, great art is produced by one who has the talent for literary beauty and artistic beauty not for a scholar who has learnt the grammar. Many music teachers take the shastric approach to teaching rather than the aesthetic approach, which was Balamurali’s. There is a great emphasis on melody and beauty in film songs. Within four or five minutes, one has to exhibit all his musical talent; such is the framework. It is because Balamurali was a talented, creative artiste as well as a scholar of music that he could easily manage to excel within this strict framework. In every field, Balamurali was a phenomenon. He entered films as early as in 1957. There are several milestones in his long journey in films. I am particularly reminded of his songs ‘Tangaratham’ (in raga Abhogi) from the film Kalaikovil and ‘Salalitaraga sudharasa’ (in raga Yamuna Kalyani) from Nartanashala. So also the Purandaradasa composition ‘Dharmave jaya’ (in Kharaharapriya) from the Kannada film Amma, ‘Mauname ni bhase’ (in Sama) from the Telugu film Guppedumanasu, ‘Padana vani kalyani’ from the film Meghasandesham. Apart from this, he also sang ragamalika songs in films apart from songs with complicated sangatis, intricate svarakalpana, and mesmerizing rhythmic patterns. A few prominent ones are ‘Natavara gangadhara’ (in three ragas) from the film Svarnagauri, ‘Adi anadiyu ni’ (in five ragas) from the film Bhakta Prahlada, ‘Jivitame krishnasangitamu’ from Srimadvirataparvamu, and the title song of Rutagana. Perhaps the finest of them all is his ‘Oru naal poduma’ from the Tamil film Thiruvilaiyadal.
There are many other innovations that we see in his music. If one has to write about them all, it would take a few treatises. We can take a look at just a few here. While composing a song, he never wrote lyrics and then set it to tune; neither did he first compose the music and then wrote lyrics for it. He did them both at once. He once told me, “In a flow, both lyric and music comes to me. I just sing it and give it a form. Finally, if the lyrics go well with the raga and tala combination, then I go with it. If not, a new raga and a new tala.” The naming of the child was not before birth or after birth but at the time of birth itself! Balamurali had that level of expertise in both music and language.
He has taken older compositions and given a new life to them. A prime example of this is the Tyagaraja kriti ‘Nagu momu ganaleni.’ He has sung it in three or four different ways and sung it a thousand times on the stage. Each rendition is unique in some sense. The Abheri raga is predominantly one of karuna rasa, with a certain softness, tenderness, and romanticism. He tried to bring to his rendition a certain majesty, depth, and profound sorrow. When I first heard his rendition of this kriti, I thought, “How did this raga express such an emotion?” Then I realized that he emphasized on the arohana (ascending) more. The arohana of Abheri resembles that of Shuddha Dhanyasi (or Udayaravichandrika). The predominant emotion of that raga is sustained melancholy. Such was Balamurali’s ability to emphasize a certain aspect of the raga in order to align with the lyrics of the kriti. But it would never come in the way of the expression of the raga itself. He made his own unique choices from the murchanas in the raga and he would present the listeners a different vadi and samvadi that would, for the time being, be acceptable. This is a great talent.
The music directors for the film Subbashastry were Doraiswamy Iyengar and S Krishnamurthy (grandson of Mysore Vasudevacharya). I am reminded of an incident related to me by Krishnamurthy himself. When Balamurali was invited to sing for the movie and it was insisted that he should be around when the melody is being tuned, he landed up with his large family and seemed to be happy in meaningless time-pass. When the orchestra had been readied and the tune had been composed, Balamurali would take a quick look at the composition, write down the lyrics and the ettugede svaras, and see the name of the raga. Then he would say in Telugu, “Intena?” (Is that all?). He would go to the microphone and sing it. The amount of time the song would be shown on the silver screen was also the time taken for recording it. After the recording, he would be back with his family. His wit and humour mixed with general conversations and gossips went on. The harried music directors would take another two or three hours to compose the next song only for it to be met with the same treatment by Balamurali. In a single day, he recorded all his songs for the movie. But when another singer had to sing a song from that film, it took more than two days of toil for the recording. Balamurali has extensively recorded his classical music as well and those have become extremely popular over the years. That was a great gift to the listeners and we must be always grateful for that. Without those recordings, we couldn’t have had a glimpse into the younger Balamurali when he was at his prime.
Even for a great talent like Balamurali, there was a fair amount of opposition; this might come as no surprise but it is definitely unfair. In every age, prodigious talents such as his have faced staunch opposition by the mediocre ones. There is even a proverb to this effect: in response to the new creation of a great artist, first there is opposition, then there is ridicule, and finally there is reverence. Luckily because Balamurali lived long, he could reap the benefits of the third stage as well. From different sections of the audience, he received different responses – some opposed him, some ridiculed him, but a great majority revered him. When he created new ragas, there was a great deal of opposition from self-proclaimed gatekeepers of the tradition – both singers and instrumentalists – which turned sour and virulent. They even cooked up a story and dragged him to court. Not only did Balamurali win the argument but he also brought disgrace upon the nasty and uber-puritanical forces, thus making history. Even during these trying circumstances he never let go of his objectivity. Therefore it became possible for him to understand and analyze his predecessors and contemporaries. There is another notable incident in this regard. Someone accused him of not singing ‘pure’ South Indian classical music, ignoring tradition, and not giving the necessary emphasis on the trinity (Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, and Shyama Shastry). In response, he asked, “What is tradition? I know of only of one tradition. That of Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Da Ni. What is greater than that?” When Padma Subrahmanyam was accosted by a similar accusation that she doesn’t adhere to tradition, she immediately asked, “Which tradition do you want me to adhere to? The tradition of the 12th century? 16th century? 18th century?” thus putting to rest all such questions. Balamurali’s opponents once mentioned to him, “Your perfection in shruti is so good that others can tune themselves using your voice as a reference. Your rhythm can put to rest everyone else. Your clarity in pronunciation of the lyric is verily Sarasvati’s blessing. Even so, your music is not classical.” Then he asked, “If that is the case, is there no need for perfect shruti in classical music? Is there no place for flawless rhythm in traditional singing? Don’t we need clarity in pronunciation and emotional appeal for South Indian classical music?” Perhaps to examine critically such a great master is in itself an act of audacity.
The greatness of Balamurali is that though he scaled the highest peaks of music, he remained a musician at all times and never stooped to cheap tricks like socio-political propaganda. He never misused his immense talents in the name of social justice. However, there are musicians today, who don’t have even a fraction of his abilities but are misusing their art for the sake of socio-political manipulations, straying from the path of dharma and rasa, and ripping to shreds the socio-cultural fabric of our country. We also recognize how much joy and peace a great artiste can bestow upon the world (unlike the propagandists). If one can spread happiness through the performance of great art, that in itself would take care of a great deal of social unrest. Balamurali knew this truth and therefore he never ventured into anything beyond bringing joy to his listeners.
India should have long back given a Bharat Ratna to Balamuralikrishna, a consummate musician who could convert any sound into music. There are other musicians who have won this award. Indeed their achievements in their chosen fields are great but not as seminal as those of Dr. M Balamuralikrishna; this every honest critic and rasika will have to admit. It would have been a matter of both honour and joy if he had been awarded the Bharat Ratna when he was alive. The government might even bestow it posthumously; the honour might be salvaged but what of the joy? Those in the seats of power must take note of this. People might agree or disagree, but for millions of us, Balamuralikrishna is truly an ‘isai daivam’ (music deity). He is no more. Like someone recently mentioned, we have to sing ‘Krishna nee begane baro.’ But he is alive in his musical form and always with us.
Translated from the original Kannada.