I just heard the news today that the renowned musician Dr. Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna passed away. I’m not referring to him as a “Carnatic vocalist” or “Carnatic musician” here, because his music transcends such classifications. My Facebook news feed today was full of people writing posts on this theme, and I figured I could write something a little longer here.
Dr. Balamuralikrishna (I’ll refer to him from here on as “BMK”) was probably the first Carnatic musician (!) to achieve celebrity status, and I’ve heard stories about the kinds of crowds he was able to pull not just at concerts, but just by being in a certain area; one of my friends told me about how he once traveled with BMK in a train in India, and at every stop, there would be hordes of people at the station waiting with garlands for an opportunity to see their favorite musician!
BMK with M. Chandrashekaran (violin) and Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman (mrudangam) – one can see that the year is 1959, and the writing looks like Kannada, so this was probably in Bangalore? EDIT: Thanks to KV Ramprasad and others on Facebook, the sign is actually in Telugu, and reads “Sri Tyagaraja Sangeetha Sabha Anantapuram, established 1959”.
There’s not much I can add to all that has been written about this legendary musician – fortunately his legacy will live on in the numerous recordings that exist of his concerts, as well as the countless commercial albums that he has released, and his movies. Like most of the top musicians of his generation, BMK was a child prodigy, and was adept not just in vocal music, but also in viola and mrudangam.
This is a particularly interesting clip of BMK accompanying the doyen Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer on the viola – not the usual violin. You can tell it is noticeably bigger than a violin would be. In audience shots, you can see several of today’s top musicians in attendance, including Sanjay Subrahmanyam, T. M. Krishna, and R. K. Sriram Kumar, among others.
Dr. BMK was gifted with a golden voice, which is partly what made his music so great. It is not only resonant, but very fluid – he was able to span 3 complete octaves with ease, and the middle to lower octaves have a very bassy quality that nobody else has. Of course, having a great voice is one thing, and being able to harness it’s full potential is quite another; great musicians with both qualities literally only come once or twice a generation. I do consider myself fortunate that I was able to hear him live just once, in a concert in Sydney organized by Pallavi.
This Kalyani from a concert in Bombay in 1963 demonstrates not just the potential of BMK’s voice, but also his creativity – he employs sruthi bedham (modal shift of tonic) several times not just in the raga alapana, but also in the kalpana swaram, which is much more rare (in fact, I have not heard anyone do it since). Of course, Lalgudi Jayaraman is able to follow effortlessly, and his replies also garner applause several times! I mentioned this particular thani by Umayalpuram Sivaraman sir in a previous post, and it is worth rementioning; the UKS stamp is clearly present from the araichapu phrases to the signature mohara and final korvai in tisra nadai.
Dr. Balamurali’s legacy also lives on in the numerous compositions he authored – he has created numerous thillanas and varnams, in addition to composing krithis in all the 72 melakartha ragams. He also created new ragams such as Mahathi, Lavangi, and others, which did land him into some controversy with vidwan Dr. S. Balachander, who disputed whether those scales could be considered complete ragams at all, since they only had 3 or 4 notes.
This is BMK’s pancha gathi bedha thillana (set to 5 nadais) in 5 “-priya” ragams, as announced in the beginning. This rendition is particularly famous among collectors as it is from his Sangita Kalanidhi concert at the Madras Music Academy, December 1978. This concert also deserves further mention, as the main piece in that concert is an RTP in Kalyani set to a new thalam – Panchamukhi Adi thalam. BMK describes it as doing “gathi bedham” (changing the counts per beat) on the “sashabdha kriyas” (the ‘sounded’ beats when putting the thalam). In other words, only modifying the 1st, 5th, and 7th beats in Adi thalam (those beats are ‘sounded’ since they are downward slaps) to have 2.5 aksharams. Panchamukhi Adi thalam therefore has 12.5 beats. The pallavi set to this thalam is really simple and yet charming, and UKS sir plays a brilliant thani to this new thalam, with his usual razor control. I didn’t upload it because my Soundcloud account is getting full, but it is circulating among collectors. On an interesting side note, I also heard that M. G. Ramachandran (the Chief Minister for Tamil Nadu at the time) was in attendance at that concert!
This is the same pallavi from a different concert with B. V. Raghavendra Rao and Bangalore V. Praveen.
BMK has explored this concept, and sung pallavis in the related trimukhi Adi thalam and navamukhi thalam – in fact, he sang an RTP with the latter in Gamanashrama (53rd melakartha) in the Music Academy in 1980. Gamanashrama is an extraordinarily difficult ragam to sing, as it only came about with the invention of the melakartha scheme in the 17th century. The janya ragams associated with it (Hamsanandi and Purvikalyani) predate it by a long time, and so it is difficult to sing the ragam and maintain its identity unique to Purvikalyani.
EDIT: As pointed out to me yesterday, Hamsanandi is probably younger than Gamanashrama, and upon reflection, this makes sense; the trinity (Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, and Shyama Sastri) did not have any krithis in Hamsanandi. Most of the popular krithis we know in that ragam are actually from more recent composers, such as Harikesanallur Muthaiah Bhagavathar, Papanasam Sivan, and others.
I had mentioned earlier that BMK had acted in a few movies; his Wikipedia page has the complete list (and the fact that his wiki page is so long and detailed is a testament to his fanbase). This song, Oru Nal Podhuma (“is one day enough?”) is one of his hit Tamil cine songs from the movie Thiruvilayadal. This recording is from a concert on 15/2/1985, in Bahrain, and the mrudangam is by none other than Thanjavur Upendran sir. BMK and Upendran sir were extremely close friends, and they had performed thousands of concerts together, including a tour to the US in the 80s. Upendran sir was also one of the people who convinced Balamurali early on to settle in Chennai in other to further his career in Carnatic music.
I’ll leave it here for now. I realized that I had not written any posts on the broad topic of Carnatic music (excluding me making shameless plugs of my clips/concerts) in a while, and this sad news prompted me to write something.