‘Maverick’ and ‘genius’ must by now be the most overused terms to describe musician Balamuralikrishna. Not just in the last few hours since he passed away but through much of his career.
Like all prodigies turned masters, he got easily bored with his own art practice and felt the need to constantly innovate and invent. The adoring audience would have settled for less. To the listener he had already arrived, perhaps a bit too early in life. As early as the mid 1940s this mid-teen lad in half sleeve shirt and dhoti sat down to sing a riveting Ragam Tanam Pallavi (RTP) to an exacting audience in Palakkad in Kerala. He was taking on seasoned listeners hard to please with a musical exercise even harder to execute. To make matters difficult, the traditional town had already made that occasional concession to stardom by lauding MS Subhalakshmi for sheer melody. The rest of concert craft like the more technical RTP, the pundits decided, could wait in her case. And then comes this rookie from Andhra Pradesh, a good 14 years younger than MS, with a virtuosity that outmatched her and a voice no less cultured.
Palakkad then was among the small towns across southern India that nurtured Carnatic Music even as Chennai was emerging as the citadel. Town after town hosted Balamurali and Chennai’s Music Academy awarded him in 1978 its annual prize for the best practitioner, Sangeeta Kalanidhi . His fight that ensued soon enough with the academy and its star performer Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer is well known. To cut a long story short, still under fifty and very much in his prime the acknowledged achiever ceased to be part of Chennai’s famed December season.
For a lesser Carnatic musician it would have been curtains. Not for Balamurali. He was all over. He toured worldwide (a booming Telugu Diaspora must have helped) and sang his defiant classical concerts. He sang in many language films and picked up awards almost routinely. Also in many languages from Sanskrit and Punjabi to Begali and French. He taught many. Above all, he beat the best of Chennai’s musicians to big ticket events and sarkari promos as the sole representative of classical music from the south, “Mile sur mera tumhara”, he sang a seamless Desh with the likes of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi.
His reputation was oversaturated when he chose to speak to some of us in Cennai in the mid 1980s at his home ironically next to the very Music Academy he crossed swords with. All smiles, hair coloured jet black offset by silky white wear, he sat fielding questions, mostly recycled. The conversation was proceeding predictably. What could be new? Genius… maverick… Even his defiance was much stated. Then came the surprise. Cold logic.
Asked why he doesn’t follow the established concert format set by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (b 1890), he said he is senior to the veteran. Leaving us clueless, he retreated to his study and returned with back issues of Vanoli, All India Radio’s programme magazine. He spread the archival copies around to demonstrate that he had made it to the cover sooner than a full blown Ariyakudi in gilted garb. The lanky lad in drooping shirt and dhoti looked up at us from the fading newsprint.