Interview: Indian Classical Music Legend Balamuralikrishna Deserves Bharat Ratna

by Arjun Narayanan - Oct 22, 2022 10:16 AM +05:30 IST
Interview: Indian Classical Music Legend Balamuralikrishna Deserves Bharat RatnaInterview with the author, Veejay Sai
  • Balamuralikrishna was one of the greatest geniuses of Indian classical music in the 20th century.

The Many Lives of Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna: An Authorized Biography. Veejay Sai. Penguin Random House India. 2022. Pages 288. Rs 599.

Writer Veejay Sai shared his thoughts on the legend as he shares some details from his latest book The Many Lives of Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna.

In the beginning of the book, you have dedicated quite a lengthy chapter to Balamuralikrishna's guru Pantulu. Was it to place the lineage and art of Balamuralikrishna in the right context?

Veejay: In general, there is not much information available about Pantulu, even though he belonged to a generation with several stalwarts around him. His contemporaries are more known.

Somehow, Pantulu's story remained restricted to the Andhra region. I felt while telling the story of Balamuralikrishna, it was important to talk about where his upbringing came from.

Somebody like Pantulu was a seminal figure in the music of that era. Yet, we don't have much materials on him. I felt the the story of Balamuralikrishna will be a good place to share the story of Pantulu and place it in the right perspective.

 Your previous book Drama Queens: Women who Created History on Stage required meticulous research and you didn't even have recordings to refer to in many cases. Was it easier researching on Balamuralikrishna?

Veejay: One might think researching on Balamuralikrishna would have been easier because so much information about him is in the public domain and media. There is a large mountain of clippings on his life but that also became a challenge.

To wade through it and select the right pieces for the book was tough. Despite all these materials, I faced situations when to know something about a specific concert, I had to travel far to some reading library near in a remote village to find an old paper clipping about it.

Working on Drama Queens was different. All those female theatre artistes worked before independence. The treatment of the book was different. I faced an acute lack of documentation on their lives.

Even when you had some recording or video of those artistes, they were past their prime in it and you cannot make much from that. So reconstructing their stories was a different challenge.

Reading about him one can say Balamuralikrishna was controversy's child considering how he courted so many battles in his life and had face-offs with some legendary contemporaries. How different were those controversies from the ones you find today in the Carnatic field?

Veejay: Today's controversies are too low IQ to be called controversies. They are merely attention seeking antics and there's nothing intellectual about it. Balamuralikrishna faced criticism when he was trying to talk about music therapy.

There was a whole controversy about him having created all those new ragas. He was trying to explain to his critics how ragas are not scales written on a paper and they get a lease of life only when a musician performs it with his unique temperament.

These were intellectual face-offs. What you find today are too mundane to even be considered for discussion. If you announce you will sing a thillanna in the beginning of a concert, it is not a controversy. It is just trying to seek attention.

Balamuralikrishna was an expert in concert planning. What can contemporary musicians learn from him in this regard?

Veejay: An artiste needs presence of mind to understand the time and place of a concert. When he sang at the Mysore Dussehra concert, he was aware of the place and occasion and included compositions that would appeal to the local audience as well.

Also, if you are a popular singer, audience expectations also go up accordingly. At the end of the day when you go to a place, you need to respect that space and the listeners need to find the occasion memorable.

MS Subbulakshmi was another artist who had aced the concept of concert planning.

There was also a constant refrain of dissatisfaction with the government and very specifically his face-off with NT Rama Rao.

Veejay: He felt the Indian government didn't do enough for the classical music community and even today, it doesn't. There has been no budget for art and artistes. There is no cultural policy. There is a lot of token showcase.

For instance, when some state guests arrive, you get some dancers in a Kathakali get up to welcome them. Artistes deserve better than that. The state ought to have more responsibility. There is a lot of dissatisfaction among artistes.

Some random awards are given which are hardly of any consequence. There is no system of pension for artistes and no social security. Whatever initiatives have been there in this space have come from the artistes themselves and not the government.

In the last seven decades, just five artistes from the field of music have got a Bharat Ratna. Were Indian artistes so bad also in the last seven decades? Compare it to the number of politicians who have won a Bharat Ratna!

Jayalalithaa announced publicly that Balamuralikrishna should be given the Bharat Ratna. So many politicians have been given the Bharat Ratna posthumously. Why can't Balamuralikrishna be given the same then.

Balamuralikrishna was also a pioneer in jugalbandis. How have jugalbandis changed since he began performing them?

Veejay: Leading classical artistes began approaching him for jugalbandis. Bhimsen Joshi had a good friendship with Balamuralikrishna and approached him for a jugalbandi.

In 1986, on the eve of Republic Day, they performed together for the first time and this was aired on TV. Soon, other artistes started approaching him, though nobody did it like him.

Another factor that helped was he was a very approachable man so artistes much younger than him like Pankaj Udhas, Ajoy Chakraborty and Pt Ronu Majumdar performed with him. For him music was all that mattered.

The problem with this format is that very few jugalbandis have content. It requires artistes of equal merit. When two geniuses are on stage, magic happens and such an arrangement rarely happens.

One great jugalbandi I remember was between Mandolin Srinivas and Ustad Shahid Pervez. There was a good one between Abhishek Raghuram and Jayateerth Mevundi.

Another difficulty in executing a good jugalbandi between artistes from the Hindustani and Carnatic tradition is that they have very different approaches. Balamuralikrishna was able to bridge those gaps.

As a Carnatic musician he was well recognised across India and not many artistes got that kind of national appeal.

Veejay: In fact, his Geetabjali album made him very popular in Bengal. Whether it was singing Tulsidas, Gopala Gokula Vallabhi or Meera, he touched a chord among the listeners.

His appearance in the cult video Mile Sur Mera Tumhara also gave him a national visibility. In fact, it upset many people because Mile Sur had a Telugu man singing the Tamil portions of the song. But he was also a Madras musician who had a national appeal so who else could have done it?

He was a very spiritual person with his own set of rituals and practices and you have called this chapter on his spirituality 'Silent Spiritual Quest'. Is this element being sidelined in today's music?

Veejay: The times he lived in were different. The musicians around him were quite showy about their religious practices so he looked different from them. Today, the whole spiritual element is being neutralised so much so that if a musician applies a small tika on the forehead, it looks like a big deal.

Concepts like bhakti are being rationalised and it is not cool to be seen as devout. But when a composer has written a composition with a certain intent, it is the duty of the singer to recognise that bhakti while rendering it. But Balamuralikrishna did not try to come across as a particular kind of person. He was what he was.

His retirement was heavily discussed in the media and he kept dillydallying about it for a while. Why was he getting back to this topic time and again

Veejay: Initially, the retirement idea arose form his disenchantment with politics within the Carnatic music fraternity. He wanted to focus on more productive things like research and teaching. After all, whenever he sang, some controversy would raise its head.

He didn't want to engage with people who were not even qualified to ask those questions to him. I think there was also a sense of boredom. He was a child prodigy and had done wonders with music very early on in his life. But that urge to retire fizzled out. He felt he would not be doing justice to his gurus so he continued.

Today where do we stand with respect to those controversies about his creations? Are they settled for good?

Veejay: Those controversies are now more or less settled. Firstly, all those people who were a party to it are no longer around. It was an old world fight.

There was an altercation with Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer but later, Semmangudi apologised to him. The fight with Balachander fizzled out as well. Balamuralikrishna was very gentle about it. Both are gone now.

You have delved into the great technical details of Balamuralikrishna's music in some chapters. Do you feel the lay reader will get those portions?

Veejay: When there is a mountain of content, you spend considerable time deciding what to include and what not to. I felt those technical details were important in his biography as somewhere I had to mention what set him apart and explain his technical prowess.

It will be of great help to those who are interested in the subject. The lay reader can take whatever they can from those portions. The rest of the book will anyway be of interest to them.

What do you think is the lasting legacy of Balamuralikrishna?

Veejay: I think the biggest legacy of Balamuralikrishna lies in the countless hours of fantastic recordings he has left behind. They serve as great reference points. He also left behind an incredible body of work with All India Radio's Bhakti Ranjani.

Thanks to his extensive recordings, you know how exactly to render the works of several greats of the past, be it Thyagaraja or Bhadrachala Ramadasu. That is his greatest legacy. He was smart to use technology and have all this recorded for posterity.

You had planned a documentary on Balamuralikrishna initially and later, even a souvenir during his time.  How did you finally write a book?

Veejay: The inspiration to write came from the legendary Kishori Amonkar. She said you must write this book and wanted me to take it up. Even the last time I met her at Kamani Auditorium, she enquired about the progress of the book.

"Better send me a copy of the book soon," she said.  Sadly, when the book is ready today, she is not around.

Arjun Narayanan is a journalist and film researcher.
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