Balamuralikrishna The Traditionalist: Anything Else Is Far From The Truth
It will do us good to look at Dr Balamuralikrishna as an innovator, traditionalist, creator, vaggeyakara, rather than a revolutionary or a radical.
Various tributes that kept coming in after Dr Balamuralikrishna left us have described him as an iconoclast, revolutionary, radical and someone who has challenged tradition. Almost every tribute recalled how his music was critiqued as ‘light music’ that lacked ‘depth’ and did not emphasise on the structural aspects etc by vidwans and critics of yesteryear. It would be important to recollect and understand what the maestro himself said about his music, and his thought process. This, thankfully, is in the form of various interviews which are widely available on the web.
Prominence Of Lyrics
Lyrical compositions have been the main vehicle to bring a raga to limelight and to establish the raga swaroopam in Carnatic music. Sri Tyagaraja famously used this method and brought many ragas to limelight. Musical elements sans lyrics very much hold their place but the fact that a small pallavi to showcase taala in ‘Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi’ shows the importance of lyrics. Starting as sankeertanas, the ‘song’ has evolved and became mainstay of this music in the form of ‘krithi’ due to Sri Tyagaraja. His krithis are the only window through which we know his musical prowess and his poetic talent. Vaggeyakara (lyricist cum composer) hence is a highly valued term.
Dr Balamuralikrishna is a great vaggeyakara of this generation. This must have been the reason why he gave so much importance to lyrics. Krithi for him was the highest form of expression with the composer’s signature all over it. For him, lyrics convey a profound bhava which are aided by the appropriate choice of raga. They were sacrosanct!! And the sangatis should be within limits and cannot alter the Sahitya Bhava one bit. As they meander, they should only enhance the bhava. He said in an interview that you don’t sing a krithi because you want to expand a raga but you sing because you want to give music to your lyrics. That was his approach. Was it radical or revolutionary or iconoclastic?
This approach is in contrast with that of many musicians of previous century all the way till present for whom lyrics are just incidental. They just provide a nice and compact framework fitted with tala that can be used to expand their musical skills. SahityaPrastAra or neraval many a time is used to shred the very sahitya to pieces. I recently heard the krithi ‘Devi BrovaSamayamide’ where the composer urges Devi to come right away and save him (ativegamevachhi). This was surprisingly sung in VilambitaKala by the singer!!
Balamurali in the same interview explained how one should sing ‘nagumomuganaleni’. There is a little pathos in here because the poet is expressing his pitiful state due to his inability to see the lord’s smiling face and that couldn’t be sung in higher tempo. He recollected how Sri Tyagaraja’s music was a very personal affair with hardly any audience. That needed to be kept in mind when singing. So he made a serious attempt in understanding the composer’s mind for that particular composition. Was he right?
A Composer’s Composer
Balamurali tuned many compositions of BhadrachalaRamadasu, Annamacharya, SadashivaBrahmendra and refined tunes for compositions of Narayana Teertha (which were mostly in BhajanaSampradaya style). He said in another interview in Telugu that when he tuned them he would do so with lot of fear!! It was probably a fear of not being able to do full justice to the idea of the composer. In the case of Annamacharya-krithis, the name of the raga would be mentioned on the copper plate (raagireku in Telugu) but the tunes were unavailable. He would say that one needs to travel back in time and imagine the music of that time as the ragas of that time would not be sung the same way today. He strongly felt that only a vaggeyakara can tune compositions well. One can disagree or agree with this statement of his but not with his approach in tuning others’ compositions which was highly respectful and meticulous.
Sampradaya And Parampara
These two words have often been used to critique him. For many, the composition had to be sung the way it was handed down by their guru-parampara. And this was the sampradaya. Balamuralikrishna was a sampradaya-wadi in many ways. Except that his definition of sampradaya was slightly different and broader. He said that mangling the lyrics and missing the emotive content was being sadly being passed off as sampradaya. He gave an example of how there would be kalpanaswarams landing on ‘Rama yanichapa’ when the sentence was ‘Rama yanichapalakshulu…’ There are enough musical elements where one could showcase their talent (like alapana and kalpanaswaram) but when a singer takes up a krithi, they were essentially presenting the composer’s idea. For him sampradaya meant the framework or the base of the South Indian classical music which he said was the most unique and by mastering which any music could be sung. But it was to be built upon.
He himself belonged to the most illustrious shishya-parampara of Sri Tyagaraja whom he held in highest esteem. Manambuchavadi Venkata Subbayya was a composer-disciple of Sri Tyagaraja. One of his disciples Patnam Subramanya Iyer is credited with discovering the raga, Kadana-Kutuhalam, and the ever-young krithi ‘RaghuvamsaSudhambudhi’. BMK grew up in Vijayawada which was the epicenter of this tradition in Andhra. Kuchipudi was nearby and so were Kshetrayya’s and Narayana Teertha’s birthplaces (Movva and Kaza). His maternal grandfather Prayaga Rangadasawas a vaggeyakara and so was N Ch Krishnamacharyulu, another disciple of BMK’s guru Parupalli Ramakrishnayya Pantulu. So he belonged to a strong parampara of vaggeyakaras and the sampradaya as he knew was to be innovative, compose and create music!! And he surely upheld it. His way of offering tribute to his gurus was not to sing like them but to compose like them and push the bar higher.
If Balamuralikrishna was a radical, he was only taking forward the sampradaya of being radical set by Sri Tyagaraja who established the krithi and used many ragas for the first time. And of Sri Muthuswamy Dikshitar who composed Nottuswaras inspired by western tunes. He proudly said that very few musicians blessed him but many great poets like Viswanatha Satyanarayana and his guru Chellapilla Venkata Sastry gave their blessings through poems written on him and that he valued them highly. In the krithi ‘Bantureethikolu’ Tyagaraja says “Ramabhaktudanemudrabillayu, Ramanamamanevarakhadgamu’(he wanted a medal that said ‘Ramabhakta’ and a sword called ‘Rama nama’). BMK too seems to have worn his great guru parampara as a medal and blessings of those great poets as a sword.
The words radical, iconoclastic and revolutionary do little justice to his genius and the terms that better describe him are innovator, traditionalist, creator, vaggeyakara, poet, pioneer, adventurer etc. And he believed that the South Indian musical tradition let him be all these. Remembering him this way would do well for future.
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