[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t is said that when Albert Einstein heard a 7-year-old Yehudi Menuhin’s virtuoso performance on the violin, he shook his head with disbelief, and said, “I now believe that there is a God”. If there was one musician in India who similarly made us doubt whether such a convergence of musical prowess is at all possible without divine design, it was Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna.
When BMK, as he was fondly called, was a young child in his village, he once followed a rickshaw playing a Ragam Tanam Pallavi (RTP) on the loudspeaker. Upon his guru Parupalli Ramakrishnaiyya Pantulu’s enquiry, he not only told him about the rickshaw-tagging but also sang out the entire RTP, lasting more than an hour, from memory. Would one not feel like Einstein before Menuhin on hearing this story of young BMK?
Various epithets can be used for BMK — “genius”, “maverick” and various others — without sounding hyperbolic. But I personally would call him the Genghis Khan of Carnatic music. Why do I choose the analogy of a brutal, cruel invader, for a warm, childlike, gentle, respected and much-loved Balamuralikrishna? Because, like Khan conquered everything on his path, Balamurali conquered every department of music. Voice culture, manodharma (improvisation), laya-vyavaharam (artistry in complex rhythm), instrumental music, music composition — there was no department that BMK did not conquer by ruthlessly destroying every ounce of imperfection he came across, on the way. His music did not have a weakness; from voice to raga to tala to diction, he had mastered everything. He gave special attention even to his persona as a stage performer.
He lived his life on his own terms, personally as well as musically. Every challenge that BMK set himself to master, was mastered on his own terms. He was a master of manodharma, but he had his own unique interpretations of ragas. Gamakas are a life-blood of Carnatic music, but BMK employed them in a much subtler way than usually practised, and he still brought out an unmistakably unique personality for each raga. Likewise, although he had mastered complex rhythmic improvisations, he employed them in a very organic way; the listener never felt lost under the weight of the artistry going on. Whatever wizardry the wizard attempted, he never lost touch with the fundamental evocative beauty of the music. It was as if he was flying high in the skies, and yet had one foot on the ground.
His style of music and his interpretation of ragas were not conventional; it takes some getting used to. They may or may or may not be to an individual’s liking, but I don’t think anybody in the world of Carnatic music could doubt the sheer genius behind that music. The Sanskrit phrase, “na bhooto, na bhavishyati” (neither in the past, nor in the future), can aptly be used to describe BMK’s music. He left his own indelible and inimitable stamp on everything he touched.
In Hindustani classical music, there is a saying, “kooje me samandar bhar dena” (to fill the whole ocean into a small vessel). For a recent concert, I learned and sang BMK’s famous raga-thaya-malika Tillana. In this composition, he has taken the technical exercise of grahabheda (transposition of notes), and infused such brilliant aesthetic values into it, ocean in a small vessel indeed.
I recently read an anecdote of a Swami from the Ramakrishna Mission. During a conversation, a student mentioned to him that he had studied Srimadbhagavadgita. The swami immediately corrected him, “The Gita is such a limitless ocean that nobody can rightly say that they’ve finished studying it. One can only say, ‘I am studying the Gita’, not that ‘I have studied the Gita’”. Likewise, with BMK, one can never say, “I have understood the music of BMK.” We can only say, “I am listening to the music of BMK.” The flesh and blood of this genius might have died, but we will be listening to him forever.
A rendition of Hindolam/Malkauns by Balamuralikrishna where the accompanying flautist could not reach the lowest notes that the singer could