A legend, a demystifier

The 1991 album of Dr. Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, whose 88th birth anniversary is marked today, captures brilliantly the larger narrative of the times. The record, one among the ubiquitous title of Maestro’s Choice Series 1, was released at a juncture when Indian classical music was enjoying a period of renewal from the 1980s.

SPIC MACAY (Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Culture Amongst Youth) was a pioneer in this regard. The periodic
on campuses under its aegis offered a version of melding tradition with modernity and bridging boundaries of language and geography, even as it brought celebrities closer to the commoner. For those uninitiated to this genre of music, the SPIC MACAY endeavour clearly went well beyond the exposure via Bollywood and ‘Vividh Bharati’.

Complementing this non-profit’s novel initiative was the commercial launch of thematic albums, with an avowed mission to popularise classical music. The Music Today label offered listeners a menu of ragas appropriate for different times of the day and seasons of the year.

Part of the renaissance

Balamuralikrishna himself had played a unique part in this renaissance, building on the nationwide appeal of ‘
Mile Sur Mera Tumhara’
with innumerable vocalists and dancers. His journey with jugalbandis began around the same time, continuing until his very end and sharing the stage with almost all the top artists from the north. Nearer home, his sensational Doordarshan serial, ‘Swara Raga Sudha,’ in Tamil and Telugu, did much to demystify this melodic but ossified art form and untangle its many technical nuances.

When the 1991 Maestro’s Choice series was released, the stage had been set for a pan-Indian musical venture that would explore the greater depths of aesthetic refinement. The galaxy of artists gathered from the Hindustani and Carnatic styles were all recorded both on cassettes and compact discs, the latter a relative novelty in those days. Balamuralikrishna’s selection for the album, besides those of other
was compiled as representative of southern Indian classical music.

Five magical pieces

The five pieces the composer musician featured in his album were typical of the genre, but arguably only in rather broad terms. The opening kriti in Raga Poorvikalyani is a plaintive imploration to the presiding deity of the Kanakadurga temple in Vijayawada. The song in Raga Abhogi is a plea to the god of Pandharpur not to put devotees to test. The tribute to Lord Shiva in Raga Kanada is his spontaneous outpouring during the circumambulation at Thanjavur’s Brihadeeswarar temple. The originality of the composition on Durga lies in the fact that Raga Lavangi happens to be one among the scales Balamuralikrishna created, deploying just four notes. The finalthillanain Raga Behag extols the 19th century composer Thyagaraja as occupying an exalted status among musicians and composers (like him) alike.

Balamuralikrishna had penned each of the above at different stages in his long career and performed them umpteen times. The difference on this occasion was their rendition in a single sequence, lending the amalgam a distinctive flavour and identity of its own. The album conforms to the Carnatic style in form; its substance was far more nuanced. With the exception of one, the other scales readily resemble a counterpart in the Hindustani repertoire, a shrewd choice, possibly influenced by his invitation to perform on this broader platform

The deliberately long alaps to each kriti — even thethillanawas unlike his habitually jaunty and upbeat deliveries — seem designed to make an eloquent statement, not just of the man’s incredible vocal range. The effort also underscores the inherently improvisational nature that underpins India’s music, a unity which all other differences in form and language could not conceal. But he was not given to mouthing such homilies off stage.

Should this analysis sound far-fetched, an anecdote from the December 1991 music season could shed further light. On Christmas day, at the Bala Mandir German Hall in Chennai, Balamuralikrishna offered to take questions for a good two hours, singing the odd hymn only to embellish a point. Someone asked for his opinion on the difference between the Carnatic and Hindustani systems. He recalled being witness to a music lesson on a trip he made to Pune as a boy with his guru. He then sang the aroh and avroh to Raga Malkauns in a slow leisurely tempo. He repeated exactly the same notes, this time in a brisk pace, to indicate Raga Hindolam, and in effect to downplay, if not to dispute, any difference between the two methods.

Balamuralikrishna’s general unease with needless emphasis on boundaries is of course not limited to the classical genre. Much the same understanding was evident in his stance on film music. Looking back on that landmark album after nearly 30 years, much of what it conveyed may seem commonplace, or perhaps not. But the enduring value of his eclecticism is beyond doubt.

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