The only time one heard Dr M. Balamuralikrishna struggle to produce a note or two was when he deliberately imitated certain constricted throat modulations prevalent in Carnatic vocals. Such rasping passages, the master would observe in his talks on voice culture, had found a tacit respectability in the south Indian classical system over the decades. Bending that note further into humour, a music buff could wonder if the contorted faces typical of some bhagavatars on stage had anything to do with strained nerves around their neck. Or indeed, vice versa. Either way, Balamurali did not figure in that pool even in his very last phase.
It isn’t commonplace, anywhere in the world, to see an artiste’s performance quality stay on an even graph for eight decades. This is much more than of academic interest—no stories of a shrinking larynx, leave alone fading memory, preceded Balamurali’s end at age 86. An intact voice box is particularly meritorious in an idiom like Carnatic, where vocalists often become victims of a tendency to show off microtone oscillations purely as a professional asset, rather than as a genre highlight or a musical need. The prime, thus, rarely stays very long.
Balamurali did employ that Dravidian gamaka to profound effect and wide appeal, but in measures he thought were optimal. That is no explanation, though, to his retaining a robust voice all his life. A silken touch across his full range—from a grainy baritone to a nasal, near-falsetto, almost like a female voice, on the higher octaves—apparently owed to an underlying principle only the extremely gifted can afford to practise: don’t use your full tonal volume. Alongside a scratch-free resonance, Balamurali laid stress on diction. Carnatic music has a literary deposit as fertile as the Cauvery delta that groomed its aesthetics, experts keep pointing out, yet it’s not always that we hear lyrics enounced to the pleasure of purists. The man from coastal Andhra was among the few who gave them exceptional solace, even if the words were in a language other than his native Telugu.
Balamurali’s guru traced a lineage to Tyagaraja, whose two-century-old compositions retain their charm across the Deccan and beyond. Yet Parupalli Ramakrishnayya Pantulu (1882-1951) is largely known for being Balamurali’s guru. The disciple’s dynamism marked a crossroads on the relay track. It’s not that his music was heavily individualistic right from his initial days. In the early 1960s, he sang in a way that rightly slotted him above-par, but not as radical as it eventually turned out to be. In all the variety of schools Carnatic music featured, none sounded so stunningly way off what could be termed mainstream. Yes, all around individual styles fascinatingly branched out from a body that kept evolving with an assumed centrality, but in approach and execution Balamurali virtually grew a parallel trunk altogether—a one-man genre. And that’s after and amid nonconformist titans such as G.N. Balasubramaniam, Musiri Subramania Iyer, Madurai Mani Iyer, Brinda-Muktha and M.D. Ramanathan.
If many found Balamurali’s music particularly romantic, it may partly stem from a lightness of aspect: he was not burdened by the old Indian idea that classical music is ‘divine’. Far from staying on the spiritual plane—unless you mean it as an allusion to his rumoured fondness for a quick one backstage during those 10-minute intervals—he took up the art as an endless exploration. Practicality decided much of his philosophy. Some ragas he devised gained traction when sung in his style. That’s why you hear his famed Lavangi, with just four notes, gaining a Balamurali touch even when the alapana is by new-generation vocalist T.M. Krishna, whose overall sense of beauty is unrelated to the wizard’s.
Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer (1908-2003), who taught Krishna, had his share of fights with Balamurali over reasons thoroughly Carnatic. They least agreed on new ragas being a sign of creativity, but that didn’t stop Balamurali from assisting Semmangudi occasionally on the viola. His expertise on the mridangam and kanjira were an extension of his flair for rhythmic improvisation that manifested beyond the classical, in fusion and allied endeavours. His occasional trysts with cinema revealed a singing genius’s pastime—rather than an inclination or capacity for good acting.
His famed jugalbandis with Hindustani stalwarts gained him admirers upcountry. But for all his hearty disposition, his counter to forays from a Bhimsen, Kishori or Chaurasia fell short of the expected sophistication, betraying a competitive spirit. Contrastingly, in Carnatic kacheris, Balamurali never insisted on accompaniment by top-graders. He enjoyed playing a benign, playful czar to up-and-coming violinists and percussionists.
The lighter tillana was a strong area of Balamurali’s Carnatic compositions, a favourite of his disciples and fans. Any effort to straightaway imitate him, though, ends in disaster. For one, it’s tough. More vitally, mimicking a distinctive style evokes only laughter in the human mind.