Back in 1956, a dark boy sang a noted film song of that time before a panel of judges in his native central Kerala to win a prize that was to soon the change his course of life.
That happened to be the year of the formation of the slender state where, up the coast, a fair-skinned teenager had already begun his career as a musician for a pre-classical performing art. The skinny kid who rendered the poignant Kalle Kaniville (from the Malayalam movie Raarichan Enna Pauran) went on to join a famed institution that taught him to deliver background score for a feudal form about which he had earlier known nothing: Kathakali. High on talent and sincerity, the first non-Hindu to learn the classical dance- drama’s vocals eventually became established as Kalamandalam Hyderali.
The artiste’s family in semi-hilly Wadakanchery of Thrissur district did have a connection with music, but, needless to repeat, was far removed from the ethos of a world-class art as deep and broad as Kathakali. On the other hand, Balipa Narayana, who was born in Padre village of north Malabar’s Kasargod, did have a cultural lineage suiting his profile as a vocalist for Yakshagana, the traditional theatre that also basically relies on Indian mythology for stories. In fact, his gurus were his father Madhava Bhatta and grandpa (also named Balipa Narayana)—both renowned Yakshagana musicians. In the mid-1960s and early ’70s by when young Hyderali had begun earning a name, loudspeakers had become common on Kathakali stages.
Now, that was a far cry from the times of the formative years of his guru Neelakantan Nambisan (1919-85). In fact, Nambissan’s teacher, the trend-setter Mundaya Venkitakrishnan who heavily infused Carnatic elements into Kathakali music that had hitherto relied on the more local Sopana Sangeetam devoid of heavy oscillations, even used to initially protest against the fashion of mikes. The equipment, hung close to the mouth, was “pulling away all my sound”, he used to complain—or so goes the story.
In complete contrast to such notions, Hyderali (1946-2006) began making full use of the microphone on the Kathakali stage, which was simultaneously getting brightened up with electric bulbs of yellow shade. The device came as an opportune blessing for the singer, who had a soothingly light voice. Such was his throat that the distinct timbre had all the capability for generating complex modulations, though not exactly in the forceful way Kathakali music sounded conventionally.
Hyderali’s unorthodoxy, however, was not confined to restraining his voice to sweeten it thoroughly. He altered ragas daringly far from what the textbooks prescribed, revelled in up-and- down slides that sometimes didn’t seem like going well with the spirit of character on stage, and made impromptu improvisations a hallmark like perhaps none of his contemporaries. As a person, he remained honest and simple—to the extent of later hinting at remorse over the vocal acrobatics of his salad days. Yakshagana’s Narayana Bhagavata has had no such existential pangs. For all the technological advancement the acoustics kept making, the musician—close to 80 and living in Nooi village of Moodabiri near Mangalore in southern Karnataka—least sought to change his style energised by high pitch and tendency to keep touching the upper octaves. No sophisticated sound device has succeeded in mellowing his penchant for open-throated renditions of prasangas (poems formatted as lyrics for story-plays), 30 of which the veteran has himself penned. Clinically, they are set to Kannada meters and follow rhythmic cycles that have an indigenous touch.
If Hyderali’s music tended to veer to the ghazal style of music (and was thereby close Hindustani classical), Narayana has been a proud torch-bearer of Yakshagana’s coastal Tenkuttittu style which densely pools in oscillations typical of the Carnatic idiom. The microtones are well-defined and the ragas are unmistakably south Indian. Indeed, when Narayana sings, the stage resonates with forays to the higher ranges with sometimes the actor even conceding his inability to follow him during phases of a virtual dialogue between them. America’s famed cultural institution Smithsonian Folkways acknowledges Balipa as “the last of the traditional Yakshagana singers who, not having microphones, sing in a typical high pitch to project to an audience of hundreds in the open”. The laudatory remark apart, his traditional style, which is now popularly known as ‘Balipa’, doesn’t appear to be ending with the times of Narayana Bhagavata.
For instance, his own resident district of Dakshina Kannada has the young Bhavyashree Mandekolu who sings to an elevated shruti and still traverses full- throated while covering higher octaves.
Hailing from the arecanut belt of Sullia taluk lined by the Payasawini river, the bespectacled woman is also blessed with a stentorian voice at the base (where it reminds perhaps of late Khayal maestro Gangubai Hangal). Back to Kalamandalam Hyderali, today is his 12th death anniversary. It was on January 5, 2006, that the vocalist met with a fatal car crash on a road not far from his alma mater to where he was driving for an afternoon rest between two consecutive stage performances. Since his death, Kathakali music, if anything, has seen the newer generation use still better use of the microphone.