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The magic of Murali - A tribute to a maestro
For over four decades, I am captive to his music. "Music follows me wherever I go," he smiled mischievously recently while in Bangalore. Quite like him to be assertive, at times even cryptic!

Branded as a maverick by "purists", a word to which he takes strong objections, he revels in twisting their tails and springing surprises. His creative juices seem to be flowing in full vigour even after more than six decades as a performing musician. There is no denying that he has carved a special niche in Carnatic music by dint of sheer hard work.

Yes, even creativity demands focused work even though, as he claims, "I never touch the tampura to practice. Without music, I am nowhere, I am nothing!"

Elsewhere he had noted that "music just follows me." True, because he not only sings but also plays the viola, violin, mridangam, kanjira and veena, besides composing and directing music for films. He has done all, including playback singing and acting in some films, with equal enthusiasm and facility.

He continues to be popular as a performing musician and is a living paradigm, a legend who has taken Carnatic music to new heights of awareness and creativity.

He loves to demolish established viewpoints. When an interviewer asked his reaction to criticism that he flouted tradition, he retorted that people who talk about tradition don't know what it really means.

He affirmed: "Tradition is only the base, the foundation-i.e. sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha, ni. Based on this, each singer builds his or her own structure. Each builds a house according to one's tastes. Each singer has a style of his/her own. So those who talk about preserving tradition don't know what they are talking about!"

He has a point because music is constantly evolving. There is continuity but the same idioms, phrases, swaras et al. are imbued with a fresh approach by each singer.

By creativity, I am, of course, talking about the magic of Balamurali's music. I have been an unabashed admirer of his music for decades. This tribute I pen in his honour on the day when he is reaching another milestone in his illustrious, colourful career.

He will turn 78 on July 6. Perhaps 'old' is not quite right. It should be 'young' because even now he is quite agile and lively!

Not long ago, he proved it by giving a concert to a legion of his admirers at the Tirumala temple precincts-a place where he had vowed earlier he would never sing.

It took him over 17 years to relent because at long last the Andhra Government had agreed to restore links with him by recognising his contribution to classical music art form. It also appointed him once again as the "Aasthana Vidwan" of Tirupati Devastanam for two years.

Balamurali had been vociferously pointing out that the Andhra Government had done little all these years to recognise classical musicians and their contributions for the cultural resurgence witnessed in recent times.

Where Andhra lagged, Karnataka has stolen a march as it were. He was awarded the title "Musician of the Century" by one of the religious institutions in the state. That brings my focus once again on this musician extraordinaire and why I admire him so much.

Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna is an iconoclast in Carnatic classical music, no doubt about it. He has ventured into composing own kritis in all 72-mela karta ragas and many of them are quite beautiful. Just as if to rub it in to those diehard-old-timers, he sings with nonchalance many of his own kritis on concert platforms.

I particularly like the Naganandini (melakarta raga) piece played by him on the violo; his kriti "Dakshayini rakshamam dritam" arresting in its sweep and hauntingly melodious.

And he takes puckish delight by singing entirely new ragas, many of which are his own creations: ragas like Mahati, Sumukam, Lavangi, Manorama, Vallabhi, Trisakthi, Rohini, Sushama etc.

Many of these new genre ragas transgress the traditional theory of having a minimum of five notes in the arohana and avarohana (ascending and descending scales). Ragas like "Mahati" and "Sumukam" have become popular despite having four notes only and are very captivating when he enunciates them.

He surprised the Chembur (Bombay) audience in 1966 by singing a captivating "Mahati" and his composition "mahinya madhura murthey" beautifully surprising the pundits no end. I still have the audio tape of this concert where he also sings captivating swaras for raga "Mohanangi" in the ragamalika phase for the exhilarating ragam-tanam-pallavi in raga "Thodi".

I also have a London Kentington Town Hall concert where he has sung a brilliant "Subhapanthuvarali" raga with Thyagaraja composition "Ne pogda kunte"; a Bahrain concert where he sings a hauntingly evocative Dasar kriti " Ye paria sobagu ennava devadali kaane" in raga Hamsanandi and the awe-inspiring "Omkara karini" in raga Lavangi, his own creation.

Who can forget the melodic beauty that he etched, carved and embellished with when singing rare ragas like Sunadhavionodhini (devadi deva of Mysore Vasudeva Char) and Hamsavinodhini (his own composition guruni smarimbo) in the sixties or early seventies?

Many of his compositions, numbering over 400 mostly in Telugu but in many other languages as well including Tamil, stand testimony to the high creative muse he brings to musical modes and poetry.

More importantly, most of these are imbued with not only lyrical content but a grand structural design, outlining the intrinsic characteristics of the notes on which the ragas are based.

Many examples can be given. His ability to play with notes and its corresponding sounds are matchless, witness the superb phrasings in the kriti "sada thava pada sannithim" in raga Shanmukhapriya. Or, the inimitably classic melakarta Sarasangi and his original composition "Hanuma, hanuma O numama" where as he says "the 'note ma' comes spontaneously in all places where the sound 'ma'comes!"?

Or, again the many awe-inspiring yet musically-rich varnams, notably the brilliant "amma ananda dayini" in raga Gambira Nattai (its ending is compared with the "thunderstorm in the sixth symphony of Beethoven" by his disciple Prince Rama Varma). I have heard it sung with facility and flair by the popular Aruna Sairam in one concert at the RR Sabha in Mylapore, Chennai, some years ago.

Last but not least, the cascading, titillating, multi-hued tillanas (described aptly by one ardent fan as "thrillanas") that he has composed and rendered to the joy of the connoisseurs and laymen alike!

These are some of magical moments from Murali that I will preserve and cherish for as long as I live.

Many may not be aware that in some respects he reveres tradition as much as anybody else. Even his traditional singing has a creative spark. The "utsava sampradya" compositions of Thyagaraja or the Ashtapathis of Jayadeva get a new lease of life as it were when Murali imparts his magic to them.

Or take for example the songs of Narayana Theerthar or Sadashiva Brimhendrar or Badrachala Ramadas. They are soaked in bhava and become effulgent entities with bakhti rasa when he embellishes them with his inimitable soulful music!

A "narayanethe namo namo" in raga Behag or a "pibare rama rasam" in tugging Ahir Bhairavi or a " paluke bangarumayina" in melodious Anandabhairavi are veritable examples of his intuitive skills in making music appeal to one and all.

I have one tape of his concert given way back in the seventies in Bangalore where he has sung the Saveri composition of Thyagaraja " Chalu chalu Nee Vuntulu" and Dikshitar's memorable Bhairavi kriti "Bala gopala" in a truly devotional mood and yet enchanting style.

And another sung at about the same time I think where he tugs at your heart with a brilliantly moving Kambodhi raga with a masterful "Evari mata vinna" of Thyagaraja and a highly original Mandari raga with the kriti "Sagala kellaku neene" ( composer unknown but the kriti is in praise of Lord Shiva).

I must not forget to mention two of the most enchanting film songs rendered by him: "thanga radam vandadu" in the melodious raga Abhogi from the film Kalai Kovil; and the classical ragamalika "orunal poduma" from the film Tiruvilayadal. These are timeless, memorable melodies, and quite popular even today many decades after they were first sung.

This tribute, however, is not to talk about his creative abilities as a singer but as a perceptive musician full of wit and humour.

Back in the late sixties when he had swept Bombay off its feet with such beautiful ditties like "brihadeeswara mahadeva" in lilting Kanada or "nagumomu ganaleni"in a pleasing Abheri , he was participating in a lec-dem at the Anushakti Nagar Sabha near Chembur.

Somebody asked him why "some talas have 'edupu' after the start of a beat, while others have it with the start of the tala beat. In his inimitable spunky style, he said: "We all know how we are born but do we know why we are born? Singing to a tala is like this!"

Somebody else wanted to know how to distinguish between a minor and a major raga? His reply: "There are no major or minor ragas, only major or minor musicians!" A ripple of laughter coasted through the audience, many smiling and nodding their heads in agreement.

His amazing sense of humour has been revealed at other times too. His disciple Prince RamaVarma once gave a list asking him to sing many rare ragas, including some of his own creations. Looking at the long list, Balamurali remarked: "Usually it is the guru who gives a test to his disciple, but here he is putting me to test!." And, the audience tittered and was won over easily!

I was witness to his unique brand of humour in other places too. In Chembur, Bombay, he once sang raga Latangi in a concert at the Shell colony with a rare panache, including in one place touching even a foreign note, followed by his beautiful composition "tamra lochani latangi". When one local musician after the concert asked him how come he had used a foreign note while singing the raga, Balamurali replied: " You see I tried it and liked it and kept it that way." I was present and was dumbfounded by the sheer cheekiness of his comment.

At the Shastri Hall Sabha in Luz area of Mylapore, Chennai, there was a discussion on the topic "Carnatic music today" and participants on the dais included, among others, mridangist Umayalpuram Sivaraman, violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman and Balamuralikrishna.

When his turn came to speak, Balamurali began with the preamble how only Sivaraman knew the exact moment to start playing the mridangam when he was singing a song like "brihadeeswara mahadeva" and pointed out that Sivaraman first keenly observed where the beats should begin for a song and then accordingly joined in.

Next, he turned to Lalgudi Jayaraman as if to say 'what do I say about you' and then facing the audience said: "We all know what an excellent violinist Lalgudi Jayraman is. But I also know one more thing about him." There, typically Balamurali paused!

The audience was hooked, curiosity roused and waiting eagerly to find out what he would add further. After a brief pause and a smile, Balamurali continued: "Few of you know that Lalgudi Sir is an excellent singer too. We singers thank the Lord that he has confined himself to playing the violin. If he had chosen to give vocal concerts, we all would have to look for other professions to make our living!"

There was a thunderous applause and Lalgudi was clean bowled and all smiles enjoying the open admiration of his talents by Balamurali.

Once Balamurali in his concert had seen some in the audience leaving their seats immediately after the mridangist began the"thani avartanam". Balamurali stooped before his mike and announced: "There will be a 15 minutes interval after the 'thani avartanam'. Please remain seated. After that we will all go out. I will also come with you for coffee!"

On another occasion when he was singing at the Music Academy after a gap of 10 years or so, the then Academy president T.T.Vasu said how much he was an admirer of Balamurali's music and he was grateful that the singer had come to perform in the Academy after a long gap. "In appreciation of his gesture we present Balamurali with a cheque for Rs one lakh," he said and presented the cheque.

Balamurali bowed and accepted the honour and said: "I thank the Academy for this fine gesture but I would like to donate this amount back to the Academy so that they can start a fund to help indigent musicians."

In those days Rs.1 lakh was big money and Balamurali had once again pointed out the flaw in the system by this gesture-many deserving musicians were eking out a hand-to- mouth living and such a fund was the crying need of the hour.

To a question once whether one could sing swaras at great speed, Balamurali replied: "You know there is a laya when you speak. If not, I cannot follow what you say. It is the same when you sing swaras in speed. If there is a laya, there will be a natural flow. Speed must come with a natural flow, not just to create an effect!"

I could go on about innovations Balamurali had brought into the concert platforms when at the peak of his career. He was the first to introduce an "interval" in Carnatic music concert, an action which invited much criticism then from "purists " but later found acceptance by the public because they wanted a break for tea or coffee or refreshments.

He was also first to participate in jugalbandi concerts with renowned Hindustani classical musicians and get respect for Carnatic music by exhibiting not only his superior voice quality but also sheer exuberance of the Carnatic melody, especially in the 'kalpana swara' prasthara phase of the concerts.

The opposition was simply no match for his genius in raga elaboration, singing of kritis, manodharma swaras or simply devotional numbers, including in Hindustani ragas like Ahir Bhairav or Darbari or Chandrakauns.

Truly, he is a creative artist who has stamped his own style of singing. In the process, he has opened up new vistas to take the grammar and beauty of Carnatic music forward and has brought immense listening pleasure to thousands like me!

Balamurali was once speaking in a TV interview with lady ghazal singer Penaz Masani. She asked: "So how would you describe your music?" To which Balamurali jokingly replied: "Three Ms means music - Masani (referring to Penaz Masani), Murali and Money." That should sum it up.

Except I would say three Ms should stand for music, maestro and memorable when one speaks of Balamurali. Here is wishing more creative punch to his endeavours in music on his 78th birthday and wishing him many happy returns of the day!
Srinivasa -
After reading this article, I went and bought "Pancharatna" album from iTunes. I am only few weeks old to Carnatic music. My god - just moving. Not since childhood did I have tears in my eyes.
Thanks so much for your article. It is well written. It is very, very useful to people like me who are new to music. It is so difficult to know who is really good. You showed me an easy way, I think.

Raymond Jenkins -
Excellent Article! Very well written. Served to bring Balamurali sir closer to one's heart, just as his music does! Please keep writing and sharing them with the world. God bless.