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A new, exhaustive book on Carnatic singer Balamuralikrishna

‘The Many Lives Of Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna’, a new biography of the Carnatic music maestro offers a glimpse of his rich and complex life

Critic Veejay Sai has authored a new biography of M. Balamuralikrishna.
Critic Veejay Sai has authored a new biography of M. Balamuralikrishna. (Getty Images)

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Described variously as a phenomenal musician, a prodigiously talented and versatile performer, a maha vidwan, and an enfant terrible, Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna is remembered as much for his command over the complex art of Carnatic music as for his astonishing prowess as a performer. In his quest to transcend aspects of tradition he deemed inessential to the music, however, he drew sharp criticism from those who took a more conservative approach. And it is in this context that The Many Lives Of Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, a new authorised biography of this enigmatic musician by critic Veejay Sai, piques interest.

A Carnatic musician’s career is assessed mainly on three counts: his lineage, performances and recordings, and the disciples he leaves behind to continue the lineage. In an easy style, Sai gives a thorough account of all three aspects, bringing to the fore the rich and complex life Balamuralikrishna led: a life powered by immense talent and confidence in his own destiny.

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The opening chapters offer a bird’s-eye view of the literary and musical culture-scape of (united) Andhra Pradesh and sketches the context for the emergence of the Balamuralikrishna phenomenon. The musical careers of his father, Pattabhiramayya, and his guru, Parupalli Ramakrishnayya Pantulu, are described in detail, giving us the flavour of a life in music those days. We read about the dizzying success of Balamuralikrishna, both as performer and composer, as a teenager. The book goes on to recount his life as an adult, his stints at All India Radio, his work in cinema, his prolific recordings in both Carnatic and religious music, collaborations with other musicians, his students, and his famous feuds with contemporaries. It doesn’t leave out his personal life, which had its share of controversies, either.

Sai traces the maestro’s brilliant career, starting from the music festival in Vijayawada when he was barely eight years old, to the cementing of his reputation at the Tyagaraja Aradhana, an annual congregation of musicians paying homage to the great composer Tyagaraja at his samadhi, in Tiruvaiyaru (Tamil Nadu) in 1942, when he was just 12. Here, the young Balamuralikrishna is described as having stunned the audience of vidwans and connoisseurs. Sai quotes from published reviews and conversations with Balamuralikrishna’s contemporaries to give us a sense of the young boy’s very busy performance career.


'The Many Lives Of Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna—An Authorized Biography', by Veejay Sai, Penguin Random House India, 320 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
'The Many Lives Of Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna—An Authorized Biography', by Veejay Sai, Penguin Random House India, 320 pages, 599.

Despite the loss of his mother within a few days of his birth—Sai describes this with eloquent simplicity—Balamuralikrishna’s early life does not come across as one deprived of love. He thrived under the loving care of his aunt, Subbamma, and the wife of his guru, Venkataramanamma. His father, a musician of no mean merit, was a constant source of support.  

Balamuralikrishna seems to have had singular fortune in his guru, Pantulu, who nurtured his talent not only through teaching, but also by introducing the young Balamuralikrishna to performance spaces. Pantulu, a highly regarded musician and a respected voice in debates and discussions about the nuances of raga grammar, also introduced him to literary scholars in Telugu and Sanskrit. It was this kind of exposure that resulted in the unschooled Balamuralikrishna composing all the 72 melakartas as a teen.

These are mere scales in various combinations of the seven swaras and some of them are quite discordant. Musical thought and sensitivity are needed to vest them with musical charm.Through discussions with musicians, Sai establishes that some of the compositions exhibit literary and musical excellence—astonishing coming from a young man.

He quotes veteran music critic T.S. Parthasarathy as saying that though the task is difficult, and though Balamuralikrishna was not the first to do it, “the vidwan (Balamuralikrishna) has accomplished it with remarkable ability”. The sahityam (lyrics), he adds, exhibit his “proficiency in Telugu and acquaintance with Sanskrit”. Sai’s description of the circumstances of the publication and reception of Janaka Raga Kriti Manjari, the compendium of his 72 kritis using the 72 melakartas, establishes the unique genius of the maestro.

A ticketed concert notice of Balamuralikrishna, accompanied by Saride Subbarao on the violin and Kovvidi Hanumantarao on the mirdangam, in a local newspaper, April 1945.
A ticketed concert notice of Balamuralikrishna, accompanied by Saride Subbarao on the violin and Kovvidi Hanumantarao on the mirdangam, in a local newspaper, April 1945. (From the book; Penguin Random House India)

The Many Lives... reads like a racy thriller as we follow Balamuralikrishna’s career in film music, folk music, Bhakti music and classical music. Sai’s description of the time Balamuralikrishna lost his voice and took up a job at All India Radio, is fascinating—he describes the challenges the artist faced without a formal education and offers accounts of the men who helped him, and those who did not. Here, Balamuralikrishna comes across as a man who would throw himself, heart and soul, into any undertaking—this is especially so when the author describes the lengths to which he went to make the radio programmes authentic. An overview of the making of the hugely popular radio programme Bhakti Manjari, in the context of the circumstances that made space for such a programme, offers a glimpse into a time and place now long gone.

Radio, still an important space for the classical musician, was the one source of public dissemination of information, news and entertainment until the 1980s. So, in the Nehruvian era, information and broadcasting minister B.V. Keskar sought to participate in nation-making by controlling what could be heard on it. Along with banning cricket commentary and the harmonium, he discouraged film music; All India Radio lost listeners to Radio Ceylon, which broadcast runaway hit programmes like Binaca Geetmala, offering film music to an avid listener base.

In response, Keskar came up with the idea of music programmes with religious songs; Bhakti Manjari was one such phenomenally successful programme. Balamuralikrishna himself tuned and sang many of the songs he sourced, bringing variety and vivacity. Musicologist N. Ramanathan is quoted as saying that this programme and its impact needs serious study by a scholar of south Indian music. Ramanathan observes that though they are set in seemingly simple tunes, they will command the attention of any serious musician.

The Balamuralikrishna who emerges from Sai’s portrait is a man with a strong sense of destiny, not content to be just another great. The book does a good job of describing his efforts to strike a different note, the creation of new ragas with four—even three—swaras in defiance of the general expectation that a raga should have at least five. The account of the controversy this led to is presented through excerpts from the letters that flew between Balamuralikrishna and veena vidwan S. Balachander. Balachander argued that the scales of the ragas Balamuralikrishna claimed to have created could be found in old books. Balamuralikrishna argued that a raga is not established by mere scale, that a musician needs to flesh these out.

(Here's his raga lavangi with only four swaras)

There are interesting anecdotes, such as Balamuralikrishna getting khayal vocalist Kishori Amonkar to sing the well-known Tyagaraja composition Nada Tanumanisham, converting her into a Tyagaraja devotee. There is also a brief account of Balamuralikrishna’s equations with fellow musicians, including accompanists. Interviews with musicians, musicologists, students and rasikas, as well as lovely vintage photographs, add value to the book.

The writing style is easy and unpretentious, effortlessly pulling the reader into the world of Balamuralikrishna, seen from the sympathetic perspective of an admirer like Sai. The story remains the focus, its flow uninterrupted by detours into analysis and critique. Even discussions of the feuds and controversies he was involved in are presented simply, not analysed, with the author seemingly neutral.

Given the reverence with which great musicians are regarded, it is no doubt difficult to offer an account of the less savoury aspects. This is evident in the way the details of his personal life are presented—the “other women” in Balamuralikrishna’s life are portrayed as scheming sirens who duped an innocent man.

One might expect that a biography would also give space for the analysis of Balamuralikrishna’s music, and what made it so different and problematic to many. To the Carnatic world, he was an unconventional genius many had difficulty coming to terms with, especially in his later maverick avatar; purists, even the less fanatical but knowledgeable Carnatic aficionado, had difficulty understanding his music. Certainly, he tinkered with the fundamentals of the idiom and texture of the melody. However, there is little discussion of this in the book, other than Balamuralikrishna being quoted on the definition of “tradition” and “classical”.

There are places where one feels that more considered treatment was warranted. For example, the reason for the diminishing presence of Carnatic music in Telugu regions is more complex than dwindling state patronage.

Overall, the book gives us a sympathetic and exhaustive account of the life and music of Balamuralikrishna in an easy-to-read style. As a bonus, Sai offers a glimpse into the world of music in south India, where Balamuralikrishna strode like a colossus for decades.

Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani vocalist and writer.

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