In the demise of Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna on Tuesday, the world of Carnatic classical music has lost a multifaceted artist whose work defied neat definitions, as his popular appeal transcended barriers of geography and language. Through her captivating and meditative performances across the country and overseas, it was M.S. Subbulakshmi who had represented the southern tradition for the better part of the last century. But it was Balamuralikrishna, the child prodigy from Andhra Pradesh, who emerged as the national face of this genre over the past half century. A combination of a richly gifted voice, sheer individual brilliance and an incessant penchant for eclectic experimentation saw the maestro cut through the conventional limits of compositional form and style of presentation at a rather early age.
The distinctive identity he carved out would define his formidable reputation over the subsequent decades. When such innovations sometimes did not find particular favour with the cognoscenti, the composer-vocalist began to revel in the controversy they occasioned and the popular appeal that resulted from his performances. But despite all the maverick-like qualities, Balamuralikrishna remains, to date, among the few musicians to have been conferred the highest honour of The Music Academy, Madras, the Sangeetha Kalanidhi, at a relatively young age. By the time he was awarded the nation’s second highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan, in 1991, Balamuralikrishna’s acclaim as a playback singer and music director had been reinforced.
Arguably, the great master’s imprint on the pan-Indian stage was put irreversibly through the national integration track ‘ Mile sur mera tumhara ’ on Doordarshan in the mid-1980s. The explicit purpose behind this joint production with, among others, the doyen of the Kirana gharana, the redoubtable Bhimsen Joshi, was to foster a sense of unity and harmony in those troubled times. But the venture, perhaps unwittingly, also heralded a new era in classical duet singing, hitherto largely a characteristic of instrumental ensembles. The vocal jugalbandis between Joshi and Balamuralikrishna brought home to the lay public the fundamental commonalities inherent to the southern and northern ragas, as much as they emphasised the distinctive styles in rendition across the country. This exposure was no mean feat considering that classical music remained, and maybe still is, a pursuit of the privileged in society. The void that Balamuralikrishna leaves at the all-India level may be felt more, therefore, in sustaining interest in this larger musical canvas. But the tremendous mobility of recent years among artists, and a degree of cross-cultural appreciation, promise the continuity of this legacy.