Interview with M. Balamuralikrishna conducted by S. Gopalakrishnan, Venkat and Baby Sreeram
S. Gopalakrishnan: To begin with, I would like to ask you is why do you think or rather do you feel that your music is totally different from the music we have been used to listening?
M. Balamuralikrishna: There is no music by the name ‘Carnatic’ at all. The system of Carnatic music is the base for any music in the world. The real meaning of the word Carnatic is karneshu atati iti carnataha. The music or any music that pleases your ears is Carnatic music. If you are listening to Carnatic music and if you don’t enjoy it, then that person is not singing Carnatic music. Film music, light music, western music, Hindustani music all are Carnatic music. It is the base. If you know Carnatic music and have flexible voice and experience, you can sing any kind of music. But those who only know other kind of music, they can’t sing our music. Our fundamentals are very strong. I have sung jugalbandis with north Indians─with Bhimsen Joshi, Jasraj, Ajay Chakravarthy and Kishori Amonkar. I have sung with French in France, with English, with Germans in Germany and with Russians in Russia. I am able to do all that not because I am great, but because our music system is great. If the rest of the musicians are not able to do so, it only means that they don’t know Carnatic music well enough.
S.G: Can you explain this all-inclusivity of Carnatic music?
M.B: By Carnatic music I mean the base. They call our music Carnatic without knowing its meaning. Some people say it came from Karnataka because Purandaradasa supposedly composed some swaras, geetas and all that. That is also not entirely correct. I don’t want to go into the criticism….The music was already here but still they feel that Carnatic music must have come from Karnataka. In Purandaradasa’s time, even during the British rule, there was no Karnataka state, there was no Andhra and there was no Tamil Nadu. Therefore, Carnatic music literally means the music that pleases your ears, karneshu atati iti carnataha. A film song, if it pleases you, is Carnatic music. You like western music or folk music, any film song, or anything else, it pleases your ears, it is Carnatic.
Carnatic music doesn’t mean singing Tyagaraja compositions, sitting on a platform, accompanied on violin and mridangam and singing raga, swara etc. No. These all were developed recently with the intention to please the audience. In those days only bhajans were sung. Before Tyagaraja, only bhajans were sung. Tyagaraja composed songs on god Rama. So in that way he innovated and introduced new ragas through his compositions. Just like what I am doing now. I am creating new ragas. Any raga is established by a composition, by a song. Otherwise it won’t be. So I created so many ragas, I created a new tala system for the first time in the world. I had to compose songs for these things to get established. So I am a poet. Generally in Carnatic music, the poetic content is very low. It only has songs composed about gods. It is not poetry. Poetry is different. So if you say that Sita is Rama’s wife, it is not poetry, it is a statement. Poetry is something else. That content is very less in our so-called Carnatic music. So I give prominence for the poetry and I express the poetic content through music. It is not that music has to be sung with composition. No. There is already a composition that you sing with music. There are two ways of singing. And some songs, for e.g. the ones of Tyagaraja, were already set to tune and over generations, many people must have brought in their own changes. Now generally the Carnatic musicians, they don’t give importance to the meaning of the song. They concentrate on raga and their spontaneity in the swara-prasara (elaboration of swaram), gamakas, mathematical systems etc. If you are singing for the audience, you have to sing what they like. But I have done something that I make the listeners listen to whatever I sing and they develop their talent of understanding. So in that way I am doing a small service. And so I have created compositions for many new ragas. That is the small contribution from my part. Introducing new ragas and also emphasizing the importance of poetry in the composition, not just raga-alaapna, swar-kalpana with violin, mridangam. That is very small. If you think it is the whole music, well, it is not. It is only the fundamental. There is music, a lot. So after being here with my seven decades’ experience now I know very well what little I know about music. There is still a lot that I can do, if god gives me life.
S.G: You mentioned the way Tyagaraja sang. Could you explain it? It was reported once that the way Tyagaraja sang Nagumomu…
M.B: We don’t know how Tyagaraja sang. His disciples, then their disciples, their disciples singing his compositions… you know what would happen. We don’t know how Tyagaraja sang. But I feel my way of singing, I feel if Tyagaraja, if he had sung this song, he would have sung like the way I am singing, like this only. Because those who say Nagumomu, ‘Please sing Nagumo’, that itself is wrong. What is the meaning of the song? They have changed the swaroop (essence) of the raga, the abheri raga, they are singing like bhimpalasi and, not like abheri. Probably because nobody knows how Tyagaraja sang, including his disciples also. There are three main disciples. Any musician can sing according to the limitation of his voice culture. Some musicians cannot sing speed. So some people say that it is not the tradition. Some people cannot sing slow, so they say it is not the tradition. It is all a creation. Instead of creating music, they created all this. There is another thing. I asked my student to publish a book where I have given about one thousand ragas and how people differed. There is an arohana/avarohana, ascendant and descendant and there is a name for that. Many people give for the same arohana/avarohana some other names. And for one raga people give different names. Therefore it really means is that, if anybody composes a song, then you have to accept it. So for instance, Nagumomu is there, you see, there is a raga, same raga which is called bhimpalasi. Ga ma pa ni da ma pa ga ri ni sa (Sings) They are singing here, Nagumomu if you see, I have heard Nagumomu being sung long back, old days when I was a boy. I heard some old singers, you know, how they sang, Nagumomu…… (Sings…)
(Sings two different styles of Nagumomu to demonstrate how singers have sung various versions of it over the years.)
Strictly speaking, both are wrong.
Sa re ga ma pa da ni comes but sa ga ma pa ni sa only but they put all the swaras. And so I have thought about it. How should abheri raga be sung? When you listen to abheri, you should hear only abheri, not any other raga. So arohana/avarohana is there, but apart from that, there is another thing like murchana. With just notes you can’t get raga. Murchana they say. Hindustani music is murchana-oriented. Arohana/avarohana is not important to them, murchana is important. For us arohana/avarohana is important. So I take both. So it becomes, my music becomes new. Nagumomu ganaleni na jali telisi nanu brovaga rada. I am not able to see your smiling face because I have become old, my eyes, I am not able to see. Why don’t you come near me? That bhava should come when you sing that.
If you know the meaning you will sing automatically like that. That is all. I have not done any new creation.
S.G: You mentioned the murchana aspect, at what stage did this new music evolve in you?
M.B: Because I found out that I don’t want to follow anybody. Even the previous generation, the old musicians also have not followed somebody’s music. They established their own way of singing. So they became top. So if I want to become top, I should create something of my own. So I found out what all were the mistakes, I mean unwanted things, were there in the previous people, and I just cleared it, that’s all. Nothing I have done. I cleaned it, that’s all, then it becomes new. So people are hearing something new. Those who don’t know the language in which I sing, even they will be able to know the meaning of the song when I sing. If I sing in Tamil, they think I am a scholar in Tamil, I am not. I sang Bengali, Rabindra Sangeet. Now they are learning Bengali music from me. Rabindra Sangeet in Bengal, they don’t accept anyone. They have not accepted anybody. They didn’t accept Lata Mangeshkar. They didn’t accept M.S. Subbulakshmi They recorded my Bengali music in Madras TV, they send it as a gift to Calcutta radio station. So they liked it, they called me and said if I sing Bengali music, a musician like Ajay Chakraborty, they are all coming and learning Rabindra Sangeet from me. I am most popular in Rabindra Sangeet. I have got two doctorates in Bengali Music. Rabindranath Tagore, the highest doctorate, I got it. Rabindra University gave me doctorate for my Bengali music, Bengali songs. Nothing special. When you sing a song, you should know the meaning and convey the meaning to the listeners. Suppose you sing a sangati in some other way, it gives you another meaning. So you have to be very careful. It is not that anything I have done is special. The only thing is that I found out this way is better because a song means that when you sing raag alaapna, you sing as you like. You want to show your mathematical genius, you put swara, kalpana-swara when you sing. But a song means it should be like a song. Unnecessarily sangatis. And some sangatis they change because they can’t sing. Like that so many changes have come. I have not done anything new but I sing the song knowing the meaning and the people will automatically like it.
Venkat: Sir, my question as a layman is, the bulk of the knowledge that has been thriving in Madras city or Tamil Nadu but not as much in Andhra Pradesh….most of the Carnatic music following is in Tamil Nadu and not as much in Andhra Pradesh which should have been the case because people know Telugu there. You have been blessed that you know Telugu, you know Tamil, everything but not many people know that. But I don’t know anything about, I have been a listener for so many years but I get real high when I listen to Tyagaraja or Dikshitar, I don’t know the meaning but I get so much joy, instant joy. So is language really a barrier in enjoying music?
M.B: It is not that. It happened, historically, there was no Tamil Nadu, there was no Andhra Pradesh. There were no linguistic differences. Linguistic differences came after the linguistic States’ formation which was a blunder. So Tyagaraja lived in Tanjavur in Tamil Nadu. Even in Tanjavur many people spoke Telugu. He sang in Telugu.
S.G: His question is, I am from Kerala, all of us are from Kerala…
M.B: I like Kerala. I composed a song on Kerala recently.
S.G: The Dikshitar compositions we follow because they are in Sanskrit, but when it comes to Tyagaraja, we don’t know Telugu.
M.B: But you like it.
S.G: When you sing Entharo mahanu bhavulu, we follow it, our appreciation is at some other level.
M.B: You forget the linguistic differences. That is what I say, whatever language is there, if it is sung correctly, everybody likes. So I sang in Malayalam. Many songs I sang in Malayalam.
Baby Sreeram: Sir, one more question. Have you heard about a book called Thillaisthanam Patam? What is your opinion about it?
M.B: It is one of the traditions. Some people follow some tradition. That’s all. Dikshitar songs they sing in Sanskrit in slow tempo. Their main Ambal deity. For Tyagaraja Rama is the deity. For some others Ambal is the deity. So they attribute everything to God in their music. So bhakti rasa is more important precedent than other rasas. But there are nava rasas, you cannot ignore them. Always bhakti means the devotion. You have devotion in love. You have devotion in day to day routine. Everything you should do with devotion. They think god only means Rama and Krishna but others have their own gods. You are all gods to me. So many gods are there. You never believe. When they are living, nobody recognises them as gods. Rama never had any temples when he was alive. Krishna had got no temples. Now after them they become great. I will become greater after I die.
BS: In the book Thillaistanam Patam, the songs which are being sung now are all very different but they say the songs in the book are the original of Tyagaraja. They say that since Walajapet Venkataramana Bhagavathar was student of his for 26 years, they have put his compositions as they are and so this is the original and so this should be followed. But there is a lot of difference. What is your opinion about this?
M.B: His first disciple was Manambuchavadi Venkata Subbiah, first disciple. Others are juniors. Manambuchavadi Venkata Subbiah stayed with him longer than others. After marriage also, along with his wife he stayed in Tyagaraja’s house. So Tyagaraja, I understand, never sat and composed. It comes to him. He is always ready. Whatever he says he (the disciple) notes down. Then afterwards he sings. Then Tyagaraja says, ‘This is very nice. Did I sing this? Did I make this?’ Therefore, whatever he wrote, you have to consider that it is right. The next one, they must have written on their own. Somebody is singing. And Manambuchavadi Venkata Subbiah might have written correctly, but we can’t say that he sang correctly. So our patam…Manambuchavadi Venkata Subbiah because what Manambuchavadi Venkata Subbiar strictly, Tyagaraja’s compositions about 720 available, we don’t know whether he composed more or not, nobody knows which are 720 compositions of Thyagaraja but all the 720 songs composed by Tyagaraja were written down by Manambuchavadi Venkata Subbiah. One Susarla Dakshinamurthy Sastry of Andhra learnt all the songs from him. And from him my guru Nadar Parupalli Ramakrishnayya Pantulu learned. And I learnt from him all the 720 songs of Tyagaraja. So I feel that is the correct notation. That is the way we have to believe, that’s all. But actually nobody knows how Tyagaraja sang. He never sang for others. He never expected that his composition would become popular and also very good for earning and learning. He never expected that we all will sing and get money. He never expected people like you will come and take interview.
S.G.: You mentioned Susarla Dakshinamurthy.
M.B: Yes. Like him Tyagaraja had other students. Each student established in his own way. So that becomes a Tillaisthanam or something like that. You can’t say which is correct. Everything is correct.
S.G: When it comes to the question that I asked in the beginning, your evolution, the change in the body of your raga-alapana, the way you sing the composition, it has become different. You may say that it is not different but as listeners we feel that it is totally different. That evolution, can you recollect how it happened. How you were singing in your teenage years and how did the evolution happen?
M.B: I suffered a lot. I was criticised the most as if I were spoiling the tradition. What I was singing was wrong, therefore I should be banned. All the titles I got should be given back. There was a meeting held in Madras, all old vidwans, they wanted to pass a resolution to boycott, that I should not be invited to sing because I was spoiling Carnatic music. This meeting happened when I was in America. So some member raised a question, you can’t pass any resolution without the person’s presence. We should call that person, take his opinion and then you pass the resolution. So the resolution didn’t pass but anyway the news came in the newspapers, in the radio. When I came back from America… Am I a musician or not? I don’t know. Then I took up the matter in a different way. It is not that they were right or I was right, why did you want to pass a resolution? What was the wrong that I had done? They said, when I was presiding over Music Academy, Sangeet Kala Nidhi, they took my biodata from somebody. In that it is mentioned that I have created ragas, new ragas. Here comes the objection. Who is he to create? Only Brahma can create, nobody can create. So it is his ahankara (ego). He cannot say ‘I created’. That is the fundamental complaint. Then when I came back, I found out. I couldn’t just keep quiet and it became a prestige issue for me. So the main person who raised this question, I won’t tell the name, I don’t want to mention his name, it’s a senior-most musician whom I respect much, we were friends, we are colleagues but he raised this question in my absence. Then I told him, ‘I am like your son, I am coming and meeting you, if I have done wrong you have to tell me, why should you raise it in the meeting? And what is your objection?’ ‘Nothing, creation, that word is wrong.’ I said, ‘I don’t accept. A man created so many things, probably the creator Brahma gave them the capacity of creating. You can’t say only Brahma created.’
There is radio, rail, fan, current, who created them all? Brahma created? You have respect for him, you say god is there. Great. You have never seen god but we say god. Then it has become a question. I had to go to a court of law. GG called many times but they never attended. So there was a final notice, if you don’t attend it will be ex parte decree. That means they give ruling in my favour. So the main person attended the court, I also attended the court. Then they said, ‘What is it, you are all great musicians, why do you come to the court?’ So I said, ‘I have gone to court because my name is…people should know, whether I am wrong or right people should know, so I came to the court.’ So they asked the other person, ‘What is your objection?’ ‘The word “creation” is wrong, I don’t accept that anybody can create. How can Balamurali Krishna create music? That is too much. I don’t agree.’
Then he asked me. I said, ‘I don’t agree. Man can create. What I have created, I have created.’ ‘How? Can you explain?’ I said, ‘That gentleman seems to have an opinion which he doesn’t want to think more than that but I can make him understand. I will ask some questions but it will be very cheap. If you agree with me, I will question him.’ ‘Yes, you can’
Then please ask him whether he has children. ‘Yes, I have two sons, three sons.’ ‘I want to know who created them’. Then I got the rule in my favour. Then we became very good friends but that is a different matter. Like that, many people, I am not a great musician but I came out from all these things successfully, in that way I am great. Now there is nothing like that. Now (I receive) universal appreciation.
S.G: Can you analyse this confidence that you have? You have been a path-breaking singer.
M.B: I have come four generations. I am singing for the fourth generation. So see how much experience I must have gained. When I was seven years old I gave my first concert.
V: Sir, I want to ask you a couple of questions. One is of course, we have to touch upon contemporary music, as to what is happening, what your take on music is in the current form, Carnatic music in the current katchery form or whatever. More kirtanas and less ragas and all the tamasha. And the second thing I want to ask you is the evolution of accompanists─Palakkad Mani Iyer─I am sure he must have accompanied you also. From Umayalpuram to … to Raghu, so many people would have played with you. I saw Trichy Harikumar, B. Harikumar also playing. So many people would have played. What is the change in the accompaniment pattern?
M.B: Growth is the nature of nature. We change, we grow. So accordingly at that stage, in that platform who sang, for them the suitable mridangam, suitable violin was there. Probably they may not be suitable now. So changing, changing, changing now. Music was never created to give perfomances and to get name, fame and money. Therefore, we use a particular type of music for a particular purpose. When you sing in a marriage programme, you sing blessing them. You can’t sing Rama, this is all ashashutam world, you can’t sing all that in a marriage programme. You should choose the raga and swara for the purpose for which you are singing. Different types of platforms, different types of languages, different types of atmosphere, you have to sing to suit that.
S.G: Yes, but that is more in Hindustani music because it is more yama-based. They sing shri at this point in time. But Carnatic do we follow the time theory?
M.B: No, they concentrate more on raga-alaap than poetry. After hearing my music only they have started giving swaras. They never sang swaras. Now they are singing. Because I sang jugalbandis with them.
S.G: I had attended your jugalbandhi with Bhimsen Joshi.
M.B: We never rehearse, we never even think about what we sing, so spontaneous.
S.G: That is the beauty of Indian music.
M.B: Absolutely. It is creation. It should be like that.
S.G.: I remember in 1998 or 1999 you were in Delhi for the morning music in Nehru Park Delhi. You sang the morning ragas. There I loved the courage that you had shown. You sang a song which was, rather which was not meant for the morning. And you told the audience in the beginning that if a musician can create the mood of night in the morning, then he should get that credit and that you don’t believe in this time theory.
M.B: Yes, that theory I don’t like, I don’t believe in it.
S.G.: Now my question here is this…they (Hindustani musicians) go by the time theory and that is the way they listen to music. There is a problem with that as most of the afternoon ragas are neglected.
M.B: You have no opportunity. Even midnight ragas are neglected. Early morning nobody has programmes.
S.G.: During those days there were some All India Radio recordings in the mid-afternoon. Now there is no fund, therefore AIR is not recording any.
M.B: This was all started when there were no singing concerts for public. These traditions were established. Now we can have programmes in the evening means what will happen to the morning ragas, afternoon ragas and midnight ragas. So when they say particular ragas should be sung in the morning it only means they don’t know the actual meaning, the purpose. The secret is, I told them and now they agree, that it is not the morning ragas that should be sung in the morning. Whenever you sing in morning raga, at any given time of the day, you should be able to generate the atmosphere of morning.
S.G: Yes, that is right. I have heard so many people say that no, it is not to do with time. In a movie you watch the evening, but sunrise is shown and morning raga is played. What is wrong? It is evening but still you feel it is morning. It should create that atmosphere. That is all. Nowhere it is said the morning raga should be sung in morning only. Nowhere. No book says that.
S.G: What is your take on the current scene in Carnatic and Hindustani concerts?
M.B: Now it is mostly business and it is good, many musicians are taking up music because now they can earn. Media has developed a lot. In my days unless you have fifty programmes in some places you are not known. When All India Radio was started, one concert in AIR was equal to fifty concerts outside. When Doordarshan came, a five-minute or ten-minute appearance was like thousand performances. Everybody knows. So it is media. Therefore, there are so many musicians now. So whatever you do is known to the world. Now I can teach students in America. In those days they never crossed the sea. It was said that you should not cross the sea, it was not good. So our great musicians, they never went. Now the creation is so great, Rama could not go to Ceylon, Sri Lanka, he could not go. Now we go every day, I go every day and give a performance and come back. Are we not great? In some places when they ask me to speak, I say jovially that if Rama and Sita had cell phones, he could have known where she was. And if there were planes, he could have gone. Poor fellows, they suffered a lot.
S.G: The archives have a few recordings, if I remember rightly, of Parupalli Ramakrishnayya.
BK: One record is there, that is all.
S.G: Yes, one record. I heard it long time back. How much of his music is there in your music?
M.K: I learnt music from him. I did not learn anything from his performances. He sang in Mthose days to a limited audience. He was great, very good voice, very great knowledgeable person. But for him there would be no music in Andhra Pradesh. There are about 250-300 students. Now that is only there in Andhra Pradesh. For violin, Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu, for vocal, Ramakrishnayya Pantulu. They were responsible for music in Andhra Pradesh.
S.G: Could you talk about his music? You mentioned his voice culture.
M.B: In those days his voice was more attractive compared to others’. They were concentrating only on composition mainly and raga swaroopa and jati swara but they never wanted to get the sthai (reach), the voice…
S.G: The beauty of Indian music is that the voice is not very much taken to consideration. Is the voice a crucial factor in music? Pandit Mallikarjun Mansur, for example, had a feeble voice but had his own strengths.
M.B: That has become a good voice. So many people, great people, their voice maybe good but they cannot sing. And so many people are great musicians without good voice. So whatever they know, they do their best. They have established their name. That is enough. There is no end to perfection or pleasure, isn’t it?
BS: Nowadays there are many people who come from the US to learn music in one month and go back. What do you think of that? Do you believe in such crash courses?
M.B: It is not belief. But they are getting chances to sing. So they think they know music. Now you have got so many ways to get chances to sing. We never knew about it before.
S.G.: How many concerts approximately did instrumentalists like Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani Subramaniam Pillai accompany you?
M.B: Accompanied me? Not on many concerts.
S.G: But they did accompany you?
M.B: Yes, yes. And I accompanied on violin to Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajpuram Viswanatha Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, I played violin for them. I have eight top prime in All india Radio.
BS: What are the instruments that you play?
M.B: Violin. And the first person to make viola popular in the place of violin. I play mridangam. I play ghanjira. But I can teach instruments like veena but I can’t play it since the fingers become rough. But I can teach how to play it. I can teach any instrument.
S.G: Have you played ghanjira in concerts?
M.B: Yes, I have played ghanjira as accompaniment. I accompanied Lalgudi Jayaraman’s violin on ghanjira.
S.G: And mridangam? How did you learn it?
M.B: I learnt all instruments by myself. I learnt only compositions from my guruji. Mridangam, violin…I did not learnt from any teacher. My father used to play violin. I would listen. But I was a boy then. He never wanted me to touch violin. So one day when he went out, out of town, I took the violin and played it. Then my mother who brought me up─my mother died on the 15th day of my birth, her sister brought me up─so without her knowledge, with fear, I took violin and played it. She came and wondered. How is this boy playing violin? Then with fear she told my father that I played well. He said, ‘What is your age? You are as old as a buffalo. You want to play. Okay, play.’ And I played. He said, ‘how are you playing? You have never played before. Now you are playing’. I said I did not play, the violin was playing on its own. Like that, I listened to mridangam being played by many players who had accompanied me. One day I took mridangam and started playing. I have not learnt anything. I don’t know English even.
S.G: I was told that you studied only music.
M.B: I went to school only for three months. My father thought how he could lie on music alone. Let him at least study SSLC, then he would get a job. He also didn’t go to any school. So he took me to a school─there was a municipal high school in Vijayawada─when I was about eight or nine years old. He took me to the headmaster. He said, who is this boy? This is Balamurali Krishna. ‘Oh yes, he is the boy who sings. Alright, sing a song.’ That is my job wherever I go. ‘Sing a song.’ I sang. So happy. He admitted me in class 6. For me any standard was okay. Because there was a routine. They meet in a room, there is an image of a god, and they pray. So naturally he asked me to sing a prayer. If it is a prayer, junst one song, it is okay. Then it becomes a small programme. Again one more song. One song means one period is over. Soon it was quarterly exam. They gave me a white paper and all that. I liked it very much. Books were given. I liked the books. My father wrapped them. I enjoyed it very much. But I didn’t know anything. Then I wrote all papers in the exam. There was a mathematics teacher who was against all artists and art. He didn’t believe in them. He put a zero in every paper and gave them back to me. ‘Show it to your father.’ I showed it. He was not happy. ‘Are you not ashamed to see zero?’ I said, ‘No Sir, I am trying my best. How nicely you are able to like draw zero like a full moon? I am not able to do so, sir. I am trying to, sir.’ The headmaster called my father. ‘Don’t send him to school. Whenever he wants to study he will study. He is spoiling other students here. Everybody failed’.
S.G: Because only singing happened in class.
M.B: They were listening to music…. So that is my qualification even today.
S.G: But when it comes to mathematics, you have really created mathematics (in your music).
M.B: No, it is not that. It becomes mathematically correct when I sing. It is not that I sing with mathematics. I never think of it. In fact, when sometimes I consciously do something mathematically I immediately forget. ‘Sir, please sing it again.’ ‘I don’t know. You look at it.’ Then I ask somebody to listen to it and they tell me.
S.G: Can you tell us how the intricate tala systems work within you.
M.B: Everything comes automatically because I don’t know anything else. What I know of music also is very, very little. In fact, music has powers that I am not able to tap. If I have long years in me I may be able to do that. Now there is no possibility. Otherwise you can create powers. In those days they sang and there was light.
S.G: It rained.
M.B: I made it rain in two or three places. I stopped the rain also through music. It happens with concentration. So I have studied music therapy but I can’t do it in India. It is not possible. I tried music therapy on many people. MGR (M.G. Ramachandran) came back from coma because of my music. Many close friends and people who had had three heart attacks and the doctor said only two or three days more left. Then I would come to know and give a small recording. ‘He loves my song. Please keep listening to it.’ They kept playing and listening to it. They would get fine.
S.G: Sir, you have your own style. Your guru had a great influence on you. Who are the other masters who had influenced you?
M.B: No, every person who has created his own style has come to the top.
S.G: Whose style do you like, sir?
M.B: No, I like all their styles. I enjoy all the styles. But I don’t want to imitate anyone.
BS: You are not influenced by their styles, are you?
M.B: No, they influenced me in such a way that I thought I should have my own style. I should not sing like them. I like everybody because they are great and have their own style. Any imitator cannot become like that. So I got that knowledge because of listening and enjoying all of them. I said I should be Balamurali and not like Semmangudi or Maharajapuram. No. Balamurali only. Because they sang like that. So that gave me knowledge that I should create my own style.
S.G.: Who accompanied you mostly in your concerts?
M.B: M.S. Gopalakrishnan.
S.G.: Of course there is the Neeraj Dhala in thodi. Great singing.
M.B: Ragam thanam pallavi is my speciality. Nowadays the ragam thanam pallavi going around is not really ragam thanam pallavi at all. Ragam thanam pallavi originally came during the times of kings. They had aastha vidwans or court musicians in poetry, music and dance. So a couple of them, Kerala (Travancore) maharaja, Vijaynagar Maharaja, have their own court musicians. And in those days’ maharajas were equally knowledgeable persons. So the maharaja knows what good music is, what is wrong or right. So sometimes they held a competition, you call the aastha vidwans there and a competition would be held. How? The maharaja asks a particular raga, he will give a line, this is the tala, how to idulai evalo edam enganthe pudikannum (Each tala has a number of beats and so the person has to say exactly from which beat the song has to start). Trikalam, he has to sing spontaneously. That is ragam tanam pallavi. I sang only spontaneously, I never composed, I never thought of it. On the spot I create, this ragam, this talam and this pallavi. Then I forget about it. Therefore, my ragam Tanam Pallavis are special. They are created on the spot.
S.G: When you came for the Swaralaya concert in Delhi years back, there was a request from the audience to you to sing a particular ragam tanam pallavi but you didn’t. You said I can’t, I don’t remember.
M.B: Yes. I sing something new but they can’t understand. I don’t remember what I sang. I forget. I sing ragam tanam pallavi, yes, let me sing the tala and raga that I choose. It became popular, very popular. They want me to sing the same. I don’t like it. If they listen once with patience some other song, they will ask the same again that song.
BS: What was your age when you sang in Thiruvilaiyadal (Tamil devotional movie[1960’s])?
M.B: Which year was it? I was in All India Radio at that time, working. I worked for All India Radio. I was the first producer in India. I inaugurated classical Doordarshan singing. There was a felicitation function in Madras (Chennai). They invited the first Doordarshan director, engineer, musician etc. So I was invited for that. I was the first person to sing in Doordarshan. So don’t think that I am old…
S.G: No, no, but your spontaneity and creativity don’t suit government job.
M.B: But I had to go for a job because….
B.S.: For how many years did you work?
M.B: I worked for about 10 years in Vijayawada. What happened was that at a certain age, for men, the voice changes. When I sang first it used to be like a lady’s. Then masculine voice comes. And in that period there is a change. So people could not appreciate it (the voice change). People started thinking Balamurali was gone. So to get established again it took some time. At that time, I thought probably I might not have a future as a performing artist. I had married very early. So I needed money to live. So I thought I should do some job. What job, who will give me? I don’t have any qualifications. So I thought All India radio. I have been singing in All India Radio. You know when I sang in All India Radio? I sang in All India Radio during Britishers’ rule in 1940 in Madras. There were only four radio stations─ Madras, Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi. I have the photo of concert in1942 with me. I thought I could work in All India Radio. So I asked for a job. They gave me a job in Vijayawada. Two hundred and fifty rupees a month. A lot of money then. The maximum salary for a musician in those days was only 95 rupees. They asked me, why do you want a job? ‘I want job, I want monthly income.’ ‘What is the salary that you want?’ ‘What is the maximum salary someone is getting?’ ‘95/-’ I said, ‘You give me 100 rupees and I will join.’ But in those days they were all very…they thought if Balamurali wanted a job, there is no post for vocalist in All India Radio even now. They created a job for the first time in the history, a music supervisor, a post. The first person to take up job as music supervisor. Music supervisor means I am head of the music department in All India Radio. Two hundred fifty rupees salary. So at that time I created, and I popularised, I was the person who started morning Bhakti Ranjini, devotional music programme. People should listen to devotional music as they get up. I started it in Vijayawada. Then every station took up that. Like that I have created so many new things.
I created the Light music section (in All India Radio). There are so many poets who wrote so many great songs, they were not sung. I called the artists in those days from here─Balasaraswati, S.Varalakshmi, etc.─they all came to sing. So then the government of India, they said, we should give a status for light music. So let us start a unit, Light music unit. For the first time in India they started it in Vijayawada and they made me producer. First producer in India, four hundred and fifty rupees. From 250 to 450/-.
S.G: Which year was it, sir?
M.B: In 50’s, probably before that, probably 50’s. First light music unit came to Vijaywada. Then I started light music in Madras radio. I started light music in Hyderabad. Here (Chennai) when I was working as light music producer, classical music producer was GNB and chief producer was Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. I worked here. First radio station used to be in Egmore.
S.G: You worked here also? You worked in Madras also?
M.B: Yes, I worked for four years. Then again they transferred me to Hyderabad. Then Andhra Pradesh was politically great. So I left All India Radio because some minister, chief minister was fond of music and my music and so he wanted to start a music college. He asked me to be the principal. I said no, I am happy in All India radio, I don’t want to get into administration. ‘No, please, for my sake, music is not there in Andhra Pradesh, you have to teach.’ ‘I will give you, whatever you want, become a principal.’ I said, no. Then they said, we would drop the proposal. No music college. Then many people advised me, because of you, we are losing a college and many people would not get jobs. Okay, I accepted. Two years, three years. I have a bad habit. Whatever I take up I take up very seriously and when it becomes popular, I make people feel jealous. So like that within two years, the second year students were invited to Delhi for a national programme. So popular. So all the principals from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, their governments sent them to find out how this music college was run. So naturally jealousy would come. Then the ministry changed. In those days, whatever I wanted I could do. I would simply write a letter to the director that there is such a person in Macchilipatnam, he is good, so I want him to be the assistant lecturer here. So he gets the job immediately. There was no interview, nothing. The government changed and so they started imposing conditions. So they did very well for me. Otherwise I would have not come here. So I resigned. I had to serve thirty days’ notice period. I resigned. In my house, (they were worried). You have resigned your job, how will you live…family, children, education…? Then I said, I will go to Madras, if I teach ten people, if they give me even fifty rupees a month, it is enough for me. Better to be a teacher in Madras than a principal or a king in Andhra Pradesh. So I resigned. They took one month for me to give relief. Meanwhile that man wanted to have an enquiry, create something, what I have not done correctly and publish. So government sent some persons. They wrote certain complaints that I have done. People laughed at it. The two main complaints against me was one, I took so much interest unnecessarily. When I go to Tanjavur I buy veenas for the music college. Number one tanpuras, veenas, mridangams also. So what is happening, suppose there is a veena class which starts at 8 in the morning, the violin class was at 8 in the morning. They all come, each violin for a violin student. Why one violin? There are 28 students, 20 violins. And they can come and practice any time. So if all the people come, four-five veenas to make sruti, it takes lot of time. So I thought we should have a person who knows music, how to tune the veena, clean them and the string is there, you have to put everything, knowing small, small repairs. He should be a musician. So I found a musician who struggles for livelihood and I hired him. So the government changed, I wanted a post of an instrument caretaker. The government refused. They did not give. So I have power, on daily basis I can take. So I gave him that job. So the government found out, in the enquiry they found fault. You should know, you should have purchased instruments which don’t need tuning every day. Why should he buy anything which needs tuning always and hiring a person and wasting government money? Such things they wrote. I published it that itself. So at that time what happened, I resigned, thirty days’ time I served. On 25th day, I know this Bezawada Gopala Reddy who was the broadcasting minister, he was a fan of mine. When I was a principal also, he used to come to All India Radio for an inspection and he would want me to sing. Great man. He came to know that I had resigned. Suddenly one day I saw a police jeep and all, the government probably was going to arrest me (I thought). Gopal Reddy, minister for broadcasting in central government, he came. He asked me, ‘Is it true that you have resigned?’ Yes, I didn’t like it. ‘Wasn’t it a mistake accepting the principal post? You were in All India Radio, you have done so much service for All India Radio. All India Radio still waits for you if you come. If you want to come back, I will be happy if you join All India Radio.’ It was a boon for me at that time. I thought for a while and told him, sir, I have decided to shift from Andhra. I will never stay hereafter in Andhra Pradesh. I have chosen Madras. If you give a job in Madras All India Radio I will come. So he didn’t say anything. I thought he had not taken me seriously.
On the 30th day, on the day I had to hand over, that day in the morning I received two telegrams. ‘Your resignation accepted’. ‘You are appointed producer in All India Radio. Join at the earliest.’ So I drove my car from Vijaywada to Madras, joined here as producer. Settled down. Then again they transferred me. I said no. I resigned there.
BS: When did you enter the film industry?
M.B: Film industry? When I worked in All India Radio long back. For some time, I worked here. At that time, how it happened? Yes, yes, I was in Kasturba Nagar in Adyar. In Gandhinagar, my student, S. Varalakshmi, the actress lived. S. Varalakshmi in those days was an actress and very good singer, she was learning from me. So after some time she wanted to produce a movie. She said, ‘Guruji, you must sing’. Nageshwara Rao is the hero, she was the heroine. She asked me to sing. I said, ‘Not interested’. ‘At least sing one sloka for me’. I said yes. When I sang the sloka, then everybody liked it. They made me to accept to sing for the hero. For the entire movie I sang all the songs. It became very, very popular. Then gradually everybody began to ask me to sing.
S.G: The film song which you sang for a Kannada film with Bhimsen Joshi, a jugalbandi.
M.B: Yes, yes, there was a movie we both…then what happened I became popular in film music.
V: How many films you would have sung for?
M.B: I sang many but I didn’t take it seriously. I sang only those songs that are very difficult to sing.
V: Like the movie Gaanam.
M.B: I sang in Gaanam. I sang in Malayalam, in Tamil, in Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Bengali, Oriya, Hindi, Marathi, I sang in all movies but I didn’t take it seriously. I don’t want to be remembered as a playback artist or a music director. I don’t want to be as a musician also. I should be in the list of Tyagaraja, Dikshitar, Ramasastry, and not with musicians. So I didn’t take it seriously but I am the only person probably in India, I don’t know about the world, who got the national awards, best classical music, best playback singer, best music director of movies, all the three I got, nobody else.
BS: You have great regard for GNB (G.N. Balasubramaniam).
M.B: No, it is not that. We worked together. We were colleagues and so we used to appreciate each other. We both appreciate each other. GNB Award I got. So we were friends. Only music friend-only GNB for me because he was in Gandhi Nagar and I was in Kasturba Nagar. He didn’t have car and so I brought him every day to office and while going I dropped him back because we were friends, close friends. We discussed many things.