A Humble Tribute to Late M Balamuralikrishna – Reflections on his first concert in Kerala

22 November 2017 is the first death anniversary of Padma Vibhushan Late M Balamuralikrishna, Carnatic Vocalist, Musician, Multi-instrumentalist, Playback Singer and Composer – one of the greatest gems of Indian Music with a record of 25,000 concerts worldwide.

This blog is a brief story of his very first concert in Kerala – based on my memory after 60 plus years of the event. To begin with, I need to fill in some background information to set a context to the event. I was born at a small town Mavelikara in the southern part of Kerala. In our town, there is a famous Krishna temple and every year during March, there was a 10 day long festival. As the town has a long tradition of developing and nurturing Carnatic Music talent, be it vocalists or percussion instrumentalists, the temple committee used to have one musical concert per day in the evening after the pooja and other rituals from the 4th day of the festival to the 10th day. While the concerts on Day 4 to Day 8 were offered to local talents, the 9th and 10th Day were reserved for eminent artists of the region. On the 10th Day, we used to have music concerts by famous vocalists like G N Balasubramaniam, Madurai Mani Iyer, Alathur Brothers, Semmangudi, Ariakkudi etc accompanied by violinists like TN Krishnan, Chowdaiah or Lalgudi Jayaraman and percussionists like Palghat Mani Iyer, Muruga Bhupathi or Palani Subramaniam Pillai.

My father, Late P Krishnan Nair, an advocate, was the President of the Temple Festival Committee during 1955 to 1960 and the other Committee members were drawn from among the eminent citizens of the town. Even as a school student of 13 or 14, I used to work with my father in co-ordinating his activities connected with the festival. I remember it was either during 1956 or 57 temple festival that one of the committee member Mr Gopala Pillai informed the committee that he heard from his brother Mr Sakhtidharan Nair who was Station Director for the Vijayawada station of AIR [All India Radio] about one Balamuralikrishna, a very young Carnatic music vocalist, a child prodigy, who started singing classical music from the age of six and gave a public concert at the age of eight at Vijayawada. This boy in his late 20’s is already a sensation in Andhra and Madras and no less than the best of vocalists at that time in Carnatic music. Mr Nair said he can get him to perform at our temple festival, if the committee wishes to do so. Mr Nair also suggested that we get the violinist and percussionist at our end for the concert. The committee made some reference checks with experts at Chennai and decided to experiment with Balamuralikrishna for the 10th Day music concert that year. Shri Chalakudi Narayana Swamy and Mavelikara Krishnan Kutty Nair were selected to be the violinist and percussionist on mridangam respectively for the concert. Both of them were very famous in Kerala already and performed for major vocalists earlier. In the printed program for the festival, the new vocalist was announced as “Ganasudhakara Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna” from Vijayawada, performing for the first time in Kerala State.

Normally, the music concert used to begin at about 9 PM and go on for about 3 hours most. As we had many knowledgeable people in the audience who were well versed with the nuances of Carnatic music, there used to be a separate enclosure for them, marked as such in front of the stage. The purpose was to encourage the artists with meaningful gestures, following the raga, thana and pallavi throughout the concert. This arrangement used to work well and about 100 people used to fill these seats voluntarily, out of a mass of about 1000 plus audience attending the event. On the scheduled day, Mr Balamuralikrishna arrived an hour early and was introduced to his other two accompanying artists. None of them had met earlier. The program started at 9 pm sharp and within a few minutes, the audience was mesmerized by the melodious voice of the vocalist. He initially spoke in English, introduced himself and talked about his interest in research on the Carnatic ragas and offered to share some of it during the concert. After an hour or so singing traditional ragas, he introduced a raga named Rohini to the audience and went on to sing the raga, thana and pallavi in that raga [Maamava Gana Lola] with the violinist and mridangam artist accompanying his rendering in a very spirited manner. The audience, needless to say sat transfixed enjoying the treat throughout the program. As per requests from the audience, Balamuralikrishna continued with the concert for more than four hours and ended the program at about 1.30 AM with great applause from everyone. Many organizers from other temples in Kerala were present during this program, having heard about this new artist and I understand Mr Balamuralikrishna got many bookings on that night itself. I also remember our Committee paid only the airfare from Chennai to Cochin, the taxi fare and overnight stay at Mavelikara along with a token amount to the singer for his maiden concert in Kerala.

I never got a chance to listen to Balamuralikrishna in person again but have enjoyed listening to his discs, cassettes and now YouTube programs, whether as a vocalist in Carnatic music or a jugalbandi with the likes of Pandit Bhim Sen Joshi or playing violin solo or playing other musical instruments with elan. His contribution to the Annamacharya Kirtanas and Rabindra Sangeet will always be remembered by all the music lovers across India and abroad. He has created 18 new ragas and has composed in all the 72 Melakarta Ragas of Carnatic music. His penchant for experimentation and creativity leaves a rich legacy difficult to emulate. Long Live the Memory of this Great Thespian of Carnatic Music!

Disclaimer: The above story is purely based on my memory and association with the event at Mavelikara 60 years ago. It is prone to minor inaccuracies which are not intentional. I do not remember if the concert was in 1956 or 57 and therefore it is possible that the artist’s maiden performance was in the erstwhile Travancore-Cochin State if the concert was before 1st November 1956 when the Kerala state was formed.

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