Readers Write In #84: My first ever Balamuralikrishna concert

Posted on July 6, 2019

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(by Jayram Sataluri)

To remember and celebrate the life of Dr. Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna whose birthday falls today (July 6th), I would like to share my reminiscences of the first time I ever saw him live in the US. Let’s hop into a time machine and travel back to June 4th 2006.

This was held in Scotch Plains, New Jersey on June 4th 2006. At that time, I was a graduating high school senior. 

I have grown up listening to BMK since I was a baby. My mom and her siblings learnt vocal music from BMK’s classmate and colleague, the late Neti Srirama Sharma of Hyderabad. My dad acquired a huge collection of his concerts and commercial recordings from the 60s to the 80s. I used to listen to them so many times that the cassette tapes and cassette players wore down and broke! Every time I listened to him, my love for his music grew even more and I could discover a new facet.

Yet, we never had the chance to see him live until we received a flyer in the mail about his concert in 2006. Without any hesitation, my dad bought the tickets and he and I left for the venue when the day arrived. What we experienced was something extraordinary and brilliant that we’re unable to stop talking about it now!

The concert was sponsored and organized by the Carnatic Music Association of North America (CMANA) and the venue was Terrill Middle School in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. My father and I were anticipating the concert from the day we received the flyer in the mail. CMANA was honoring Dr. M Balamuralikrishna aka BMK as Sangeetha Saagara (which is a prestigious award to a vidwan/vidushi who is extremely accomplished in the Indian classical music field), after honoring other musicians like MS Subbulakshmi and Lalgudi Jayaraman (the first honoree). Self at the wheel and my dad next to me, we were really eager to get to the place.

When we arrived, we hurried to pay for our tickets. There at the counter was one of my high school classmates doling out tickets to rasikas coming to see the great maestro. He was thrilled to see me and asked, “You here for the show?” I nodded back. Luckily, we got seats in the huge auditorium as it was to be jam packed. When we sat down in one of the middle rows, the CMANA people were naming his various accomplishments and the titles he received. When they asked him to come up onto the stage to receive the title of Sangeetha Saagara, he stood up and without any help at all, slowly walked up the stairs. As he reached the bright lights, he did namaskaram to the audience. You should have seen the follow-up of cheers and applause; it felt like it lasted for an hour! We stood up and did not stop applauding; even as he received the title from the CMANA President and the Board. We made every clap for every second count.

BMK gave a small speech after the honors. He spoke about how happy he was to have received the award and thanked everyone for listening to and loving his music for so long. He had his trademark persistent cough and because of that we weren’t sure if he was going to give a concert. But he suddenly sang a small Telugu krithi in Kedaragowla (I don’t remember the sahitya) and our doubts swiftly disappeared.

Then came the boring and unnecessary praising by the rest of the CMANA committee. By this time, the audience was impatient and restless. “When will he start to sing?” one young aunty murmured. Another one whispered, “When will these people shut up?” Some people started cursing under their breath. Others started chanting out loud, “We want the concert!” My father joined in as well. Finally, the committee told us there would be a 15-minute intermission and then the concert would start.

My father hit upon the idea that we should get to talk to BMK and receive his blessings. I was hesitant, but he persisted. When we got out of the auditorium, we walked quickly to a hallway and saw him with a few people. We approached him and asked to talk to him. We wanted to tell him that we were his biggest fans and this was the first time we were seeing him live. Unfortunately,a large man who was right next to him told us, “He can’t talk to anyone right now. He has to get ready for the concert. You please go back.” Though we were unable to talk to BMK, we did get to see him in front of us. He was looking towards the restrooms and I think he was heading there before going back to the stage.

After the 15-minute interval, we went back to our seats, eagerly anticipating the commencement of the concert. We could hear him humming and adjusting his sruti behind the curtains; the suspense was killing us. The curtains swung open and there was the man of the evening himself. On the violin was Sri Vittal Ramamurthy (disciple of Lalgudi) and on the mridangam was Sri N Ramakrishnan (disciple of TH “Vikku” Vinayakram). The MC was the famous dancer Dr. Saraswathi Sundaresan, BMK’s friend and secretary and throughout the concert she would proceed to tell us small anecdotes from his life and announce what krithi he would sing.

BMK began with a soothing Endaro Mahanubhavulu. At that time, I was transfixed by his voice. I thought to myself, “He has been singing for almost 7 decades and yet his voice still sounds so amazing!” The Pancharatna Krithi rendering was flawless. It reminded me of his 1986 Pancharatna Krithis album, which I firmly believe can convert anyone to his music. I don’t think I heard a sound in the audience during the 12 minutes; it was pin drop silence. It seems as if he was inviting all the gods to watch him perform.

Next he gave a small alapana in Balahamsa and proceeded with Dandamu Pettenura Kodandapaani Choodara. He sang the krithi quickly and effortlessly and his voice was exuberantly joyful. Thyagaraja would be proud.

The third track was a Tamil poem by Subramanya Bharathi called Naan. I had never heard it before. Even though it was not the main piece, he embellished the Thodi alapana the longest. He easily went through the lower and higher octaves without any strain on his voice. It captivated us all. Vittal played a short response to BMK’s longer alapana. I remember Vittal being confused at the beginning of the piece as he did not follow BMK after the latter sang the word “Naan” twice. This prompted immediate laughter from the audience. The Misra Chapu thalam suited Bharathi’s poetry and it almost felt like a marchingfilm song. BMK easily alternated between softer and louder notes throughout and his high Ma reverberated throughout the auditorium. The swaraprastara was filled with mathematics and unpredictability which kept me attentive throughout. He ended the piece with a high Sa.

Next was his composition from his Janaka Raja Manjari or Raganga Ravali (72 melakartha krithis he composed as a teen), Thamralochani in Lathangi. After a small alapana, he launched into the song. This was another new krithi for us. My father marveled at the sahitya, “He used Traahimam instead of Paahimam”. BMK made every note matter and there was not a dull moment. He made sure the accompaniments were there every step of the way. He sang some spellbinding swarams towards the end of the krithi.

I don’t remember if it was before or after the main piece, but I do recall BMK saying that due to his old age, he was cutting down on the duration of his concerts to 2 hours. He then cracked some jokes prompting laughter from all of us.

The main piece was Samajavaragamana. When Dr. Saraswathi announced it, there was immediate applause. BMK’s alapana was surprisingly short, yet electrifying. He traveled through Hindolam, elaborating the lower and higher notes with bhavam. He ended it on an anticlimactic Ma. Vittal’s response was decent; I felt he was hesitant throughout the piece. Not a word or clap was sounded until the end of both alapanas.

The pallavi began on a strong note and I loved the exchange between BMK and the violin; BMK would sing the opening line one way, the violin would repeat, he would sing it another way, the violin repeated that way and this went on at many points throughout the Krithi. He was energetic and sang every line with clarity. Not a false step was noticed. The playfulness was still evident in his voice and he was encouraging throughout. His delivery of “Samanigamajasudha” and “Yadavakulamurali” was mind-blowing; you could feel the mixing of Geetham and Sangeetham during those lines. The swarakshams (which are swara notes sung in place of sahityam to bring another dimension of musical beauty; another trademark of his) oozed brilliance and utmost bhakti towards Thyagaraja and Lord Krishna. The swarams were great, although I felt Vittal was not up to par during that part; he seemed uncertain what to play and what mental exercises BMK was creating. This hesitation amused BMK and the rest of us. In spite of that, BMK kept us captivated during the shorter swarams and I liked the interplay between the trio; BMK first, Vittal next, mridangam last. The ending enthralled us all and we applauded with enthusiasm.

The thani avarthanam by Ramakrishnan was thunderous although at some points it came close to banging. His teermanams and korvais were nothing new, but he made every note matter. In the middle, he started singing percussive phrases and they were informative and exciting. This prompted huge applause from the audience, especially young mridangam students putting thalam. His tisra gathi was very good and his finish was excellent. BMK was appreciative throughout the Thani and praised him thoroughly.

Next came another Tamil song, Appa Naanin Vagadeeswari which was rendered very well. After that, Dr. Saraswathi mentioned about his love for rasams and said that he would render Pibare Ramarasam. She added that BMK did not know what he was going to sing; whatever she asked him to render, he did without hesitation. This sparked much amazement though the audience and there was heavy applause. I still say that this was my favorite song out of the concert. His rendition was almost identical to the commercial recordings I heard previously. I could feel devotion within my heart as he rendered each word with Bhakti and also felt Sri Rama’s grace. Like Samajavaragamana, all the notes sounded so flawless. The best part was during the last charanam, “shuddha paramahamsa ashramageetham”. His brief alapana during that part was out of the world where his famous “Hari” literally melted us. Any old timer could tell you that it reminded them of his renderings with MSG in the 1960s, as they were both proficient in North Indian classical music.Simultaneously, it felt so new and fresh. I applauded greatly after.

Next was the famous “Ta nom nom ta da Ra thillana” in Kalyani. It is known as Thaya Ragamalika where each charanam has a grahabhedam from the parent ragam, Kalyani. For example, if you use the panchama swaram as the starting point, you get Shankarabharanam. What he has also done is pick the notes that would fit each grahabhedam (ex. He picks Ri, Ga, Ma, Dha and Ni from Kalyani and uses rishabha as a starting point to get Mohanam). He gave a brief description of it and proceeded with a short but exhilarating Kalyani alapana. The thillana was brilliant. The accompaniments complemented well here. They seem to have listened to the 1986 Thillanas album released by Sangeetha Music very closely as the rendition here was almost exactly the same. BMK’s grahabhedams were impeccable, every ragamwas splendid.

The mangalam set to Ramachandraya Janaka tune and beat was dedicated to Sri Venkateswara and that was an incredible end to a fantastic concert. There was humongous applause at the end.

On the ride back, my father could not stop raving about BMK. “How does he do it?” he exclaimed. “The man is coughing persistently andlooks like he is not going to make it. Yet, when he sang, all traces of that were gone. And he didn’t know what he was going to sing throughout and still rendered it perfectly. He truly is an amazing genius.”

To me, this will be probably one of the greatest moments of my life that I was able to see BMK live. He still had it that day and did not show signs of slowing down. And I will remember it forever.