Readers Write In #381: Balamuralikrishna dazzles once more!

Posted on July 6, 2021

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(by Jayram Sataluri)

To celebrate the 91st birthday of Balamuralikrishna aka BMK, I’m sharing a “review” of a concert recording at the Krishna Gana Sabha in the year 1977 which I was fortunate to obtain from a friend. Alongside BMK in the concert are two living legends: M Chandrasekaran aka MC on violin and Umayalpuram K Sivaraman aka UKS on mridangam.

The first time I heard this concert was in 2017. After listening to it in one sitting, I was so blown away that I could think of nothing else. When I returned to the apartment after a 6 mile run, the first thing I did was to pen my thoughts about it. Once I started, I got so engrossed in it that I ended up writing a “review”! And after some refining here and there, I present it below.

One more thing I’d like to point out is whenever I listen to BMK, I am never transported back to the past. I am always in the present, enjoying every moment of his music. 

Song list:

1) Sadinchene O Manasa- Arabhi, Adi, Thyagaraja

2) Enta Muddo Enta Sogasu- Bindumalini, Adi, Thyagaraja

3) Sri Hanumantham- Manavathi (the 5th melakartharaga), Adi, BMK

4) Daivamu Neeve Sakalapraniki- Gurupriya, Adi, BMK

5) Chetulara Srngaramu- Bhairavi, Adi, Thyagaraja

6) Radhika Krishna- Janasammodini (a raga he derived from the North Indian raga Vaasanthi), Adi, Jayadeva Ashtapadi

7) Thillana- Hindolam, Adi, BMK

8) NagumomuGalavani- Madhyamavathi (sung in madhyama sruti), Adi, Thyagaraja

BMK’s humming and MC’s violin tone have bewitched me. So has the tambura which sounds like a synthesizer. Now they are briefly presenting Arabhi. I know what’s coming. It has to be Sadinchene, the famous Pancharatnakrithi of Thyagaraja. And it is!

This Sadinchene seems somewhat different than what I have been accustomed to. He incorporates the sangatis that I have heard most artistes sing: (SR SRM SRM RMP NDPMRSRM). As usual, the muraLi magic makes it memorable. Whenever he sings it, the spirit of Thyagaraja is brought back to life. UKS is subdued while maintaining the beat and MC matches BMK perfectly. Oh, I can visualize Krishna’s pastimes during the swara-sahityas from “SamayanikiTaguMataladene”!

Next is a brief yet alluring alapana of Bindumalini, a rare raga. What makes this raga so unique are the microtones near the kaishikinishadam. I have heard that he was the first one to popularize this raga. MC can’t contain his glee as he keeps exclaiming out loud after each brilliant phrase BMK has conjured. The warmth in BMK’s voice is so contagious. And the krithi is Enta Muddo Enta Sogasu in a slower pace. Thyagaraja’s sarcastic observations about life seem apt today; I need not go further. After Bindumalini, he straightaway goes to his composition Sri Hanumantham in the 5thMelakartha raga, Manavathi. This vivadi raga sounds so ravishing as each swara note sounds unique but fits in so well. I feel the devotion towards Lord Anjaneya within my heart.

Next is a gratifying Gurupriya which starts off like a Kalyani sans panchama before the dhaivata and nishada are disclosed and we get an equivalent of Vachaspathi sans panchama. He then announces the raga as Gurupriya and that it’s not created by him though the composition is his! He easily traverses the octaves (up to the highest madhyama I believe) and brings out many facets of the raga by treating every note individually yet making sure the packaging of the notes entrances the listener; it certainly has entranced me! It is the longest alapana of the concert. MC’s response is charming and joyful as he recreates whatever BMK has done in his inimitable style and when he goes to the highest notes, it is full of jubilation. And following is the majestic Daivamu Neeve Sakalapraniki, one of my favorite compositions of his I have listened to numerous times and it still sounds refreshing. Here is where the brilliance of the vaggeyakkara BMK comes in. The sangatis he has created are original in thought and creativity. There is a quite a bit of rhyming, but it has come straight from the heart. He describes Lord Krishna as the One who is God for all living beings and a prime lover of the arts. When BMK sings, “bhaavamuneevesakalakalaku”, I feel of the potency of the line. Even the charanam maintains the same power where he says, “You, abiding in me with Murali (the flute) in Your hand and a bewitching smile on Your tender lips, graciously grant me, all fortunes”.  Towards the end, he slightly alters the sahitya by singing “bhavamu neeve sakalapraniki” and sings the anupallavi after the charanam! It makes it even more resplendent!  Following this is the swaraprastara which keeps the listener spellbound. BMK’s manodharma is simply marvelous. Every single swaraprastara doesn’t seem to be rehearsed, it just comes from within. The zigzagging between the notes and ease where he goes through each octave is just out of the world. MC dazzles with his swara responses to BMK as he is completely enjoying himself. BMK finishes the swarams cleanly with a swarakshapratimadhyama “maa daivamuneeve”. UKS finishes it with a terrific theermanam.

But as much as I’ve praised Gurupriya, it is Thyagaraja’s captivating ChetularaSrngaramu which is the piece de resistance of the concert and rightly so! In my muraLigANam journey, one of my goals is to find rare pieces rendered by BMK live, because while his “famous hits” consisting of Mysore Vasudevacharya’sDevadi Deva Sri Vasudeva in Sunadhavinodhini, the immortal NagumomuGanaleni of Thyagaraja in the modernized Abheri and PibareRamarasam of Sadasiva Brahmendra in Ahir Bhairav are nice to listen to, they become tiring after a while. And when such rare Thyagaraja krithis like the above are presented, I am positive the muraLi in muraLi will make sure they get the right treatment possible.  

Whenever BMK renders Bhairavi, he brings his unique note to note take on it and not highlighting the familiar phraseology that the listeners are used to. When he starts with panchama, I am completely captivated. Unlike Gurupriya, where he displayed his 3 octave range by hitting the highest notes, he doesn’t show off too much and instead makes the raga so sensitive and joyful. He is able to bring out the beauty of each note like for example differentiating between the two dhaivatas. When he delineates tarasthayiChatusruthi Rishabha, it is delightful. And his voice doesn’t seem to sag at any point, especially when he goes to tarasuddhamadhyama. When he gets down to the lower notes, the bass rings sonorously and he ends with shadja. MC whose style is resplendent of the nadaswaram tradition, provides a striking reply to BMK. While maintaining the tradition by the past masters, he does not hesitate to explore the raga in his own way and even brings in an Arabian tone which I feel changes the raga from Bhairavi to Arabiabhairavi but does not disturb the Anandam I am feeling.

ChetularaSringaramu is usually rendered as an Aradhana song as it is meant to be performed as Aradhana. It is as if I am one the disciples of Thyagaraja witnessing him bedecking his Lord Sri Rama. The diction, the poetry and the visualization of the Aradhana are delightful. He elicits marvelous sangatis in the pallavi line ‘SRngAramujEsijUtunu’ which sound so new each time, yet hold the same emotional appeal and meaning, “I shall behold You bedecked.” Some of them are slow like a river and others are fast like a roller coaster. Listen to how he plays around with the notes by emphasizing some in one sangati and rest of the notes in other sangatis. I love how he and UKS makes ‘jEsi’ into three ta-thI-ki-na-dhoms before proceeding to ‘jUtunu’. And the new sangatis keep coming for ‘srirAma’ and later the full Pallavi line.

During the anupallavi, he focuses on ‘sEtubandhana sura pati’ and produces more striking sangatis especially towards the end where he begins with the rishabha before transitioning to ‘sarasI-ruhabhav(A)dulupogaDanA’. Not satisfied with what he’s done, he repeats the anupallavi line but this time focuses on ‘sarasI-ruhabhav(A)dulupogaDanA’ by repeating it twice. He seems to be speaking from experience as he sings the anupallavi when he portrayedNarada in AVM’s Bhakta Prahalada released in 1967!

With a long expansive krithi like this, I wish he sang all the charanams which number three in total. Instead, he sings the last charanam in a tempting manner that I can’t resent him for eschewing the previous two. And he doesn’t speed up the tempo. The sangatis keep coming especially during ‘Ani-mutyAlakoNDevEsi’ and ‘hausugaparimaLagandhamupUsi’ and I love how he pronounces ‘hausugaparimaLa’.For the former word, I read it is derived from the Arabic word ‘hawas’ meaning lust; here Thyagaraja indicates ‘SRngAram’ (Hindi/Urdu/Arabic speakers/scholars: please correct me if I got it wrong).The ending of the charanam possesses a charm that is reverberating in my body. Here Thyagaraja says ‘while Saraswathi is fanning You, I shall behold You having bedecked You with my own hands’ with the emphasis on ‘pogadanA’.With these last lines, I feel blessed for observing such a massive Aradhana lasting for more than 11 minutes without any deviation!

After the immense Aradhana is over, the swaraprastara commences where BMK ends on panchama. The intertwining of swara, laya and raga is clearly apparent and pleasant to my ears. The trio are in complete command of the complex mathematical combinations but don’t lose sight of encouraging and uplifting each other as well as the audience. I love how BMK and MC intelligently add the third kalpanaswaram of Viriboni (SRGSRGR- BMK, NSRNSRS- MC). In the middle of swarams, BMK leads the way with MC following and UKS anchoring at the end and it can’t get any better than that. Although we want them to go for 30 mins, they wrap up the swaraprastara within 14 mins with a quick, yet intelligent kalpanaswara.

UKS plays a short, yet superlative thani on his kappi mridangam. He doesn’t show off too much, but displays his mastery over the instrument. He experiments with the nam and thim where you can softy hear the bass side and BMK complements him with a “risa’. Without wasting time, he proceeds to his trademark sollukattus which I have heard many times and then jumps to the farans without doing much gathibhedam. The clarity of his strokes is remarkable on a kappi whether they are slow or fast, yet he maintains the kalapramana. The mohara and korvai may be familiar to those who have listened to him throughout the years, yet he brings a freshness every time much to our delight and he ends it softly. His presence always elevates a concert and here it is no different.

Radhika Krishna is rendered with great pathos. Janasammodini which he derived from Vaasanthi, a Hindustani raga is perfect for this Jayadeva ashtapadi.  When BMK with MC and UKS’s splendid support renders “stanavinihitamapihAramudAramsAmanutEkRSatanurivabhAram”, Radha’s pining for her Lord Krishna is so powerful that you do feel her pain. The tenderness of the rendition is so haunting and heartbreaking especially during “hariritihariritijapatisakAmamvirahavihitamaraNEna nikAmam” where Jayadeva informs Krishna that Radha is dying from separation from Him. Usually at the end of this ashtapadi, BMK sings Krishna as a plea for help by hitting the tarasthayipanchama. But here he doesn’t end the ashtapadi on the high panchama; he must have slipped a bit due to the emotion and instead he goes back to the low Shadja with his trademark “Hari”.

We are approaching the end although I don’t want it to end! BMK sings his Hindolam thillana displaying his brilliance over the swara notes and his blazing speed which will make a Hari-like director scurry for his life! I would like to say that this was his first ever thillana he composed and he used to sing it in different ragas like Mohanam and Kaanada. He later refined it to a Ragamalika by singing the pallavi in Amruthavarshini, anupallavi in Mohanam, fast thillana notes in Hindolam and charanam in Kaanada. It is now known as Dhimna Natha Ragamalika Thillana.  And Thyagaraja’s Ustava Sampradaya Krithi, NagumomuGalavani sung in madhyamasrutiedMadhyamavathi is a perfect finish.

All in all, this is a magnificent feast of a concert which I request all music lovers to listen and cherish. As you can see, I certainly have!

You can listen to Chetulara Srngaramu here:

And the concert here: