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In Conversation With Padma Vibhushan Dr. Balamurali Krishna

Ranjani Saigal and Anuradha Palakurthi

The anticipation was palpable as the legendary musician walked up and took his seat on the stage at the LearnQuest music festival, where he was also awarded the first ever LearnQuest Lifetime Achievement Award. As he began the concert, the pristine beautiful notes of Hamsadhwani rang out clearly and no one could believe that it emerged from the throat of 83 year old man.  The audience was taken from the get go as the great Balamuralikrishna sang the oft heard kriti “Vatapiganapathim Bhaje Aham” in a manner that made it new.

The world considers him a legendary figure in the field of Carnatic music. The maestro however uses the term Carnatic in a very broad sense. “To narrow ‘Carnatic music’ to an area, state or a kind of person is a fallacy. The origin of the word is from ‘Karna’ + ‘Athaha’ + “iti” and means ‘any sound that pleases his ears’. Thus any music that pleases the ear – Western, Folk, Film, Light,… is Carnatic! There are 72 Melakartha ragas that are the baseline of any music in the world,” says the maestro.

Dr. Balamurali Krishna has at several occasions proved that he can pick up any style of music and any song in any language and deliver it in an unparalleled fashion.  Be it Rabindra Sangeet or French songs, the maestro has no problem rendering them in the finest manner.  He is famous for spending just ten minutes listening to a completely unfamiliar French song in Paris and playing the piece on his viola.  In recognition of his amazing talent, he was made Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government in 2005.

Dr. Balamurali Krishna was born in Sankaraguptam, East Godavari District, Andhra Pradesh state. His father was a well-known musician and could play the flute, violin and the veena and his mother was an excellent veena player. His mother died when he was an infant and his father raised Balamurali Krishna. Observing his inner penchant towards music, his father put him under the tutelage of Sri Parupalli Ramakrishnayya Pantulu. Sri Pantulu was a direct descendant of the sisya parampara of Saint Thyagaraja.

At his very first concert at Thiruvaiyyaru his prodigious talent was noted by legends like Maharajapuram Vishwanatha Iyer, Shembangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Iyer and others. Given that he was a prodigy and music seems to come from him what was his Gurus role? “My Guru’s role was to discover that I was a prodigy. Any student should be lucky enough to have the right Guru who works hard to bring out the strengths and knowledge of Shishya”.

Who were his other mentors? “None. I never followed any mentor or style. I did not grow up with that idea in my head. I created my own style. And I became popular because of my own style. And whatever I created was new and original” says Dr. Balamurali Krishna.

What is the secret of creating phenomenal compositions? “Traditionally poetry was used to make factual, obvious statements like - “Rama is Sita’s husband” or “Hanuaman is Rama’s bhakt”.  Poetry should be more than that simple. I consider Annamacharya kritis and Ashtapathi’s have genuine poetry. Good poetry is important for good compositions”

Does he have a favorite amongst his own compositions? “None. They are all like my children. I cannot pick one over the other.”
What is the role of Bhakti in Carnatic music? “Bhakti is only important for Puranas and not poetry. Puranas are like the foundation of a building.  We need them. But we still need to build a home on the foundation – construct rooms and decorate them. I used the foundation and built my poetry on it,” said the maestro.

“I consider man to be greater than God. Rama spent all his life looking for Sita. He could have invented a Cell Phone, got himself a GPS and found out where she was and got her back! We build temples for Gods. But why don't we build temples for inventors of planes, electricity, phones, medical cures etc? God did not make those things - Man did. People put pictures of God all over their walls. We need to put pictures of these inventors on walls too” he added.

Dr. Balamurali Krishna himself is a great devotee of Lord Hanuman. “One night Lord Hanuman came in my dream and in the next few weeks I was able to speak Sanskrit.”  The maestro also learnt English via self-study in a period of six months.

What advice does he for students of music? ”I cannot give advice since no general opinion works for all. It is personal and a Guru must identify what works for a student. It differs for person to person. There is no book of rules that are applicable. You will find that all theory on this does not work in practice.”

Dr. Balamurali Krishna never practices music. He does not even hum a tune unless he is performing.  Watching him perform it is clear that music just comes to him at that spur of the moment. “He is completely unpredictable and brilliant” says his very accomplished accompaniest R.K Shivakumar.

Despite having accomplished so much, Dr. Balamurali Krishna feels he has so much more to learn.  “I need to learn so much more and hence I have to live much longer,” he jokes.  When asked about the happiest moment in his life his answer was unusual. “I have a long life ahead of me. I will tell you when it comes to an end. Life is still going on.”

Despite being a maestro, we were surprised to note his very simple nature, his love for simple food and his friendly nature.  He truly lives in the moment.  When asked about what he is looking forward to in the future “Nothing. No one knows what the future holds. I never looked forward to the future. The only thing I am looking forward to now is seeing you all.. Simple”.

For all of us being in his presence made us feel we have done something in our past life.  For Anuradha and Prashanth Palakurthi, having him in the house and hosting him was a completely overwhelming experience and they felt truly blessed to have the honor. 

We look forward to many more years of great music from the maestro.

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