VIKRAM MUTHANNA writes: A few days ago, I had been to Chennai on work. The journey from Mysore on the Chennai Express was long, stalling and an extremely cold one, thanks to unrelenting air conditioning.
The next day I returned in the more convenient, fast and comfortable Shatabdi Express.
I entered the chaotic Chennai Central station, got into the train and seated myself 20 minutes ahead of scheduled departure. When I stepped out to indulge in ‘people watching,’ I saw a small crowd approaching the train. People were bending down to touch someone’s feet and many standing with glass-eyed wonder usually reserved for godmen and politicians.
I immediately assumed it was some politician and sat expectantly to see him, but no one came in except a typical South Indian lungi-clad gentleman with a shiny watch and an elegant looking lady followed by a few well-dressed men. I assumed that the politician had moved to the other compartment and went to watch my movie between bouts of naps and Marie biscuits provided by the Railways.
Just before we reached Bangalore, I was suddenly woken up by the waiter who once again offered me another snack. As I was munching on my snack, I noticed more and more people waking up, and as they walked towards the wash area, all of them would look at a particular seat ahead of me and then on the way back, stop and talk to the person sitting in that seat or bend to touch his feet.
Now, I was intrigued and stood up for a mock stretch.
Then I saw the person and immediately recognised his face but could not recall his name. I knew he was a singer with a very different voice. I also knew from my friends that he was a fantastic poet and that I had seen him a million times in the famous national integration initiative song “Mile sur mera tumhara” music video.
No, it was not Bhimsen Joshi, not Hari Prasad Chourasia either.
And then it came to me: the person sitting ahead of me was the revered Carnatic vocalist, Dr M. Balamurali Krishna. I walked up to him and introduced myself, had a little chit chat and excused myself as I didn’t want to be too intrusive.
Soon he was heading towards the wash room and on his way back, stopped by to chat and then suggested I join him and his very elegant friend and manager, the famed dancer Dr Saraswathi.
From the very start, I realised Dr Balamurali Krishna had a sense of humour. When introducing Dr Saraswathi, he said: “This is Dr Saraswathi, my friend and manager. As you know Saraswathi’s veena can sing, so I am like her veena, wherever she directs me, I go and sing.”
After chatting about things in general, I finally asked him two questions that were niggling at the back of my mind: One, whether it was true that Bhimsen Joshi consumed considerable amounts of alcohol before performing?
I wanted to know this because of what my father [Star of Mysore founder and editor-in-chief K.B. Ganapathy] used to claim. That, when he lived in Pune, he used to deliver rum bottles to Bhimsen Joshi.
The reason my father was requested for the bottles was because he had access to cheap liquor from the army canteen. Back then I couldn’t quite believe it. Now, here was my chance to hear from a person who had performed many times with Joshi.
Balamurali smiled and said, “Yes, quite a considerable amount actually. But, back then, it did not affect his performance at all; in fact, maybe, it enhanced it”. Then he continued, “What is amritam, the nectar of gods? It is nothing but alcohol; in small amounts it is nectar and in large amounts poison”.
The mention of gods was the trigger for my second question. I asked him if he performed a lot in temples. He replied, “I like to sing, I don’t care where I sing. Moreover, I don’t sing for the gods, I sing for my people. I see god in people and mother nature.”
He then continued to talk at length about god and people’s obsession with religion and worship. I felt he was like a young child still lost in wonder at the things around him.
At one point he said, “Look at the inventors. Man made medicine, man made aeroplanes, man also made this train we are travelling in. Isn’t it so amazing that someone thought this was possible and made it happen? We should pray for the good of such people, people who make life better for others.”
Balamurali Krishna himself falls in that special category. He has brightened the lives of millions of people across the country—both music lovers and ordinary people. In fact, he himself is an inventor of ragas and an innovative musician.
I asked him if only he used his compositions or whether other people too used them in their performances too, to which he replied: “Others use it too, but it’s a little difficult to grasp. You need to have a sense of adventure, experimentation and an open mind to try new techniques. Otherwise it will be, as they say in Kannada, ‘ade raga, ade tala‘.”
Finally I found it appropriate to ask if he had seen the new “Mile sur mera tumhara” music video. He said he had not and asked me how it was. I said I didn’t like it half as much as the old one as it had an overload of movie stars and the music too was synthetic, which failed to bring out the sense of cultural diversity of our country.
He said: “Well, at least they tried something new. Maybe they can do a different song and a different music-video next year. There must be change. But it’s OK, may be next time they will do a better job,” and then added with a mischievous grin, “Hopefully, next time they can please you.”
No wonder he was the only legendary performer who said there was nothing wrong in fusion music and added “addition to tradition” is important and natural.
I asked him about his daily routine and if he practiced a lot. It seems he never practices. I asked about his younger days when he was a student. He said as a matter of fact: “My master would sing the raga once. Then I would sing along with him once and I was OK.”
I again asked him how he could remember a raga in just two attempts to which he, like a child, smiled and said, “I don’t know. I just remember”. Balamurali Krishna was a child prodigy who gave his first performance when he was just eight years old.
I was immediately reminded of the story of western classical composer and pianist Mozart who once arrives in Vienna, Italy Austria, to perform for the Emperor. When Mozart meets the emperor, Antonio Salieri, the renowned palace composer, presents Mozart with “March of Welcome” which he had toiled to create.
Mozart first displays a childish high-pitched laugh, then after hearing the march only once, he spontaneously ‘improves’ the piece with minimal effort, transforming Salieri’s composition into a grand piano piece.
As we alighted from the train, a few people who recognised him, came and took photographs with him, some diving right onto his feet. I asked him if it gets a bit too much, to which Dr Saraswathi replied that recently at a packed concert, some fans tried to slowly pluck some of his hair to keep as memorabilia.
I warned him to be wary of me for if I found out there was a market for his hair, I would pluck a handful.
Here is one more anecdote that Balamurali himself narrated. It seems that he had once been gifted with a new pair of footwear and had worn them for a concert in Chennai. He had left the slippers outside and after the concert, discovered his slippers missing.
Months later, he got a letter from a fan who confessed that he just wanted to have a memorabilia and so stole the slippers. The fan said that he would return the slippers and hoped that Balamurali would send some small item that he used.
For a man who is deep into an art form like Carnatic music known for its rigorous discipline and purity, he is refreshingly different. He is humorous and open-minded. He is like all great musical geniuses, a free spirit.
I was humbled by his humility and also glad that he wanted to meet me again. I told him I would be glad to meet him too, after all I still have to get my share of a clump of his hair.
(Vikram Muthanna is managing editor of Star of Mysore, where this piece first appeared)
Photographs: via Flickr, and Facebook