Chennai, 2011On a sultry August afternoon, I met Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna, the legendary musician and maestro, at his home in Chennai. An accomplished singer-composer with over 400 compositions to his name and 25,000 concerts performed across the world, he has been a household name in India for over five decades. Famous not only for his voice, but also for his skills with the kanjeera, mrindagam, veena and violin.
He’s been awarded some of the highest honours – with a Padma Shri, Padma Vibhushan, Padma Bhushan and Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, to name a few.
I had the chance to catch the legend on camera when I was making a documentary on Indian classical music. As my crew and I walked up the stairs, he greeted us with a mischievous smile and a twinkle in his eye. “Ah! All this is new music coming into my life now,” he said, looking at all the camera equipment.
The one-hour we spent with him gave us insights not only into Indian classical music, but also about his life in music. As he breathed his last yesterday, we decided to go back to the tapes, and share excerpts from his interview. Here is Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna in his own words.
So, tell me about your life in music.
Music is life. You asking me question is very musical. There is music in speaking, in walking, in eating. Music means not only songs. Music is not a subject at all. Music is life. Without music, there is no world. The breeze is music, your eyesight is music, sun is music, air-conditioner is music. Everything is music.
How did it all start?
Music started with me when I was a child. When I was three years old…I knew music. Seventh year, I started giving concerts. My father and mother were musicians. And I had luck to have a Guruji – his blessings are always with me. So, I learned from him. But, I never thought I would settle down as a musician.
So, are you telling me that you did not plan your music career and it was destiny?
I am not responsible. Music came to me. If music didn’t come – alright, then I would not have been a musician. Something else would have come to me, and I would have done it.
I didn’t go to school, I have no knowledge, I have no qualifications. Nothing! I have not learnt English; I have not learnt anything. Everything came to me…People will think that I really have knowledge. But, it’s not correct.
But you have performed all over the world and given concerts. Haven’t you?
I never plan when I give a concert – what to sing, how to sing… I am only an instrument. If there is an instrument – veena or violin, it doesn’t know music, no? Somebody plays. I am [like] an instrument. Music wants me. Alright – use me! No problem! Because I don’t know anything else. All I have been is an instrument for music. Music likes me.
I never aspired that people should talk highly about me as a musician, and that I should get honours. But when it is coming, I am enjoying.
Can you tell us how you chose Carnatic music?
There is no Carnatic music. The music that is sung in South India, unfortunately, is called Carnatic music. “Karneshu Athathi Ithi Karnataha,” that means the music which pleases your ears is Carnatic music – whether it is Hindustani, Persian or Western music.
How many languages do you sing in?
I know Telugu because I am a Telugu man. I know English. I don’t know how I got it – I didn’t study. I am in Tamil Nadu, so I know Tamil. I sang in all languages. I sang in French, I sang in English, I sang in Russian, German, Bengali.
When I sing, I know my mother tongue is that language. I understand the meaning; I learn the accent – for every language there is a music…If I sing in French, they think that I know French very well. If I sing in Bengali, they think I know Bengali very well.
Then, everybody comes and talks to me in that language. But, I keep quiet.
So what does that feel like?
Each time is different. You can’t sing the same thing everywhere.
My knowledge is very limited in music. It is not possible to know completely about music…Each day we learn. You will experience. Every day, you are growing, you know what happened yesterday. Therefore, you can imagine and plan for tomorrow – if there is a tomorrow.
After the mics came off, he smiled mischievously and said:
Remember me when you take a movie. I will act. But as a hero, with heroine.
I acted as Narada (a mythological character). Afterwards… I got hundreds of contracts for Narada. I said No, because Narada will never have a heroine.
Give me a heroine and I will act even now. I don’t mind. I am not that old.
On November 22, 2016, the young-at-heart maestro passed away in his home in Chennai. As I look back at our rendezvous, I know that his compositions will live on generations after his passing.
As told to Shrenik Rao.
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