Never to see Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna perform live must be one of the cruellest injustices life can mete out. Naturally, we shall get back to the music, but BMK has to have one of the sunniest dispositions of any performer imaginable. That is not meant in any comedic or condescending way. At his London International Arts Festival recital, he beamed out good vibes to the audience and the musicians accompanying him on stage. His facial encouragements were patently unaffected and natural.
BMK smiled with the mouth, the eyes and hard-to-fake body language. His smiles could have been smiles of surprise, a ‘whoops’ moment or a tickled “got you there!” look. Maybe that was why the results he got from his musicians were pure sunny delight. Before you ask, his accompanists were Jyotsna Srikanth on violin, Arjun Kumar on mridangam, R.N. Prakesh on ghatam and Sithamparanathan on morsing.
Into the concert, during ‘Ee Pariya Sobagu’ in ‘Hamsanandi’ – a composition from Hindu saint-composer Purandaradasa – he impishly threw in a bass-register note that might be called a Tibetan monk chest note. It cracked up Jyotsna Srikanth, responding to his vocalisations on violin. And the forgive-everything, adorable look on his face said he knew it would. Never in my experience has a Carnatic recital – weigh the classical weight of the word recital – had such a playful quality to its seriousness. And seldom have I experienced a concert with the magic of no guessing where the voice was going next.
He opened with one of his own compositions, ‘Sri Sakalaganadhipa’ in ‘Arabhi’ – a joyous triple deity-themed composition, incidentally already taken up by a number of other performers, among them the Saralaya Sisters, Sanjay Subrahmanyan and Dwaram V.K.G. Thyagaraj; seeing a composition’s new life or lives is surely a fillip any writer-composer yearns for.
Modernity came in another form. The delivery of saint-composer Thyagaraja’s ‘Nada Tanumanisham’ in ‘Chittaranjani’ at times had – and I freely apologise if the contemporaneous response in my notes is found wanting – well, Azeri mugham-like qualities, both vocally and instrumentally. Jyotsna Srikanth’s violinistic inflections reminded me of the terseness of Azerbaijan’s kemancheh (spike-fiddle).
As to highlights, his ‘Omkara Karini’ in ‘Lavangi’ – a raga that explores the possibilities of a melodic template using only four notes – definitely was one. He threw in a dramatic pause here, a theatrical silence there, and a couple of gleeful ‘Tibetan monk’ detonations. During this particular piece, donning his figurative ringmaster or conductor hat, he cued the percussionists. A nudge alerted him to the fact that mridangam and ghatam was good but that mridangam and ghatam and morsing was better. His percussionist cues took on a good-humour man theatricality.
Despite the witlessly embarrassing attempt to interview him on stage – the very thing any musician needs, let alone one of senior years, after two hours’ performing – with questions about sightseeing and the Olympics, BMK’s was one of the concerts of my life.