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Monday, November 7, 2011

WARNING: I just read this after writing it, and it's - umm - well, it wanders from subject to subject. But it's 2:51 AM


(In picture: Balamuralikrishna on vocals, Ramani on the flute, his son Thyagarajan on flute support, Karthick on ghatam, and Thiruvaroor Bhakthavathsalam on mridangam)

Well, it's a little early to call it the 'music season', I suppose. But today, well - on 7 November, 2011 - I went to the best concert I've ever been to.

Two stalwarts of Carnatic music - as an aside, I love how I use über-flowery Tam Brahm English every time I speak about Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam - came together at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Mylapore: Balamuralikrishna and Flute Ramani.

Accompanied by artists who usually perform solo, the octogenarian and septuagenarian sang and played for an hour and twenty minutes - painfully short, but ethereally divine. For that time, the packed auditorium was so silent that the scrunch of a boot would make four rows of connoisseurs turn back and glare at the assumed offender, who was usually the only person not turning back, leaning forward, or peeking sideways.

Balamuralikrishna has always been my favourite singer - yes, I do rate him higher than the late Maharajapuram Santhanam, a musician who makes you envision Lord Krishna every time he sings about Him. That could be because I have never heard Maharajapuram Santhanam sing live.

Well, one of my biggest regrets is that despite being as Madrasi as they come, I've missed out on years of listening to several of the greatest performers of the twentieth century. My passion for music blossomed rather late; it was one of those things that was always there, always available, on the radio, on cassettes and later CDs and later the internet. 

My school Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan would organise concerts for us regularly, and my batch was among the lucky ones that heard the adorable DKP (D K Pattammal, whose Shanti Nilava Veyndum is the most plaintive, beautiful rendering of any song I've heard), and watched dance recitals by Vyjayanthimala Bali, whose fluency on stage defied and belied her age. (Here we go again.)

An appreciation of music came with the cliche of moving abroad. I returned within a couple of years, but moved cities, and it was only in 2009 that I moved back to Madras for good - or so I think. And so it was that this was only the second time I've been to a concert by Balamuralikrishna.

The first time was marred by a family that kept up a chatter about recipes throughout, and humoured an annoying four-year-old that did its very poor best to very poorly imitate every song the man everyone had come to hear sang. The mother giggled proudly, the father looked on stupidly, the grandmother egged it on, and I fumed. 

Finally, I leaned forward and asked, "Can you please keep your child quiet?" I do this all the time at concerts and movies. I shouldn't have to, and it rarely works, but I do it all the same.

The mother looked at me with an expression that mingled the shock of, "You're a woman, and you want this kid to keep quiet", the horror of, "She caws with such unique tunelessness, and you want this kid to keep quiet?" and the disbelief of, "You want this kid to keep quiet?"

Well, breaking news for parents out there. Your kids grow up into people like you and me. Nothing cute about us now, is there? Well, they're also weirdly disproportionate. When they're babies, i.e., and then they grow gradually more proportionate, but there's something about a prepubescent voice that's infuriating - like a subcutaneous itch you can't quite reach - which is why I don't like Lata or Asha. 


According to my paediatrician mother, whose love for her three children is apparently based on science and logic, some complex chemical reactions involving hormones get you attached to things that grow inside you for several months. And no, I don't know if that works with tumours. She found it offensive that I asked.

So, my last Balamuralikrishna concert was partly ruined by a kitteny voiced thing with delusional parents. Worse, I had an epiphany at the concert - however wonderful he may sound on a CD player, Balamuralikrishna live is magical. And since then, I've only wanted to hear him live again. 

I couldn't have wished for a better evening this time around. Balamurali began with the beautiful Vaathapi Ganapathim Bhajeham, a composition by Muthuswami Dikshitar in Ragam Hamsadhvani, followed by Thyagaraja's Samajavaragama in Hindolam (Hindustani equivalent - Raag Maalkauns). The verbal and instrumental acrobatics of the two were followed by an extended thani avarthanam by the percussionists. 


Next, came Pibhare Ramarasam in Ahirbhairav, a haunting melody that reminds me of several old Tamil film songs, including Thoongadha Kannendru Ondru from the film Kungumam. I've no idea what the ragam for the latter is, but there's a resemblance in some of the cadences.

And maybe it was this that made me think of the criticism that Balamuralikrishna faced at the juncture in his career when he had forayed into playback singing. Most rasikas shook their heads, and said the child prodigy would lose his gift, that the structural fidelity of his Carnatic music would be eroded by a newly-acquired filmy singing style. Balamuralikrishna himself was reportedly apologetic, saying financial commitments had forced him to widen his horizons.

However, over the decades, it became clear to everyone that his voice ages like wine, and that the various experiments he has conducted have enriched his repertoire and moulded the timbre of his voice.

Not everyone can sing Carnatic, film music, Hindustani, and create yet another genre - he rather cheekily calls it 'Murali Gaanam' - and sing each like it should be sung. Some of his compositions take on the throaty appeal of Sufi music, while others play out like every note has been bounced off several different sections of his vocal chords. 


But it's comforting to music lovers to know that there is at least one person here, today, who stands for the belief that music encompasses every genre, and that straying across the borders every now and again doesn't make them porous.

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