Ragavan Manian’s tutelage of many years under the celebrated musician commenced at the age of 11. The disciple’s remembrance of the guru and legendary composer, at Naada Inbam in Mylapore, was thus deeply intimate, anecdotal and insightful, far from the enigmatic and distant figure others made out of him. Such a personal reminiscence from a prime sishya was precisely the point of Murali Ganamrutham, Sarvani Sangeetha Sabha’s tribute to the maestro, whose second death anniversary falls later this month.
“Where musical notes support poetry, a padam is born. Where swara and sahitya align as one, a swarakshara padam is born. Where the stars and planets align alongside a fortuitous combination of swara and sahitya — a vasana — a Balamuralikrishna is born.” After that passionate introduction, Ragavan commenced the evening with a varnam in ragam Janyatodi.
Way back, Balamuralikrishna had jotted down details of his lineage, right through to Tyagaraja, in Ragavan’s notebook. The boy was subsequently taught ‘Bhavame maha bhagyamura,’ in raga Kapi, which represents this genealogy. The above anecdote was a prelude to its presentation. So as to underscore a musical tree in continuous evolution, the artiste sang an additional charanam he had written in Tamil.
Ragavan’s father had once presented him Rangaramanuja Iyangar’s compilation of Tyagaraja’s compositions. As the young boy flipped through the index, his excitement knew no bounds. But the boy was also audacious enough to ask his guru how many of those kritis he had mastered. In his typical manner, Balamuralikrishna, momentarily feigned to do a number count, and then casually proclaimed knowledge of all of them.
This anecdote might well have formed a prelude to ‘Nagumomu,’ the lone Tyagaraja kriti of the evening; and unarguably most apposite for the occasion. Of interest to Shraddha Ravindran, who beautifully essayed ‘Abheri’ on the violin, would be a connection closer home. Her guru, the redoubtable A. Kanyakumari, enjoys the honour of providing violin accompaniment to Balamuralikrishna’s longest recording of ‘Nagumomu’ in a 1980s album.
Ragavan recollected another tale before launching into ‘Chintayami santatam, Muthuswami Dikshitam,’ in raga Sucharitram. He had applied for a scholarship and was expected to memorise the names of all the foundational 72 ‘melakarta ragas’ in the Carnatic music system. The boy, aged 13 or so then, was struck by the irony that at about the same age, his guru had composed kritis in each of the 72 scales.
It had been the norm with Balamuralikrishna to acquaint disciples with the foundational 72 scales. But rather oddly, Ragavan was taught raga Sucharitram, the 67th in the sequence, way ahead of either the 6th or the 7th. It underlined the non-linear approach Balamuralikrishna often adopted. The next song was in raga Sri, of Muthuswami Dikshitar. ‘Sri Abhayamba’ was meant to place in comparative perspective Balamuralikrishna and Dikshitar’s compositional styles.
In the Kalyani kriti, Ragavan demonstrated the unique Panchamukhi tala. The latter pattern is a derivative of the mukhi system, a Balamuralikrishna innovation. Mukhi is based on an intermingling of the traditional ‘sooladi’ and the ‘chapu’ rhythmic systems.
Sridutt Pillai of All India Radio, on the mridangam, displayed tremendous enthusiasm towards this experiment. The Balamuralikrishna indulgence continued with the ragamalika in Trisakti, Mahati, Siddhi and Mohanangi, before the artistes returned to Kalyani.
After concert tours overseas, Balamuralikrishna would at times ruminate that Carnatic music would be greatly enriched by engagement from Europeans and Americans, not just non-resident Indians. It would have pleased the maestro immensely that Dr. Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute in attendance. Dr. Brooks, a trained western classical musician, was at The Hindu earlier in the day for an interaction.