Date:04/03/2006 URL:
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`There's no one way to teach'

Carnatic music maestro Balamuralikrishna and his favourite student Rama Varma talk about the guru-shishya tradition and more

LEARNING CURVE Balamuralikrishna (right) talks to Rama Varma about casinos and action movies too Photo: T. SINGARAVELOU

Their relationship is more than that of a guru and a sishya. When the doyen of Carnatic music Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna and his disciple Prince Rama Varma share the dais, the guru enjoys every bit of his disciple's performance. And when the two get together, they are more than happy to speak about their personal and professional rapport.

Deepa H. Ramakrishnan records the conversation.

Balamuralikrishna: Though we have known each other for over seven years, we have not really had the time to sit down and talk to you.

Rama Varma: True. It's always only music and more music, whenever we meet. Though I joined your classes to learn just a few compositions, from the first session I yearned to learn more from you. When people listen to me singing, they perceive a lot of your influence in it. I don't do it consciously.

Balamuralikrishna: That means you have completely taken to my style.

Rama Varma: When you teach, do you just tell your students about the sahitya, swara, raga and tala or even the style they should follow?

Balamuralikrishna: There isn't one specific way of teaching. It varies with each student and his/her ability to grasp what is being imparted. Every student has a different purpose for learning. Some think they will get a chance to perform if they learn from a senior musician. Some even ask me to recommend them to sabhas. But I don't. I firmly believe that opportunities should come on their own. But rarely do we get students who are only interested in learning and expect nothing else. One should be passionate about the art if one is to scale heights.

Rama Varma: So, what kind of a student am I? (Smiles)

Balamuralikrishna: How can I say that in your presence? (Smiles looking at him) Frankly, you are more than a student to me. I want to pass on my knowledge of music to you. In fact, I want you to learn more than what I know.

Rama Varma: Oh, that's impossible! I have still not learnt even a fraction of what you know. There is so much to learn from you, not just music, but about life too. I remember once a review of some CDs criticised your rendition of Purandara Dasa compositions. I was upset and wondered how anybody could write like that about such an extraordinary compilation. However, you were unruffled.

Balamuralikrishna: I like to take things easy. I don't constantly think about music. I never plan concerts, practise or even hum. When I go up on the stage, music courses through me. My family members attend my concerts because they do not hear me sing at home. I have entrusted you with the task of popularising my style of singing among others, especially in foreign countries. I have heard some of your foreign students sing my compositions and was surprised. They sound better than many Indian students. I want to be known more as a composer than as a musician. You are now making this happen.

Rama Varma: Many people who say bad things about you have not met you. They form an impression from what others say. They know you have created ragas and have an innovative mind. I am sure when they meet you, even for five minutes, they will get to know the real Balamuralikrishna as someone who is modest and soft spoken. What was your relationship with your Guru Parupalli Ramakrishna Pantulu gaaru like?

Balamuralikrishna: He would take care of me. He focussed only on teaching me and never on performances. He never cared about popularity and wealth. However, I am not like that. I perform and give my listeners a tough time. They think this fellow is not good. He does not follow tradition. I provide them with food for talk and thought.

Rama Varma: I wonder how, as a 14-year-old, you composed songs in the 72 Melakartha ragas, which form the backbone of Carnatic music. Has your guru listened to your compositions? You have composed many songs about your guru also, haven't you?

Balamuralikrishna: Yes, I have. I have also sung them in front of him. I never wanted to compose. It was my Guru's spiritual mentor Vimalananda Bharati, who inspired me to write. When I was 14, during his Chaturmasya Vratha he called me and said that I should write my own songs to become popular like the saint-composer Tyagaraja. I said I did not know Telugu or the lakshana of poetry. Then it occurred to me that there are two systems of 72 Melakarthas and I wanted to bring out their swaroopa. So within a year, I composed songs in each. After that, I never wanted to compose but sometimes songs just come to my mind and I start singing. That is how I make new ragas too.

Rama Varma: Things seemed to have happened easily for you.

Balamuralikrishna: I am a lucky fellow. I never bothered about anything in life and never aspired for anything. I never thought I would become a popular musician or a guru. I am able to do so many things at this age because I have someone like Saraswathi to manage my affairs.

Rama Varma: You play so many instruments, including the viola, mridangam and kanjira, and speak and write Sanskrit, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and English. How did you find the time to learn all these things?

Balamuralikrishna: Don't ask me that question. I never learnt anything, not even Telugu. It all just happened because of my family. My mother used to give performances in those days on the veena. It seems she used to play the veena when I was in her womb against the doctor's advice. But she would say that she was teaching her child. She died when I was just 16 days old. My father was heart broken and stopped giving concerts.

Rama Varma: What are your other interests?

Balamuralikrishna: I watch action movies. It's thrilling to see a lean man beat up the villain (laughs). I also like playing in casinos. It's not about making or losing money. It's an art.

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