From The Archives:'s Interview with Mangalampalli

Tuesday, November 22, 2016 - 19:15

The music legend is no more and the passing away of M Balamurali Krishna has created a void that will never be filled. A jovial personality who would put anyone to ease, such was his personality. The legend spoke to us for more than an hour and shared his lifetime experiences.

Dr. Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna is a name that needs no introduction to any music-lover, probably all over the world!
TeluguCinema.Com salutes the multifaceted musical genius through an exclusive interview done in 2008 in Hyderabad. While numerous interviews of the master-vocalist are available in the last 60 years or more, this interview is very different in that this has films as the central theme, owing to the theme of the website. Not many people of the current generations may know that he was a part of the Telugu film industry through a considerable period of time, though hits like "mouname nee bhaasha..." are famous.

He not only agreed to do an interview instantaneously, but he was also very jovial all through, and very humble, and it was an education to speak to him! (I met him in August 2008 when he came to Hyderabad for a concert and he immediately gave his consent for an interview when I asked, but he said that I can interview him in November when he'd be back in Hyderabad. I wasn't sure if he just told that to avoid an interview, but to my surprise, he actually came to Hyderabad and even remembered me and the word he gave me!) We spoke of films, classical music, awards and recognition, and so on! 

NaChaKi: Your debut film, ANR-S. Varalakshmi starrer Sati Savitri, released in 1957. It's been 51 years since then (until 2008 when the interview was done). Do you regularly follow films and the film music still, though you are not really directly associated with movies any more?
 I don't watch movies so much, but I do that for relaxing myself sometimes. One can relax by experiencing things one cannot do oneself. Talking about music or listening to a song is not relaxing to me... like a doctor would get bored if you talk to him about medicines and diseases! Things that I cannot do... things like fighting, particularly where a skinny hero can hit a well-built fighter ...such things I can relax with. Mythological films... social films with the same problems that we have in daily life, love scenes and so on... such things are not as relaxing to me thus! ...About the transformation in films, I can say technique has improved a lot. When I acted as Narada (in Bhakta Prahlada, 1967), for instance, I had to stand on a stool without proper balancing, and I go up (into the "sky") as someone raises it up on a jack. I precariously stand there with a fear that I'd fall off the stool but I should not show it in my face - I should instead sing with a smiling face! ...It's not the case now. Someone else dubs and we can simply give the right expression. Even in music, things are lot easier due to technique today. Back then, we had to sing the whole line or stanza if we made mistake with one letter. Now, they can mix and match bits and pieces and engineer the best output.

NaChaKi: What do you think about the transition in film music through the decades?
 One important thing to keep in mind is that film music is only important for the film and nothing else. Thus, today's music is transformed according to the genre of movies releasing today. Social movies* are ruling the roost now. (saanghika chitraalutoday are nearly all the movies we watch now, unlike the past when mythological, folkloric, and historical movies were more common and "social movies" had to be known by that name for a lack of a better word, and that continues today. - Ed.) And, music today just follows suit, like music of the past followed the themes of the movies back then too.

NaChaKi: What do you think of changing raaga-s or using anyaswara-s in film songs?
 What does changing a raaga really mean, when the changes make it another raaga nonetheless? I mastered 4000 raaga-s and that seems a lot, but there can exist more than 2 lakh raaga-s! A film scene or song demands a tune, not a raaga. All that matters is whether the tune suits the scene/song, whether the singer rendered it appreciably, whether the lyric is appreciable, and whether it all fits well together. There's no point in worrying about it more than that!

NaChaKi: I believe it's more common to write the lyric first and tune next in the filmdom and in classical music too... Even tyaagaraaja first wrote lyric for his compositions except for ghana pancharatna kRti-s...
 No, all vaaggEyakaara-s (people who can write and compose their own songs, such as tyaagaraaja, annamaachaarya, et al.) get both tune (swaram) and lyric (saahityam) at the same time. It's only that we are singing the pancharatna kRti-s that way.

NaChaKi: Oh, thanks for clarifying! As a vaaggEyakaara yourself, do you write your lyrics before, after, or along with your tunes? What's your comment on the current process in the films where the tune comes first?
 The swaram (musical notation) is like the spelling of a word. You don't need to remember W-O-R-D particularly but it comes to you just like that when you speak. In case you forget it one day, that's when you need the spelling. The musical notes also serve the same purpose, generally speaking, because there'd be a lot of tunes and you sometimes need a way to remember or recollect them. I write both musical notes and lyrics at the same time too, like I said. But, in films, sometimes good lyrics are tuned and sometimes good tunes are written to. It's again a case-by-case choice.

NaChaKi: You first composed for a Telugu film Sati Savitri...
 Hmm, no! I wasn't one of the music directors for the film.

NaChaKi: The film's titles list D. Baburao, Master Venu, S. Rajeswara Rao, Mallik, J. Lakshminarayana, and you as the music directors.
 No, I didn't compose for the film. S. Rajeswara Rao was the music director, and (his elder brother) S. Hanumantha Rao was his assistant. There were classical songs in the film for which we all sat together to compare notes and make minor changes to a tune sometimes, but I didn't really work as a music director!

NaChaKi: Hmm, that's news to me! ...Then, my question would be why didn't you ever compose for a Telugu film?
 (Quips) No one offered me (smiles)!

NaChaKi: You did work in Kannada, though...
 Yes, and even won a President Award for a Kannada film as the Best Music Director (Madhavacharya), and the Best Playback Singer (for Hamsageethe), and even the Best Classical Singer (S.V. Narayana Swamy Rao National Award). There's no one else who got all three awards! ...In Telugu, I just got offers as a playback singer!

NaChaKi: We have very less films made in Sanskrit, and you worked for Aadi Sankaracharya and Bhagavadgeeta as music director...
 No, I only worked for Aadi Sankaracharya. I didn't work for Bhagavadgeeta.

NaChaKi: Oh okay! I found the information on several websites on the Internet and took it for a fact. What's the latest movie that you sang for?
 I have sung for a Malayalam film in 2007 or so. That's the last. And there's a Telugu art film titled Pravaaham, which didn't start its shoot yet. I sang for that one too. 

NaChaKi: Did you move away from the film industry by choice?
 I kept at a distance when I was near it and I am closer to it when I am away from it (laughs). ...A lot of film personalities love me and respect me. Since I sang in the same time as Ghantasala, my co-singers from those times such as P. Susheela, S. Janaki, R. Balasaraswathi Devi, etc. call me guruvugaaru and still respect me the same even now and we meet often now. Back then, I just went to the recording theater to sing and leave, since I was busy with my own jobs or concerts and so on. But, today, we all reminsce the past and spend a lot of good times together.

NaChaKi: In Telugu, you acted in Bhakta Prahlada and also made an appearance in Megha Sandesam. Did you act in other languages? 
 I appeared like that several times. But, I acted in the lead role in a Malayalam flick titled Sandhya Kendina Sindooram with Seema. (In the Tamil film kathai that released early this year, he appeared as himself.)

NaChaKi: How come you didn't continue to act in Telugu? You were one of the few people who played the role of Narada well... 
 They didn't like me apparently (smiles). ...Playing the role of Narada was a mistake in a way, because people came to me later too for the same role and I didn't want to repeat the act ...because Narada doesn't have a heroine (laughs)! I wanted to act in any role with a heroine but probably no heroine accepted to act beside me (smiles)!

NaChaKi: Is it true that you were considered for Sankaraabharanam as a playback singer but that it didn't materialize for some reason? I was hardly two years then and thus am curious to know the facts now that I am talking to you.
 It's true that they thought it'd be good if I sing the songs in the film. But then, I was away for two months then on a foreign tour and they couldn't keep things waiting apparently. ...Balu, who's like my own son (pointed at his own son in whose house this interview was going on), can sing well, and he did sing very well too. I am happy that he sang so well!

NaChaKi: When Sankaraabharanam was released 20 years ago, parents enthusiastically joined  their children in music institutes. But, today, not many musicians are seen in A.P. given this fact too. Where do you think did all those music students vanish? 
 Such movies should be made frequently to keep the wave going. One such trendsetting movie cannot continue to inspire forever. ...The film is not about music itself but is about the life and journey of a musician. All the events shown in the film were incidents in my own life! The only difference is that the hero dies in the film and I am still alive (laughs)! When a film is made realistically like that, it'd have a good impression among all sections of audience. ...Even I liked the songs nearly completely - all except the SankaraabharaNam raagam used in the film! I told this to Viswanath too, that the raaga was not tuned properly. ...I have not watched the film until now. They haven't invited me and thus I never watched it. I have a bad habit that I don't do anything uninvited. I don't even visit a temple uninvited! Even God should call me (through the temple's Executive Officer or someone) or otherwise I have my God with me always and I can pray anyway.

NaChaKi: What do you think about the current status of classical music in the society. You hail from Andhra Pradesh but live in Tamilnadu, and can you please comment on the oft-heard statement that classical music enjoys a better respect and status in Tamilnadu than in Andhra Pradesh?
 What's state got to do with music? Feelings and emotions are common to all human beings, and so is music! ...In times before independence, only Madras had a radio station in south India back then. Thus, it became a center for music and arts, as every artiste in south India was invited to perform for the radio, and for other music events conducted in the city. Now, I see that a lot of competitions are being held here in A.P. too, and in Telugu TV channels. There's even decent earnings in the field of music here now, unlike in the past. In the past, one programme in the radio was equivalent to a hundred concerts in terms of exposure, and now 10 minutes of TV presence can bring much more exposure all over the world! Thus, we need to make sure of good quality now. There are a lot of institutes and teachers teaching music now, and people of all ages are enjoying concerts too - the auditoria are being filled completely for all concerts even here in A.P. - and even music festivals are being conducted! I am very happy about all this.

NaChaKi: In the last ten years, the trend of music-based films and films on vaaggEyakaara-s started in Telugu, with films like AnnamayyaSree RamadasuSwarabhishekam, and a film based on Tarigonda Vengamamba is being planned (at the time of this interview), and so on. Do you have any suggestions for such moviemakers?
 It's not in my nature to give unsolicited advice to anyone.

NaChaKi: Let's say someone asked, or that I'm making a film and approached you now (smile).
 Then I wouldn't definitely tell it now. When you publish this interview, it'd be open to all! Nothing should be done for free in the film world (laughs)!

NaChaKi: Do you like any particular film music director? 
 There wouldn't be any. Every music director has ups and downs and one film might click but the next might not. So, there cannot be one particular music director that I say I like...

NaChaKi: But, people usually say "This man experiments well", or have some other ways of measuring success and talents...
 Every movie is a creation of several people including but not limited to artistes, director, writers, singers, music director, and editor. Every artiste is a creator! Classical music people like me cannot create so much stuff as the music directors in films. I was probably an exception since I worked for films too as a music director.

NaChaKi: Since you mention that you're singing even right now for Pravaaham, do you intend to sing for mainstream films too, if you're asked? Do you have that kind of time or interest still?
 Oh, sure! I should like the situation, the cast on the screen for who I am singing the playback, the music, and the lyrics. If I like all these, I am even ready to sing everyday! (He had sung in the 2009 Malayalam film Pasanga too, since the time this interview was done.)

NaChaKi: That's great! Do you think you're limited by language or would you say music has no language? 
 Language is no bar. I have sung for Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali films, and even sung in languages other than Telugu in concerts too. Most Malayalam music directors are my disciples too and thus I sang more there... and less in Telugu itself!

NaChaKi: I remember, when you mention disciples, something that I read somewhere: Is film music director Susarla Dakshinamurthy your classmate in music, when you both learnt music from his grandfather by the same name?
 No, I  learnt from Parupalli Ramakrishnayya Panthulu gaaru who was a disciple of Susarla Dakshinamurthy (Sr.) gaaru. (Susarla Dakshinamurthy Sr. gaaruwas a disciple of a direct disciple of saint tyaagaraaja. It was in a felicitation to Sree Susarla Sr. that Sree Balamuralikrishna performed his first concert, in 1938! -Ed.)

NaChaKi: A.R. Rahman is probably the most popular film music icon today in India. What's your opinion about his music? Did he ever meet you?
 He's doing what's needed for films. He seems to be more concentrating on western music now and trying to blend them creatively. He's a nice boy and I bless him to be more popular. (Rahman did not win his Oscars by then. -Ed.) ...He meets me regularly often. (Rahman learned music from Susarla Dakshinamurthy Jr. for a brief period, and that's why only Rahman featured in the question particularly. -Ed.)

NaChaKi: Did you feel so about any other music directors? Which other music directors meet you regularly? 
 Almost all music directors do meet me from time to time, though I don't particularly go meet them. Like I said, I can't judge music directors exclusively. It's like this: one should go for the right hairstyle based on the face. All that matters is whether it's suitable or not to the particular face! Similarly, film music is not exclusive of the film itself.

NaChaKi: In your recent concert in Ravindra Bharati, the coordinator of the event (Sanjay Kishore) said that they'd soon plan for a cine musical nite with you. Are there any developments on that idea?
 No one approached me yet. I am ready to do it if someone plans it, surely!

NaChaKi: It's commonly heard that Telugus are discriminated when considering for Padma Awards or Bharat Ratna! Bhimsen Joshi received a Bharat Ratna recently, and even then people wondered as to why you didn't still get it! What's your take on this subject?
 I don't know of any discrimination. Only four classical music personalities received Padma Vibhushan until now, and only two of them are alive - D.K. Pattammal and I, and she's not actively performing now, thus making me the only Padma Vibhushan classical music performer now. (D.K. Pattammal passed away in 2009 but was alive at the time of this interview.) Bhimsen Joshi received it finally, but that created fear in me, because it's like they're giving it with such an attitude that they have to give it before someone passes away! He's totally bedridden and he can't even perceive that he received the Award! What's the use if they have to go put the award on his motionless body? If only the Government of India had given him 5-6 years ago when he was actively performing or touring, how happy would he have felt? He had been singing well, and we all knew that when he was actively singing, right? Why couldn't they let him perform as Bharat Ratna in and outside India!? Giving an award after the prime age is like marking it as the last thing in one's life! I am thus not even thinking about it now! ...I have received the "Chevalier des Arts et des Letters" from the French government and that's like prapancharatna in itself!

NaChaKi: You've performed nearly 30,000 concerts around the world until now, won numerous awards and titles in classical music and even films, mastered vocal music and instruments like viola and violin, and so on. Do you feel that there's something else that you should still accomplish?
 There's a lot to learn, practice, know, research, discover... Knowing something actually leads to knowing/identifying what all we don't know. In each concert I perform today, I learn new sangati-s as they seem to find me. Only the sky is the limit to knowledge, and so it's meaningless to think that I have mastered something or have accomplished a lot! There may be others who may not know what all we know, but that's totally unnecessary. I only strive to know and be better than others, and others also may wish similarly about themselves! I know very well what I don't know, and thus I know what I need to learn. Name and fame are not important - they are everywhere! I still perform to learn, and to earn. ...What a cricketer gets in a match that he loses is very much more than what I can get for a successful concert - so much that I need not do any more concerts if I get that kind of money!

NaChaKi: You've been singing for the last 70 years nearly! What is your first-hand experience with the transformation of arts and culture in India during this period?  
 Bhimsen Joshi and I were the first to bridge the gap between the two schools of Indian music (Hindustani and Carnatic) by performing together (jugalbandii). There should be an Indian music - music shouldn't be like parties of religions!

NaChaKi: Are you working towards blending the various music styles into a Fusion? I did hear a fusion album where the vocals were yours and music was by someone else...
 I have sung with various groups in the world, including English and French music groups, western, light, folk, and Hindustani styles fused with Carnatic style. Even a lot of my compositions and lyrics are being blended into fusion music albums today. Such attempts make the music more colorful, instead of just being routine - it's like serving culinary specialities occasionally, apart from the regular meal.

NaChaKi: Even recently, the tillaanaa you composed in kuntalavaraaLi raagamwas used partially (only the Sabdaalu) in the film Rainbow along with the kRshNa Sabdam "raaraa, swaami raaraa!" and you were credited as the lyricist. Should permission be sought in such cases? Or, is it like a gray area there?
 At least they credited my name rightly, ha? ...It's better if permission is taken in advance. I can take an action but since you say they did credit my name there, I'd not (smiles). ...Recently, when I was looking up something on the Internet, I saw a video where an American lady was sitting cross-legged and singing one of the tillaanaa-s I composed. I should be happy if someone is giving some more publicity to my works, and being angry on such attempts would not be fair on my part. ...Back to Rainbow, I don't even know such a film was made or that my tillaanaa was used. Wouldn't it be nicer if someone invited me to watch the film? ...The tillaanaa in kuntalavaraaLi [raagam] is a popular one in the music world, and the makers probably had a benevolent intention to make it popular in non-music world too. (There was a considerable discussion about the music director and singer Nihal who worked for Rainbow and Sree Balamuralikrishna expressed his desire to meet Nihal too!) (Later, when I spoke to Nihal, he did not want to answer it in detail on the record but he did express that he wanted to inform Sree Balamuralikrishna about using his composition but could not. He was very sorry to learn that Sree Balamuralikrishna felt that way, and the rest of the discussion was off the record. -Ed.)

 NaChaKi: There was this TV program titled swararaagasudha in Doordarshan in the early '80s where you used to introduced various raaga-s with examples of film songs. It was a very helpful program for people like me who didn't learn music but could get some knowledge of raaga-s... 
 It was done by Hindustan Lever Limited. It was extremely popular, yes! More such programs should be done. ...Even milE sur mEraa tumhaaraa... was a very good project - musicians from all over the country singing in one pitch and one raaga in different languages is a great thing! People seem to be hesitant to do such things now, but such projects should be taken up once every six months or so. There was another such program too, called dES raag, in which I sung and even played the viola. jana gaNa mana by Rahman was also a good one that I participated in.

NaChaKi: Are you planning to take up any such projects?
 I am just a singer. I am not so sound financially to bear any losses in such projects either. If anyone approaches me with any idea, I am always ready to take part in it.

NaChaKi: How do you keep yourself in tune with times? How do you update yourself?
 If we don't improve each day, we don't have a career! We have grown in this one day and our performance should show that too. If tomorrow's concert is not better than today's, I don't need to perform anymore! Even the audience are knowledgeable about music and I can't keep repeating the same. ...Practice makes me routine and creates a fear towards trying anything novel. I thus didn't ever practice singing at home, because if I do practice, I'd be afraid to try a new sangati(varied rendition) in the concert. ...I'm not saying that this is a rule; I only mean to say that this worked for me, and my audience feel every concert as different and fresh, and I like it.

Acknowledgements: D.V. Mohana Krishna (Disciple of Balamuralikrishna), Sree Mangalampalli Abhiram (son of Balamuralikrishna in whose house I met the legendary personality)

Discography and Filmography (Telugu only, arranged by year of release)

  • vilaasala kOvalE, vinOdaala naavalE (satii saavitri, 1957) (with S. Varalakshmi)
  • Suklaam brahmavichaara saara paramaam (SlOkam) (jayabhEri, 1959)salalita raaga sudhaarasa saaram (nartanaSaala, 1963) (with Bengaluru Latha)
  • neevU nEnU valachitimi, nandanamE edurugaa choochitimi (karNa, 1963) (with P. Susheela)
  • mogiTi japa yaj~namulu sEya mukti lEdu! etc. (padyaalu) (bhakta raamadaasu, 1964)
  • vasantagaaliki valapulu rEga (SreekaakuLa aandhramahaavishNuvu katha, 1965) (with S. Janaki)
  • ETilOni keraTaalu Eru viDichipOvu (uyyaala jampaala, 1965)
  • SreevishNum jagataam naatham (SlOkam) (paanDava vanavaasamu, 1965)
  • tirupativaasaa, kondarini deenulugaa (Sree vEnkaTESa eeSaa, SEshaadriSikharavaasaa!) (dorikitE dongalu, 1965) (with P. Susheela, B. Vasantha)
  • Seelamu gala vaari chinavaaDaa! (palnaaTi yuddham, 1966) (with P. Susheela)
  • aadi anaadiyu neevE dEvaa! (bhakta prahlaada, 1967) (Acted as Narada)
  • siri siri laalii! (oogumaa ooyala) (bhakta prahlaada, 1967) (with S. Janaki)
  • namO naarasimhaa, namO bhaktapaalaa! (bhakta prahlaada, 1967) (with P. Susheela & Chorus)
  • varamosagE vanamaalii! (bhakta prahlaada, 1967)
  • SivamanOranjanii, varapaaNii, swararaaNii! (pEdaraaSi peddamma katha, 1968)
  • navaraagamE saagenulE, bhuvanaalu ooyalaloogenulE! (veeraanjanEya, 1968) (with P.B. Sreenivos)
  • karuNaamayi, Saaradaa! (pavitrahRdayaalu, 1971) (with Nookala Chinna Satyanarayana)
  • palukE bangaaramaayeraa, andaala raamaa! (andaala raamuDu, 1973)
  • saptaaSwa rathamaarooDham (SlOkam) (Alluri Seetharamaraju, 1974)
  • mElukO Sreeraamaa, mElukO raghuraamaa! (Sree raamaanjanEya yuddham, 1975) (with P. Leela, Chorus)
  • Sreeraaghavam daSarathaatmajam-apramEyam (SlOkam) (mutyaala muggu, 1975)
  • Sreeraama jayaraama seetaaraamaa! (mutyaala muggu, 1975)
  • kuppinchi yegasina kunDalammula kaanti (padyam) (kurukshEtram, 1977)
  • tera teeyaraa, tirupatii dEvaraa! (Sree vEnkaTESwara vaibhavam, TTD's Documentary, 1977)
  • mouname nee bhaasha O mooga manasaa! (guppeDu manasu, 1979)
  • aaDavE hamsagamanaa! (SreemadviraaTa parvam, 1979)
  • jeevitamE kRshNasangeetamu (SreemadviraaTa parvam, 1979)
  • paaDanaa vaaNi kaLyaaNigaa (mEghasandESam, 1982) (Acted as himself)
  • jaatakaalu kalisE vELa jeevitaalu mugiSaayi (priyamaina Sreevaaru, 1997)

The above list could be partial. Though I consulted Sree D.V. Mohana Krishna for a complete list, he admitted that even he didn't have a complete list and did not have information about verses sung by the master! 

Interview & Filmography Compiled & Edited by NaChaKi