It is not easy to be T.M. Krishna. He will raise questions, challenge existing notions, unmindful of what the consequences will be. At times, they even remain autonomous of music and its practice. For instance: Is it right for us to celebrate Kasab’s death sentence? Is Sachin Tendulkar’s craftsmanship art? Why should a raga alapane necessarily be followed by a kriti? Sanjay Subramaniam is one of the best musicians of our times, knowledge of music critics is abysmal, it’s not about Rahul Gandhi or Modi, it is about progress and humanity, why should the front rows in a music sabha be reserved for guests who don’t turn up?… etc etc. Krishna’s concerns are multiple.
Like his music, which he declares “Is the most important thing in his life!”, Krishna grapples with every issue in the world around him with commitment. His demeanour is that of a true-blue artiste who believes that great art is not formed in the comfort and seclusion of the ivory tower but in the stormy billows of the world. An extremely gifted musician, Krishna is indisputably an iconic figure in the modern kutcheri context. He draws huge audiences to his concert – for the seasoned listener he came in to the concert scene bringing back memories of the legends, and for the young he is a phenomenon who holds their interest with his passion and flamboyance.
However, since then, Krishna has been drawing attention for many reasons: primarily for breaking down the 100-odd-year-old kutcheri format. To this musician who at once instils awe and excitement, there have been open letters requesting him to go back to old ways; there have been murmurs and quiet exchanges in sabha halls, and under-the-breath discussions in the canteen about Krishna’s idiosyncrasies; there have been scathing criticism calling his practises “gimmickry”, him a “stunt man” – but Krishna, impervious to all this, brims over with creative restlessness. “I am not going to prove my integrity to anyone,” he declares.
In the concert hall, Krishna expects his listeners to understand him. When he sings a Karaharapriya kriti after an alapane in Kalyani, he trusts you to understand that all of Kalyani is exhausted in that creative moment and he doesn’t wish to stretch it any further with a kriti. Or, if he tells his violinist to finish the piece refusing to take it forward, he believes that your musical sensibilities will convey to you that between them there was a discontinuity in manodharma and hence impossible for him to go back to it. If you are busily looking into the book trying to figure out the raga, “It is Nalinakanti, now listen!” he will angrily announce, without even looking in your direction. Even in a formal space like the concert stage, Krishna vows that his music will not be a mechanical exercise -- beginning to end.
In his book, A Southern Music, the Karnatik Story – a first of its kind for a Carnatic musician, Krishna works contrarily. He opens with A Note on Reading for his readers! The huge volume which is going into its second edition within three months of its release, covers almost all aspects of music, and doesn’t assume that the audience ‘knows’. Krishna meticulously takes you through history, and all the processes, at once pitching his work for the initiated and the uninitiated.
The book doesn’t say radically new things -- you will establish a familiarity with the text from what you’ve already read in several other books on music. While the first part of the book, The Experience, is dense with abstraction, the second part, The Context, comes alive with historical details made thought provoking with Krishna’s perspective of it. Krishna devotes much time to the ‘raga’ and the way it needs to be constructed, and makes it central to his discourse. In this direction, Krishna coins the term ‘art music’ which he says is emotional representation dissociated from lyrical content. Even as he extensively deliberates on how the raga can be a complete musical text in itself, he progresses to strangely disagree with Ilaiyaraja’s treatment of “Mari Mari Ninne.” Contradicting his own observations, he says by changing the raga to Saramati, the integrity of Tyagaraja’s kirtana was compromised. Retracing the way caste and gender has worked in the last 100 years, Krishna’s anger and disappointment is palpable, even as he urges to make Karnatik music an inclusive space. The reading of the book becomes a tad tedious by its near absence of examples.
Krishna can provoke you, shake you out of your comfort zone. You can wholly disagree with him, but you won’t disagree that Krishna’s engagement is dynamic. You may go to a concert and wonder why Krishna cannot give you a complete experience like before, but Krishna is not the one to be lulled by success and fame or formula. He will challenge himself and make sure you know he’s exploring – he will do it on the concert stage, in the presence of all. Krishna challenges you to engage with him, his music and the society at large.
A Southern Music is testimony to his passionate relationship with Carnatic music.