Virtuoso violinist T.N. Krishnan speaks to CHITRA SWAMINATHAN about his 70th year at the December Season and giving the violin an Indian voice

He converses in a gentle, measured manner. His impeccably eloquent violin is perched next to him on the spacious sofa in his away-from-the-bustle modern bungalow hugging the Thiruvanmiyur beach.

The serenity of the sea complements his composed persona. The distant whisper of the foam-crested waves provides an unobtrusive accompaniment as master-musician T.N. Krishnan strings his thoughts.

“From the pre-Independence to the liberalised era, it’s been a long performing journey, 77 years long. From a three-sabha sparsely-scheduled December Season to a frenzied 300-sabha fest, Margazhi is hardly a calendar month, it is a cultural continuum,” says the vidwan as we take the lift to the sprawling terrace for the photoshoot.

With the violin and bow in his hand, he continues, “My debut Season performance was in 1942 at The Music Academy that used to conduct its cutcheris then at Sundareswarar Hall in Mylapore. I accompanied Vellore Kumaraswamy Iyer, a disciple of Semmangudi Iyer. The academy was also known for its lec-dems that were attended by famed theorists and stalwart performers, who discussed, argued and debated various aspects of the art with honesty and seriousness.”

From a skilled accompanist, the ace violinist moved to centre-stage as a soloist, putting this western instrument to its many improvisational uses. He criss-crossed the country and travelled the world over with an engaging and convincing style that came through his intensely lyrical compositional structures and a purely native technique.

“Accompanying maestros such as Ariyakudi Ramanuja Aiyengar, G.N. Balasubramanian, Madurai Mani and ‘flute’ Mali was extremely challenging and creatively satisfying. Concerts were a collective effort. Expertise mattered, not hierarchy. So becoming a soloist was actually never on my mind. I made no conscious effort. It just happened. But it did not happen overnight. It’s the result of years of sustained sadhagam and a deep connect with the instrument. Training did not mean the guru would sit with you for hours and teach. Sishyas were expected to keep their eyes, ears and mind open to assimilate and internalise as much as they could. Now it’s become easier with virtual storage facility, where lessons are uploaded for future reference,” explains the veteran.

The past was ideal and the present holds immense promises. Change is inevitable, not always bad. Pointing at the maroon kurta he is wearing, Krishnan says, “Once you could not imagine going up on stage clad in such fancy colours. Not any more. Today sangeetham has made phenomenal vriddhi. There is a lot of awareness with abundant information available at a click. The audience is discerning and does not hesitate to express its opinion and point out a flaw. But audience response depends much on what we serve them. We need to help them experience classical music’s strikingly emotional qualities, rich texture and culturally significant technique without making it formulaic or watering it down.”

According to the octogenarian, an artiste should keep refining the method of presentation and approach. “I have been playing the Bhairavi varnam for almost 70 years. Even today when I go up on stage I think of newer ways to explore and engage with the ragam. You learn more and more about the system when you live with it wholeheartedly. You need to be incessantly enchanted by it to make your music vibrant and refreshing. In modern terminology, it is called job satisfaction,” he laughs.

When hybrid music has been making headlines, Krishnan continues his solo journey with enviable success. So how difficult has it been in this genre-bending time? “I am secure in my tradition. I have had westerners coming to me to learn the Carnatic style of playing the violin. The way we have adapted this western instrument, integrated it beautifully into our system and found a permanent place for it in cutcheris is our biggest achievement,” says Krishnan.

Experiments, according to him, can be indulged in for the sake of novelty for a brief period. One cannot sustain with patchwork artistry. “Wider appeal should come forth by establishing the authentic beauty of one’s genre. I understand it is hard to be indifferent to influences in this shrinking world. Take in only what is suitable. You need to be discriminatory. That is the only way to make your art identifiable, to impact minds, to touch souls or else it is not hard to get lost in the musical clutter.”

Any wonder, Krishnan still tugs at our heart strings?