T.M. Krishna, one of the most iconic musicians of this generation, says that he is not interested in proving his integrity to anyone. The second edition of his book A Southern Music, The Karnatik Story, will be released in Bangalore on March 26
A Southern Music is a huge leap from Voices Within which you co-authored with Bombay Jayashri. What made writing this book imperative?
Voices Within was a completely different idea, a completely different kind of book. Telling the life-stories of seven great musicians was our way of mapping the Karnatik landscape as it evolved over the last century. It was a tribute and a thank you.
A Southern Music was born out of my questioning my own existence, beliefs, conditioning and understanding. Writing a book was not the goal of these questions. They were and are part of my life’s journey. Exploring them in A Southern Music was my way of trying to understand several specifics as well as the whole being of Karnatik music and something beyond as well. The book is about music, but takes a look at life through the window of Karnatik music. As an artiste I feel life through art. At the same time in my relationship with the art and beyond, I am aware that I am trapped within the same insecurities and insensitivities that we all possess. I have tried to understand this world through music’s journey and practice. Grasping its roots, trunk, branches, leaves, flowers and its various colours through the seasons has given me an insight into the art, into the world it inhabits and me, the observer. Through this journey I was placing myself within and outside the art.
Isn’t music itself the philosophy of a musician?
What you are saying is true. But is it also not important for the musician to spend time in understanding what it is that he is expressing as his philosophy? We could extend your statement and say that any individual’s philosophy of life is revealed in the way he pursues his career, nourishes his talent or leads his life. So why does one need to question it or understand it? Isn’t introspection into our life a bare minimum requirement to leading a complete life? We do it not to deconstruct the philosophy but to comprehend its various shades and interpretations, all of which exists within the individual. This is what we all need to do as individuals to understand our movements in life. If we do not, then we will be lost or remain ignorant of life beyond our own selfish actions. It is exactly the same with music. We learn music from a guru, imbibe his or her philosophy, hone our skill, perform, learn more, perform even more and so life goes on. In all this do we remain truly in contact with music? How much do we understand about why we do certain things in certain ways? Why do we even sing? How serious is our engagement with the art? These are questions I feel I need to ask myself. I cannot live a life with the arrogance that my music reveals my philosophy. Every musician need not write a book, but every artist must explore questions that lead to understanding himself and the art that has given him so much.
Your book is a combination of musical theory and experiences from your own personal practice and outlook. What kind of preparation went into the making of this book?
Like I said before, I never intended to write this book. It was coincidental that when I was studying, thinking and discussing these matters within my close circle, HarperCollins asked me to write a book on the Karnatik tradition.
I had begun studying music history and was researching many aspects of raga, tala, composition and improvisation out of my own urge to understand their present form better. This process continued for the book. I discussed various aspects with scholars and musicians and asked them specific questions depending on the inputs I was looking for. I must say that everyone was more than gracious with their his or her thoughts and opinions. , which helped me formulate my arguments with greater specificity. The book itself took about a year and half to write. I somehow managed to write in-between concerts, while travelling and I did take some weeks off to escape to a little cottage, away from the madding crowd.
Can ‘tradition’ and ‘social needs’ be two different things? While on the one hand you concede that tradition is something that is constantly evolving and reinventing itself, you also say that tradition must not compromise to meet social needs. Isn’t every individual a carrier of certain politics and doesn’t he thereby influence tradition even when he strictly chooses to remain within it?
Tradition exists very much within the paradigm of society and therefore is influenced by social and political movements. That being the case, tradition is also manipulated by the powerful within the social paradigm and hence can and does ignore larger realties of society. This we have to accept. Tradition is therefore not in isolation but is being constructed to suit a certain class in society. Here it also becomes necessary to wonder whether this construction should be referred to as tradition? So I am not saying that tradition is independent of society, I am saying that since it is dependent, it is also exploited. Why is it that women are treated with such scant respect in many Hindu households while goddesses Durga, Parvati are so revered? How do we reconcile this contradiction? As much as all of us exist within a social construct our actions do not always reflect the realities of the society around. This we need to revisit.
You are perhaps the most vocal musician of our times. From Kasab to cricket, you show an urgency to respond. Even within the music world, you keep addressing issues of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. Is it a lonely battle?
I have not felt lonely, as I never expected anyone to come to my side and support me. I have had some very close friends with whom these conversations have constantly happened and will continue to do so. They have held me together. But I would be lying if I did not say that there are times when I feel a little sad. The sadness does not come from the fact that people have not supported me when I stuck my head out, but more from the fact that most are not willing to engage in direct discussions on these subjects. I know that some feel that many of the ideas I have put across are unnecessary or frivolous or even part of a PR strategy! I will not waste my time in trying to prove my integrity. In general, the classical music world lacks the courage and moral strength to face critical issues. We live in a self-absorbed world.
During the course of your book, you express your problems with a range of things -- how music is understood/perceived, how it is practiced vis-a-vis how it should be practiced, consumed, notion of bhakti, caste, your differences with modern film music making use of the classical idiom.... and more. Time and again, during various points in history, musicians have felt this deep chasm between music as an idea and its existence in the social world. Many musicians have become embodiments of change and have altered the course of history. Do you believe in action of this kind?
I don’t’ agree that the actions of musicians have reconciled the differences between the music and the complexities of its social existence. Rather, I believe that musicians have only managed to perpetuate the discriminations that existed in society. Sometimes they practiced subtle bigotry in order to continue the Brahmin domination of Karnatik music. This is also true of the way women were treated by the leading men within the Karnatik world. They may have spoken highly about musicians of the Isai Vellalar or devadasi communities, but everything stopped there. Only about 18 non-Brahmins and nine women (taking duet singers together) have received the coveted Sangita Kalanidhi title in 84 years. If musicians were embodiments of change then we would today have a far more egalitarian musical environment. If anything the Karnatik music world became more insular and closed. Hopefully things will change soon.
This is perhaps the first time a musician has written a book of this nature. What has been the response?
There has been a wide range of responses. From anger and fear to great joy and excitement. Some are very happy that I have challenged the status quo, that I have raised valid questions about the performance, ragas etc. They have agreed on my comments on gender, but there are also those feel that my only objective is ‘Brahmin bashing’ which is a fashionable vocation today. From outside the Karnatik world there have been some moving emails and letters. Some have thought that each chapter ought to be a separate book, some say my writing is lousy but some others love my style. A few readers have said it is philosophical, very dense, and technical, others have expressed their admiration! I am very happy that the book has reached readers with diverse areas of interest. We all need not agree, but all of us have to engage and that I think is happening.