Radical words, these. And there are more in T.M. Krishna’s book, to be released on December 16. In conversation with the musician.

What makes the chirping of some birds a song? What is the purpose of music? Does it matter whether you are a man or a woman in the world of Carnatic music? In his book A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story, (published by HarperCollins), T.M. Krishna writes of the history, evolution and grammar of his art and also grapples with questions about it. Excerpts from an interview:

What made you want to write a book like this? Why now?

Over the past few years, I have been thinking a lot about the philosophy of music. Why am I singing? What am I singing? I don’t believe in divine intervention of any sort, but it was during this time that my publishers said they wanted me to do a book on Carnatic music. I thought it was a great opportunity to gather my thoughts, read more, study more and see if there is a thread, a way to look at this whole thing. In many ways, this book — as much as it’s about music — is about myself as an individual, where I belong in my own sphere and in the larger sphere of society.

You espouse the concept of 'art music', i.e. giving the idea of emotion a representation in music. Isn’t all music art?

“Art music” is not a phrase I’ve created. It’s been around a long time. It is used in a specific aesthetic context here. It refers to music with itself as engine and itself as end — not something that satisfies a social or religious need. All music is art, but all art is not the same. It has a certain sociological, philosophical, aesthetic context and, of course, the aesthetics is built around why it exists. Look at qawwali. It is art. But it has a specific context. It is about religion, about the emotion involved in the religiosity. But ‘art music’ does not have an external goal per se. Its goal is to abstract the idea of emotion beyond you and me. For instance, love is an emotion. If you can look at love and if you can abstract it beyond its relationship with just ‘me’ or the self, I think that’s what art music does. If you look at a painting, there’s emotion in it. You feel it. But it’s not your emotion. It is in that paradigm that the term “art music” needs to be understood here.

The book is a mix of experiential (perhaps even existential) thoughts, philosophy, music history and theory. That’s very unusual.

For three months, I didn’t write a word. I only thought about how I was going to deal with it. I don’t think philosophy has any sense if it does not have a concrete existence. I can’t write about some whimsical idea in my head. If you take the philosophy of music, its concrete existence is in the aesthetic, structure, construction, and its sociological and historical context. So unless I tie all this together, there is no point in dealing with one aspect. There are some technical chapters that I would request even those who know Carnatic music to read for there are things they might not know or might find interesting. You need to know what the construction is like before you start looking beyond the construction. I needed to link all of this together to get a complete picture for myself as I wrote it. If I spoke about time, I had to speak about laya. If I spoke about laya I had to look at what laya has to do with the experience of art. And when I speak about the experience of art, I’m talking about the abstraction of art. And you come to the realm of philosophy. So you can’t disconnect any one of these aspects in a book like this.

The most interesting parts of the book, to me, are your essays on music — your musings on the Tamil Isai movement, on North American tours by artistes and e-gurus and Ilayaraja’s (in your opinion, wrongful) transposition of Mari mari nine from the raga Kamboji to Saramati. But to get to that, we have to go through chapters filled with the building blocks of svara, gamaka, raga... How much of this can be read and understood? Did you think about a companion CD?

We thought about it. I have written a very detailed piece on the raga. I have dealt with it in a very non-academic sense. But I can’t deal with it in a non-serious sense. Ultimately, music has to be experienced. Words are the worst way to describe art. But I think it’s important to try and imagine it. A reader not very familiar with Carnatic music will probably jump to the essays in the second section that deal with social issues, caste, religion, language, women, technology... But I think the preceding chapters can still give them a feel or a grasp of the music, an idea of its texture. The best thing that could happen is that the reader reads these early chapters and decides to go to a concert.

Yes, these chapters are useful. For instance, most of us know where the anupallavi comes in by listening to the song, but you explain what exactly one should look out for in the anupallavi, for a kind of alliteration called ‘dvitiyakshara prasa’. Did you have in mind a target reader?

This is not a book written for journals or research scholars. I think the target reader is anybody interested in serious art reading of any kind, even aesthetics or philosophy. There are a lot of questions in the book. The last section on history is the heaviest part. I can’t comment on what’s happening today if I don’t give a perspective on why it is what it is. I think the book has a lot for very different kinds of readers.

As a practising musician, did you worry about offering a ‘critique’ of the kutcheri today? There are parts, as when you refer to some kirtanas as ‘fillers’, or when you question the need for the violinist to follow the vocalist’s alapana — that could rile a certain kind of purist.

I have been raising many of these issues through my music. This is the first time I have written why I am doing what I am doing. I seriously feel that, as much as a lot of great things are happening in Carnatic music, serious introspection is an urgent need. We need to look at why we are singing what we are singing. We’re so used to looking at things a certain way that we are not able to see how much we are contributing to the idea of the music itself and to ask whether some things need to be altered — not for the sake of change, but for finding more integrity in what we are doing. We need to contemplate on the aesthetic intent of the music as a whole and also the aesthetic intent of every facet within the whole. For example, if we were to look at the alapana, we can very casually say that an ‘alapana is sung to explore the raga’ or ‘paint a picture of the raga’. But what does this really mean? We cannot stop our exploration at this superficial level. We need look at the raga, its flow, structure, history, evolution and its relationship with the methods of alapana presentation and whether there is integrity in the way we bring this together. This level of serious engagement is necessary for us to understand what we intend to do with the music we have received. The concert is a way of presentation and must seek to present the music in its completeness.

The important question is whether the way we present Carnatic music today really focuses on the music or whether it is just a form of entertainment that includes devotional content. I know it’s going to bother a lot of people. I hope it bothers them. I hope they disagree, because then we’ll at least talk about it. Let them tell me I’m wrong, but let them tell me what they are thinking. As long as this book makes people think, I’m fine with it.

There are other parts where you don the role of the purist yourself, when you say that gamakas sound contrived on a piano, or that when a scale shows up in a film song it is no longer a Carnatic raga.

We have an issue about what we consider music, and what we consider performance. The music — its form, history, integrity — is what I treasure. What we are stuck with is the kutcheri. As far as the kutcheri is concerned, I am willing to give it up. Because, after a point, I think the kutcheri has not looked at the music but got stuck in its own success story. And it is a success story. I will not deny that. But there is a problem.

A lot of people have said that I am changing the format in my concerts, but they need to look at it a little differently. It is not a question of format; it is a question of form. It is not a question of whether I sing the varnam first or last; it is a question of what is happening to the form of the art if you are choosing to present it a certain way. My idea is this: if I can retain the integrity of the form — the raga, the tala, the composer — that is, to me, an aesthetic experience of the art. I am not willing to sacrifice that for the sake of this success story, which is why I come off as a purist in certain things.And the kutcheri is a success story that overshadows everything else. I can sing the worst gamakas or destroy a raga but if I can package it interestingly into this success story, everything else is forgotten. This is where we are today, and it is, I think, a dangerous place position to be in. After my studies – I have studied raga history, tala history for about eight years – I think there are certain things that we need to revisit. I think there are things that need to be treasured. Develop the music – but hold on to what we had and then do it.

Let’s talk about the prescriptive parts, where you put forth your thoughts on what you think a concert should be like. You say, for instance, that “an art music presentation” has no room for light miscellanies like tukkadas, and that “a kutcheri is not a variety entertainment show or a circus presentation where you need to experience the frown of the lion and the snigger of a clown.”

The prescription is conceptual, and it comes back to the idea of art music and Karnatik music. Let’s take a Western classical concert. Every item is an intense piece of composition and music. Every item is presented with the same intensity, and the experience is as intense with a Schubert as with a Beethoven. You don’t have Beethoven being given as a filler, and you don’t have pieces towards the end just to tingle you before you head back home. Can you tell me why, in Carnatic music, these are necessary? If you want to call Carnatic music ‘devotional music’, then I can’t have this discussion with you. We’re looking at it from different angles. But if you want to treat Carnatic music as a conceptual and aesthetic art music form, then there’s no room for these fillers. I do not go to a concert for titillation. I go with the expectation that every piece is going to be an intense experience that’s respected as much by the artiste as the audience. Instead, we talk of fillers, as if they’re some fly-by-night operators. “All you guys can relax for a few minutes and then I’ll get back to serious business.” This is ridiculous. I still perform tukkadas. I’m fine with it, though one day I hope I can throw them away — but I don’t get it when people say “After all the heavy stuff, people need to go home with lighter ragas”. I don’t get this idea of one raga being heavy and serious and another being light and frivolous.

There are also some aspects to the book that have an IMO feel, like when you say “synthetic ragas like Dharmavati have been accepted though they do not contain aesthetic features of a raga.” Are these T.M. Krishna’s opinions?

No. These are backed by research and study. Other scholars hold these opinions too. The raga is a complex concept. Looking at the older ragas and how they have evolved, and what their aesthetic presentations are (technically and musicologically), I stand by that position when it comes to Dharmavati.

You don’t drop too many names — except, say, when you discuss MS Subbulakshmi and DK Pattammal in the context of women singers and what they brought to the Carnatic Karnatik tradition. When you discuss the concept of ‘intellectual music’, for instance, didn’t you feel like naming a singer or two who, in your opinion, achieved this?

I really didn’t think of it that way, now that you ask me. I have this habit of not including names in most pieces I write. Another reason is probably that if the reader does not know Carnatic Karnatik music I did not want too many names dropping off the page.

One of the most interesting sections is when you ask whether an atheist or a non-Hindu can be a Carnatic musician. Has this question haunted you for a while?

One of the reasons is my own idea of religion, religiosity and philosophy, and my (Jiddu) Krishnamurti background probably has a role to play. These questions have been in my head for a long time, and for a long time I couldn’t articulate my thoughts. I remember in the late 1990s when I knew I wasn’t religious. When I sang a kirtana, I used to grapple with the idea of people telling me I needed to know the meaning if I had to bring out the bhavam. This used to bother me because I may not really feel that way or believe in that sentiment. Does it make me disrespectful if I don’t understand it? Do I need to understand it? And gradually, these questions became louder. What happens when an atheist sings this music? How does an atheist look at it? I had friends from different religions and they did not understand one word of what I was singing. How do they deal with this music? That’s why I feel that the relationship between melody and text is far deeper than its linguistic meaning.

You divide the book into three sections. The Experience. The Context. The History. Does the reader have to read the book in a specific order, or can they flip back and forth? and still get something out of the book?

This is not a book that you can read at one shot. It’s a book you’re probably going to read slowly, probably reading some chapters again and again. I think the first three chapters are important. Though they are not specifically about CarnaticKarnatik music; they lay a basic aesthetic and philosophical foundation for the whole book. I would ideally ask the reader to read the first three chapters, and then take a call. The second section can be read by itself. But in the first section, there’s a building up of ideas and concepts, and I think those chapters need to be read together. But with the second section, you can go back and forth. The third section is completely optional. Everybody need not understand everything. It doesn’t matter. You could read a chapter, go and listen to a concert or hear watch a song on YouTube, and then come back to the book. I want people to just think and ask questions, and I don’t believe I have the answers — or at least, I hope I haven’t given any answers.

With the way you’ve been structuring your concerts these past few years, and now with this book, Your recent concerts, this book… Are you consciously interested in leaving behind a legacy? That T.M. Krishna didn’t just sing but actively shaped Carnatic music? Is this something conscious?

Honestly, the book and my music of late are part of the changes that have happened to me as a human being. It happened over many years, but some things come together at a certain time. I think my whole perspective of life is closely knit to what music means to me. I think whatever has changed in my music is closely wedded to the idea of what I believe life should be. I don’t know if I’ll leave behind a legacy. It’s not something I’m consciously going for. The greatest thing is the marvel of music, the fact that I can marvel at it. When I sing, I sometimes say aha — and people ask if I am saying it to myself. I’m just marvelling at the sheer beauty of that moment. That marvelling is, in many ways, the catalyst for this book.

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