In an age when every third person looks over their shoulder and into their neighbours’ eyes for the smallest reaction to the most inane statement, an artiste who, with an unflinching gaze, does not hesitate to pronounce himself arrogant does stand out.
“Artistes are very easily arrogant, because we have at least 50 people around us telling us we are the best in the world. We live in this bubble,” says T.M. Krishna or TMK, one of the city’s favoured Carnatic musicians.
On a Saturday morning, TMK bounds into the plush ambience of Anokhi Coffee Shop on Chamiers Road. Over steaming cups of tea, he then holds forth, eloquently and unhesitatingly, on a mélange of topics, talking in a voice that has charmed aficionados for over two decades.
We launch the conversation with his perspective on music as a healing power and as an instrument to build bridges. Last year, TMK was the first Indian musician in 30 years to travel to Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.
He tries to evocate all that the trip meant to him: “I don’t know what I really gave to people there. I think the journey was a huge game-changer in my mind.”
Even while maintaining that it is difficult to box music’s functionality in one’s life, TMK concedes this dual role.
For someone who is in a profession that involves constant travelling, the novelty of new places soon wears off, as TMK himself points out. “That was a journey I was excited about. It was like being in a very similar social set-up but at the same time seeing people who have a completely different perspective of what life is. That’s experiential.”
Describing the journey as a learning experience, he says, “I learnt so much — about myself, my arrogance, my intellectualization. I believe that made me a better person in some ways, but that’s for the future to say.”
Later in our conversation, when I asked him, “You said it has made you a better person,” he laughed. “Hopefully. I didn’t say it has.” He talks about the impact the trip had on him as a person and on his arrogance.
When he describes an experience with a fan there, who thanked him for making the journey, it becomes clear that the gratified appreciation that he received in the strife-stricken country struck a chord in him. “The fact was that it was not about me, but about the music. I probably did a decent job,” he laughs.
TMK comes across as someone who does not give unwarranted regard to the reception of his opinions. Carnatic music fans who frequent the sabhas in the December season would be familiar with the spectacle of an exodus soon after the thaniyavarthanam starts. TMK has been known as one of those artistes who do not let it pass, unremarked upon.
Last December, at Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, when the mridangam thani started and a large part of the audience started trooping out — at this point, TMK intersperses the recollection with a “Did I scream?” — he very calmly held up a hand, signalling his accompanying artiste to stop the recital. The concert did not resume until everyone who was trying to leave the hall did just that.
“A friend of mine once joked that the only thing I haven’t done in a concert is to point at someone and say ‘Stand up on the bench’. It’s not personal hurt. I just think we need better decorum. It is not my intention to embarrass anyone,” he says. His reasoning seems to define him as a team player, someone who cares about audiences’ regard for instrumentalists.
Having been born and brought up in Madras, and made his mark in the Chennai of later years, TMK swears by the city’s encompassing role in his life and career, and as a stage for performing art. “I believe that in this country today, if there is a place that can be called a city of art and culture, it’s Chennai. The idea of openness to art has always existed.”
Remarking upon the endless debate on Chennai’s moorings in tradition and a resulting lack of openness, he says, “Yes, sometimes we are not as open as say, Bangalore. I can’t go at seven o’clock to a bar and have a drink in Chennai. I find it a problem personally, but at a larger spectrum of things, I don’t know how much of a problem it is. Maybe there is something about being a little slow.”
The conversation then meanders to more personal aspects of his life. Asked about his mother and her influence in his life, TMK says “My wife tells me that all the energy I have is because of my mother. She’s done crazy things in life — a business, starting a music school, having a crèche, and now she runs a school for tribal kids near Anaikatti.”
A product of ‘The School’, TMK fondly recalls his experience in the ‘home away from home’. “The school and teachers have played a very important role in the way I think. I can’t deny that.”
The egalitarian character of the KFI institution seems to have seeped through to other areas of his growing-up years as well.
The home atmosphere he describes would be enviable to even someone of generation Y. “The whole process of trying to understand things through serious questions was a part of every conversation at home. There were hardly any hierarchical boundaries. My mother handed me my first glass of beer,” he says.
He seems to have carried this liberal approach forward, to the next generation. Asked about his two young daughters, and his influence on them, TMK says unequivocally, “Neither my wife, Sangeetha, nor I expect them to follow in my footsteps. They are sensitive to music, dance and art, and that’s something we like. We don’t put any pressure on them.”
The vocalist describes himself as someone who does not do too many things. “I think all the stuff I do are within a certain framework of ideas that I think are important. I do a lot of things within that spectrum and sometimes it gets stressful,” he says. A self-proclaimed fan of cricket, he ruefully comments on the fact that he watches much less of the sport these days. “I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because there aren’t enough test matches. I don’t watch T20,” he says.
When asked if he reads, he confesses that he doesn’t, not too much. “But I do dabble in reading. I usually read serious books — on history, society, philosophy to an extent, politics and economics. My books are heavy and things where you read the same page four times and still don’t get what the guy is trying to say.” He names one of the two books he is currently reading — Ideas by Peter Watson and another one on Namalwar by A.K. Ramanujam. Unable to recollect the name of the book he is currently reading, he promises to message me when he gets home.
The conversation winds down a few minutes later and TMK leaves in much the same fashion he arrived: with barely-held in energy and in a hurry to keep another appointment (but not before offering me a lift).
A couple of days later, I get a text message from him: ‘Hymns of the drowning. A.K. Ramanujam’.
He had kept his word.
Keywords: T.M. Krishna