TM Krishna’s fearless classroom

TM Krishna

TM Krishna   | Photo Credit: Amar Ramesh

How often do you come across a Carnatic music masterclass that explores the ‘sound of gender’ or topics like ‘Who owns Karnatik music?’. Then again, when the teacher is TM Krishna, well known for engaging with, and dismantling, long-held notions on caste and gender privileges in art, you shouldn’t be surprised.

The musician and writer’s recent book, Sebastian and Sons, profiles the largely ignored Dalit Christian mridangam makers, highlighting their prodigious skills and struggles. Well received, the book, which released in February, initiated numerous discussions on knowldege, skill and caste. Krishna has consistently worked to expand the boundaries of classical music, with various initiatives such as Svanubhava (an annual festival crafted for students of performing arts), Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha (where gaana, percussion, Bharatanatyam, Tamil folk dance and more are given a stage), and performances with the Jogappas (transgender musicians).

With his latest endeavour, Masterclass with TM Krishna, he covers the socio-cultural aspects of classical music. “Honestly, I wouldn’t be as excited if it did not,” he tells me over the telephone. It would have been easy for him to follow a workshop format and teach five compositions. “There is nothing wrong in doing it, but when I’m teaching, I want to go beyond ‘this is an incredible kirtanam’ or ‘this composer is so great’. I want to explore ‘what is my relationship with music?”’ says the Magsaysay awardee.

Question without fear

It is this often overlooked intersection — between the aesthetic and socio-political aspects of the art form — that intrigues Krishna, 44. “Why do I like Kambhoji ragam more than Thodi? It is not just a preference or ‘taste’,” he says, adding, “When you cry listening to a composition, what is it that moves you? There is no absolute answer, but why not wonder?” To make this possible, he wants to create a space that fosters critical thinking. “You need to question fearlessly and to do that, you need a non-hierarchical relationship with the teacher.” Only then can we engage with music as a “living, social being”, rather than as something esoteric for which we need to build a specific skillset and enter an exclusive zone. “This is our relationship with Carnatic music now. One which is deeply problematic and keeps certain aspects of the music beyond the realm of questioning,” he argues.

The artiste at a concert

The artiste at a concert   | Photo Credit: S.Hariharan

The virtual model

Online music lessons are neither new nor unusual, and there has been a profusion during the Covid-19 lockdown. Rates vary widely, and depending on the seniority of the teacher, it could go up to ₹7,500 (approximately $100) for a private lesson. Krishna’s 12-session masterclass costs $500 (approximately ₹37,500) and can have a maximum of 25 participants, with the option of writing in confidentially for financial assistance. “I don’t want someone who can’t afford it to miss out. This is the first time I will be teaching online and also the first time I will be charging for lessons. So far, all my 16 students have given me what they wished, when they wanted to,” he says.

Having received over 140 registrations from India, the US and other countries, he has created a second class to accommodate various time zones. The sessions took Krishna two days to curate. “If someone signs up for six sessions, three will be on the experience of the technical, and three on the socio-cultural.” And they are open to anybody over the age of 15. Each one is designed to be 90 minutes, but “if it goes over, it goes over”, he laughs.

On the fringes

This ‘interdisciplinary approach’, Krishna believes, has not been tried in Carnatic music before. The idea is certainly ambitious: to bring together these supposedly independent silos, something that happens more readily in liberal arts programmes, or writing and film-making courses. When Krishna was a student, his own experience was far more conventional: a traditional and hierarchical music classroom. His classes are probably an exception, where something in the singing would trigger a discussion. A YouTube video from 2019, of a demonstration by him and his disciples at Ninasam, a cultural organisation in Karnataka, has them doing just that on stage, in front of an audience.

“Maybe this sort of thing happens more readily in art forms that are on the fringes,” he says. That’s because the practitioners and audience are in a location where they’re marginalised, and the political is an everyday battle. “That’s why their music, theatre and art reflect it robustly. Which is why any kind of challenge to authoritarianism and power comes from the voices on the margin. That’s their reality,” he says. “But wherever I sing from, whether it is the street corner or stage, my environment is culturally safe. My music does not need to engage in that fashion, and allows me a kind of escapism.” By expanding the syllabus in new and unexpected directions, he might just be able to fast-track the understanding of complex and contentious issues surrounding the art form. And this, in turn, could inform the singing and possibly influence how Carnatic music will be taught.

Krishna is hopeful that someone who attends the virtual classes will take the conversation “in more incredible directions, with far more maturity than I have”. “As long as parochialism, bigotedness and violence of thought are rooted out — and that includes puritanical notions about music — we’re moving,” he concludes.

Masterclass with TM Krishna will be held from August 17 to August 31. Details:

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Printable version | Sep 28, 2020 3:35:02 AM |

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