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‘The word classical can be burdensome’

Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna on why he wants to dispel the idea that his music is exclusive, and his new book

Thodur Madabusi Krishna’s impassioned un-concerts evoke both thunderous applause and sensitive silences. At 38, he is that rare Carnatic vocalist who has boldly rejected and criticised the kutcheri format for its productisation of classical music and its Brahminical hangover. He has taken the alapana — a creative, free-form delineation of the raga usually sung as an improvisational prelude to the kriti, the most popular compositional form in the Carnatic music repertoire — and wrenched it free of its moorings. He continues the controversial discourse in his new book, A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story (HarperCollins). Excerpts from an interview:

What is it like to be a star in the Carnatic music industry?
It is interesting to be viewed as being different. Because of that people probably don’t expect many things of me that they do of other stars.
For musicians, performance is a big high. Tell me who wouldn’t want thousands of people applauding. Adulation is a wonderful thing, but you have to know that it can disappear tomorrow. You have to see that you are so fortunate to be able to touch, hold, feel and comprehend music in your own way. As long as you feel that, you can handle people falling at your feet. Distancing yourself from the art is very important. It is the art that is doing this to everybody including you.

You talk about “the heavy mantle of class-ical music”. Do you feel burdened by it?
Yes, I feel the word classical can become burdensome. Shastriya sangeet means something that is old, something that has tradition, something that is pristine, something that cannot be touched. It is a sociological term that implies exclusivity and class difference. I find art music a far more acceptable expression.

With your music, and now in your book, you have questioned the purpose and the social context of classical music, and risked antagonising a section of the conservative Carnatic music community. How has it been received?
For several years now, I have been inquiring about art music, its philosophy and aesthetics. When HarperCollins asked me if I would write a book, I thought it would be good to look at the art form through the eyes of an insider and to explore questions like why music is practised in a certain way and how art gives artistes a certain view of life. It was not an easy book to write. The book can also be read from the angle of sociology, and can appeal to any serious reader of art and philosophy.
From within the community, I know that many people are upset. I know people are dissecting it. I only hope that it leads to some discussion about form, philosophy and context. There is probably one section of musicians that agrees with me on many controversial things but they, for their own reasons, will not say it. Outside the community, all kinds of people have picked it up; some have said that it has helped them question what is happening in their own fields.

You say you don’t sing for the audience. Yet you are on stage about 70 times in a year, have an active Facebook fanpage and are involved in outreach activities.
I don’t think there is any dichotomy in this. When I do outreach programmes, I am not aiming to garner an audience. I think it is important to share art music and to make it accessible. I think art music is so precious that I can’t be selfish about it. My whole effort of talking about it or writing about it is to break the idea that it is something exclusive.
There is also a festival called Svanubhava that (Bombay) Jayashree and I started six years ago in Chennai to break barriers between musicians. Also, my wife Sangeetha Sivakumar, who is a Carnatic musician, and I are trying to revive the arts in temples.

You have famously rejected the format of the kutcheri, which seeks to please with its tightly-packed sequence of compositions arranged in a certain way. What have you achieved by breaching the bounds of the format?
I have rejected the idea of the kutcheri because it fixes Carnatic music into one single format, structure and experiential dictum. The word also comes with sociological baggage, it implies a Brahmin, upper-class audience.  I started making changes to the format about eight years ago. It was music season in Chennai and in the middle of the concert, I sang a varna — usually sung as a fast-paced warm-up piece — in raga Kanada. I was not battling the structure then, I just sang it because it came to me. That is where the path of discovery started. It raised a string a questions in my mind: Why do I sing an alapana? Do I sing it to highlight the raga in connection with the composition? Or is the alapana a complete form? These are as much aesthetic questions as they are questions of philosophy and technique. I realised that the kutcheri was actually hurting the music itself. It had turned a celebration of many facets into a well-packaged product. It is very saleable. But because of the format, the way we perceive a raga has changed, the idea of the alapana has changed. My path is not about shuffling the order of pieces in a concert, but about creating an unfettered artistic space for each art piece to be expressed in its completeness.

Are Carnatic musicians moving towards a faster music today? Is there a lack of repose in the music?
Sometimes, you hear even superfast phrases delivered peacefully and that is when there is a certain stillness in the music, a balance. Therefore, speed is not the problem. The issue is with the aesthetic attitude of musicians. Today, music lacks the sense of calm, irrespective of the pace. We don’t want silence. Because silence is when you have to engage more. This is true of how we experience life today. Listeners are not to be blamed for this. Musicians today chase decibel highs and speed, with the anxiety that people are getting bored. But I must say that there are always exceptions to such generalisations.
Comparatively, Hindustani musicians have been able to retain a certain repose. But even there, I do find that artistes produce music in a state of agitation, generating artificial climaxes. The product called ‘Indian classical music’ seems to be taking over.

You are accused of being arrogant and opinionated, and of being a showy performer. Where does this come from?
I come off as arrogant because I speak what’s in my head and I don’t layer it with niceties. I have a lot of opinions, but I am not opinionated. I am a very physical person. My hands will be all over the place during a performance. None of this is intended to make a big drama of it. I am a loud person and I have a loud voice, so my opinions sound louder too.
People find it difficult to reconcile my personality with my music today. There seems to be a contrast — there is this guy who is perceived as brash, arrogant, who likes to dress well, talks urban English and likes his whisky. And here he is telling you that music lies in silence. He isn’t religious but he’s talking about philosophy.

Is it true that you don’t plan your concerts? How do your accompanists cope?
I’m very unregulated as a human being. I like to work with an empty slate and write as I go. It gives me direction. When I go to a concert, I tune the tambura, sit down, and usually, something comes to me.
Part of the intensity of the music is when an incredible phrase comes out of the violinist. In December, at a concert at Krishna Gana Sabha, I sang Yamuna kalyani. My good friend and violinist RK Shriramkumar played Yamuna kalyani. After that I felt I should not sing. So I asked him to continue playing, and he played Krishna nee begane. He asked me to join in later and I did towards the end. His music that day was very special.

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