Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna, 39, on his decision to stay away from Chennai’s kutcheri circuit from this season, his rejection of the conservative tradition and why not all forms of music will accrue a huge following.
Your announcement about staying away from singing during the music season in Chennai this year has created quite a controversy. Some say you are breaking the mould, others accuse you of disrespecting classical music itself. What prompted your decision?
Carnatic music exists beyond festivals or the actions of an individual such as myself. I wouldn’t say I am breaking a mould, but I am certainly making a break, for myself. I feel very deeply about music and I am, after deep reflection, taking a step out of respect for music. I have never, in any statement, said that the Chennai sabhas or the December season need to be discarded. I recognise that they are an integral part of the music environment but I am severely critical of a lot of things that go on within the present musical environment. I recognise that by having gone along ‘silently’ with those (discrepancies) over the decades, I am complicit in it. If some think I have condemned the music season, then they have not read me correctly, I have actually condemned myself. Of course, many don’t agree with me, and that is wonderful, because it allows for multiple narratives and discussions.
Your relationship with your audience and fellow musicians has never been smooth. You have been accused of tampering with tradition, of being modern. How easy or difficult has it been for you to deal with these?
Constructing a discourse by placing the modern and traditional as opposites is flawed. It is from revisiting the past, beyond our own predispositions and habituations, that we know tradition. The ‘modern’ evolves from this realisation.
What do you feel is the objective of classical music? How do you view it in a social, political and economic context?
‘Classical’ is a problematic word, hence I will give it a pass! Forms such as Hindustani, Carnatic, western classical music and jazz do not have any social, political or religious intent. This makes them very different from gospel music or social music. We should call them ‘art music’. But this does not mean that they have not reacted to the society within which they have been constructed. This makes for very intriguing negotiations, changes and even manipulations that have a deep impact on the aesthetic intent of the music. So, it is imperative that the community should constantly interrogate these intersections. To me, ‘art music’ is far more democratic than ‘classical’, which is a socio-political formation.
Many maestros believe in so-called ‘divine interventions’ while creating music on stage. You don’t…
Let me put it this way: I don’t believe in the divine as a spiritual or religious experience. But music does allow you to come in contact with the intangible and abstract, where, at least for a few moments, you ‘experience’ without conditioning.
Why is the notion of exclusivity still attached to classical music?
First, let us accept that not all forms of music are going to get a following of lakhs of people. Carnatic music is not a candidate in an election! It is high time we seriously engage with ideas such as exclusivity, appropriation, ownership, ideas on public spaces and socio-political-cultural barriers with more nuance and humility. Loving this art is not just about having the interest, dedication and commitment to involve ourselves in it. It is about negotiating the political and social layers in it. What we see as free and normal is many times self-serving and closeted. I know the music is still going to be niche, but the question is who comprises the niche? There are people engaging in serious art across societal/caste/religious/class spectrum, but feel excluded from the Carnatic world. Why? Let us also remember that many art forms that we don’t call classical need even more nuanced engagement than the so-called classical. The other argument — that the classical will only address the educated — is fallacious and Machiavellian because both these words — ‘classical’ and ‘education’ — come from positions of privilege. Is not the season the best time to extend our hands to everyone and look at ourselves in the mirror? We all need to take time to inquire.
You’re considered to be a haughty, ‘argumentative’ musician. Do you feel that your opinions are misunderstood and hence the allegations?
I am an argumentative musician. Haughty? I don’t know! But the argument is with myself since I am part of everything I observe. So I am as flawed as everyone else. All of us went out there to perform or listen to music. What I have said was discussed privately, sometimes, in hushed tones at home. Even worse, many of us found it convenient to insulate ourselves in the guise that we are getting the music that we love. I don’t expect anyone to come to my defence. Let us all start becoming a little more honest about the music and its context, that’s all I ask. I think we have all been living in an ivory tower for too long.
You call yourself a traditionalist, but your approach to music is non-conformist.
I am a traditionalist in the sense that I make a serious attempt to keep true to the intent of Carnatic music. But I am not a conformist since I believe that a lot of the music today is conformism, with very little to do with the aesthetic intent of the music. I must add here that I am not encouraging the ‘be different’ attitude. I want each one of us to discover the music beyond our own externally-constructed limitations.
But do you think your non-participation will achieve anything?
I don’t think my non-participation will change anything, but it has triggered reflection and a conversation. Anyone who knows my work knows that I have been working in my own way to address the issues I have raised. Through a trust, we have funded the musical education of economically underprivileged students and provided concert opportunities to unknown musicians. I have tried creating access to various art forms, many unheard and non popular, cutting across class and caste barriers through a festival called Svanubhava. Carnatic musician Sangeetha Sivakumar (my wife) and I have tried reviving the performing arts in the temples of Tamil Nadu. Last year, some of us conducted an art festival at a fishing village in Chennai. There have been other initiatives too. But the truth is that many of these have been done in spurts and I need to relook at them. I do have some ideas on what we can do to change things for artists, the core Carnatic audience, music education for a wider spectrum of society and to enable people beyond Carnatic music’s inner circles to be touched by this wonderful art form. I hope to work with artists and sabhas to change things. It will take a long time but I am not in any hurry.