The extraordinary circumstances which saw T M Krishna sing Saturday evening at the Garden of Fives Senses in Delhi influenced the music he presented. Krishna is one of the finest Carnatic musicians of his generation, but the fare he offered the large crowd on Saturday was far more eclectic than what is usually heard at Carnatic kutcheris.
In the original plan, Krishna was one of the performers at the Music and Dance in the Park festival organised by the Spic-Macay-Airport Authority of India (AAI). After trolls targeted Krishna, for reasons including singing in praise of Jesus Christ and Allah, the AAI backed off. The AAP government stepped in and offered a stage to Krishna. So, the singer got to sing in the city on the same day, same time, though on a different stage. The concert, expectedly, became a political statement for the host, the performer and the audience. The music could not have but reflected the politics immanent in the event. Krishna did not spell out his politics at the concert, but the music spoke for him.
He started with an all-denominational prayer that Mahatma Gandhi had instituted at the Sabarmati Ashram. It set the spiritual tone for the evening as he then moved to an abhang by the 17th century Bhakti saint, Tukaram. Ba Re Panduranga was followed by a vachana of the 12th century poet-reformer, Basaveswara, after which he moved to the Kannada composer, Kanaka Dasa. He recalled that Kanaka Dasa, who was born in the shepherd community, was refused entry into Udupi Sri Krishna Temple by the Brahmin priests, whereupon he sang Baro Krishnayya (Come, Krishna), a beautiful composition in Raga Maand. A moved Krishna shifted his position to give darshan to his devotee. At once a tale of exclusion and discrimination, the Kanaka Dasa story is also about the power of music — how music can defeat the worst kind of intermediaries and establish a direct relationship between the seeker and the truth. Baro Krishnayya could have been Delhi’s invitation to the singer who was almost denied of a stage for consistently speaking out against discrimination of all kinds.
Thereafter, he picked up a unique Tyagaraja Kriti in Raga Begada for elaboration. Tyagaraja, the doyen among Carnatic musicians, was an ascetic and a devotee of Rama. But Nadopasana is about music itself; it speaks about music as sadhana and an end in itself, a path to bliss, as music scholar Indira Menon writes in her monograph on Tyagaraja. The saint-composer reminds us that even the Trinity — Vishnu, Siva and Brahma — worships naada (sound), the import being that the pursuit of music is a higher religion that transcends petty sectarian concerns. The singing of Nadopasana was almost a statement of intent.
A Kabir, a less-known Malayalam film song on Christ, Kanivolum Kamaneeya Hridayam, a Perumal Murugan poem, and the Tamil song, Allavai Naam Thozhuthal Sugam Ellame, popularised by Nagoor Hanifa, an Arabic song Salatullah salamullah, the Narsinh Mehta bhajan popularised by Gandhi, Vaishnavo janato, the Bengali composition of D L Roy, Dhono dhanno pushpe bhora, followed and Krishna wound up the concert with Raghupati Raghava Rajaram. A modern composition that made its way in between, on popular demand, was the iconic Poromboke song, that celebrates the idea of commons. Commons, Krishna said while introducing the song, was about privilege sharing over possession. Later, Krishna said he originally had planned to sing Subramania Bharati, the radical Tamil voice, but chose Poromboke instead since the audience demanded it. Bharati would not have minded for Poromboke echoes his political vision.
The central idea of the concert, it seems, was to celebrate a more inclusive form of spirituality that rejected exclusivist notions of identity. The choice of compositions by Bhakti saints, Basavanna to Tuka, Kanaka Dasa, Tyagaraja and so on, and the references to Gandhi offered a radical political tradition through musical compositions; it celebrated the diversity of linguistic and spiritual worlds, rejected hate and hierarchy. However, it must be said that the two compositions that often feature in traditional Carnatic concerts — Baro Krishnayya and Nadopasana — were the standout pieces on Saturday as well: They told you why the musically literate conservative, even when he dislikes Krishna’s political views, is forced to accept his mastery over the art.
In the past, there was M S Subbalakshmi, whose concerts were a carefully curated exhibition of India’s multiculturalism. She would sing a Meera bhajan, Surdas, Kabir in her concerts and her eclectic choices earned her pan-Indian fame. T M Krishna is at the cusp of turning into a pan-Indian icon, a representative voice of not just a rich musical tradition but also of a radical cultural tapestry that privileges dissent and dialogue over social and political conformism. Baro Krishnayya, the stage is yours.