TN Krishnan's music is a lesson in the aesthetic value of restraint, for Carnatic artistes to reflect on and emulate

Noted violin maestro and Padma awardee TN Krishnan passed away in Chennai at the age of 92, on Monday, 2 November.

Lakshmi Sreeram November 03, 2020 20:47:43 IST
TN Krishnan's music is a lesson in the aesthetic value of restraint, for Carnatic artistes to reflect on and emulate

TN Krishnan. Image via Twitter/@VPSecretariat

Carnatic violinist par excellence, Sangeeta Kalanidhi TN Krishnan has passed on to make music in the celestial spheres, leaving the world of Indian classical music to mourn another loss in 2020.

Shuddhamaana sangeetattakku naan adimai” — this statement by the maestro, declaring his veneration of “pure music”, perhaps captures the essence of his music. What did he mean by purity?  A sincere and intense engagement with the fundamentals of music — sruti, laya and raga — to evoke the raga’s essence or bhaava. And if TN Krishnan must be admired for just one thing, it is such an engagement.

One of the many illustrious musicians from God’s own country who enriched Carnatic music, TN Krishnan was born into a musical family in Tripunithura, Kerala. His father Narayana Iyer was a musician himself, and Krishnan’s first guru. Krishnan’s sister, Dr N Rajam, went on to learn from Pt. Omkarnath Thakur, and to become an ace Hindustani violinist.

On Firstpost: TN Krishnan, legendary violinist and Padma Bhushan awardee, passes away aged 92

Krishnan made rapid progress and was hailed as a child prodigy. He started performing from the age of eight in and around his native town until he accompanied the maverick genius Flute Mali (TR Mahalingam) in Thiruvananthapuram.  Mali was so impressed with the youngster’s violin playing and grasp of the musical idiom that he arranged to have Krishnan perform in Madras, the hub of Carnatic music. Following the concert, other offers started pouring in and Narayana Iyer moved to Madras with his family to support his son’s career which steadily rose, placing TN Krishnan among the all-time greats of Carnatic music.

TN Krishnan belonged to the “violin trinity” with Lalgudi Jayaraman and MS Gopalakrishnan. Each had a unique style and evolved a technique to suit their musical temperament and aesthetic. All were giants in their vidwat, their hard work, and performing skills and instincts. To translate the Tamil expression ‘sangeedatille oorinavaa’: they were soaked in music.

The violin has a dominating presence in the world of Carnatic music as the most preferred melodic accompaniment. A Carnatic ensemble is small — a lead performer, percussive accompaniment and melodic accompaniment; unlike Hindustani concerts, accompanists in Carnatic music — both melodic and percussive — have a very visible or audible presence. This also contributes to the more “busy” feel in a Carnatic concert.

What is accompaniment in Carnatic music? Since the music is not a matter of playing set pieces —even compositions are handled with subtle differences — there is an element of the unknown, the unexpected. There is then rarely complete convergence of the vocalist or lead performer and the accompanying violin. When the violinist has honed her skills of anticipation and response then she is indeed able to shadow very closely, so that it sounds like another voice, of a different timbre certainly, but singing the same music.

Besides training rigorously in all aspects of the music, the violinist must also develop the art and skill of accompanying. This happens by simply playing with great masters. TN Krishnan had the immense fortune of playing with all the great masters of the “Golden age of Carnatic music” — Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, GN Balasubramaniam, TR Mahalingam, and many others.

Both Ariyakudi and Semmangudi were masters of brevity and Krishnan’s own sense of proportion and brevity was no doubt honed under their influence. Speaking of Ariyakudi’s sense of proportion and not overdoing any aspect of presentation, Krishnan had said, “I learnt to project the essence of a raga in a short and crisp manner with the raga chaaya evident in the first stroke itself.”

Raaga chaaya — shadow/shade of the raga — is an elusive but very real thing that all musicians seek or must seek.  Like all metaphors it can be construed in different ways: what you play or sing must at all times cast the shadow of the raga in the listener’s mind or that the music must flower under the shade of the Raga devata’s grace.

And this he had, according to his student, Sriram Parasuram. “Krishnan Sir had the grace of the raga devatas and he could evoke the rakti or the essence of ragas like Suruti or Anada Bhairavi or Devagandhari with his simple and unostentatious raga essays,” Parasuram notes. “He needed no showmanship to deliver profoundly moving music.”

His violin’s tonality was another inimitable aspect of his music. “Tonality does not just come from the instrument, but with what the musician brings of himself while playing the instrument. It is as much a matter of the mind and the spirit as it is of the physical instrument. He was widely sought after as an accompanist because of the sweetness of that tone, his tunefulness and also his respecting the kutcheri dharma of not overshadowing the lead performer,” says Parasuram.

Though TN Krishnan was careful to not overstep the role of an accompanist, his accompaniment resulted in memorable, celebrated ensembles, says violinist Lalgudi GJR Krishnan: “People came to listen to a Semmangudi-TN Krishnan-Mani Iyer combo. It was not just the lead performer who was the star, as it is today in most cases.”

Lalgudi Krishnan too speaks of the pristine purity of TN Krishnan’s music. “He would play the same compositions we have heard him play several times, but each time it emerged fresh. He once remarked that after several decades of performance, he was still discovering new facets of a composition like the Bhairavi ata tala varnam.”

TN Krishnan was forever engaging with the vitals of the music — tone, pitch, raga bhava.  His music was devoid of the dazzling virtuosity of an MS Gopalakrishnan or the expansiveness of a Lalgudi Jayaraman; rather, his musical essays were marked by simplicity and elegance of expression which bristled with the raga’s essence in every note and every movement. For him, less indeed was more.  And for the current and future generations of Carnatic performers, his music is a lesson in the aesthetic value of such a restraint, which is well worth reflecting upon and emulating.

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Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at larasriram14@gmail.com

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