A 'compulsive questioner': Magsaysay awardee TM Krishna talks Carnatic music and social reform

For one, Krishna is of the opinion that Carnatic music has propagated the culture of caste.

Apoorva Sripathi July 29, 2016 17:06:54 IST
A 'compulsive questioner': Magsaysay awardee TM Krishna talks Carnatic music and social reform

In December 2015, TM Krishna made the decision to withdraw from the December music season in Chennai; a decision he attributed to the inability to reconcile his "musical journey with that of the December season".

He posted his decision as a short note on Facebook, a medium he is well-versed with, as he is with Twitter.

I would like to inform all of you that henceforth (beginning December 2015) I will not be singing in Chennai’s December Music Season. Right from when I was five or six the ‘season’ has been part of my musical universe and I have learnt so much from musicians, musicologists, scholars and rasikas. Unfortunately at the place I am today I am unable to reconcile my musical journey with that of the December season. I have communicated this decision to the concert organizers. My growth in the field of music has been largely due to the sabhas of Chennai and over the years they have been most accommodative and graceful in accepting my varied requests.

I thank them and all of you for everything.

Warm Regards

T.M. Krishna

What was Krishna's reason behind this 'wild' decision? Can one expect him to be in attendance this season? 

Over email, Krishna responds. "I had announced last year that I will stop singing in the December season and I stand by the position. I hope that some initiatives are taken to address the issues that plague the music season and the Carnatic music world itself. If that happens maybe I will come back. But this is not about reserving a dateless return ticket on the same train, this is a request for a different kind of a journey, a journey of self-introspection."

This 'self-introspection' didn't come as a surprise to rasikas (connoisseurs of the arts), as Krishna or TMK as he's popularly known, is known to be a 'rebel' in the Carnatic music circuit. Livemint even called him the Carnatic music's stuntman.

Krishna, on his part, prefers calling himself a "compulsive questioner", rebelling against the label of rebel.

A compulsive questioner Magsaysay awardee TM Krishna talks Carnatic music and social reform

Photo: tmkrishna.com

For those who've regularly attended kutcheris (concerts) in Chennai, Krishna is best remembered as a nonconfirmist. In December 2013, while performing a three-hour concert at one of the sabhas in the city, the singer stopped midway citing that he was unable to continue, reducing those who had dressed up in stately silk saris and who were eager-to-put thalams (beats) to tears.

If that weren't enough, much to the chagrin of traditionalists, Krishna broke down the 'traditional format' of the kutcheri. The modern-day concert was formulated by Carnatic vocalist Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, The Hindu writes, with the focus on the singer and the instrumentalists as support. A traditional concert usually begins with a varnam (a form of song) and is followed by kritis (a composition of a longer format). Mid-kutcheri, a pallavi — at different speeds and tempos — is then rendered, where accompaniments come into focus. Then comes the tani avartanam, an extended solo by the percussionist, followed by a crescendo.

 

At a concert in Bengaluru, Krishna shifted the varnam to the middle of the concert — considered a blasphemy by connoisseurs of the aforementioned Carnatic music. His reason: that there was no hard-and-fast rule that varnams had to be rendered at the beginning, and that he was just innovating, according to the Livemint piece.

All this, coupled with the fact that he chose to withdraw from the December music season has earned Krishna the moniker of a rebel. Of someone who is cocky, given his lineage and the fact that he was the sishya of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, known as the patriarch of Carnatic music.

TMK writes in DailyO that the atmosphere of the Carnatic music world is so commodified and that's why he chose to quit singing professionally.

I grew up listening to concerts in the music season and my own evolution in the world of Carnatic music has been through the processes of this festival and therefore it would be dishonest on my part if I don't acknowledge that I have benefited from it, artistically and professionally. Yet I feel that the music season today has reached a point where music has almost disappeared from it. Perhaps I should say music has fled from it, because of the noise that pervades it; noise that comes from within the music and beyond.

He writes about how money is being spent in the name of donations and that things have gotten worse than they were in the 90s. Krishna questions that besides occupying a space in 'art', what else has the December festival done for music?

For one, Krishna is of the opinion that Carnatic music has propagated the culture of caste. In an interview with DNA, Krishna has this to say:

As much as Carnatic music is not economically elitist, there is a distinct caste-elitism in the Carnatic sabha culture. Sabhas are closely-held private precincts, not the public spaces they are meant to be. We need to speak to people outside the circle to sensitise ourselves to the upper-caste intimidation that the sabhas exude.

A compulsive questioner Magsaysay awardee TM Krishna talks Carnatic music and social reform

Photo: tmkrishna.com

It's true though. Tamil and Telugu Brahmin children are (more often than not) sent to learn either Carnatic music, the violin or Bharatnatyam/Kuchipudi. There's truly no escaping the arts. And therefore, it's reduced to a "Brahmin-dominated" art form, as Krishna puts it. "And let's admit it. We are an unwelcoming lot," he adds.

When talking about the Brahmin-dominated art form (that is Carnatic music), it is imperative to talk about Saint Tyagaraja's lasting impression on the same, which is, however, incomplete without the mention of compatriots Syama Sastry and Muthuswami Dikshitar, who together form Carnatic music's trinity. His bhakti of Lord Rama reveals his enduring love for the God through his many kritis. Most of Tyagaraja's kritis extol his love for Rama: Rama as an ideal man, Thyagaraja as an ideal servant.

In an August 1999 piece for the Frontline, Uday Krishnakumar writes that "the years following Tyagaraja's death were a period of great uncertainty for the Brahmins of the Cauvery river valley. Tyagaraja was a perfect candidate for Hindu sainthood: having devoted his life to praise of Rama and music, he became a sanyasi shortly before he died". To some, this art form comes across as restrictive and Brahminical, in a way.

Krishna, begs to differ, calling Tyagaraja kirtanas, as "creations of genius". He continues, "The restrictiveness does not come from the composition itself; it comes from what we take from it and how we articulate its beauty to others. We have not done well by Tyagaraja in changing him from a major composer to a minor deity. He is a phenomenal, multi-faceted, modern Vaggeyakara (a poet-musician-musicologist). That is s huge role. Viewed as a a pious, saintly, Brahmin, does he become any greater? It is this kind of veneration of Tyagaraja and his work that reduces his music to a Brahminical hymn."

He suspends the disbelief that therefore Carnatic music is a religious experience and that neither is is a spiritual one. Rather, he is of the opinion that it's an aesthetic experience, "one that allows you to inhabit the core of that art where its intentionality, form and presentation exist in unison".

Winning the Ramon Magsaysay Award for 2016 for "showing that music can indeed be a deeply transformative force in personal lives and society itself," Krishna questioned the social basis of art. He tells me that the award gives him the "assurance that what I have been trying to say through my music, writing, speaking and initiatives has social and artistic value. And that is immensely satisfying".

The award citation said that Krishna recognised Carnatic music as a caste-dominated art that fostered an unjust, hierarchic order by effectively excluding the lower classes from sharing in a vital part of India's cultural legacy.

His book, A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story, critiques it and says it "suffers aesthetically" — to mean that the aesthetic of Carnatic music is lost. Krishna's initiative, the Urur Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Vizha, is a festival that's held by the sea at a centuries-old fishing village in Chennai and involves beach clean-up along with music and dance performances. A juxtaposition? Sure.

What Krishna hopes to achieve with this festival is to break out of the elite venue of the sabha, and throw it open to everyone — as a means to bridge the gap of social inequality. And that is why Krishna deserves the Ramon Magsaysay Award for bringing "social inclusiveness in culture".

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