TM Krishna on the importance of small sabhas in sustaining Carnatic music, performing pro bono

'I am convinced more than ever that it is these small hubs in smaller suburbs that need support and need to be kept alive. The big show will go on but unless these clusters of musical interest and energy are kept alive, sustainability and a larger reach for the art form will disappear,' says TM Krishna

Lakshmi Sreeram June 30, 2019 10:22:29 IST
TM Krishna on the importance of small sabhas in sustaining Carnatic music, performing pro bono
  • Stories of small sabhas are important to understand the socio-cultural phenomenon that Carnatic music is.

  • While most musicians possibly have their own ways of giving back to the musical tradition and community, Krishna’s willingness to sing at such venues reminds one of the idea of pro bono.

  • Sometimes the conduciveness of a venue comes from the people who are present rather than from the auditorium, sound system or air conditioning, says Krishna.

Nanganallur is a suburb of Chennai. It has a large middle-class Brahmin population and with its many temples was at one time regarded the retiree’s paradise. That is also the typical profile of a Carnatic music aficionado — middle class, Brahmin, and if you are retired, even better.

The NSTSS is a sabha that has been offering Carnatic music in this suburb — concerts, and music classes — for about three decades now. It is a typical small sabha, holding monthly concerts by relatively lesser known musicians, always on the panchami, in honour of Sri Tyagaraja, the great 18th-century composer whose name the sabha bears. It holds a couple of annual festivals, the one in the month of January featuring bigger artists, culminating in a Thyagaraja Aradhana. All these events take place in a performance space that is made available when not booked for marriages or engagement ceremonies. It is situated bang on a busy road with honking traffic, a space belonging to one of its committee members. Hardly conducive to a quiet evening of music.

The sabha runs on the meagre membership fee it collects, bolstered by donors and sponsors to support special events. Most aspiring musicians perform here for a small remuneration. As they get established, and especially if they ascend to the top ranks, they rarely respond to invitations from sabhas like NSTSS.

TM Krishna on the importance of small sabhas in sustaining Carnatic music performing pro bono

Stories of sabhas such as these are important to understand the socio-cultural phenomenon that Carnatic music is. All images courtesy of the author.

Sri Krishna Fine Arts is a younger and smaller sabha in the same suburb. It recently completed 20 years “in the service of music and allied arts”. It has conducted monthly concerts without a break and a Sri Jayanthi festival coinciding with Gokulashtami. It is also cash strapped, running on a shoestring budget. Nevertheless, it has expanded its activities to holding a Thyagaraja Aradhana, as well as other special concerts themed around the work of other composers.

It too has no space of its own and for the past few years has been holding concerts in the pravachana mandapam (discourse hall) of a temple there with minimal aesthetic ambience and acoustic refinement.

The passion, drive and commitment of those who run these sabhas cannot be questioned. They do this purely voluntarily, for no returns, with whatever resources they are able to muster.

Stories of sabhas such as these are important to understand the socio-cultural phenomenon that Carnatic music is. They are indicators of how the music evolved, how it is sustained and where it is going.

Sri Krishna Fine arts Society features junior artists through the year and seeks to feature more senior and better-known artists during its festival. But funds are always a problem with the honorary secretary knocking doors of corporate houses for a ten thousand here, a five thousand there. Fortunately, it was able to mark the completion of its 20 years with dignity and aplomb because TM Krishna agreed to sing for it. This is not the first time he was singing for the sabha. He sang an exquisite Nilambari before Dikshitar’s amba nilayatakshi. The April evening was a typical one-sweltering, humid, and there was no AC of course. Krishna responded to requests from the audience too, except when one person requested ososi – a demanding padam in Mukhari. Krishna pleaded with him — “Saar, ososi! Ososi? When I have sung for nearly two hours? I will surely sing it in the next concert of mine that you attend.”

Krishna’s performance was not a personal favour to anybody and this writer knows for a fact that most star musicians do not respond to invitations from this or other sabhas like this where they would surely have sung as junior artists. And that is their choice and that is their right. Considerations of whether it is worth the effort, the wear and tear on their voices, seem quite valid, especially since the remuneration is nominal.

While most musicians possibly have their own ways of giving back to the musical tradition and community, Krishna’s willingness to sing at such venues reminds one of the idea of pro bono.

TM Krishna on the importance of small sabhas in sustaining Carnatic music performing pro bono

TM Krishna during the performance

Pro bono, best known in the context of the profession of law, is not a favour to anybody. In law, for example, it is simply acquitting oneself creditably as a conscientious professional to uphold the ideal of justice. You love the idea of justice, it moves you and that love itself drives you to offer your services to those who can’t afford it, free of charge. For, justice available only to a few is not justice at all. So, in a Kantian sense, logical sustenance of the idea of justice demands pro bono. Similarly, you love this music and the music depends for its survival on listeners and so could you think of offering it to those who cannot otherwise access it, to expand its base and listenership?

What is his consideration in agreeing to perform at smaller, non-lucrative venues such as this? TM Krishna responded over email.

I am convinced more than ever that it is these small hubs in smaller suburbs that need support and need to be kept alive. The big show will go on but unless these clusters of musical interest and energy are kept alive, sustainability and a larger reach for the art form will disappear. These organisations also cater to a different economic segment and that is very important. On the musical side, I love the smaller audience and the love and care of everyone involved. Small is beautiful. The sheer passion of the organisers who, with little resources, do everything they can to listen to music is touching.

I am thinking of pro bono services like in the field of law — services for public good.  While one may not exactly speak of public good that comes of a Carnatic concert, would it be a way of giving back to the Carnatic community?

Pro bono is not a favour, it is a natural act. We sing because we just love being in the sound and when there are people who want to share that aural space but just do not have the wherewithal to come to the big venues, pay expensive rates for tickets, artists should go near their homes. We cannot forget that it was singing in these places that got us where we are today. It was the feedback of these mama-s and mami-s that made us grow as musicians.

I do strongly believe that those who have 'made it', the stars, should make it point to perform in non-mainstream venues and for small organisations without financial or personal gain.

Would this be doing your bit for sustaining the art form by singing at smaller venues? Would you maintain as a personal ethic that you should perform at smaller places like this even though conditions are not conducive and payment insignificant?

Absolutely. Let me first say that it is not true that at the places where we are paid well the atmosphere is necessarily conducive for music. We are willing [to] ignore all the discomfort only because of the economic benefits. But we will be the first to complain about a bad audio system when we are not really getting paid much! Sheer opportunism. This also raises the question of what does it mean for a place to be 'conducive'. Sometimes the conducive-ness comes from the people who are present rather than from the auditorium, sound system or air conditioning.

How many such concerts do you take on in a year?

I would say about 10 to 15 such concerts a year. There are other kinds of pro bono concerts that I also sing but they are not in such environments.

What do you think will be the impact of such concerts?  And what do you think is the importance of smaller sabhas in the larger picture?

Many small things cumulatively have a much larger impact than a few big things. And that is exactly the case with singing in smaller venues, suburbs and to audiences who do not have easy access to the music.

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