'Carnatic music is a Brahmin-dominated male chauvinistic world'

T.M. Krishna is widely regarded as a genius who has shaken the foundations of the Carnatic music world. He's written a book questioning many of the Carnatic music traditions — and tells V. Kumara Swamy that his dissent springs from concern

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 20.07.14
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You never know what to expect at a T.M. Krishna concert. He can stop in the middle of his vocal recital to scold someone — even a VIP — for walking in late, or walking out, or even glancing at a watch. Once, just after an hour into a concert, he got up and walked away because he felt that his "art" had been "fulfilled", leaving the audience fuming. But, then, his mellifluous renditions can also bring tears to the eyes of listeners. His fans throng his concerts, at times spending hours in queues, with many of them ending up outside a hall, listening to his music floating in from loudspeakers placed there.

Krishna or TMK, as he is popularly known, isn't an oddball who likes doing things differently just to be noticed. He is largely hailed as a genius who has shaken the foundations of the Carnatic music world, steeped in tradition and religion, by questioning the Brahminical domination of the art form and tweaking the format of the century-old kutcheri, the musical format followed by a performer.

In Chennai, his detractors call him arrogant, a stuntman, a renegade and a disrupter. But TMK is not greatly bothered.

"I know that I am perceived as an arrogant person. I don't believe that. I like speaking my mind and I know that I can be blunt," he says. He pauses, and then adds with a smile, "Put together, these could be called arrogance." And what about his legendary run-ins with the audience? "A friend told me that the only thing I haven't done in a concert is ask someone to stand up on his chair as punishment," he laughs.

We are sitting in Delhi's India International Centre, in an area overlooking its lush gardens. TMK, in a short mustard coloured kurta and blue jeans, has a vibrant voice. Words come to him very easily and he explains every point with great enthusiasm. And he doesn't take his eyes off his listener even for a second.

He is in the capital to promote his book, A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story. When economist Amartya Sen describes the book as one of the best he has ever read, one has to stand up and take notice. In the thick volume published by HarperCollins, Krishna traces the history and traditions associated with the classical form of music while questioning many of these traditions.

"My dissent doesn't come out of restlessness. I am not restless, but, yes, I am concerned. It is out of this that I question things. I certainly don't do this in order to create a hungama," he says.

He has been asking questions since he was a child. His upper class Tamil Brahmin business family had a literary bent, though it had no musical background. "From Vedanta to Sartre, everything was discussed in our family's drawing room. I was naturally drawn towards philosophy and the urge to question was always there," he says.

It was his mother who first noticed his talent for music. When he was around six, she put him under the tutelage of the well-known musician, B. Seetharama Sarma. "I performed on a stage for the first time when I was 12. But it was not until my second year in college that I thought that I should give my musical career a serious shot," he says.

A student of economics at Chennai's Vivekananda College, Krishna's dream was to become an economist with a stint in the Delhi School of Economics followed by the London School of Economics. His businessman father told him he could return to economics if his career in music didn't take off.

He didn't have to. Yet, after a few years of performing, Krishna yearned for something more. "I wanted to know why I was singing. I wanted to know the origins of the raga I was singing. This journey led me to musicology and history," he says.

He doesn't like the term Carnatic classical music, as he feels that the word classical is "too elitist". He doesn't like definitions such as "folk" music either.

The singer has stuck his neck out on many more important issues.

He came down heavily on iconic music composer Ilayaraja for using a popular Carnatic music composition with changes in a film. "I don't have an issue with Carnatic music being used in films, but I don't like it being called Carnatic because that is not the purpose of that music in the film. If a raga is used for a visual, that is a theatrical expression. Use it the way you want, but don't call it Carnatic," he says.

But he sees no dichotomy in his own attempts at "deconstructing" the traditional kutcheri format that Carnatic music lovers hold so dear. Introduced around a century ago, the format is a compact arrangement with a set sequence and duration for several musical units. A vocalist starts with a varnam as it is said to warm up the vocal cords — but Krishna placed the varnam in the middle of the structure, and changed the other units as well. The traditionalists were incensed.

"But the varnam is not merely a warm up piece," he argues. "It is quite elaborate and beautiful. When I decided to explore it further and understand it in all its nuances, I wanted to respect it. When I started looking at the other sections and exploring them, the whole format began to deconstruct," he explains.

He dismisses allegations that he has tampered with tradition. "On the contrary, I believe that the traditional kutcheri has destroyed the aesthetic elements of music. These were devised with the view to offering a package deal to listeners. And nobody was questioning it. I did," he says.

TMK says that many musicians agree with him, but in private. "I feel that most of them fear that by doing something like what I have done, their success which was achieved under the kutcheri system would be under threat," he says.

The Carnatic world, he says, is a Brahmin-dominated one with an "unwelcoming" attitude towards others. Not just other castes, but people from other religions too. "Carnatic music is a Brahmin-dominated male chauvinistic world. And let's admit it. We are an unwelcoming lot," he says, calling for a "social re-engineering" of the music scene.

"We should be involved in dissemination of music among various sections of society that don't have access to this form of music," he stresses. And he is leading by example — holding concerts and workshops in Tamil Nadu and elsewhere, and encouraging youngsters to "understand" music.

The singer also runs a non government organisation that enables students who are too poor to study Carnatic music with reputed teachers in Chennai.

He isn't a great fan of mixing art and religion either. "When people walk up to me and say that they saw Lord Krishna in front of their eyes because of my song, I am often tempted to say, 'I have sung so many times, but I have never seen him'. But I stop myself, thinking that I shouldn't question their experience," he says. And goes on to add that one should enjoy music for what it is, instead of giving it a religious tinge.

Because of his views, he says that he is presumed to be an atheist. "I have a problem with the definition of an atheist. For that God has to be defined. If God is some superpower who controls the planet and the universe, I don't believe in God. But I do believe in spirit, the human spirit of enquiry is one such thing."

TMK has strong political views, too. Soon after Narendra Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister, he wrote an article in The Hindu saying that he was a "naysayer" who wasn't comfortable with the "chasm between the Muslim Indian and the Indian who is being triumphalist about Mr Modi".

"I am aware that I am branded a Leftist. For me, a true politician is somebody who has an opinion beyond oneself or one's own community. Let us wait and see how our politics pans out," he says.

When he is not practising music or researching, Krishna — whose wife, Sangeetha Sivakumar, is a Carnatic musician as well — likes going on hikes. The Himalayan mountain range, he adds, is his favourite.

He likes his drink too. "No excuses there. I like drinking single malt the most," he elaborates. In fact it was his mother who handed him his first alcoholic drink. "It was a shandy," he recalls. But he will not tell you how old he was. "My mother wouldn't like it," he laughs.

Largely a vegetarian, he likes an occasional piece of fish and when in Bengal enjoys his shorshe ilish.

The only time words fail the eloquent vocalist is when he talks of Calcutta. "There's something about the city that draws you. I am not able to articulate what it is," he says, searching for the right expression. "Maybe the city is not sanitised, and I mean it in a very positive sense. It's a very real city. I love performing there every time," he says.

Krishna says that he doesn't let adulation affect him — and anyway his two daughters laugh when people approach him for autographs. "The feeling of triumph is transient," he says. "It will not matter to me if nobody in the world recognises me."