Meet

The raga Dude

Sudha G Tilak | Updated on April 17, 2014

Changemaker: TM Krishna, the author of a new kind of musical philosophy. Photo: K Ananthan

The new tome on Carnatic music by TM Krishna establishes him as a distinguished musicologist of an ancient art form whose traditions he’s not afraid to test

If the Coen Brothers were to make a movie on a contemporary Carnatic musician, TM Krishna would be The Dude, of the non-Lebowski variety.

There have been others who have tagged him as Carnatic music’s new sex symbol. Can’t blame the generation, whose measure is in grades of awesomeness, for finding him so, especially since he goes around Chennai wearing tees that ask in shouty capitals, ‘Why live on the edge, when you can jump off?’ Or trots off at noon, alongside mummies of Madras, to pick his daughters from The School, his own progressive alma mater; goes trekking to the Everest base camp and sings to an audience of snow-clad peaks; prefers cycling to concerts of fellow musicians during Chennai’s fabled December season; follows tennis and plays cricket with enthusiasm; shares a drink with fellow writers at a lit fest in Chennai; admits to currently being “a bit stuck with Picasso”. All this, besides making fabulous music.

“He’s constantly working to make traditional Carnatic music accessible to all”, remarks filmmaker Jayendra Panchapakesan who in 2008 made Marghazi Raagam, the first-ever Carnatic concert in movie format with Krishna and Bombay Jayashri. Krishna’s engagement with music and a deeper desire to share its beauty with those around goes beyond the world of concert halls and training a hand-picked group of privileged pupils.

Priyadarsini Govind, director of Kalakshetra, collaborated with Krishna on a project on divine aesthetics, Saayuja in 2013. “For TMK, music and life are inseparable. They are experiences that he pursues with the same passion, commitment, curiosity and zeal. His imagination and intellect allow him to grow as both a musician and a person,” she says.

The recent launch of his book, A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story (HarperCollins), firmly establishes his credentials as a musicologist, the first-ever Carnatic musician in modern times to write a comprehensive tome for contemporary readers. “The book just happened. I was already in a journey, and the book was only a halt at a railway station. I am now back on the move,” Krishna says.

A Southern Music is a collection of 27 essays that deal with the origins, history and etymology of the salient aspects of Carnatic music and its evolution, of its format, raga, bhava, tala traditions, besides the modern-day kutcheri format of rendering music, orchestration and recording. Other chapters deal with musical philosophy, experience, caste, gender and cinema, making it an inclusive book.

Krishna asks, “Isn’t anything that really exists in a natural sense inclusive?” The book is about life seen from the window of art, specifically Carnatic music. It deals with philosophy, aesthetics, technique, history and sociology. “All these aspects are not independent of each other and don’t exist in isolation, so to bring them together means that the book is inclusive.”

Krishna’s musical journey began in childhood, was nurtured at home and later trained by renowned musicians like Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer amongst others. Fellow musician Vijay Siva said, “To work with him is a challenge to both physical energy and voice power.” His voice and timbre are a throwback to vintage times, his songs carry an ephemeral exquisiteness, and the energy he brings to a rendition makes his music individualistic. “He’s honest whilst making music; loyal towards the art form,” says K Arun Prakash, mridangam player and fellow musician. At 42, Krishna’s pursuit is to make music a part of a greater aesthetic around life. He resists the label ‘performer’, which demands he play a role.

Carnatic music is weighed in by aspects of its tradition and antiquity that make it seem inviolable, its classicism and ‘purity’ make unspoken demands that the listener be familiar with its grammar to appreciate it. And having a predominantly Brahmin population practise and perform it, brings with it accusations of cultural appropriation, exclusivity and alienation. Krishna is vocal about it, ignoring stiff upper lip reactions around him.

His trip to Jaffna in 2011 was the first in that area for any Indian classical musician. He met with students of arts, was amazed at their interest in Carnatic music, and returned there in 2012. “When music, dance, theatre and writing are held in our palms as precious and delicate, like we’d hold water lifted from a flowing river, it gives the people a grounding, dignity and grace, which goes beyond conflict,” he says.

His other projects include student festivals for Carnatic music, Svanubhava; Sampradaya, for archiving south India’s musical traditions; including special children in classical music; Shabda, a TED-like project with online lectures. Krishna’s decision to mingle with artists on diverse projects or drop the number of his concerts to listen to his colleagues is a refreshing change. He remains not a reclusive artist but a gregarious one, preferring dialogues and co-working, building a larger space for a community of performers, audience and collaborators.

Krishna is pushing against traditional formats and boundaries too. He has shuffled around the concert format, rearranging the order, not completing a song when its introductory piece was fulfilling; allowed his concerts to be free and walked off halfway from a three-hour concert. His theory that “tradition is not static” has not bought buyers. “I’m not a maverick nor am I eccentric. All I have done or said is in harmony with my developing philosophy of life. Music makes me, and all I see, write or sing, is born from it.”

(The writer is India-editor at aljazeera.com)

Published on February 14, 2014

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