Scribe TM Krishnas talk on indiapostlivecom

I happened to come across T. M. Krishna’s talk about his latest book – A Southern Music – A Karnatik Story. I’ve been looking forward to read it but haven’t got a chance yet, but came across this interview of sorts where he outlines what has gone into the book. I started viewing the video but after a good 10 minutes into it, I realized that this needs to go into writing too. So here I am re-seeking the video again and trying to capture the essence of it through this blog post.

Before I begin, let me pen my views about T. M. Krishna. To confess, I’m not that big a fan of T. M. Krishna’s style of music. I prefer a more pacy approach to singing and feel that T. M. Krishna’s style of singing can rob the innate beauty out of some songs thus making them a tad tepid. Nevertheless, I respect his views and even though his opinions can be harsh, I find some of them extremely valid in today’s music scene. Again, I oppose some of his opinions too. But, I like him for the way he conducts himself and for being a person with such interesting opinions. I believe he is a person with whom you can discuss something for just a minute and learn a thing or two. Though he can come out as arrogant and a non-conformist, I think he is someone who is inquisitive and doesn’t just take up something because it was passed on to him, but puts his mind and analyses every bit before accepting it. That is one trait that every man (and woman) should possess and that’s a trait that sets us humans apart from sheep. That said, this is a very honest review of his talk and there is every bit of sincerity in it. I’ll try to intersperse this post with my views too, marked with an [ASK] in front.

  1. Why the spelling Karnatik? And why not Carnatic or Carnatik or Karnatic?

[TMK] The right word to use is indeed Karnataka Music with the last ‘a’ being a short syllable, but in today’s context, it could be misinterpreted to the state of Karnataka. And of course, Karnatik looks better.

  1. Why did you write the book?

[TMK] My journey through music took me to a lot of questions. And these questions were not driven by restlessness. It was more about finding more quietness. More about finding my bearings and future in this art form. And it is indeed argumentative and opinionated and I’m not going to apologize for both.

  1. Notions of tradition in concert structure today and the use of tradition to justify exclusiveness

[TMK] The whole concert structure is indeed governed by sociological expressions and not just aesthetics. And that is why I have problems in accepting it on aesthetic grounds. And the notions of tradition, even though we boast of being 2500 years old, they are only from the early 19th century, the time since we have audio recorded history of Carnatic Music. And by comparing it with writings written before, aesthetics have indeed taken a back seat today in order to fit it into today’s context. To answer the second question, the terms “Shastriya Sangeet” or “Classical” indicate a certain social hierarchy. The word tradition is used more in a sociological sense rather than a musical sense. Whether we need that word or not is something all of us are grappling with.

  1. How the notions of social hierarchy has diminished the general belief about music and how the notion of devotion has robbed Carnatic Music of some elements that have been explored in other forms. Follow-up : Is it possible to think about a secular Carnatic Music?

[TMK] Carnatic Music has always been elite art and not a popular art. The languages used in the music, Telugu and Sanskrit justify this fact. This didn’t happen because of the Colonial rule. There were certain groups of people who came out of the bracket, but Carnatic Music has stayed elite. I’m not sure whether Carnatic Music has ever been popular music. But is it possible that many ideas were borrowed into Carnatic Music by the elite and has been explored. The problem of it being elite is that all that matters to only the elite makes its way into the music. The notion of devotion made its way after the mid 19th century with influences from Harikatha. And in fact compositions of Thyagaraja were sung in concerts after this. Thyagaraja became a symbol of Brahmin purity and the interesting anecdotes of Thyagaraja are never mentioned in his first biography. These stories were written by Harikatha practitioners so as to enthrall audience and these stories ultimately made its way into the folklore of Carnatic Music. And because of Brahmins’ natural instinct to devotion, we started interpreting the lyrics and pigeonholed Thyagaraja as a religious icon while he also contributed a lot to “artistic” music. If Carnatic Music is perceived as just a religious form, I’d rather people go to a bhajan session than a Carnatic concert.

[ASK] I wonder whether devotion has only made its way after the mid 19th century. Most of the composers lived before the 19th century and there was a huge amount of music written and I’m not sure whether Thyagaraja’s songs were only started to be sung around the mid 19th century. Nevertheless, his points about Carnatic Music being pigeonholed as a form of religious music is indeed true and I feel that people sometimes undermine the “artistic” value of music and perceive it only as a way to attain moksha. In fact, there are people who cannot stand the fact that there are musicians who are either agnostics or atheists.

  1. Why hasn’t there been a lot of women practitioners from the devadasi community after the time of MSS, DKP, Veenai Dhanammal et. al?

[TMK] It is no fault of the community. There was a lot of appropriation of music ideas. They viewed their music as something old and something special. They viewed that the new style of the concert format was not part of their culture. They had their own style. For instance, in 1904-06, Bangalore Nagarathnamma was asked to sing a concert with just one _alapana _which I find fascinating. There were many such narratives that had their own way of expressing the art form. But the modern stream of thought that came about did not believe in this sacredness.

  1. Why Nadaswaram didn’t make it to the mainstream? Why a Brahmin boy didn’t learn to play the Nadaswaram.

[TMK] Pure and simple casteism. For instance, during the first aradhana, there was a huge battle about Nadaswaram being played during the aradhana. Rajarathnam Pillai had to fight for it. They could exchange musical ideas, but learning it was out of the question. Their [Nadaswaram] community wouldn’t have even permitted it.

  1. Don’t you think there is a new layer today that glosses over all these differences?

[TMK] The establishment of this layer was a battle. The problem was to show the art form with a certain “class”.

  1. About the Tamil Isai movement stifling the musical scene. Can you recall a modern moment in Carnatic Music in the last 75 years.

[TMK] The truth is None. I don’t think there is any modern intervention in the last 75 years.

[ASK] This is something completely true and I completely feel that Carnatic Music practitioners are extremely averse to change and most people just eliminate any new thought purely because of aversion to change. To know that Carnatic Music hasn’t had any new inventions off late is indeed troubling. The problem was it became more of a linguistic narrative and not artistic. It was no different from the Sanskrit/Telugu. They have caught in a literary web which was again religious missing all the artistic points.

  1. How do we make Carnatic Music more inclusive of other castes and gender?

[TMK] Things are happening but they are battling it. As an environment we are not ready to answer the questions. We are not welcoming enough. Only way to address it to go to schools. There are still male vocalists who don’t allow a woman accompanist. These need to be addressed proactively. We are at a very good time where we can ask these difficult questions. The organizers do have a role to play too. Honestly, I don’t have an answer to it. It is indeed politically charged.

[ASK] This is a very strong statement that honestly I haven’t given much though to. But things are indeed not ideal and nobody is ready to answer these questions.

  1. On why contemporary musicians are not as good as those of the past.

[TMK] There is an elitist narrative in this question. Anything that happens today was because of the past. It is not a jump of history. There has been a constant evolution and that has lead to this “degeneration” of some sort. There is a huge subjective angle. It is also unfair. The talent today is amazing and there is a continuity happening.

  1. On singers going to sing cine numbers.

[TMK] There’s nothing wrong in that. You need special sings to sing cine songs. And the notion that a carnatic singer will be able to sing any genre is absolute nonsense. One should be humble about their art and should have a certain base by which they can grasp other forms and also come back and retain the flair.

  1. Can there be an addition of string quartet in a carnatic concert to add up some spice?

[TMK] Why do you want a quartet? What is it doing to the art? Can adding layers of harmony do anything to aesthetics of an alapana? Whatever is brought in should preserve the aesthetics. These changes shouldn’t just be brought to “spice” things up. It should be slightly more to bring about a difference. Why need experimentation? What is your standpoint?

  1. How do you rate Ariyakudi/BMK’s experimentation?

[TMK] I don’t put Ariyakudi into the modern movement bracket. And I have serious questions against that movement too. But I don’t think BMK’s movement has revolutionized the entire world of Carnatic Music.

  1. On Cleveland trying to address the same narrative in an American context. What is the American context?

[TMK] American context is the largely majority environment of the American lifestyle in North America. Cleveland is designed to fit into this context. They are trying to do the same revival of the religiosity of Thyagaraja in an American context. Here it is natural, we are the same inside and outside. But there people live two lives, to be honest.

  1. What are the new stirrings in Carnatic Music that will redefine the art?

[TMK] None as one of the previous questions. We are happy with the status quo. The last major musicological text written was in 1904. The current world is a happy successful place and profit margins are increasing too. I have to say with a disappointment that there are no major rumblings in Carnatic Music on a technical plane.

  1. On Carnatic Music being secular

[TMK] I have written about this. Two parts to this challenge. Do I sing songs in other religion or in no religion. It’s not just the literature. It’s more with the way it is conveyed and the aesthetics. I’ll be falling into the same problems as other movements. The word Rama is associated with the bhava and the composition as a whole. Changing it to Allah will not embellish it. We should see beyond the religion that the music conveys. We should move to that understanding of music as an art form. We can definitely have narratives that are about love, trees etc. and not about a deity. I really do not know which direction to go.

  1. Will it be in Tamil? Will it come with a CD too?

[TMK] I really hope. There has been some interest. There is some interest in Kannada as well. I hope it makes it to not just South Indian languages. If it came with a CD, it will become a book about me and I didn’t want that to happen.

And he finishes with his usual demeanor. He refuses to sing a mangalam and sings ‘_Gitartamu_‘ as sung in Thyagaraja Aradhana.

Overall, a session that did its job – promote the book and  make me want to read the book even more. Hope to read it and post a review of it soon. Thanks to for organizing this.