I want the music to move out of its precincts, experience the real world, allow artists to learn from the process, allow those who are outside to be touched and let the interactions result in a flow of human emotions and ideas. It is crucial that none of this is done with an attitude of condescension. We cannot come from a position of artistic superiority, presuming that we are offering something highly evolved to those who have no culture. Not only is this entirely wrong and ignorant, it is also the worst form of elitism.
I was born with every privilege that one can benefit from—economic, social and cultural. I was born into the Brahmin caste (upper caste), which naturally gave me access to one of India’s so-called classical music forms: Karnatik music. I use the phrase ‘so-called’ consciously since I am convinced that the framing of the classical narrative – with its roots in social, cultural and political power – is discriminatory. But this is beyond the scope of this essay; hence I will leave you with one thought. Put down on a piece of paper a broad set of characteristics that you attribute to classical music. Then, consciously erasing from your mind your aesthetic preferences, delve into one other art form that is situated beyond the classical realm. The further the distance, the more interesting will be the experience. Immerse yourself in it and then see if the attributes you have jotted down fits the form that you internalised.
Coming back to my own life, like many boys and girls from Brahmin homes who have a cultural connection with Karnatik music, I learnt it from the age of six. My mother is an amateur singer, my father a music lover, and the family had close ties with the Karnatik music world. But, until the age of seventeen, I never imagined that I would be a musician. I wanted to be an economist and music was going to be a by-the-side vocation. I got involved in an organisation called YACM (Youth Association for Classical Music) and, through that, came in contact with many other aspiring musicians and senior artists. It was through these interactions that I became aware of my own talent. Receiving affirmation and appreciation from them led to my decision to take Karnatik music seriously.
Coming back to my own life, like many boys and girls from Brahmin homes who have a cultural connection with music, I learnt it from the age of six. My mother is an amateur singer, my father a music lover, and the family had close ties with the Karnatik music world. But, until the age of seventeen, I never imagined that I would be a musician. I wanted to be an economist and music was going to be a by-the-side vocation. I got involved in an organisation called YACM (Youth Association for Classical Music) and, through that, came in contact with many other aspiring musicians and senior artists. It was through these interactions that I became aware of my own talent. Receiving affirmation and appreciation from them led to my decision to take Karnatik music seriously.
Right from my childhood, I loved singing and would sing at the drop of a hat. Soon it was an obsession; I wanted to learn more and more, master the mechanics, imbibe its aesthetics and swim in its sound. Karnatik music is an unusual form of art music. While its intention is to abstract life and use sagas, talas and texts to achieve this end, the compositions that basket this possibility are almost entirely drenched in Hindu religious practice and belief; specifically, the character of Hindu religiosity that is closely linked to the way the Brahmins perceive, philosophise, ritualise and share Hinduism. But I was never a religious person and therefore almost always saw this aspect as a result of the music’s context and not its goal. Text was important as a musical idea, which means its sonic quality, the play between consonants and vowels, the aspirations, accent, intonation, pronunciation and poetic flow were all musical qualities that I valued immensely without being attached to ‘what was being said.’
But I will be lying to myself if I do not accept that my Brahminical upbringing inherently connects me with the music, since that had been coded in my social address, that of an upper-caste Hindu. All this is socio-political but it is intimately related to my own re-discovery of the art and realignment with culture and people.
In the 1990s, as a talented young vocalist, I was performing in almost all organisations that supported Karnatik music and in venues across the country. By the end of the millennium, I was a rising star and began touring the world for concerts and published albums with leading record labels. Everything was perfect. I was touted as one of the classicists in the younger generation and soon I was occupying the top slots in many major Karnatik festivals. If I now look back and wonder if there was one thing, a moment of epiphany that changed me or the music I offered, I do not remember any such event. This was the result of a gradual process of reflection, investigation and questioning. I was fortunate to have been educated in a school that encouraged enquiry and my home was brimming with diverse ideas and competing opinions. This allowed me to remain alive in every moment of life. But there was a period of time when I had lost myself to success and I was avaricious to just perform more and more and consume all the applause I was receiving. During that phase, nothing else mattered.
My travels in the path of self-critique began in a most unusual way, through a research project. But even before this had happened, there were moments in music I was unable to fathom, times when the art just ‘happened’ all by itself and I was just incidental to its occurrence and experience. These would appear occasionally and disappear before I could grasp its presence. I was told and I also believed that these are accidents of bliss that we should just treasure when they make an appearance and not ask any more questions. But for me the preciousness of the moments became questions. Why do they occur? Why does that openness that I experience and freedom that fills me vanish? How come that quality of ‘me’ during the musical experience does not exist when I walk the streets? And one specific question emerged, a question that I had hidden in the interiors of my neural library. Why do I sing?
I had planned to render a rare composition in the raga Mangala Kaisiki for a music album. Since I did not know either the composition or anyone who could teach me, I began reconstructing that composition from the musical notation found in a 100-year-old treatise called Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini (SSP) along with R K Shriramkumar, a colleague, musician and scholar. Published in 1904 and written by Subbarama Dikshitar, this encyclopedia of Karnatik music offers an insight into the history of music over a period of over 200 years. It provides detailed descriptions of ragas, including commentary on changes that might have occurred, and is a storehouse of hundreds of compositions. Subbarama Dikshitar was the grandson of Muttusvami Dikshitar, one of the three most important composers in the history of Karnatik music. As we explored this book, I realised that the author had created various symbols to represent the multiplicity of melodic movements that shape Karnatik music’s ragas. These are very intricate and Subbarama Dikshitar was the first one to attempt such a complex visual interpretation. When we used the SSP to learn from its notations, we ignored his symbols being musicians who knew each raga’s aural shape and automatically interpreted the notation as per known paradigms. When I looked at this book, I wondered how it would sound if we rendered the compositions implicitly following his symbol guide. Under guidance of two musicologists, Dr N Ramanathan and Dr R S Jayalakshmi, we embarked on a project to publish the compositions of Muttusvami Dikshitar as notated (including the symbol system) by Subbarama Dikshitar.
Even a few years before we began this research, I had begun wondering about the structure of the Karnatik concert, curious about why it excluded or marginalised certain types of compositions and did not seriously explore aesthetic possibilities within improvisational techniques or create diversity in experience. I am not going into the details of the structure, but it will suffice to say that the concert package, which is about 100 years old, is a product that ticked boxes that were related more to the nature of the people who owned and practiced the art, rather than representing the art itself. The art never challenged its own identity; it had become a monolithic accepted block of wood. My point being that the concert did not reflect Karnatik music’s history, practice and aesthetic intent or move it further forward as an art form. The concert structure had twisted the music itself.
Getting back to the SSP, the moment we dived into this project and began publishing the music, I was jolted. There were many elements to the aural shape of ragas that I did not even recognise. In fact they sounded awful, weird, eerie. Could this really be the history of the Karnatik sound? I wondered. But larger philosophical questions emerged. What is beauty? Do time, context, community and habituation determine beauty and trap it in their clutches? Or are there qualities that transcend specificities? I was uncomfortable with my findings and wanted to understand the music.
This led me to ancient treatises, musicological and historical publications and numerous discussions with eminent scholars. To the reader, this would seem like an academic enquiry and that is what it began as. But soon I was asking questions about the texture of the people who constructed, practiced and patronised the art. How much of the art was determined by this? This also meant I was curious about those who had lost their position of being insiders in the art form. And the larger question of why many remain outside, kept out because they did not fit the cultural bill, sometimes intimidated by the paraphernalia that surrounds the art and, at times, by aesthetic design. In my seeking, the musicological, aesthetic, philosophical and socio-political converged into one unified storyline. It is this merging that changed every aspect of my music, politics, and awareness. Soon I realised that ecstasies in music are moments of endless introspection that need to change the way we live our lives.
It changed mine.
I stepped away from the December Music Season (the largest classical music festival in the world) as a continuation of my own search for direction. In the course of the years preceding my exit, I began changing the concert experience. I am convinced that the structure of a Karnatik concert is more based on social-cultural habituations that reinforce the cultural nature of Brahmins. Alongside these were also elements of the concert that were in place just to titillate. There were also ideas of concert aesthetics that were synthetically constructed. All this needed to be questioned to come in contact with the preciousness that transcends these trappings. If I release the music from its concert buckle-strap, would it still remain profound? And this release happens if we concentrate on abstraction as the core intentionality of Karnatik music (art music), and this then curates the concert. This means every concert is structured differently, norms that do not contribute to the music’s intention are removed and every moment of the concert is an immersion in just music. Through deliberate content curation, I also attempted to place in focus compositions that have been excluded from the stage or pushed to the rim of the music. The applause, success, package and formula are thrown out of the window. I must confess that as much as I turned music into this endeavour, I have and continue to at times fall back on old habits. I am, after all, human and hence, limited, as a result of which I continue to seek validation. Nevertheless, I remain acutely aware.
Changes to the music concert have also involved changing the textual aspect of the music. I strongly subscribe to the philosophy that the role of language in art music is entirely different from how we receive literature. I am not going into the nuances of this theory but will just say that, in art music, the sound of the word is far more important than its semantic meaning. Though I kept speaking and this, I realised that many who were wedded to meaning (as understood traditionally) did not understand me. Since in Karnatik music, ‘meaning’ is closely connected with the Hindu, as a first step, I began changing the themes of compositions. I have rendered songs on Allah, the palm tree, farmers and environmental issues and in dialects that are distanced from the Karnatik sphere. The hope is that people who are stuck with the Hindu semantic word meaning are able to experience the profound through multiple ideas and as a result move towards the literal word meaning becoming irrelevant.
In other words the saguna becomes nirguna!
This transformation also changed my relationship with the audience. I was not interested in appeasement; all that mattered was that we remain in awe of the music. ‘We’ refers to all of us—audience and musicians. Concerts were spaces where all of us experienced music collectively, basking in its splendour. We musicians were just conduits for that experience. The audience became incidental and hence I ceased being a performer. In the understanding of the word ‘performer’, there is a contract between the artist and the audience, the supplier and the market, a transactional bind. If we detach ourselves from this occupational obligation, music becomes a shared experience. A concert is such a site, where both the musicians and the audience come with an internal freedom and openness to allow sanctity to touch their being.
These learnings from research, self-critique, social awareness and philosophical inquiry made me re-evaluate my own place in the Karnatik firmament. I was and am still surrounded by what is accepted practice. It is in this context that I decided to move away from the music season, which is just a symptom of the more serious issues that plague Karnatik music. So you may wonder how my action made or makes any difference. I decided that it was impossible to change the nature of the season because of its economic and cultural power. Therefore, instead of forcing change in the festival, I began working with the system beyond the season and hope that, in the long term, this influences the character of the December music season. Therefore I am an insider-outsider. Through the year, I perform and partner with many of the organisations that conduct festivals during the season. My engagement with the power and structural formations within the Karnatik world continue.
The changes that occurred in the way I internalised and presented the music, my thoughts on caste and gender issues in Karnatik music and my demand for a different relationship between musicians and the
audience was received in numerous ways. Some stopped listening to me and called me a maverick, iconoclast or just plain crazy! Others thought I was poisoning ‘pure music’ with social and political discourse. But there were also those who felt that I had opened a new window to musical experience. There remains those who hope that I will return to my old avatar of pre-2009 T M Krishna. There were times when I wondered whether I would soon become irrelevant and disappear from Karnatik memory. Many who never heard Karnatik music began coming to my concerts. People who did not like my socio-politics came back to listening after a few years. Most precious of all were people who had hated the changes I had made to the concert and method of singing telling me ‘something is happening in your concert’.
Any conversation in learning has to be multidirectional. All this while I spoke of internal change. But this has to be accompanied by ideas that break the music from the clutches that restrict it from being free to roam beyond the artificial boundary that we insiders draw. This idea must be understood with care. I am not in the numbers game and not focused on mass popularising the music. If that happens, so be it. I am interested in diversity within the music’s practice, listening and patronage. How can we bring people of different social groups, religions, belief systems and economic strata into this art form?
This means that the music has to present itself beyond its safe zones and traditional spaces should become more welcoming. Being welcoming is not just about keeping the door open. It requires that the people from within step out and open their arms to everyone who has been kept out or feel nervous about coming in. This can also be enabled if we change the location of Karnatik concerts and hold them in non-traditional venues where the audience is largely made up of people who have very little cultural connection with the art. This is an interesting experiment, because it places the art and the artist in a vulnerable position. Contexts where they may face complete rejection, is an important part of this dialogue. The right to dissent, reject and critique is offered to everyone and the form responds to the same. This is alien to the classical musicians of the world. They have always protected themselves from rejection and snooty-purity is preserved by labeling all those who pooh-pooh the art as unsophisticated and uncultured. This experiment makes artists transcend their limitations and fears and audiences who would never imagine that they could access this music find the art at their doorstep. The key phrase here is ‘access to all’. We presented Karnatik music concerts and Bharatanatyam performances at a fishing village. I myself sang on the beach sands multiple times and on a moving public transport bus. We also held concerts and dance performances at a railway station. These attempts broke through many internal barriers.
Let me make it clear, this is not an evangelical project of converting everyone into Karnatik music lovers. I want the music to move out of its precincts, experience the real world, allow artists to learn from the process, allow those who are outside to be touched and let the interactions result in a flow of human emotions and ideas. It is crucial that none of this is done with an attitude of condescension. We cannot come from a position of artistic superiority, presuming that we are offering something highly evolved to those who have no culture. Not only is this entirely wrong and ignorant, it is also the worst form of elitism.
From here there was another movement, another socio-artistic inversion.
While I could have just continued to obsess over Karnatik music, luckily other experiences were shaping me. Over the years I had been deeply touched by many art forms that have been marginalised and kept out the gambit of high art. These forms are used as props whenever the political establishment wants to put on display cultural diversity; in other times they remain within small groups and are presented within the cloisters of specific communities. When will these forms be presented on the classical stage? This was a question that someone had posed to us a few years ago when we had just begun pushing the boundaries of the Karnatik. He had said, correctly, that while we were interested in Karnatik music reaching diverse people we didn’t seem concerned about the marginalised reaching the ears and eyes of the cultural elite. Over the past few years we held short festivals of art forms from marginalised communities in the heartland of Karnatik music in Chennai. This also resulted in some riveting conversations between the artists and the upper-caste audience. I myself began musical collaborations with musical forms practiced by beautiful musicians who have been pushed to the margins of society. My own music has been enriched by so many arts from different genders, cultures, religions and castes. I have experienced the most transcendental in every one of these forms and through them come to realise people. Today the drum beats of Dalit musicians, the rhythmic lyricism of subaltern urban Chennai artists, the drama in traditional street theatre, the voice of M S Subhalakshmi, Kabir dohas rendered by Kumar Gandharva and Aguner Poroushmoni of Tagore resonate with the very same inner being.
I am sure many have wondered why I say what I do, sing in a certain way and write strong words. The answer is right in front of you—music. The magic that music conjures keeps me alive and open. When I stay that way, questions emerge and I seek not answers but ways of understanding the question. The more I grapple with them, the more I discover about the outside and the inside. This is not a battle with myself; it is a channel of discovery. Every raga I render is imbued with the contradictions of life. I hope to remain aware, allow for contestations and enrich myself from these crossovers. Only through such an open dialogue between the melody and life, can I remain truthful. Anyone who wants to engage with art must enter its inner-ness. This is the space where you drown in the art and allow it to enter every cell. Only through this complete surrender can we comprehend it. A musician may sing to make ends meet or entertain the audience. But a musician really sings because there is a song. It is this very beauty that must glow within our hearts much after the song ends.
Thodur M Krishna is a vocalist in the Karnatik tradition, whose musicality eludes standard analyses. Uncommon in his rendition of music and original in his interpretation of it, Krishna is at once strong and subtle, manifestly traditional and stunningly innovative. As a public intellectual, Krishna speaks and writes about issues affecting the human condition and about matters cultural. Krishna has started and is involved in many organisations whose work is spread across the whole spectrum of music and culture. His path-breaking book A Southern Music–The Karnatik Story, published by Harper Collins in 2013 was a first-of-its-kind philosophical, aesthetic and socio-political exploration of Karnatik music and was awarded the 2014 Tata Literature Award for Best First Book in the non-fiction category. He is the driving force behind the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Festival and the Svanubhava initiative, and has been part of inspiring collaborations, such as the Chennai Poromboke Paadal with environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman, performances with the Jogappas (transgender musicians) and bringing on to the concert stage the poetry of Perumal Murugan. In 2016, Krishna received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in recognition of ‘his forceful commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions’.
I want the music to move out of its precincts, experience the real world, allow artists to learn from the process, allow those who are outside to be touched and let the interactions result in a flow of human emotions and ideas. It is crucial that none of this is done with an attitude of…