The sisters Ranjani and Gayatri would have likely been just priming up their first alapana when, just a few miles down in Delhi, the frontline classical vocalist T.M. Krishna was hitting a few complex notes of his own. Juxtaposed, they would have made a picture of meaningful contrasts. If the sisters offer a joyous, untroubled conformity—entirely in line with the tradition’s self-image—Krishna is the soft-spoken mutineer. Or perhaps the one who loves to open doors long shut in the Carnatic imagination.
Last year and this time, Krishna chose to skip the Margazhi season. And going by his Facebook post in December 2015, he perhaps won’t sing there anymore. The strongest veto can sometimes be made by silence. But why? In the basement of a modest hall this evening, as he warmed to a different kind of exposition—a socio-historical look at the Deccani system, initially systematised by composer Purandara Dasa five centuries ago—one could see the outlines of the task he has set for himself.
In musical practice, he’s a cultured extension of the canon—though beginning to experiment with format and aesthetic elements. But at the level of thought, he’s the insider who would rather rebel—one of its freest minds, who has the bandwidth to tease out the problematics (and politics) at the heart of the tradition. His polished hereticism may appear to the uninitiated to have no direct relation with aesthetics, but for him it obviously matters.
For one, Carnatic music is perceived by the public and practitioner alike as steeped in “divinity”. It’s a baggage, he believes, the system better shed. Carnatic’s so-called zone of “purity”, he says, always had elements from outside its science of beauty. As a sample, he hummed the opening of a Todi, and said how the “quintessential Carnatic raga” traced its origins to Turkey before peninsular India wrought its frills on it.
The genre was shaped by circumstances entirely non-spiritual, yet “we have this notion that classical musicians levitate seven feet above the earth”. That’s why “we have a (venerated) vocalist walking (to perform) with his hands held aloft”—almost blessing the audience like a godman. By contrast, what he himself feels is, “15 minutes after a concert, however sublime, we’re the same rubbish we always were.”
His childhood in a well-to-do Iyengar family, who sent him to a top Chennai school, seldom let him feel the existence of oppression around. “I always thought caste was a faraway thing,” recalled the 40-year-old, hinting at a Brahmin hegemony in Carnatic. “Eventually, I realised most social things I thought were ‘normal’ weren’t so. The fact exploded.”
Krishna—whose 2013 book, A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story, takes an unconventional look at the evolution of the art he mastered—is not chary of taking his non-conformity to a wider canvas. The other day in Mumbai, the organisers of a concert came to him and said he’d have to wait briefly. The show was to be preceded by an unscheduled rendition of the national anthem—“ironically” at the Veer Savarkar auditorium. As Jana Gana Mana rent the air, Krishna “sat” in the greenroom, protesting the “imposed patriotism”. Nationalism, for Krishna, is a “bogus” concept that “only perpetrates violence”.
His co-panelist and fellow Magsaysay awardee, activist Bezwada Wilson, ribbed him with a friendly pun. “TM is very famous these days across our country…Paytm!” In response, Krishna said it was Wilson who was humming a tune before they reached the stage. Quite like him to notice.
A shorter, edited version of this appears in print