Days with T. M. Krishna

The weekend was a veritable feast of ideas and music with Karnatik vocalist T M Krishna, imaginatively curated by First Edition Arts. Friday at G5A was devoted to manodharma which Krishna defines in his hold-all tome, A Southern Music : The Karnatic Story, as individual will (mano) tempered by the righteous path (dharma). Dharma is not a set of rules etched in stone he asserts. Rather, it is the journey that every raga, tala and composition has travelled over time, absorbing along the way, various modifications made by contemporary musicians. Respecting dharma means understanding this history and recognising the strength it has gathered by not being static.  

Addressing the generally held notion among Hindustani musicians and connoisseurs that Karnatic music is nothing more than a repetition of pre-composed songs in pre-composed ways, Krishna plunged us into the three forms of improvisation that Karnatic musicians practice -- alapana, niraval and kalpanaswaras. Describing each in detail, he identified their locations in the elaboration of a raga and demonstrated their creative potential with electrifying examples, some subtle, some emotional and some visceral in their impact. Neither length nor mathematics has anything to do with the spirit of improvisation he said. Magic may happen unexpectedly as much in a 40-minute alapana as a ten-minute one, creating blissful moments of discovery or rediscovery that the musician and her/his audience share.

It isn’t often that you get to hear a musician who analyses his ideas with such sharp clarity and demonstrates them with such passion. The luminaries of the Hindustani music world, connoisseurs and lay listeners who formed the audience that evening were left stunned by the energy of Krishna’s cerebration and music.

On Saturday evening we were at Veer Savarkar Smarak. Spacious auditorium, plush push-forward seats and now, in addition to Friday’s accompanists Akkarai Subhalakshmi on the violin and Praveen Kumar on the mridangam, we had Chadrasekhara Sarma, nephew of Vikku Vinayakram on the ghatam. What a magnificent trio they made. Subhalakshmi followed every nuance of Krishna’s phrasing on her sweet-toned instrument and, when the time came for solos, struck out with beguiling creativity. The percussionists were equally sensitive to the singer’s needs, but came powerfully into their own during the tani avartanams.

Krishna’s performance that evening was a non-stop three-hour demonstration of his written and spoken critique of the rigid form that the Karnatic kutcheri has acquired in contemporary times. The form that it has fossilised into was once new and alive. When Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar evolved it in the early 20th century, the audience had changed. It had become more diverse. It had less time than its predecessors. It was paying to hear music and desired to be entertained along with being edified. So the concert had to be streamlined into a format that covered a wide range of musical forms, moving from compositions that were considered light to the solemn ragam, tanam, pallavi at the centre and out again to lighter pieces, tukkadas. The venerable maestro was doing then what Krishna is doing today – modernising Karnatic music. But Krishna takes it one step further. He democratises it by rejecting the hierarchies of light and heavy, brahminical and non-brahminical.

Having little acquaintance with Karnatic ragas, I missed the pleasure of recognition that one gets in a concert. What I got though, was a rich aesthetic experience and an awareness of the departures Krishna was making from the regular Karnatik kutcheri. At one point we heard an alapana that did not lead to a composition; at another a so-called light kriti treated with great depth. And I’m not sure the end was the usual mangalam. So, instead of a predictable protocol we got a freely structured concert which demanded an equally immersed attention to every piece.

Having met the performing thinker and the thinking performer, it was time to meet Krishna the socio-politically committed liberal, to whom all music is equal music. At Sitara Studio on Sunday, he sang with Jogappas from Nipani and Bijapur. The former sang in Marathi, the latter in Kannada, both in resounding, earthy voices accompanying themselves on traditional stringed instruments. In beat and form, their songs were like the traditional abhang, ending with a tihai and a jod-tod on the percussion. Krishna responded to their devotionals with a Tukaram abhang in Marathi, a Purandardasa composition in Kannada, and a Tamil song in praise of Renuka, the Jogappas’ deity. His finale was a movingly rendered Allah tero nam, a counter to our divisive times that left us moist-eyed and speechless.   

Published On : 07-12-2016