T.M. Krishna and the Quest for a Truly Contemporary Art Music

In the Brahmanised world of Carnatic music, T.M. Krishna's aesthetic challenges are the start of a transformation to a new, modern music that will dissolve the binary between high and low.

T.M. Krishna. Credit: T.M. Krishna's Facebook page.

T.M. Krishna. Credit: T.M. Krishna’s Facebook page.

Editor’s note: This article was first published on July 3, 2016. It has been republished in light of T.M. Krishna being awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award. 

I met T.M. Krishna at his apartment in Venus Colony on one of Chennai’s rare cool mornings. A self-identified Alwarpet aristocrat whose dream was to study Economics at the London School of Economics, he instead became one of his generation’s highly-regarded Carnatic vocalists.

He has also, in recent years, become something of an ambivalent figure – a challenger of Carnatic orthodoxy, a kind of outsider on the inside – for interrogating the politics behind the practice, which he claims is both socially exclusive and creatively stifling. The world of Carnatic music is quiet; challenges, even when qualified and technical, as Krishna’s often are, inspire uproar.

These challenges are mostly aesthetic – Krishna will, for example, sing a Tillana as the centerpiece of a concert instead of, as is generally done, a finale; he will end a line without singing all its lyrics (because the “music has been completed”) or he will put swaras (notes) in places where they aren’t normally placed.

But when the established aesthetic is politically motivated, aesthetic challenges lead inexorably to, and are themselves, political.

Take, for instance, the idea that the most important element of a vocalist’s performance is their bhava. Bhava, which can be loosely translated as ‘mood’, is a concept from the Natya Shastra, the 5th century Sanskrit treatise attributed to the sage Bharata, to which the more mainstream of our ‘classical’ arts, from Bharatanatyam (emphasis intentional) to Hindustani music, all seem desperate to trace their origins. In the context of Carnatic music, the concept of bhava makes singers akin to actors. When they sing a Tyagaraja keertan (devotional song), they are supposed to convey the saint’s piety and devotion – convey, in other words, the meaning of the lyrics.

This, to Krishna, is a denial of the essentially abstract nature of music. One listens, he says, not to the words but to the sound of the words. Even more importantly, one listens to the sounds that aren’t words at all: the percussion, the violin, the vocalist’s hums and wails, the meaningless syllables that are used to improvise (‘ta’, ‘da’, ‘ri’ and so on). One listens not for a reenactment of Tyagaraj himself but for the individual singer’s musical talent. This, Krishna argues, is most manifest in manodharma, or improvisation within the raga and rhythmic structure. The most novel, sophisticated sounds in Carnatic music are improvised.

I asked Krishna if audiences know Telugu and Sanskrit, and if that is why the words are so important. No, he said, and added: “But you see, all they need to hear is ‘Rama’ and ‘Saraswati’, and they think they understand.” An audience member once told him after a concert that his singing had given him a divine vision of the goddess Saraswati. A Carnatic concert is, still, a religious experience for many, rather than a purely musical one.

It’s also an experience heavily inflected by caste. Tyagaraja – the mythological Tyagaraja, the hero in the current story of Carnatic music — is the Brahmin par excellence, devoted and ascetic. What we we are told about him resembles hagiography more than it does music criticism: stories of the depth of his love for Rama, and his refusal to accept money from the wealthy and move to the city. He expresses not only a kind of Brahmin ideal, but also an anxiety about modernity: the fear of a former class of priests that their enthusiastic participation in capitalism and urbanisation is impoverishing them spiritually.

Tyagaraja is the pivot around which current musical practice turns, and the result is a ‘Brahminised’ music. We see it in the ubiquity of his compositions, in the decor of the halls in which Carnatic music is performed (the om symbols in white paint on the walls, the portraits of aged, fair men, shirtless and draped in cloth, three white lines on the forehead, crosslegged, rail-thin or potbellied), in the food at the sabha canteens (which, don’t get me wrong, is excellent) and in the politics of the community (which, unsurprisingly, consists mostly of BJP supporters). Carnatic music culture perpetuates and maintains caste and class hierarchies. By positioning itself as our ‘classical’ music it stratifies demarcations between high and low culture.

Old stories

But it has not always been the case.

Before Carnatic and Bharatanatyam there was Sadir, the dance form practiced by three communities: the Brahmins, the Icai Vellalars and the Devdasis. Music and dance were performed together, the vocalist didn’t possess the kind of centrality he or she does today and the form as a whole was more improvisatory. There are stories of the zany experimentation and openness of, say, Serfoji II of Tanjore: how he got his court violinists and Veena players to perform the tunes of British army songs and how he tried to form an orchestra of Indian instruments. One hears also (from Krishna included) that the subject matter of the music used to be more variegated; there was less bhakti, or devotion, and more shringar, or aesthetic embellishment.

Sometime in the early twentieth century, a transformation occurred. Tanjore became Madras, Sadir gave way to sangeet (music and dance, as thought of separately) and Bharatanatyam, three communities unified into one, spirit acquired primacy over body, sabhas replaced temples and courts. In the late nineteenth century, music was co-opted by the anti-colonial movement. To show the British that we too had ‘classical’ music, it had to be classicised (which is why it is notated the way it is today). To establish distance from the orientalist stereotypes of sensuality and debauchery, it had to be cleansed of its associations with the physical and made ‘spiritual’. To prove the greatness of ancient Hindu civilisation, it had to be projected as ‘ancient’ and ‘traditional’.

With this reinvention, much has been lost. The Devdasis were deemed not respectable enough for the new music and dance, and the community has now vanished. Nadaswaram players play only at temple festivals and weddings now, and even at those rare opportunities, they play only compositions. Much of their music, with its structures that supported their style of improvisation, is gone.

New directions

Krishna, however, is not trying to return to some past idyll.

He is striving for what he calls “a truly contemporary art music”. To this end, he and Sangeetha Sivakumar have been looking to teach students not from the Carnatic world, at Chennai’s government schools and at the Urur Kuppam festival. At the Urur Kuppum Margazhi Vizha – organised by the Vettiver collective, the panchayat of Urur Kuppam and a group of volunteers including Krishna and Sangeetha – he performs Carnatic music on the same stage as Koothu and Gaana, forms of folk performance. Some of the audience are unfamiliar with the former and some with the latter, and exposure flows both ways: Carnatic musicians learn from Gaana musicians and vice versa. Neither style is restricted to a particular class or group.

Krishna is also trying to find non-religious songs to add to the Carnatic repertoire. What has struck him most, he says, is the discovery that even within the space of Urur Kuppum, several cultures exist.

A music that expresses the utopian possibilities of Chennai’s modernity remains elusive, but a serious transformation appears to be in its nascent stage. The exact form of this music is still unclear – but, undoubtedly, it will be deeply informed by history and the diversity of local cultures, cosmopolitan in its openness to outside influence and uncompromising in its artistic standards. It will, also, reject commodification and the superficial binary of high and low, be immanent rather than transcendent and will further the annihilation of caste. And it will be filled with shringar.

Ashik Kumar is a writer from Chennai. He studies Comparative Literature at Columbia University.