From ‘sabhas’ to streets, TMK style

Be it literature from the margins or environmental concerns, T.M. Krishna is turning every stone in a bid to push the boundaries of his art


T.M. Krishna and the Jogappas at Sitara Studio, Mumbai. Photo: Pepe Gomes
T.M. Krishna and the Jogappas at Sitara Studio, Mumbai. Photo: Pepe Gomes

Five in the evening was our appointed time for a conversation, but there is a tinge of apology in T.M. Krishna’s voice. “Can we please push this by half an hour? I’m just sitting down for lunch,” says Krishna, or TMK, over the phone from Chennai. Since he announced in 2015 that he would not be performing at the Margazhi sabhas in Chennai, his days seem to have become even busier. While trying to meticulously cull out alternative avenues for the arts, Krishna is constantly researching and questioning his practice. To some, he may seem rebellious—the term enfant terrible has been used in his context more than once—but he is clear about what he wants to say even while acknowledging that he doesn’t have the answers. He wants “to push for so many things,” he says.

Also Read | T.M. Krishna: Musician or Messiah?

Krishna is a modern aesthete, driven by the rigours, and consequent pleasures, of an art form. And his collaborations over the past year make strong statements. Here’s a round-up of some of them.

T.M. Krishna with his wife Sangeetha Sivakumar on holiday in New York.
T.M. Krishna with his wife Sangeetha Sivakumar on holiday in New York.

Yellamma’s Brides

A February 2016 event in Bengaluru grabbed headlines—T.M. Krishna in concert with the Jogappas, a transgender community in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. The Jogappas are trained in a holy song and dance tradition and perform regularly at family functions, showering their blessings.

“Intellectually and politically, we all believe in equality, but the fact is that inside, emotionally, we all carry baggage. I did too,” Krishna says, adding that when an opportunity for this collaboration came up, he agreed because “I was putting myself in a position that I knew I would be uncomfortable in”.

Aesthetically though—and that is what is most important to him—he didn’t know if it would work. “Some art forms—they just don’t work together, but I found that these initial recordings would work perfectly (with Carnatic).(Jogappa) music is very much like nama sankeertana (essentially devotional or bhakti songs that invoke god with metaphorical descriptions), from the Carnatic scheme of things,” he says.

The effort also resulted in a concert in Mumbai. Krishna says the idea was to not tamper with the Jogappa style and sound. Careful, then, not to “destroy (any) inherent aesthetics in the process” of this collaboration, they found avenues in each other’s repertoire to enter and exit the music, making for a seamless performance. “It was so very moving. We’d all just come together in a way that was magical,” he recalls.

He interrupts himself before finishing the thought: “This collaboration really becomes meaningful only if I go to their hometowns and we do a concert there (too). That’s when the circle is complete! That kind of flips the whole thing on its head, no?”

Aesthetics over text

Around October, Krishna sprung another surprise. He added another angle to the “devotional” in his Carnatic repertoire— a Tamil Islamic song, Allahvai Naam Thozhudhaal. Popularly attributed to Nagoor Hanifa, the late playback singer and member of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the song’s opening lines roughly translate to, “If you set out on a quest to find Allah, all peace (sukham) will come running to you.”

Krishna had been on a quest to expand the horizon of Carnatic music beyond “the Hindu” for some time. Bringing in poetry and other work from the Islamic tradition was one way of doing this. Allahvai was set to the moving Behag ragam. “It’s possible to derive profound artistic experiences, regardless of the (particular) words being sung,” he says. For him, Carnatic music is “art-music”, not “classical”, he explains—he does not like the word. “I could be singing ‘Krishna’ or ‘Rama’ or ‘Allah’, or it could be ‘boat’, or ‘sun’, or ‘stairway’,” he says, explaining that the attempt is to prove the play and importance of Carnatic music’s aesthetics over the context of the text.

Contemporary in its concerns

Krishna wants to move away from the popular perception that the experience of Carnatic music is limited to a religious one. “The text being religious does not make the art religious,” he stresses. It can also be deeply contemporary in its concerns.

In his now popular music video Chennai Poromboke Paadal, Krishna has addressed the environmental concerns arising from increased industrial activity in Chennai’s Ennore Creek region.

The collaboration happened organically. Written by Kaber, a member of the Tamil rock band Kurangan, the song’s lyrics were born out of an essay by the environment activist Nityanand Jayaraman. Krishna has made the song a confluence of many ragams—reflective of the “poromboke’s” community spirit, if you will. Starting off with Ananda Bhairavi, it picks up Begada, moves on to Hamir Kalyaani, Devagandhari, Salaga Bhairavi, and finally picks up Sindhu Bhairavi.

The project also made two very different worlds interact. “The language of subaltern Chennai and the music of what is elite Brahmanical music…. These two worlds do not meet, but Poromboke has allowed them to meet,” he says.

Running into Perumal Murugan

It is in this play of language diversification that Krishna talks of his collaboration with Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. They had never met or corresponded before, but at an event centred on Dalit literature, Murugan handed him an envelope with about 40 verses. “I was overwhelmed,” Krishna says. Each verse is an appeal and final surrender to Madhorubhagan, the local deity of Tiruchengode. Murugan wrote them during a time of great personal turmoil in the face of extreme, sharp political reaction to his work.

“Not all writing can be sung,” says Krishna. “Every verse of Perumal Murugan’s, though, is musical, and each allows you to play with the words however you want.” With the body of work they’ve created so far, words typical to Murugan’s Konganadu region of Coimbatore have found their way into Carnatic renditions by Krishna. Having performed the verses free-style as viruttams (a form within Carnatic where devotional verses are improvised) Krishna is also trying to coax Murugan to write regular Carnatic compositions for him.

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