Home / Mint-lounge / Music is my window to life: T.M. Krishna

For someone often referred to as the enfant terrible of Carnatic music, Thodur Madabusi Krishna is remarkably pleasant and forthcoming. “They call me a lot of things," he says. “I am not a genius or a maverick or a rebel without a cause. I am just serious about my music."

His strident views may not always be popular, but Krishna is unapologetic. “People often ask me why I write and speak about things not directly connected to my art. But honestly, everything I say comes from the art. Whether it is politics or society or music itself, I am speaking from music. That is my window to life." Edited excerpts from an interview:

You recently wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister condemning the spate of violence that has taken place in the country. Modi has responded, in a way, but he hasn’t really taken responsibility. Your thoughts?

He seems to be deliberately ignoring the point and deflecting the direction of the question. I don’t think anyone has said that the central government of India as a constitutional body is responsible for it. As far as law and order is concerned, the state government is certainly responsible.

However, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and the Sangh Parivar around the country are without doubt conducting a violent discourse on people’s preferences, food habits and behaviour. This is nothing new, but it has become far more brutal. And what is worse is that BJP ministers of the central government, MPs (members of Parliament) and MLAs (members of the legislative assemblies) have made and continue to make callous, irresponsible, insensitive, even cruel statements about what has happened.

As I said in my letter, the Prime Minister of India is also a senior member of a political party called the BJP. Members of his government, his party and its larger family are making statements that are provocative, triggering a cycle of violence that will only repeat itself. The Prime Minister can’t say he is not responsible for what members of his government and party are saying or doing. He needs to come out and unequivocally put a stop to this.

Why do you think it is important as an artist to respond to these growing threats to pluralism?

I think it is very important for artists in general, or let us say people engaged in the creative pursuit, that goes beyond the literal in life, to react to these situations. Every endeavour that may be personal for an artist is inextricably connected to that which happens around him. You cannot live in this bubble and be disconnected from the world. Everything that you sing or dance or write about is an abstraction of that which is within and that which is around.

You say that your decision to withdraw from the Chennai music season was partly because you believed that the music continues to be non-inclusive and somewhat elitist. But isn’t that the problem with any classical art form?

My biggest problem with the season is that there seems to be no introspection in the world of Carnatic music. We really need to take a fresh look at the art form we celebrate. I concede that I also did have a somewhat elitist idea of myself and my art. The more I experienced music, my views changed.

For instance, I’ve distanced myself from the word classical. If you look at it artistically, the word classical has no artistic sense, it has a social sense as it is almost always practised and supported by the caste and/or class elite of any society. And that is why the word “art music" is far more apt for forms such as Carnatic, Hindustani or Jazz.

I feel that the music world isn’t thinking about this. The season takes place over 30 days, but it rarely goes beyond the sabhas. You have to understand a sabha is not a public space. Because there are no tickets and it is at a public venue, it doesn’t mean it is a public space. It is a space that is culturally and socially controlled by certain groups and there is a certain intimidation in that space that stops people from coming in.

We need to go beyond that. It’s not about giving deliverance to someone by taking Carnatic music to them. We must go there respecting the art that is already practised in that space and provide access to another artistic form. Everyone must be able to be touched by any art form irrespective of caste, class or gender and as artists, it is our job to break any barriers that may separate our worlds. Having diverse sets of people listening to it, practising it and teaching it will only make music richer.

There are other issues including the role of middlemen in providing opportunities for young artists, the ignoring of wonderful musicians who may not be popular and the role money is playing in this game. Powerful musicians control the texture of the season and there is scant care for accompanying musicians. But the season is only a symptom of an overall fall in the Carnatic environment and I am as culpable as others in this.

You have not just written and spoken about the need for inclusiveness, you have also worked extensively to take your music to the masses: through Svanubhava, through your festival in the Urur Olcott kuppam, through the Jaffna Cultural Initiative…

Svanubhava came from the idea that we need to respect every art form. At the festival, we have one stage and every art form is given the same importance on it. The idea was to allow everything to flower on one stage and to enable diverse students to interact.

The Jaffna Initiative came accidentally. I went to Colombo in 2010 for a memorial concert of Neelan Tiruchelvam, a great political thinker and politician assassinated by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). After the concert, his wife told me to go to the Northern provinces and I agreed. The next year, I travelled extensively across the country on a bus (the first notable Indian musician to have visited in over 35 years) and sang in four concerts. After this, we took the Svanubhava idea there, and enabled many musicians and dancers to perform and interact with students. It really triggered a lot of activity and many private organizers are doing similar things.

Urur festival was in line with my idea of taking art to public spaces. I wanted to create a parallel space for the arts; it was both a social and artistic experiment and it was also a platform where many art forms came together. Urur took Carnatic music to a fisherman’s village, allowed it to rub shoulders with other art forms such as Paraiattam. The fisherfolk heard Carnatic music in their own space without any inhibitions and the Carnatic listeners watched kattaikoothu and heard Carnatic music in a completely new environment.

How do you deal with criticism from the purists who resent you tampering with what they see as the traditional format of performance?

What is this music we are experiencing as Carnatic music? When you go to a concert, do we only get a reiteration of a certain conforming presentation of the music or are we actually listening to the music? There are two parts to anything; the core, which is the music itself and its presentation, the case. What does the case do to the core? This is the question we need to ask. Can we recognize that this so-called casing of this music has manipulated the core?

We are so stuck with the paraphernalia that we forget about the music. We are trapped by a certain habituation. We should remember that even many of the so-called flights of imagination that we experience in a concert are trapped within this hard casing. Once you take that habituation out, you will realize that there are different ways of looking at the core. For this we must investigate the form, its history, context, movement and ourselves to reach a point where we can detach our own preferences from the experience of the art. In that state the “inner" of the art truly appears.

When I sing an alapana, my sanctity is with the questions: What is an alapana? Where is the raga? And I try to live in that experience. The effect or impact of the alapana is incidental. I am not being callous or casual; I am simply being as honest as I can be.

Your recent book ‘A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story’ delves into the ecosystem of the art form, making some rather controversial observations.

In a way we are at a very good phase. We have enough people singing it, we have enough patronage. This is the best time to ask difficult questions, and difficult questions that ask for a deeper understanding of the form itself and its socio-political scaffolding. Why do only a certain group of people practise and listen to it. Why is there so much of gender discrimination rampant in this space? How can we not see that?

I am not saying that I don’t belong here. I am an insider who knows the inside world. I come with all the baggage of the privileged and these questions are also ones I ask myself.

You constantly talk about your education at The School shaped your perceptions, the way you deal with competition and critics, your views on atheism and spiritual music.

All the jabber I gave you now is partly because of that. It was not that we were indoctrinated in Krishnamurthy philosophy, but the school allowed you to be free of fear.

That is the greatest gift the school gave me. When I say freedom from fear, I don’t mean I never feel fear, I mean I recognize it. It taught me to ask deeper questions and thus it is a very precious part of my identity. And it wasn’t just at school, but at home as well. We discussed almost anything at the dining table—there was no taboo at all. That is what shaped who I am.

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