Music and society

Looking back, looking ahead

Print edition : August 30, 2019

September 26, 2016: At the M.S. Subbulakshmi birth centenary event organised by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai. Photo: M. Karunakaran

T.M. Krishna in concert. Photo: The Hindu Archives

During a performance on the Loyola College campus in Chennai. Photo: R. Ragu

During the fourth edition of the annual Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha at Elliot’s Beach in Chennai in 2018. Photo: R. RAVINDRAN

From a music video of “Chennai Poromboke Padal”, which was part of a campaign to save the Ennore creek. Photo: By Special Arrangement

An interview with the singer T.M. Krishna.

T.M. KRISHNA's musical journey can be mapped as past and post. In the past, he looked and conducted himself exactly like a Carnatic musician, conforming to the norms of that world. In the post, he went in search of the soul, shunning the looks and the conformism, and layer by layer he peeled off everything that was a hindrance in the quest to get to the heart of music.

It was not easy; he had stirred up a hornets’ nest and had to face questions pertaining to the social and the political. These introspective years were certainly hard on Krishna as they were on his listeners. But the singer made the scope of these questionings wider and larger and concluded that good art cannot be separate from good politics. Krishna, whose musical journey has clearly moved beyond music, spoke to Frontline on a range of issues. Excerpts:

Your mother was a trained Carnatic classical musician, and your father an avid listener. How did music come into your life? Did it happen just like in most middle-class homes—where every child learnt either music or dance? Or were the circumstances different?

First of all, ours was not a middle-class home, it was upper class. My mother came from a middle-class home, and my granddad was a doctor who was among the set of doctors who set up Manipal Medical Hospital. My grandmom played the veena. They were an enlightened family: back then, my grandmother went to boarding school in Chennai, my mother was a student of literature who did her master’s in music. After marriage, her music had become dormant, but after I was born, she decided to resume her music. Bhagavathula Seetharama Sharma came home to teach her.

They say I showed interest and so, when I was three years old, I started getting music lessons from Seetharama Sharma . In a way, it was very similar to what happens in middle-class homes. My elder brother, Srikanth, learnt the mridangam. But I don’t even think I can articulate a relationship; it was just “paattu” class. Given a choice, I would have preferred to play cricket with my friends.

When did it become serious?

I am not sure. But when I was 12 years old, I took part in the Spirit of Music concerts that the Music Academy conducts. It was the first time I went on stage. My singing was received enthusiastically and lots of people told me I sang well. That made me feel I should take my music seriously.

The Youth Association for Classical Music [YACM] was another reason. I became a member in 1989 and at that time a lot of young musicians who are now seniors in Carnatic music… Vijay Siva, Unnikrishnan, Shriram Kumar, Arun Prakash, Sanjay Subramaniam, Sangeeta Sivakumar… were its members.

The YACM was very active in those days, doing a lot of good work. It was wonderful because I found people with whom I could talk music. We spent a lot of time together and there was a lot of learning. Those years made a huge impact on me and the way I looked at music. Once I found young people to discuss Begada and Sahana, it interested me a lot. The focus was mostly on skills, that is the mechanics and grammar of music, but it was useful.

You learnt music under three gurus—Seetharama Sharma, Chingleput Ranganathan and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer—three different world views and three different musical sensibilities. How did they influence you and your music?

Seetharama Sharma was there from day one. He put my foundation in place. Whether it was approach to a composition, the discipline involved, shaping manodharma, voice production... everything came completely from him. Chingleput Ranganathan was someone I went to each time I needed a special lesson, a kriti, etc. He was a taskmaster. I kept my connection with him throughout. I learnt from Semmangudi mama for about five years but the benefits were huge. The first time I saw him was at a Pallavi workshop at the Music Academy—a traditional, strong, disciplined old man, an incredible musician.

I have had a wonderful relationship with all my gurus. Seetharama Sharma was there with me throughout, he was a father figure to me. With Semmangudi, it was different. I was once singing at the Ramamandira on the outskirts of the city [Chennai], he happened to come there. After the concert, he asked my father to send me to him for lessons. He was well into his nineties at that time, but so sharp and full of life; he was differently incredible. Very young at heart, and the kind of jokes he cracked... it would leave me embarassed. He taught me how to go to the core of things. It was not something that he would demonstrate, but he pushed me to it. He taught me how to dig deep.

He was a phenomenal musician, but he had quite a reputation otherwise…

That’s true. But when I went to him the many pressures of his social life and musical journey had gone out of his life. I was not even his contemporary. He was very old and I was really young. He was a lot of fun. I used to spend the whole day with him, and it was not like we were at music all the time. He knew every gossip in town, he would chat, I would have lunch with him, he would take his afternoon siesta, after waking up he would teach me for a while more… he really got me to think and understand music in a deeper sense. I watched the great musician in him with awe. Till his very end, he was what he was. I remember that in those days I sang a lot in Kerala. That particular year, for Vijayadasami, I had called him from Nilambur Road. He was thrilled because the former President R. Venkataraman had come to see him. Ten days after that he passed away. The last couple of days while he was in hospital, I went to see him. His daughter asked him if he knew who had come. He didn’t respond. She told him it was T.M. Krishna. She asked him again, and again. Maybe some four times. “I got it…. Thodur Madabusi Krishna. How many times will you say, stop it,” he told her. He was very sharp-tongued, and continued to be so till the end. It had not disappeared.

Incredible! Where are all those people? They behaved as themselves till the end. Now, most of us behave in the same way, there is a homogeneity in the way we think, the way we speak, the way we are seen… we are so plastic. Whether we agree or disagree with him is another stage of discussion, but they could be who they are. That’s something amazing. He could flaunt who he was. All that influenced me a great deal.

Seetharama Sharma was my first guru, a father figure to me. He passed away in 2017. He really looked after me. All my early understanding of ideas about music, tradition, environment, culture, the sense of self, art, everything comes from him. My family was elite, the culture was upper class. The discussions were around Sartre, J. Krishnamurthy, etc.But my guru’s home was a typical middle-class, traditional, Brahmin household. He was devout, simple, and his life views were different. He made a big impact on me. Semmangudi taught me depth and abandon, Seetharama Sharma shaped my musical edifice.

But did Semmangudi’s politics not trouble you?

Hmm…. I am not sure if I thought about all that so seriously back then. But one thing is for certain, art takes you to the sublime, but once that moment is over the player is back. The artiste, like anyone else, has to survive, and his insecurities get the better of him. Art world, in general, lacks introspection. Using the magic that art creates to condone, everything else is unacceptable.

I think my schooling also helped me in a big way. Well, that’s another thing—everyone thinks I’ve read Krishnamurthy back to back [laughs]. I’ve hardly read him. My grandmother went to Besant Theosophical Higher Secondary School, Swami Chinmayananda was a close family friend, and whichever part of the country he was in, on the day of the exam my mother received a letter from him. He used to stay with my granddad in Manipal. So, our home had mixed philosophical threads. Schooling and upbringing helped us not to place anything on the pedestal blindly. I never placed anyone in a blind, unquestioning place. So, I didn’t expect him to be an ideal human being.

Spirit of Music, YACM, three outstanding gurus…. When you look back at those early years, what is the one thing that strikes you the most?

There is one thing that has happened in the last 15-18 years and it keeps coming back to me often. When we arrived on the music scene, I mean all of us who are now considered seniors, there was an amateur element in us. I am speaking of the 1990s, I was youngest in terms of age, but I shared musical standing with the rest of them. We could jam with each other, criticise, tear each other apart, laugh at our own selves… it was fabulous.

We could go up and say, “Ennada padine nee [what did you sing]?” and none of us felt it was professional slight. I feel that this attitude made it possible for us to engage with our music seriously. Today, we may not be in touch with each other, but at that time we were having fun. We never engaged with music with a concert in mind. We loved to sing and perform, and if got an opportunity we would sing. Primarily, it was only love for music, we became professionals later.

But coming up in the ranks today, there is a sense of competition, the dynamics is different. I keep telling my students about those days. You know why? They all enter as professionals now, it is too structured.

The perception of another singer, mridangist and violinist, is always underlined with the conception of a market, the stage, etc. I don’t blame them, but it definitely plays a role in the way you engage with music. Much has changed. The talent is humongous, every generation is more talented than the previous one, but the focus is different. They have to interrogate the context they are in. I am not wallowing in nostalgia, but really it is the case.

That is because the market was not so huge and determining everything for the arts.

That’s right. We were lucky. What would I have been if I was coming up as a musician in 2004?

So, how did you look at Carnatic music in those days? Was it religious, spiritual, personal, was it an elite preoccupation? What was it?

In the late 1980s and 1990s, I don’t even think I gave it much thought. I just loved singing. It sounds very naive now, but that is what it was. I was never a hyper-religious person. I did my upanayanam and all that, but nothing was too big. I never thought Carnatic music was religious. But till about the mid 1990s, I was a very superstitious person. I had crazy superstitions. You want to call it quasi-religious or some such thing? Perhaps, yes. I had all those streaks in me.

I think there is a connection that is made with how you look and who you are. And I think the Carnatic music world was comfortable with the way you looked.

Of course. I wore the namam. Why did I wear it—I don’t even have an answer. I wore it because my mother told me to wear it. I think it probably came from my guru. So… some kind of conformism.

After many years, one day, my wife, Sangeeta, asked me why I wore it. That was the day I actually thought about it. I had no answer, and it didn’t make any sense to me. So I just stopped wearing it. It also becomes a superstition. It is a catch. You wear it and things go right for you, and then you feel only if you wear it will things happen the way they should. So, it is a mixed bag of things. In my early years I never questioned any of it.

You also send a certain signal, and people are reading you. Finally, everyone wants to belong. You can’t even easily categorise it as right and wrong. This is so evident in the way male and female musicians dress for a Carnatic music concert.

It is mixed with all kinds of things—social, religious, moral, puritanical, conformism of all sorts. It is too entangled. It is up to each person whether they want to inquire into it or not. I did not in the initial days of my life, but now it is problematic. I will not wear the namam. I am not comfortable with the signals it sends, it is too loaded. It is not just about wearing something, I feel it is necessary to interrogate it.

During the second year of your college, you decided that music was going to be your life choice. What did you envisage for yourself?

When I think where I am now, and think of myself back in those days, I can’t even understand the person that I was. A very different person, very different self view, world view, all views. I wanted to sing, wanted to be famous, wanted to get the Sangeeta Kalanidhi—as simple as that. And it was my ultimate aim. I was willing to work very hard to realise all this. I was not competitive, but I was an aggressive young man. I never let go of a single opportunity. I was passionate about music and believed that the stage was my place. I was a very different kind of a person then.

You were so close to all of this, and suddenly something happened.

Yes. [laughs]

You were a rock star; people thronged to your concerts. Everyone believed that the new big thing to Carnatic music was happening with T.M. Krishna. You were amidst several able and competent musicians, but your audience sensed that you were strikingly different. What happened?

You try to think of these things only in retrospect. You let it happen and only then you think about it. So many of my re-evaluations, I do not know how accurate they are, but let me try. I think one element that has remained with me, thanks to home and school, is my questioning self. Even when I was extremely career-driven, opportunity-driven, someone who would go after a kutcheri, travel, etc., even in that period, I was a questioning person, that streak was there in me. That is perhaps what triggered these questions within me. Maybe there is an incident, but I don’t recollect it. Many people think there is an incident or a couple of incidents, but I have no such memory. Probably something happened in my own sub-conscious. I don’t remember anything that triggered this transformation.

Could it be fame itself?

Hmm… possible. Now that you say it, I will take it from you. That itself could have been the trigger. It may have pushed me.

At one point I started asking myself—why am I singing this music? Maybe it also came from the fact that at some level I felt I had cracked it. I knew the success formula of a concert. What works for the audience, how to take control of them, I knew it all. What is growth after that? It was only about developing more repertoire. Maybe singing ragas no one had sung, singing in complicated talas, singing unknown kritis—all this meant developing on skill sets and abilities. That is it. I suddenly felt that all this was not of great significance.

People asked me if I was bored, I know I was not. I just felt that this was a lacuna. Again, I am reconstructing the entire thing for you. So, we don’t know, but there was something entirely empty about this kind of a pursuit. Also, even in those late 1990s, there were moments in my music which were beyond my control, things I could not explain. The former was more fascinating, those moments that were beyond my control. They left me with a profound experience.

Probably there was a conflict: on the one hand I felt I had cracked this formula of professional success, I was in total control of the stage, I knew exactly what to do, and I had the ability to achieve. All of a sudden something appears from nowhere, and this gives me the most profound experience that all my ego and control had not given me. It is probably this musical conflict that led me to ask the question: “What am I doing here?” This is probably what it was. I couldn’t just explain this disparity. If this most profound experience is music, then what is this that I am pursuing? Does this evident dichotomy need to exist?

Did it begin to dismantle all your ideas and notions about what constitutes music?

Not immediately. I started discussing this with people who were very close to me. My mother, [my wife] Sangeeta and some of my closest friends. It bothered me a lot, a lot. And I knew it was not nostalgic emotion, I could not rationalise it. If it was memory or experience driven, like an experience in a temple or something with my guru, then maybe I would understand it. This was not any such thing, it bothered me terribly, all the time, always. When it happened repeatedly, it didn’t dismantle my notions, but I began to investigate my music and digging deeper into it.

Is that when you went into research?

Yes, that is when I started research, looking at old manuscripts. I began to study the Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarshini, the Natyashastra, etc. I was doing it as an amateur, I had no clue of most things. Luckily, I had scholars like Dr Ramanathan who were kind and generous to me. Multiple questions came to me and all were aesthetic—neither social, political or philosophical. I was in a conversation with myself.

There are so many things we accept, so many things that we say without thinking. For instance, “unbroken tradition of beauty of 150 years”. When I began reading up, I realised that what we see as beauty now was not considered so 150 years ago. Is this entire beauty thing a sociopolitical construct, driven by a set of people? What is this thing that we call beauty? Is it transgenerational or eternal or what we call “sampradaya”? Is there something like that or are we seeking solace, like we do in antiquity? We say, for instance, India is 4,000 years old or something like that. We say it and we feel good, pure. Would my investigation really lead me to something positive, or would it dismantle everything? It was a scary proposition. At one point, I asked myself if the answers I found were against my beliefs, was I willing to give up music? I was all muddled.

Then I started doing Pradarshini work with the violinist and my friend R.K. Shriram Kumar. It led me to fascinating things. I am a relentless digger, I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t sleep…. But that’s when concerts started deconstructing for me.

I began to question the idea of a concert being a composite idea of beauty. Can we truly call it an aesthetic whole? Is it there or is it something we bestow upon it? If we break it down, does beauty still exist? That was another quest. I didn’t get up one fine morning and say the concert structure was all nonsense. I never did that. It just happened very organically and over a long period of time.

Listeners were not paying attention and they said all kinds of things, but I know, I know exactly when it happened. It was in Bangalore, at Indiranagar Sangeet Sabha. Ask the mridangist Arun Prakash, I sang Sahana varnam in between. Slowly, in the coming days, the concert structure started dismantling. And the moment it dismantled, something incredible opened up. And also I realised that the dismantling dismantled for me the professional compulsion. Entirely. So, pleasing the audience, success of a concert, everything just went out of the window.

In a way, the profound itself became the music. I took the success formula and dissolved it over a period of time. So, now the only thing I needed to hold on to was the possibility of the profound. That is the only thing I had. All this just happened. Maybe I was just too lucky.

A lot of people thought it is about concert format. They said bizarre things like, he could well start the concert with the mangalam! But that was not what it was: it was about what the format is in its construction, what it implores you to do, the relationship you have with art, people, community, everything.

It must have been isolating.

Shriram Kumar, Arun Prakash and Sangeeta were the first people I used to discuss with. They have partnered in many of these ideas. It was happening in discussion. My thoughts were being questioned, challenged, broken down—a lot of these things took place between the four of us. They did see in it a certain liberation from the process. They clearly understood that I was making an important point musically. So, when I said why should the profound only be an accident, both Arun Prakash and Shriram Kumar found validity in it. They may have not done it themselves as individual musicians, but they recognised the merit of the argument. It was an important aesthetic discussion and we have influenced each other tremendously.

It indeed was a testing ground.

Yes, it was. Many things were discarded. So many people think that I have done it on a whim. No, it's not true. Whatever I felt was an indulgence I threw it out of the window. It felt dishonest. Those ideas that were about myself, what seemed like self-projection, I discarded them.

So much happened within you, and you went with it. Did you realise what you were taking on?

No, I am not the one to think of consequences, I just plunge into it. I have become slightly better with age. If I feel strongly about something, I don’t care about the repercussions. As I went ahead with my research, I began to see that these questions did not throw up purely musical or aesthetic answers. It landed me in a different kind of problem, and that became the biggest struggle. I had grown up in a certain kind of environment, I had certain notions about music and the world... slowly they began to crumble. That was harder to deal to with.

You’re comfortable with your beliefs, but you realise that what you’re comfortable with is deeply problematic. So, what do you hold on to? Is there anything at all? I didn’t know that self-questioning would manifest itself in this way, lead me to so many problems. When people think it is a concert format problem, I really want to tell them it is not as simple as that. Things are still emerging…. I never imagined that I would be doing things that I am doing today.

Did you feel it was unstoppable?

It was unstoppable. I've been told I had an agenda, and they perhaps imagined that I had a long list on which I kept ticking—one done, two done, etc. I wish I was such a strategist. One question led to the other, and I could not stop. I could not stop because all this was very important for my inner self. Sangeeta and I had differences, but we both felt it is extremely important to address these questions. There was just no stopping.

At one point, I even felt that my music career was not going to last too long. It felt very sad, but questions of money, survival, didn’t bother us too much. We could find a way to earn money, but there were other deeper issues, and I could not retract. I’ve even heard many saying that I float around in money, I am super-rich, etc. It is utter rubbish. All these days I never spoke about it. But let me say it now. In 2001, my father’s company was in huge debt, and our family lost every penny. The only thing we had was the apartment that my maternal aunt gave me. Nothing was easy….

People looked at you in awe and admiration, with irritation and frustration. They called you young and arrogant, rich and elite, J. Krishnamurthy product…. and not all of these comments were about your music. It was more about shedding those “costumes”. It must have been lonely.

It was very lonely. There were days when it just felt so suffocating. There are days even now. Probably even more than then. Things are manipulated, misinterpreted, stories are created, twisted, all kinds of narrations, trivialisation… very bothersome. Very tiring, when people don’t even attempt to understand, let alone agree. “Who the hell asked you to do all this? Couldn’t you have minded your business? Just make money, sing, travel…”—these were the things that came my way. It has been lonely, tiresome and hurtful too, you can no longer talk to people who you thought were your friends.

You decided to call Carnatic music art music. You no longer wanted to call it classical music.

Art music is not my creation; both in the West and here, that’s how it is called. If Carnatic music is tagged with “classical”, I have a problem. I met this musicologist Harold Powers, who had done extensive research in Hindustani and Carnatic. In early 2000, we were in my apartment discussing music. I casually asked him what the difference between classical and folk is, and he said: “When something goes up the social ladder, it transforms from the folk to the classical.” His answer was both astounding and crazy. That is something that stuck with me, this fundamental definition. He problematised the definition of classical for me. I didn’t grasp it for a long time, but it kept haunting me.

The more and more I investigate into history, look at society, I find “classical” very problematic. It becomes an ideal, an aesthetic ideal.

Classical music has a privilege and status that comes embedded with the feeling that it is greater. In most musicological writings in India, for instance, it is pathetic the way we understand the social within the aesthetic and the aesthetic within the social.

The community’s situation within the aesthetic has not been explored at all. I found the classical and folk an important platform to do that.

Aesthetically, the “classical” by itself has no value. How equipped are we as individuals to argue and understand this? In that case, what allows this tagging, what allows what we are saying of the other? The classical, then, is the othering process. Once I reached this point, I had to disown myself from the classical sphere. The lullaby, harvest song, etc., you can call it social music. I began to feel that these categorisations need to have basis in the intention of the art itself, and not in who controls the idea of the aesthetic in society. So, classical and folk are entirely about that and not the form.

Basically, you are not comfortable with the hierarchy that is embedded in the word classical.

Yes, absolutely. I have a problem with this cultural elitism. T.J.S. George, in the new edition of his book on M.S. Subbulakshmi, refers to my article on her. While he seems to appreciate other arguments that I make, he says that he disagrees with my view that the idea of the classical has to be discarded. He says, classical is an aspiration, and it has to stay. Is that not a problem? Are you not universalising the idea of aesthetics?

Many art forms are undergoing a transformation, for they seek validation from the classical. They seek larger social acceptance. Now, we should not confuse this with the number of listeners. They want to be closer to something that is aesthetically “superior”. The practitioners seek a social affirmation that needs to be investigated. The power structures need to transform and not inversely. So, call it Hindustani and Carnatic, and disband the word classical.

Do you have the same issues when they say Western classical?

Of course, I do. It is the same struggle for jazz. Tell me why it cannot be called classical. It is Afro-American music and the Western classical is white music. I don’t think we should accept it. What art music does is interesting, it doesn’t deal with the literal. It deals with the literal to convey something abstract. Whether it is jazz, Hindustani… many art forms around the globe. Art music is completely abstract. The text is only a catalyst.

What is the purpose of this music? Is it entertainment, spiritual, religious...?

Spiritual is one word I run away from. It comes with a huge baggage, and the minute I use the word, I know exactly what people are thinking. So, it is no longer what it means to me, but how it is understood out there. I don’t want to get into that intersection. I think the safer thing for me to do is not use it.

The fundamental purpose of music is to give you an abstract sense of life. And what is beautiful about it is that it is impersonal. We create this music. The moment you abstract, your self is removed, only the idea exists.

Do you think all those great “vaggeyakaras” have been limited to their social-religious selves?

I entirely think so. We have underestimated, undervalued the philosophical and aesthetic breath of these individuals. I believe that Tyagaraja or Dikshitar inhabited many spaces. It is claustrophobic where they are today. They are seen as evangelists. It is really sad. Their work says so much more. They may have operated in certain clusters, but there was definitely a search that was beyond all these frameworks. We should see it.

How can there be art where there is no flux? We want conformity, homogeneity….We have regimented them and destroyed their soul. Both of them lived in a continuous quest for meaning, they were troubled and were seeking, else they could not have created art.

But we have made them realised beings, like they had a solution for everything. They grappled with issues of this life and that of the universe. We are trying to externalise something that is deeply internal. This is a problem with us, we create external manifestations when we fail to converse with the inner self.

The music one sings is the product of the relationship one has with it.

Yes, that is probably why the intention of music also changes. There are plenty of conflicts even there. Your social conditioning tells you of a certain purpose. But when you are singing, your experience could be contraindicative. If you start listening to those thoughts, your music changes.

Also, music is not about sounding beautiful. There is a way that beautiful has been defined, and once you start saying no to that messaging system, a different kind of beauty begins to blossom. I am not finding fault with that idea of beauty, but it just doesn’t feel real or honest. This is an advice I give my students too—don’t try to sound pretty, be your own self even it sounds harsh. Give your everything to it. There is so much we need to think about.

How is the singer, song and listener relationship formed? Is it in a flux or is it a given?

In Carnatic music, it is a given with escape routes. The given can never be asked, for example, the bhava. If Tyagaraja has said Rama came and stood in front of me, I should feel the same. The escape route has to be there. How much ever we say it in discourse, it doesn’t always happen in actual rendition. The way we render some kritis has nothing to do with meaning. Suppose we hold that every sahitya has to be emoted in singing, then I demand from Carnatic musicians that every word in the “padam” they sing should carry an experience. But we come up with excuses, Tyagaraja didn’t sing like that, this musician couldn’t sing it properly. Then you create new meaning which does not exist. Unfortunately, this is a very complex trap, it is a tough one because of social pressure. Because this is not just a musical conversation, but a social-religious one. It is so deeply seated that it is difficult to escape.

The kutcheri format was reorganised or rather, you reordered it.

I didn’t reorder it, I removed the idea of order. I personally never thought of it as reordering. The “alapana”, idea of “swaras”, the “neraval” technique, everything changed. I wanted to remove the conditionality of it all. It was with respect to me. I asked myself what does one achieve aesthetically with the existing format? When people said it was difficult for them, it was difficult for me as well. It was out of my comfort zone. But gradually, it opened many vistas. I began to listen to what I was singing and I responded to it. You know something, when the conditionality is kept intact, we don’t listen. It is important to stop worrying about all things external.

For instance, the “kalpana swaram”. Where is it placed, what are its limits? When does the “kalpana swaram” transform from being an aesthetic beauty to a manipulative tool? The “neraval” that I sing today is very different from what I sang a few years ago…. I know it for a fact. As a singer I need to listen, and say wow. And stay with the wow for a while.

Art is never born in isolation, isn’t it? Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar’s “kutcheri” format was also a product of its time. The Tamil Isai movement too. So is today’s speed and aggression in Carnatic music. They were all born out of interactions with the social-political that shape not only society but also art.

We have constructed Carnatic music in the last 100 years as something that is beyond discussion. You keep on touching only those things that serve nostalgia value and everything else is a no-go zone. Whether it is the Ariyakudi format or the current format, we must see that music is in interaction with society. But we conveniently gloss over all these truths and have positioned it beyond the political. You can’t even touch it. It is like asking questions about God. How can you? That sort of a thing. But, God can have many “roopas”. He can have new, and newer, “roopas”.

The problem is that classrooms are still very undemocratic. It has changed to some extent, but not significantly. Questioning is not encouraged. You have an environment and culture of unthinkingness. The present is never a playground for deep questioning.

What is this past that one keeps going back to? What is this “tradition” one wants to preserve?

There is no fixed point in the past that is being referred to as “the past”. There are many stories, but we decide which story we want to tell and keep. There is one thread of the past that we want to preserve. It is a backward moving line, which terminates in the Natyashastra. It is a game we play with the past, and as we move forward in time, we like to erase from public memory all the careful manoeuvring we have done.

Let me give you an example. They say Pattammal was the first woman to sing the “ragam tanam pallavi”. It has been documented that there were devadasi musicians who sang ragam tanam pallavis. Why was this memory erased? Does it make Pattammal less great if she was the second woman to sing it? We change the truth because Pattammal belonged to the community that controls the music world. Because of who we are and how we function, we build stories that reiterate our position. Shouldn’t we break these designs? That is what I want to ask.

Pride blinds you.

The past, as you say, is a very selective go-to place. While we keep invoking the great masters, our reverence for them, etc., I don’t think in any sense the past lives on in the present. It is not possible either. With our great respect for past and tradition, how do we explain our current music that has so little to do with the past?

In my opinion, the past is a mechanism that we use. To say I’m in line or I revere the pastmasters or I’m inspired, we copy gestures or we sing the kritis they sang—this doesn’t take much from us. But what it really demonstrates is our level of engagement. To belong is a strategy, it is a habit. The mind is a place where ideas have to be built. Sadly, there is no deep engagement with either the past or the present.

You speak of a certain complicity with tradition. And you speak of Brahminisation. Are they the same or are they interlinked?

They are inseparable. The history that we have chosen and the story we want to tell are evidence. Why are certain traditions not seen as mainstream? How do we give respect to traditions that are so glorious? What have we done to the devadasi and the nagaswaram tradition? We keep talking about legends like Rajarathnam Pillai and Karaikurchi Arunachalam. What happened, why do they have only one slot in Music Academy? Every year in December, I organise 15 nadaswaram concerts.

[Pauses]…. There is a great deal of dishonesty here. I have no words to express my feelings. I feel I have lost my vocabulary. I don’t know how else to articulate it… it disturbs me a great deal. The privileged caste has not engaged with those castes lower in social hierarchy. It is not about rich and poor at all. It is not even about music, it is only emblematic of what is happening in society. That is why people who have never heard Carnatic music are coming out to say Carnatic music is about caste.

We need not be ashamed of our identities. But we must be aware of it with respect to others in this society. Pride, in a way, blinds you.

We seem to be caught in a world of binaries. Do you think it is possible to celebrate moments of victory than to highlight separation? Have you considered that as a model?

I have a deep problem with that model. It pushes things under the carpet before we realise it. Once, one mami asked me: “But why do you talk, you are anyway doing all these things.” My fear is condescension, we think we are giving art and culture to those who don’t have it. I am resting my hope in a minority of youngsters, they seem to get the discourse.

We have a quarrel with the way music is dressed and presented—both aesthetic and social. By trying to break this, we are giving it another kind of appearance.

Can we make it shorn of all appearances?

The effort is to push it out of the familiar. I am pushing it in the way I know, but it is not the only way. Multiple people should imagine this in their own ways and do their bit. We must ask difficult questions of ourselves. Come out of your cocoons, and then fascinating things can happen.

You took to writing seriously, became an activist, and now it almost seems like everyone wants T.M. Krishna as a peg to hang their woes on, to fight their battles. From the environment to queer issues to women’s issues. How difficult is this for you? How has it impacted your music?

It puts a lot of stress on me, it is very, very hard. I do see the interconnectedness of it all. I am also careful—for both what I am, and what I am asked to be. I am trying to be as aware as possible. It is harder, simply because I believe in it.

People think that I am no longer interested in my music, but that is not true. I personally feel it has taken me deeper. The politics has made my music a bit more profound. What I also realise deeply is that I need to step back not just for myself, but for the discourse itself. Otherwise, the discourse gets clouded by who I am. More people should engage with these issues, then I will not be seen as so important. Community and society make you conscious about who you are, and it has facilitated a self-understanding in me.

Do you also realise that a large number of the people who draw you into their fold do not engage with T.M. Krishna the musician? Your core is music, or rather that’s your gateway into everything.

Well, I know… but there is no level playing field to demand that. T.M. Krishna was born into enough privileges to walk his road and theirs.

Being conferred with the Sangeeta Kalanidhi title was something that you dreamt of. You gave up all your chances to get it. Does it make you feel bad?

[Laughs loudly.] Not even a wee bit. Not even for a second.

What are your plans for the future?

I am dreaming that sometime in the future there will be cultural conversations and it will make a difference to society. It is a slow process. Long-term changes have to change the social fabric. I will be dead and gone, but if the questions I’ve raised make a difference to people, to music, if they think about their identities, I think the effect it will have on people and society will be incredibly profound. Culture and art can bring about long-term changes. These conversations, I believe, must happen in schools and colleges.

Agreeing with me also becomes a problem for people. They can’t take a public stance. There is a fear generated in society today; you cannot ask questions. You cannot even rethink. Therefore, you make Tyagaraja and Dikshitar blemishless, God-like figures. But blemish is where art is born. Now, all these people who are experts in Vedanta and philosophy, don’t they know that realisation happens only when you become acutely aware of your complicated self, and not in cleansing yourself?

You were faulted on your practice of music, its reconstruction and, later, your writings, the political and social crusades. But the interest in Krishna’s music did not wane.

To some extent, it is true. The public still come to my concerts. I have been very sincere to my music, though I now pursue a different ideal.

But there is a good number that has boycotted me. They have thrown my CDs, emptied their hard disks of my voice, they hate my political stance. What I really want to ask all of them who have said these things to me is, what is their position on art? On the one hand, they tell me that art and politics have to be kept separate. But on their part, they can’t keep it separate. The climate is so anti-intellectual, it is like war. There is no debate or conversation, you just malign and abuse.

Look around in a hall and tell me that Carnatic music is not dominated by Brahmins. How can anyone argue that way? These same musicians go on a U.S. tour and come back to say that there is a lot of discrimination. Why, was there an incident? No. But it is a feeling that you don’t belong. You’re scared that the chances of you being picked in a security line are much more than a white man. Then why is not a legitimate feeling that someone from the so-called lower castes feels intimidated in Music Academy? You can argue and say deal it with another way. Shall I tell you something more ugly? You use the great Isai Vellalar musicians as examples of your own inclusiveness. Nothing is more vulgar than that. Please read about their struggles to find legitimacy. What happened to Rajarathnam Pillai when he wanted to sit and play in Tiruvaiyaru?

In a sense, art is trapped in a paradox, is it not?

True. Art in general has been a manifestation of enquiry and reasoning. But it ceases to be that very fast. There is no constant interrogation. Very important aspects that go in to build habit, like language, caste, identity, and so on, have to be put on the dock. For this, the greater responsibility lies with the artiste. The receiver has to be nudged by the artiste to think. But the artiste is in fear, he thinks he will lose his constituency.

The “change”—was it your own personal need or did you have the society in mind?

I’ve stumbled upon things. I didn’t think so far, honestly. The format thing was something that happened organically. Just before this phase, I was trying to study history, sound various things. Many of these questions emerged.

Many people who critique and support me have not understood what a structure does. It is not just ordering of things. People trivialise the discussion by saying can we have curd rice before sambar rice. What does structure do?

Structure doesn’t emerge by itself. So, the whole idea of form and content… they are very important negotiations. They come from larger social, cultural and aesthetic happenings. Moving a song from one place to another is no great deal. What does the presentation give us? What are the comfort zones we create? What are we going home with? They often say that Brinda and Mukta compositions are good for small gatherings. Why, have we asked? Because in larger audience groups, experience is conditioned and since their music doesn’t evoke the experience we are looking for, it will not work. How can we ignore this question?

My primary questions were what happens if I reinterrogate the role of composition and the role of manodharma. It came from historical and musicological investigation. What are the foundational aspects of this form? Where does structure come in? How much structure contributes to the foundational aspect of it or at what point does it disassociate from it. After I began to think on these lines, automatically my presentation began to change. It began with little things, but then it became major. Instead of trying to understand my efforts, they began to say things like he will soon start the concert with the “mangalam”. Now, that is bad, even as a bad joke. If a musician said it, then it is even more sad.

These churnings within me were happening because of who I am, and who you are, who we are, and who we have been. The next question that had to be asked is who can we be, the transformational question. It led me very slowly to ask religious, aesthetic, political and cultural questions regarding my own practice. It just happened one after the other… no strategy, no process, no end.

It was a personal journey to begin with. But every artistic journey is intertwined with the community. So, the artiste and the community grow together in this art experience.

Do you, in some ways, feel that the community alienated you when you began to question?

Yes, the community did alienate me. Earlier, the issue was format. Now it is no longer connected to music, everyone’s talking of my political concerns. Even for music critics my political views are priority.

The disagreement and anger did not shock me. Because, 20 years ago, I too was part of the same system. So, I have an understanding of how deeply entrenched we are. What I think surprised me is the lack of engagement to understand what is going on. Except a few artistes who reached out to me, no one bothered. It was not an easy process for me.

Somehow, the word caste is the biggest red flag you can hold, people just go into burrows and send hate signals. Also, the political environment is not easy in India today. I wonder many times, if we had this discourse 15 years ago, I know that there would be disagreement, but would there be so much anger? The political environment has made it that much harder for me.

The political climate valorises the status quo of the classical world, it is now an emblem of Indian culture. For them, I have sullied the waters. You cannot agree with T.M. Krishna, if you do you may be ostracised.

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