Thinking music

Print edition : June 27, 2014

T.M. Krishna performing at a function to release his book, in Bangalore on March 26. Photo: Bhagya Prakash K

A commendable first book by a leading musician, full of thought-provoking questions vital to the well-being of Carnatic music.

T.M. Krishna’s A Southern Music is one of the most important books to emerge in the recent history of Carnatic music. (If the book uses the spelling Karnatik rather than Carnatic in an attempt at authenticity, it should have really gone the whole hog and said Karnatak or Karnataka.)

Its importance lies in its earnest attempt to explain a complex system of what it terms art music to a reader who may or may not be exposed to its nuances, and even more in the kind of questions—technical, philosophical and sociological—that it raises.

The value of the book is further enhanced by the fact that the author is a young musician, a star vocalist at that, some of whose recent actions on and off the stage have led to a variety of reactions, ranging from amusement to anger (not excluding adoration) from his audiences. The book serves to answer some of the questions agitating them as to the rationale behind some of the structural changes he has been attempting in the concert format as it exists today.

Of the three parts of the book entitled “The Experience”, “The Context” and “The History”, the author appears to strike mid-season form in the first part, especially in the chapter on manodharma, the art of improvisation. Elaborating the contours of alapana (or raga exploration without the aid of verse or tala), for example, Krishna takes us on a tour de force as beautifully crafted as a memorable alapana by an accomplished artist.

One of the major distinctions Krishna sets out to make from the popular discourse on Carnatic music lies in his choice of the phrase “art music” to describe it, something that Sruti magazine (which is mentioned in the bibliography) tried to disseminate based on the musicologist Ashok D. Ranade’s preference for the term over “classical music” for traditional Indian music performed on the formal concert stage. The cutcheri stage is home to art music, according to the author, as different from devotional music belonging to the bhajana sampradaya, though this distinction may not be so clear to many followers of Carnatic music. It is a lovely distinction by which to highlight the beauty of the music per se without the adventitious aid of lyrics or bhakti to the gods and goddesses often hailed in the kritis of the great vaggeyakaras—“bicameral geniuses”, as the book describes them—who compose both words and tune.

The author makes an elaborate case for separating art and religious fervour in concert music though he says, “I will be the first to concede that, in spite of my views on the relative unimportance of textual meaning in art music, certain names of gods and adjectives touch a deep chord in me.” We can hardly argue against Krishna’s assertion in this regard that when a musician presents a composition, “its very presence must inspire the musician to abstraction”. We can agree with his assertion that when the composition is seen as a religious presentation, “divinity becomes the rendering’s principal inspiration” and “limits the melodic and rhythmic possibilities, as the musician is conscious that his creativity must not undermine the emotional quality of the religious content”. Years of listening experience, however, suggest that the more serious—and therefore more impact-making—musicians rarely waver from their pursuit of musical excellence, their thoughts focussed on music and not devotion, their religiosity outside music notwithstanding. Krishna is perhaps addressing here a problem that is not core to the world of the practitioners of Carnatic music, even if some of its commentators may suggest otherwise. Again, Carnatic music every now and then offers lyrical gems of sublime beauty focussing on the human condition—especially the total surrender of the devotee, tossed around by his destiny. Such verses, which can move the listener even without reference to the gods they address, often enhance the beauty of the raga. These would seem to be examples of “art” music even if their original intent was “devotional”.

Known for his abundant creativity as a musician, Krishna takes the reader on an exciting journey of understanding the contours of manodharma in Carnatic music in the sixth chapter of the book, an excellent exercise in deconstructing the process of improvisation on the performance stage. While explaining the various steps of raga alapan a in considerable detail—as he does with all other aspects of manodharma—he says, for instance: “The alapana cannot be an aesthetic form unless there is cohesion within every phrase, between phrases and the larger picture that the alapana is painting. The raga exists in every swara as much as it does in the whole presentation of the raga. The alapan a is not a bunch of known phrases around which the musician creates newer phrases, melodic lines. It is the distilled aesthetic experience of the raga in its entirety. Thus the alapana leaves at the end of its rendition a wholesome experience of the raga and of the creative genius of the musician.” Several similar passages of lucid exposition of the many components of the whole Carnatic music experience add weight to the book. They—and the descriptions of the many compositional forms—are so well thought out and helpful to the reader in augmenting his understanding of the art form that they could well have added up to an independent book by themselves.

The great merit of A Southern Music is its transparent public-spiritedness. Evidently a man of admirable social conscience, Krishna comes through as a forceful champion of what is ethical and moral in his field of endeavour and a vehement opponent of its ills as he sees them. Caste, the place of the nagaswaram and nagaswara vidwans, gender, the diasporic influence, technology, fusion, the connection with Hindustani music… none of these issues escapes his piercing gaze. His views on fusion, the role of overseas Indians in promoting the art, the suitability or otherwise of foreign instruments, and the appropriate use of technology in propagating music and learning/ teaching are particularly well articulated and reflect deep thought on the subject. He has also dared to go where angels fear to tread while dissecting the history of caste and gender discrimination. These, especially the caste dimension, are a poorly documented part of the history of Carnatic music, and it is hard not to wonder if Krishna oversimplifies their complexity by making the male Brahmin out to be a rather more deliberate architect of its trajectory in the last hundred years or so than he has actually been. There are no easy answers to these ills, but Krishna is absolutely right in asserting that it is time for our musicians and the people who call the shots in our music—predominantly Brahmin males as they are—to examine the troubling legacy of Carnatic music and take corrective measures even as its reach expands to include greater numbers in its fold.

Over the last couple of years, the T.M. Krishna concert format has been a hotly discussed phenomenon, and in Chapter 9, titled “The Karnatik Concert Today: A Critique”, Krishna has made an elaborate presentation of his views on the Carnatic music cutcheri as it is performed today, and the way he prefers to approach it. He explains, for instance, why he sometimes does not follow an alapana with a kriti —going against the norm so far—by saying, “At the experiential level, after rendering an alapana, I have often felt that I had finished all that I could present of the raga on the day….” It makes “the whole experience laboured” when niraval and swara singing are made de rigueur during the kriti that follows. The structural changes Krishna has been experimenting with in his concerts often polarise the audience between diehard fans and vociferous critics. So long as the quality of music remains high, audiences are likely to accept the changes in time, even if his explanations do not convince the orthodox listener today.

In his epilogue, Krishna says, “Are all the thoughts I have expressed accurate, perfect? They are not, and I am glad they are not.” He concludes with the sentence: “As for me, as I write the last words of this book I know of only one thing: my next question.” Admirable as such a hint of self-doubt is, the tone of the book is sometimes dogmatic, its text often clothed in language that leaves little room for doubt. More expert editing than it has apparently received would perhaps have made the book more consistently readable, and less heavy than it tends to be at times. All in all, a truly commendable first book by one of our leading musicians, full of thought-provoking questions vital to the well-being of Carnatic music. It resonates with the amazing clarity of thinking of an obviously brilliant mind.