Modern Classical

Does TM Krishna's contemporary reimagining of Carnatic music improverish it?

TM Krishna has gradually deconstructed the conventional concert structure of Carnatic music. the hindu archives
01 February, 2014

THE FIRST CARNATIC MUSIC CONCERT I attended as an adult happened to be a TM Krishna one. This was in early December 2005, one fidgety afternoon in a fidgety week, when I felt discontented with the pursuits that Chennai usually offered me and itched for something new. Not that Carnatic music was new, exactly; I had been frogmarched through years of lessons in my childhood, but the music had slid right off the soapstone surface of my disinterest. That December, however, it seemed like a fine idea—a rebellion against myself—to slip out of my office, amble down the road to the auditorium, and sit through whatever concert happened to be scheduled. The month-long Carnatic season was only just gathering steam, so a friend and I were able to stroll in and bag prime seats just before the curtain rose.

My inadvertent choice of that concert was a stroke of fortune, because it ignited such a wild blaze of interest in the art that I’ve been a Carnatic obsessive ever since. Krishna is always a magnetic performer. His voice is strong and sure, his diction is cleaver-sharp, and his energy is boundless. On stage, he does not request your attention, he demands it. During those three hours, Krishna was in particularly splendid fettle. In the years that followed, I often wondered if the concert imprinted itself upon me so deeply only because it was my first. Then I found a recording of it, played it back with some trepidation, and reassured myself of just how marvellous it was.

Slowly and meditatively, Krishna sang a song in the raga Kedaram, and then another in Devagandhari, his voice bending to his every thought. He gave us an alapana—an improvisatory essay—of the raga Harikambhoji, so sweet and clean that it still defines the raga for me. Two or three times over the course of the concert, he let loose his trademark sallies of improvised swaras, individual notes that tumbled after each other in a torrent, as if some mighty dam had been breached. There was even a flare of his famed irascibility. Just as he began on the mangalam, the standard finale, some members in the audience rose to leave. This is, unfortunately, common practice in most concerts, but Krishna interrupted himself. “The mangalam will take 30 seconds,” he scolded in Tamil. “I don’t think anybody is in that much of a hurry to leave. Sit down! Thank you.” Everybody sat back down.

I couldn’t have known it at the time, but I had caught Krishna, then 29, on the cusp of a great creative restlessness. His music over the next few years increasingly manifested this disquiet. For a while, in his alapanas, he took to testing the nimbleness of his voice, pushing it as far up as it could go, a full octave or more above his median range, and then pulling it equivalently below so that he was practically growling. He studied Subbarama Dikshitar’s Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini, published in 1904, a text of dense musicology that prescribes singing some ragas in a manner very different to how they are sung today. As a fascinating academic exercise, he released albums of songs and alapanas sung according to this text, and on occasion he even followed its strictures in live concerts. He dispensed with the practice of beginning his performances with the short, brisk composition called the varnam, but he did sometimes drop one into the middle of the concert. Singers had done this before, but memories are short, so a terrific kerfuffle ensued when, within the hallowed halls of the Madras Music Academy in December 2010, Krishna built his concert around an hour-long exploration of a grand varnam in the raga Bhairavi.

Since then, Krishna has deconstructed the conventional concert structure even further. An alapana in Thodi, say, need not be followed by a song in Thodi, as has been the norm for decades. Instead, Krishna may render another alapana in Hamsadhwani, and then a song in Khamas. He may ask his percussionists to perform their solo in a tala—a beat cycle—utterly different from the one in which he is singing. His first piece might last half an hour; he may sing only five pieces in three hours, compared to the near-dozen in the regulation thin-at-the-edges, thick-in-the-middle concerts. He may, as he did a month ago, sing a lovely Yamuna Kalyani alapana, listen to his violinist’s responding alapana, and generously say: “I can’t follow that. You should just go ahead and play the song yourself.” In a TM Krishna concert today, a Bhairavi will still sound wondrous and disciplined and pure—“classical”, to use a term he despises—but most other bets are off.

None of these departures from the norm have affected Krishna’s box-office appeal; I don’t think I’ve ever attended a performance of his where the auditorium has been anything less than three-quarters full. Nevertheless, within the staid circles of the Carnatic music world, Krishna has stirred plenty of consternation. The least charitable of his critics have scorned these “innovations”—the double-quotes theirs, not mine—as gimmicks employed by a showman who has plumbed his creative well and suddenly found it dry. Another theory asks if Krishna is merely bored, if it has not all come too easily to him: the Music Academy debut at the age of 12; the supple, powerful voice and the agile mind; the awards; the popular success.

I’m inclined to think that Krishna is genuinely wrestling with two important questions. How should this particular classical art respond to the modern age? And in this process of realignment, what are the responsibilities of the artist, towards her art but also towards her audience? Krishna’s hefty new book, A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story (HarperCollins India, 588 pages, Rs 799) can be read as a fresh attempt at thinking through what amounts to an existential crisis. At least, this is what we must dimly perceive, because A Southern Music is bloated and difficult, suffering from an unfocused purpose, a muddled idea of whom it wishes to address, and bloodless prose that makes us yearn for the joy that Krishna, when on stage, so evidently takes in his music.

KRISHNA DIVIDESA Southern Music into three sections, titled “The Experience”, “The Context”, and “The History”, encouraging us, in an introductory note, to read the essays in “The Context” in any order but to absorb “The Experience” before proceeding to “The History”. Digested end to end, the book attempts to be many things at once: a primer, a social commentary, a historical survey, a musicological text, and an artist’s philippic.

As we know it today, Carnatic music—or Karnatik music, as Krishna spells it—is both old and startlingly new. Its roots can be traced back to between the second centuries BC and AD, to the treatises Natya Shastra and Dattilam, both of which discuss gandharva music, music for the gods. Over the subsequent millennium, like rivulets pouring into each other to build a river, the elements of south Indian music cohered into the notion called the raga. Krishna is careful to note that the word “raga” in Sarangadeva’s Sangita Ratnakara, from the 13th century, likely carried a different meaning to the word as used today, and that the way the raga evolved after the 13th century is not always apparent. At some point, it acquired the rough definition we know now: a melodic entity that draws upon variations and oscillations of the seven basic notes, and upon a lexicon of short phrases of notes, to breathe life into Carnatic music.

Many hands moulded the concept of the raga and then built upon it a full school of music. In royal courts across south India—particularly in Thanjavur, under a Maratha dynasty—musicians found patronage and support. To write and set songs to ragas, there were poets: the exalted Brahmin trinity of Thyagaraja, Mutthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri, but also composers from other castes, such as the Thanjavur Quartet from the Vellalar community. The bhakti saints of the 1600s and 1700s used Carnatic ragas in their devotional hymns; so did harikatha artists in their half-narrated, half-sung dramatisations of Hindu mythology, and devadasis in their performances of sadir, the precursor to Bharatanatyam. As it evolved, Carnatic music proved welcoming and absorbent. It embraced the European violin and the north Indian kanjira; Brahmin performers but also non-Brahmin ones, such as the devadasis and the maestros of the nadaswaram and the tavil; spaces as varied as the court, the temple and the Sadir stage; and even influences as peculiar as British marching band tunes.

The modern practice of Carnatic music, on the other hand, is just over a hundred years old. In a chapter titled ‘An Unequal Music’, Krishna describes how an urban Brahmin elite took over the art in the late 19th century, stripping it of the participation of other castes, of the sensuality of Sadir, and of anything else that did not fit into the sanitised concert called the kutcheri. “The single-point kutcheri constricted the idea” of Carnatic music, Krishna writes, “and, in doing so, eliminated all contexts that existed beyond this space.” Even as their domination of political and intellectual life in south India diminished, the Brahmins clung firmly on to Carnatic music. “This field, they believed, they held the title to, ignoring those they regarded as unimportant and neutralizing those they saw as threats. It was, literally, the last bastion.” In this reformulation of the art, a certain texture and diversity was lost.

One of Krishna’s quarrels with the modern kutcheri has to do with its static formal structure, popularised by the singer Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar in the early 20th century. This is the kutcheri that runs from varnam to mangalam, jogging its way through ten or more compositions. In such a concert, the musician must carve out the space to express herself at length in three or four raga alapanas, and just as many improvisations with lines of lyric or belts of swaras. Even at its longest, a singer’s alapana rarely occupies more than 20 minutes; the violinist then plays the same raga for half that time, after which the pair tackle a composition in that raga. Several songs are preceded by no alapana at all. The percussion solo always follows the concert’s centrepiece. The final quarter of any concert is filled with tukkadas, compositions that are treated as lighter and less dense, palate cleansers after the serious fare.

This structure is, Krishna thinks, too limiting, and does a disservice to the raga, the soul of Carnatic music. The intent of a concert must be to allow the audience into a musician’s manodharma, her personal, abstract explorations of ragas—something that the kutcheri, brimming with songs, does not allow. A kutcheri should not need to make room for “lighter miscellanies” like tukkadas; instead, every piece should be presented in tandem with some form of manodharma. “This will have the effect of reducing the number of compositions, but it will give every item the serious treatment it deserves,” Krishna writes. He deplores the kutcheri’s sundry bad habits: wedging some compositions into a concert as “fillers”; forcing a violinist to follow in the wake of a vocalist’s alapana (“the alapana rendered by the violinist can and often does impair the aesthetic edifice built by the vocalist”); and presenting alapanas only as prefaces to songs (“At an experiential level, after rendering an alapana, I have often felt that I had finished singing all that I could present of the raga on the day, making the presentation of a composition after the alapana redundant for me.”).

Not all of these points are radical or new, but they are valuable to restate and difficult to argue with. The raga is indeed the host of Carnatic music’s deepest creative process, so in the unwrapping of its abstractions lie our finest encounters with the music’s core. Krishna’s renovation of the kutcheri improves the prospect of these encounters; in fact, he has even taken to sagely advising his audiences, midway through his concerts: “Don’t think of this as a kutcheri. If you do, you’ll come with certain expectations, and you’ll be disappointed.” For any artist, there is a perennial tension between the art and the performance—between creating what you think the art calls for and creating what your audience seeks. Krishna has eliminated this tension for himself. His fealty, he indicates, is wholly with the raga, and not at all with what concertgoers think they want.

But in prizing the raga over all else, Krishna hacks down another pillar of Carnatic music: the poetry. Unlike its Hindustani cousin, Carnatic music is built around a vast corpus of compositions, in Sanskrit as well as the four major south Indian languages. These songs form the trellis that gives shape and support to the creeping vines of the raga; it is by learning how compositions in Thodi use the raga that a musician learns Thodi itself. A raga, Krishna writes, “is accepted as one only when there is at least one composition in it … The musician may have explored a new melodic idea, but this is not established unless encapsulated in a composition.” Carnatic music reveres the artistry of poet-composers such as Thyagaraja and Mutthuswami Dikshitar, and Krishna can also be defensive about their vision. He refers to the Tamil film Sindhu Bhairavi (1985), in which the music director Ilayaraja transposed the raga of the Thyagaraja song ‘Mari Mari Ninne’ from Kambhoji to Saramati. What happens to the composition, the kirtana, in such a situation?

The essence of its being disintegrates. This is not to say that the film version of the kirtana was not beautiful. I am examining what the film version did to the integrity of the kirtana. As I said, the film song destroyed it. To me, the film version was unacceptable.

But Krishna’s position on valuing the fullness of the composer’s vision feels inconsistent. (It should be noted here that the other great singer of Krishna’s generation, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, very transparently celebrates the poetry of Carnatic music, adding compositions, month by assiduous month, to what is already a repertoire of staggering breadth.) The meaning of the lyrics themselves, Krishna writes, is secondary—“if not actually redundant”—compared to how their syllables fold into the melody: “In this musical experience, language is important only as sound, not linguistically.” Demolishing a tenet of the form, he even suggests that it is unimportant for a musician to know the meaning of the words she is singing. Her interpretation of the poetry can “only confuse listeners by presenting them with a non-musical reason to listen to the composition.”

This reasoning sounds flimsy. It is a valid personal stance, as it is with Krishna, to not buy into the baroque religiosity of these songs. (“My faith is not religion; it lies in the aesthetic of art music,” he writes.) In being insistent about finding emotional meaning only in the melody, however, he neglects how these compositions are, like DNA, twin strands of lyric and raga curled tightly into each other. There is too much thoughtful poetry in these songs to imagine that their composers were merely in search of syllables to carry their melodies. The best examples lie in the Mutthuswami Dikshitar canon: sophisticated and erudite compositions in Sanskrit, often held within an elaborate narrative schema, such as the Navagraha cycle, nine songs that propitiate in turn each of the nine celestial bodies of the Hindu heavens. But even Thyagaraja’s simpler lyrics possess allusive beauty, great descriptive power, and a broad range of feeling. It is an understanding of these lyrics—of, for instance, a sinner’s repentance and sorrow in ‘Duduku Gala’—that lends depth and texture to the emotions that ripple through the course of a concert. Strip the strand of text out of these compositions, and they stand poorer and blander for it.

Krishna’s championing of the raga is not only aesthetic but also, in a sense, strategic, an attempt to make Carnatic music more inclusive and bring it up to date. When the Brahmins of the late 19th and early 20th centuries enclosed Carnatic music within the kutcheri, they were pursuing their own idea of modernity in art: a structured performance, presented formally on a stage, in the manner of the great concert halls of the Western world. Today, though, the edges have started to fray. Carnatic music is considered cloistered and remote; the music criticism is banal and insensible; and no ideas from the contemporary world sneak into the art at all, as they have done even in opera in John Adams’s Nixon in China or Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach.

What Carnatic music needs to be now, Krishna rightly thinks, it has already once been: fluid, adventurous, hospitable, eclectic, mixing deeply into the lives of people instead of awaiting them in auditoriums. Rediscovering these attributes, in Krishna’s mind, involves fixing on the raga, “the purest musical abstraction”, shorn of the religious or lyric content that might keep new, areligious participants away. The ambition is both noble and necessary, but Krishna’s plan to attain it impoverishes the art in the process. To draw from Carnatic music only the aesthetic of the raga is to transform it into a different, narrower art, one that ignores the wealth of compositions that give life to the raga in the first place. In rejecting outright Carnatic music’s poetry and emotive religiosity, the space for interpretation constricts; these alternative realms of emotion and ideas get permanently shut away. The music undergoes a reduction, so that it becomes nothing more than the interplay of its notes.

AT THEIR MOST POINTED, Krishna’s views are contentious but interesting, and had they been expressed in a handful of crisp, vivid essays, they could have formed a ringing manifesto for his art. But A Southern Music is sloppily written and too timidly edited, so Krishna’s inclination to be verbose obstructs our absorption of his arguments. In setting up a section on rhythm, he first waxes on about the metaphysical nature of time for four pages. “Time is very closely knit with events that shape our personal, social and political life. It helps us relate to history, wars and political events and contributes to the emotional relationship between the event and ourselves.”

Some of the 27 essays in A Southern Music consist of unremarkable opinions on subjects barely tangential to his main project of rethinking his art: film music, for instance, or Carnatic music in the United States, or “fusion music”. Krishna is punctilious about detailing the history of Carnatic music’s various moving parts, but he fails on occasion to tie this material to his own arguments, so large, dense blocks of the book read like summaries of other texts of music theory. Even the devoted reader will sense her eyes glazing over during a segment on the evolution of the tanam mode of improvisation, full of the jargon of musicology but skimpy with tangible detail or any broad argument. In fact, Krishna’s abstention from the use of examples or anecdotal experience anywhere is mystifying, and it can nudge his prose—already highly wrought—into bewildering territory. “True negation is sensitive,” he writes, trying to explain how creative freedom ought to work. “It has to be sensitive, as the strength of negation is the result of an understanding of that which we want to negate.” Another enigmatic pronouncement: “When a vocalist renders a certain line, its exact movement has no physical presence.” It is as if, not satisfied with commending the ideal of abstraction for Carnatic music, he has also exported it to his writing.

There is more clarity to be found in Krishna’s practicing than in his preaching, and his concerts are—as they ought to be—the most rewarding exemplifications of his thoughts on the art. Over the last December season, I attended three of his concerts. A Southern Music had just been released, and all around me, in the concert halls, I could hear people discussing the book, grumbling that its excerpt in The Hindu was unreadable, or finding vehement fault with his showmanship. But all this fell away when Krishna started to sing. After that, it didn’t matter very much that the formal structure of the kutcheri had been dissolved—that there was no varnam or that he rendered three successive alapanas with not a line of lyric in sight. When he sang, say, a quiet Mukhari, he still filled the auditorium with the raga, with its old, quivering grace. In those moments, nothing more was needed.

A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story

TM Krishna

HarperCollins India, 588 pages, Rs 799