Modern Classical

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

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

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.

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    Samanth Subramaniam is a contributing editor at The Caravan and the India correspondent for The National. He is the author of This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War, and Following Fish: Travels Around the Indian Coast.

    Keywords: caste South India religion concert tradition Indian classical music Chennai
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