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T.M. Krishna: Musician or Messiah?

Whether it's winning the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award or becoming the face of 'Poromboke', a video that went viral, T. M. Krishna is taking Carnatic music to exciting new stages

T. M. Krishna at Urur Kuppam off Elliot’s Beach. Photographs: Priyanka Parashar/ Mint
T. M. Krishna at Urur Kuppam off Elliot’s Beach. Photographs: Priyanka Parashar/ Mint

T. M. Krishna is in a mustard-printed shirt and tan trousers, working the tail end of a crowd. We are in a fishing village in south Chennai called Urur Kuppam. Parai drummers are leading us through the lanes, pausing at roadside shrines and temples. Krishna cajoles people along the way. “Coming? Neenga Vareengala?" he asks. “Come, come, I’ll see you there."

There is a charge about him. Elderly gents in lungis and substantial wristwatches go over to shake his hand energetically. Volunteers hover around him in a crush of adoration. As co-organizer of the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha, an annual multidisciplinary festival held since 2015, there is always work to be done. He’s speaking on a borrowed mobile phone, issuing a flurry of instructions. The chenda drummers, hailing from one of the oldest drum traditions, have requested a special “hot drink" after the performance. It’s not tea they’re after. Krishna laughs with glee. “The things you have to do".

Krishna, whom I know primarily as a Carnatic singer, and about whom the words contrarian and maverick are used all too often, has been in the news more recently as an activist. Two years ago, he announced he would no longer sing during Chennai’s famed music season because it had reached an “anaesthetic tipping point". In July, he won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award—the first Indian musician to get it for social inclusiveness in culture—and in January, he featured in a music video, produced by environment activist Nityanand Jayaraman, that went viral. Titled Chennai Poromboke Paadal, it was an environmental plea to save Ennore Creek and reclaim the Tamil word poromboke, which traditionally referred to shared community resources, but has now come to mean a person or place that is worthless.

Taking a dig at the way Make in India has provided cover for encroachment in this instance, the video depicts Ennore Creek as an environmental crime scene, with hard-hitting lyrics. The song hit many firsts: It was the first time a Carnatic song has been sung in colloquial Tamil.

Also Read | From ‘sabhas’ to streets, TMK style

We follow the drummers in Pied Piper fashion, past brightly coloured houses and rows of scooters. The sound of the drums brings people out of their homes. Women and children watch from the gates and balconies. Some join the slipstream, others promise to follow. A stage has been set up on the beach.

The vizha, which takes classical art forms to marginal spaces and marginal art forms into classical spaces over the month of February, culminates in two evenings of performances in the kuppam (fishing hamlet). One of the volunteers, Gita Jayaraj, tells me that during the vizha’s first year, the villagers couldn’t figure out what it was all about. The second edition saw greater cooperation, and this year there was a real groundswell of ownership and belonging. “They aren’t aware of Krishna’s place in the Carnatic firmament," she says, “but they’re happy he’s helped to put their village on the map." This year’s festival included an a cappella children’s choir at the Chennai central railway station and a singalong session on bus 29C from Perambur to Besant Nagar.

Krishna has been instrumental in democratizing the way art is performed and received in Tamil Nadu’s capital. His view: art should make us question, discomfort is beautiful.

Krishna with two village boys.

A serious man

That evening I stand in the blare of speakers, listening to the speeches of village headmen, and to schoolgirls playing percussion instruments, and wonder whether this has all been a quaint exercise engineered to make us feel good about our capacity for inclusion. It’s the kind of event snobs would call hotchpotch, the kind of snobs Krishna would like to challenge. But for now I fall in step with this man I’ve heard described as the Virat Kohli of Carnatic music—for his generosity towards his on-stage team and for his suaveness.

He seems cheerful, and easy-going, even though weeks later, when I speak to him in his third-floor apartment in Chennai, with the sun filtering through the blinds, he will tell me that he is a serious person. That he comes from a family of serious people—his father a businessman, his mother an educationalist— and that dinner conversations at home were often complex and difficult. That his own family—his wife, acclaimed Carnatic vocalist Sangeetha Sivakumar, and their two daughters—also has serious dining-table conversations.

For a serious person, he laughs a lot. He also waggles his fingers a lot. They are constantly in play, whether he is speaking or singing—weaving in and out, snapping for emphasis. I almost ask to examine them, but resist.

A superficial study of classical male Indian musicians might indicate that hair is a big factor in popularity. But I would say it’s fingers and eloquent hand gestures. Krishna rates well on both counts.

In fact, Krishna rates well on several levels. Some critics have implied that it’s these other factors—his comeliness, his cosmopolitanism—that have contributed to his success; that his talent as a singer is no less or more than the next privileged Tam-Brahm who started singing lessons at the age of 6. His easy stride across the north-south divide befuddles them. Southern musicians transcend the border only in rare instances, like an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song. Krishna has not been nominated for an Oscar.

When I ask why he thinks he has been embraced by the north, he says, “If you speak the English I speak, then it’s easier to be part of the north Indian embrace. If you look the way I look, it’s easier to be part of the north Indian embrace. This is extremely racial, it’s wrong at every level, but the reason my voice is heard compared to somebody else’s is simply because I’m upper class, I speak a certain way, and it’s acceptable. Whereas a person who’s born three streets away from me, who’s very Tamil, who may not be able to articulate things in such a way, won’t even be considered even though he may have more intelligent things to say."

I tell Krishna that there aren’t many musicians in India currently writing op-eds about political issues or receiving prizes for social inclusivity, regardless of where they are from. Many musicians are happy to just make music, and many people would prefer it if Krishna too would leave the armchair analysis and sociology to the experts and just concentrate on his music.

Krishna with his students at his home in Chennai.

He chuckles at the word armchair. “I’m unable to find a way to say this is unnecessary. Art has something to do with the way you live your life, no? And if it doesn’t, then I think you’re limiting its own space in living. I don’t understand how I can’t ask difficult questions about my gender, my caste, about everything around me, when for those beautiful few moments (in the making of music), I’m able to see life differently. If that’s not going to make me ask questions, make me vulnerable, then why the hell does that experience need to exist? To feel good that I’m gifted? No. Rubbish."

The Ramon Magsaysay Award citation hails Krishna for “social inclusiveness in culture", and for his “commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions, breaking barriers of caste and class to unleash what music has to offer not just for some but for all". It didn’t come without its share of criticism. The National Award-winning Tamil film director Sharada Ramanathan called the award “premature", but not without acknowledging that Krishna was on the right track.

Writer and critic B. Jeyamohan wrote that he didn’t really understand why Krishna was awarded the Magsaysay—if it was for singing, he argued, then Krishna is a “very, very average singer"; someone who doesn’t deserve to occupy the same chair as fellow Carnatic musician Sanjay Subrahmanyan.

Chennai-based cultural critic Sadanand Menon tells me that much of the criticism levelled against Krishna comes from within the fraternity of classical music. Krishna has breached the bastions, he says, and they feel slighted that someone whose fame was built on the classical now dares to accuse it by asking difficult questions about elitism and exclusivity. “But Krishna is not simply making noise," he insists. “He’s a top performer, and he doesn’t just criticize, he acts. Not just through initiatives like the Urur Kuppam and the recent Poromboke video, but through the music itself. He has set several of Perumal Murugan’s virutham poems to music, and has included a Muslim devotional song in his performances."

Much of Krishna’s career in recent years has been about challenging notions of the classical through a series of collaborations that cut across hierarchies of caste, class and gender. In the past few months alone, he has been spotted singing on a local Chennai bus with rappers and devotional musicians; performing with Jogappas, a transgender community in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh; travelling through Israel and Palestine, trying to organize peace concerts and speaking to Palestinian shepherds whose lands have been taken away. Uneven playing fields disturb him. Walls disturb him.

It wasn’t always this way. When I ask him what he was like as a 20-year-old, at the beginning of his career—what his fears and concerns were—he tells me that he was an aggressive young man who really wanted to make it. “Probably a word that my wife Sangeetha uses, which is, avaricious. I would never let any opportunity go. I wanted to travel the globe. I wanted to sing at every sabha (musical gathering). I wanted to be at the evening slot at every sabha. I wanted huge crowds. Very different from how I see myself today."

The restlessness crept in about 14 years ago. Several things led to it. He started reconstructing the compositions of Muthuswami Dikshitar from a seminal 1904 text, Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini, with the help of two scholars and a colleague, R.K. Shriramkumar. He began questioning ideas of tradition, asking whether beauty was time-bound or whether there was something that went beyond the context of culture and time. The way he was performing his own music began to change. He began doing things that were considered non-traditional, like singing a varnam in the middle of a concert. These weren’t conscious decisions, but things that seemed right aesthetically as he was performing. In 2007, he, Bombay Jayashri and others started Svanubhava, a platform that allowed multiple art forms to share the dais and promoted artistic discourse among students—it’s conducted in association with Kalakshetra. As a boy, he had watched the Ramayana at Kalakshetra every year, but he admits that like most Carnatic musicians, he was condescending towards Bharatanatyam as a form. Now he was beginning to see connections.

“This pool of things started changing the way I looked at myself, my own role as a musician, what this art was. Yes, I’ll make money and people will applaud me, but why am I singing?"

The birth of a provocateur

From being Carnatic music’s favourite “up and coming star" in the mid-1990s, he became a provocateur. Many in his audience believed he was messing with the sacrosanct, asking existential questions. “What happens to the experience if the structural performative form is displaced? If I break this, does the music still exist?" He started becoming hyper-sensitive and vocal about front-row movements, photographers and their incessant clicking. “A colleague of mine told me in jest after a concert—the only thing you haven’t done is tell someone from the audience to stand on the bench." He admits to an excess of brashness.

Perhaps it’s not so abnormal for someone who graduated from a Krishnamurti school to be so defiant of systems and the status quo, but Krishna has manhandled his ego and his art form to a point of rare self-reflection. He believes that the problem with abstract music in India is that it rarely asks difficult questions; that it is connected to religious and spiritual words, which divorce it from “lower issues". The political is seen as something dirty, something filthy. The music is pure, so you mustn’t pollute it with ideas of gender, caste, the politics of life. Inbuilt in the form is what Krishna terms “the snootiness of abstraction".

“The snootiness comes from the fact that in some way we are detached from the mundane everyday problems of living, and we give you the opportunity to detach yourself as listener. In a way, we elevate you to a plane that only we can elevate you, and that’s the snootiness of abstraction. That snootiness needs to be completely demolished, in my book," he says.

I make claims for the universality of music, how it is powerful precisely because we require no linguistic tools to understand it. We react with body, ears, spleen. Krishna listens, smiles widely, his hands getting increasingly energized. “I think for music to be really abstractive, it has to be more grounded. The deeper I get into what we consider the mundane— which is not the mundane, which is the real—the more beautiful the abstraction. But what we tend to do is levitate ourselves away from this. It’s a bit of a fraud, actually… "

We have been talking for over an hour. The landline rings intermittently, as does the doorbell. Sangeetha offers a quick greeting as she rushes out. “Have you given her some tea or something?" “Yes, yes. I’m going to give her some tea." They exchange household information. Krishna attends to it all and slips back into the conversation as if to prove his point that the mundane is real.

I’m curious about how two musicians make a life together. When they got married, Krishna was 21 and Sangeetha, 26. This was explosive for Chennai circa 1997. Krishna tells me that she was a far more popular musician than he was at the time, but marriage somehow changed people’s perception of Sangeetha as a serious artiste. They couldn’t be featured in the same festivals. It had to be husband or wife, and it was usually husband because the Carnatic environment is extremely patriarchal. “My career advanced at her cost, and that’s not fun. She’s struggled with that and we’ve struggled with it, and I must say I was insensitive about that to a large extent at the time. I wish I wasn’t like that in my early 20s but I’ve grown to understand, and we found our way to work at it, not just at a personal level, even at a professional level."

Sangeetha tells me later that she could never have imagined the repercussions. “It’s as if it was my mistake, my blunder, that I got married. Of course it has affected me, but there’s no going back." Krishna maintains that she’s the one who has kept it real. “It’s very easy to fly off with everything that happens. Like I said, I do everything like that (snap), and she’s the first person to say, there’s a problem here, this discourse doesn’t make sense, shut it down.... And this whole journey that we’ve been calling my journey is actually our journey, because we’ve been in it together."

Krishna practising at his home in Chennai. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint.

Krishna brings me a cup of tea. “Is that a Subodh Gupta?" I ask, pointing to a heap of stainless-steel cups hanging from a rope in the ceiling. “No, it’s a T.M. Krishna." He tells me he saw it at a roadside shop in Dindigul. Found art. Measuring cups for oil and kerosene arranged in a haphazard steel helix. “I asked the guy to sell me the whole thing as is. He couldn’t understand why."

He walks me out. This man who does not possess a mobile phone because he finds text messages invasive, who has no daily practice, who sings in the bathroom. A teacher of music in whose classes there is sometimes no music, only debate and tears. An artiste who has run away from the word spiritual, but who climbs high-altitude mountains every year and sings one song on the summit. An aesthete who believes it’s okay if the pieces don’t fit perfectly: Let the piece be missing, it shows that the difference exists. A person of impulsive decisions. Snap snap. Those fingers. A person who does not believe in categorizations. Who will agree only that there are experiences in life that are deeply inner and outer.

Here is one—the first time he heard parai attam. He can’t explain it, but listening to those drums, something happened, a blowing away—a heightened sensitivity. Call it what you will. It happens when he walks in the mountains. It happened a few weeks ago in the middle of the night, when he watched a kattai koothu (a musical theatre form focused on the Mahabharat) performance with Sangeetha. The experience is profound. It fills you. Sometimes we’re conscious, sometimes not. To him it’s a preciousness that begins with the terrestrial. As a reminder, there’s always a pair of hiking boots, unlaced and ready, waiting by the front door.

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