Say hello to Carnatic music’s sex symbol

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Akhila krishnamurthy meets TM Krishna in Chennai

In tune with times: TM Krishna
In tune with times TM Krishna, Photo:P Ravi Kumar Location: The Kalakshetra Foundation

UNTIL 1 JUNE — when he deactivated his Facebook account with over 2,500 friends — TM Krishna’s wall was choc-a-bloc with comments. But the 35-year-old Carnatic musician didn’t seem to mind. “I am loud, brash and talkative. If someone puts up a post that warrants a comment, even controversial, I cannot not comment,” he says. His online accessibility — while it lasted — was extremely unusual for a classical musician and not really sustainable. Especially when you are the divisive maverick superstar of the concert circuit. Particularly when your female fans are likely to want to discuss your moustache and silk kurtas as they are to use sexual metaphors to describe your last performance.

To his audiences, Krishna represents a happy marriage of soulfulness and sex appeal. He has found favour among the audiences by raising questions about the structure of a Carnatic recital, the lyrical content and the need to resurrect classical music and the work of its scholars 150 years before. We are at the coffee shop of the Chola Sheraton, Chennai, and Krishna is in a thoughtful mood. “Do I believe in God? I don’t know, but to me, god is an experience, an individual experience. Nothing of what I sing relates to my life. Carnatic music abounds in devotion. I’m trying to create a scope for secular content within the framework,” he says. The efforts have led to fascinating experiments. Two years ago at a thematic concert, Krishna requested the organisers not to reveal the theme to the audience. “I sang a love song from the Sangam era, a Kannada poem on winter, a Rabindra Sangeet and Chinnanjiru kiliye (a Tamil song about a mother’s love for a child). At the end, some guessed the theme was rain; others said Rama. The answer was bhakti. That, to me, is surrender,” he says.

Son of businessman TM Rangachary and a musician educator Prema, Krishna started learning music at the age of six. At 12, he had made his debut — a one hour 10 minute concert at the formidable Music Academy, Chennai. Veteran musician R Vedavalli has seen Krishna and his music mature over a period of time. “He digs deep into archives, finds answers and shares it with a larger community. At concerts, he will present a piece he has researched and if someone from the audience has a question, he has the answers,” says Vedavalli. Recently, Carnatic musician Vijay Siva wrote of him, “To work with him is a challenge to both physical energy and voice power.” There is some truth to that claim. Recently, while touring the US, Krishna wrapped up the main piece and asked his mridangist to play a thani avarthanam (a full-fledged percussion solo piece) in a talam of his choice. Usually, the thani avarthanam is in the talam of the composition the musician has rendered. “For the next half hour, it was the mridangist’s show,” says Krishna. Everyone was baffled. “We are stuck with habit and equate it with tradition. It is time we started questioning the structure,” says Krishna.

As an adult, he graduated in economics and set tongues wagging when at 21 he married fellow musician Sangeetha Sivakumar, who is five years older. The desire to push boundaries had set in early at the Krishnamurti Foundation India school, an alternative school so wellknown that for generations it has been known as The School. Krishna’s two daughters go there now.

The same desire to break rules earns Krishna plenty of complaints in the music world and not just from the apocryphal music-loving mama who develops a backache when his wife wants to be driven to a TM Krishna concert. IITMadras professor and veena player TT Narendran says, “A few years ago, Krishna presented a Bhairavi Varnam (a musical piece sung at the beginning of a concert) as the central piece and elaborated it for 90 minutes. It was a success. But on another occasion, he attempted a Ragam Thanam Pallavi (a form of singing that incorporates Raaga alapana, tanam, niraval and kalpanaswara) within 10 minutes of the concert. Usually, it is sung after an hour into a performance. Such hurried experiments have sometimes fallen flat.”

‘Once he sang a Ragam Thanam Pallavi 10 minutes into a concert. Such hurried experiments have at times fallen flat,’ says Narendran

Unfazed by criticism, Krishna is constantly in search of a new project: Svanubhava, a music festival for students he founded with Bombay Jayashri and that he will helm on his own this year onwards; Sampradaya, an organisation that archives south India’s musical traditions and Kalachara Marumalarchi that attempts to revive the temple traditions in Tamil Nadu villages, recreating them as cultural hubs. His baby at the moment is Shabda (the equivalent of TED for Carnatic music) for which he has partnered with musicians RK Shriramkumar and HK Venkatram. “At the last Shabda event, we asked scholars of Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam to make 20-minute presentations and we uploaded them on the site,” he says. The next stop for Shabda is Bengaluru.

THERE’S NOTHING dilettantish about Krishna regardless of what disgruntled mamas say. Ask his students. Krishna takes a few — only the most obsessive ones. Rithvik Raja, his student since 2003, says, “He expects his students to be attentive. That doesn’t mean he won’t spend hours teaching you something if you don’t get it right.”

Then Krishna utters two scandalous things one after the other. He says he is “not one to practise daily. But in my mind, I’m constantly involved with my music”. And as you are recovering from that, he says, “The audience is incidental. They just happen to be there. The days I do sing for the audience are the days I hate my music.”

In the super-competitive Carnatic concert world, nothing is as revealing as the jockeying for power in Chennai’s prestigious Margazhi Music Season. Who performs at which sabha, with whom, at what time (and, of course, who is catering). Last October, three months before Margazhi was about to start, Krishna announced he wasn’t going to perform the whole season except for four concerts. Purists, rasikas and many who’d travelled from around the world were miffed. Some even saw it as a publicity stunt. Krishna didn’t care. He bought a cycle and went sabha-hopping. “I sat in the back rows, drowned in music. After a long time, I had 30 days without thinking about my own music,” he says.

akhilak@gmail.com

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