Interview: TM Krishna

Posted on May 7, 2006


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Thodur Madabusi Krishna says he isn’t just a performer, but a ‘manufacturer’ of music.

MAY 7, 2006 – IF YOU THOUGHT TM Krishna’s passion was reserved merely for his singing, you haven’t heard him get started about his schooling. The Carnatic vocalist is an alumnus of The School (Krishnamurti Foundation India), and he reveals, almost reverentially, “The KFI environment is very, very special. It contributed a lot to my taking up music as a profession. Even today, it’s helped me in terms of how I approach my career, because the first thing you learn there is to do something that you can do, and to do the best that you can.”

A lot of what we talk about snakes its way back to The School. Say, competition. “I believe it’s just a psychological phenomenon. It doesn’t actually exist. If my potential is going to be judged only with respect to what the next person is capable of, I could be mediocre all my life. That’s where KFI helped. Even when I was starting out, I never considered competing with anybody else. I just did what I needed to do, and I enjoyed doing it. That’s important: doing what you do because you love doing it.” And criticism? “If there’s something valuable to be taken from what a critic says, I will. But the rest of it is just personal perception, so I don’t take either the compliments or the criticism too seriously. Ultimately the greatest conscience to your performance is yourself.”

But there are other times that Krishna doesn’t appear a product of The School so much as a law school. He holds very, very strong opinions about everything, and he will argue his case with an attorney’s zeal for persuading a jury until you, either convinced or exhausted, come around to his point of view. One of the cases he presents most eloquently the afternoon we meet is about musical tradition. Krishna is considered a traditionalist, but his concerts are often structured in ways that aren’t exactly traditional – for instance, he’s sung a varnam as the main piece (instead of the usual kriti). And he points out, “People believe that tradition is what they have listened to. If you ask a 70-year-old what musical tradition is, he’ll go back to Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. I’m proud to say I am a traditionalist, but I don’t believe that certain things that have come into practice over the years are necessarily part of tradition.”

“Singing a varnam at the beginning of a concert was something Ariyakudi established. Now, let’s analyse this rationally. He’s a classic example of a traditionalist who was also a non-conformist – because he changed the face of Carnatic music performance.” Krishna is referring, of course, to the old master’s reconfiguration of the concert format – earlier, a performance would consist of fewer, elaborately-rendered numbers; Ramanuja Iyengar pioneered the shift to a mix with greater compositional variety – which is followed to this day. “For him, a varnam was very convenient. It helped him warm up his voice, get into the mood… So is that part of tradition or is that just an individual’s personal preference that’s become ‘tradition’ over a period of time?”

The argument isn’t over – not just yet. “Besides, Carnatic music isn’t just kutcheri music – the performing end need not be the be all and the end all. The only way we analyse any art form today is based on how it is presented, but there is so much more to the form beyond the stage.” In other words, from the point of view of a kutcheri, a varnam may simply be a warm-up piece, but it is also an exquisite example of traditional craftsmanship. “The way the raga is captured in it is incredible. So why not give it a place of prominence? Within the boundaries of traditionalism and classicism, there is still so much room to experiment.”

Listening to how Krishna analyses, deconstructs and rationalises every utterance of his, you can see why he first thought he’d make a career out of left-brain subjects like Management and Economics – despite starting to learn music from when he was about five-and-a-half. (The first guru was Seetharama Sharma, who was already teaching Krishna’s mother. Later, Krishna also learnt from Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.) Around 1985, his mother and his guru started a musical institute – Kalapeetham, in Mylapore – and Krishna joined the group classes there. Then in 1988, when he was 12, came his first official concert – at Chennai’s Music Academy, as part of their Spirit of Youth programme, which gave opportunities to talented youngsters.

But even then, says Krishna, “I didn’t think music was going to be my profession. I thought it was something I’d dabble in while working in some other field. I was always interested in Management and Economics.” (That’s what he ended up doing at Chennai’s Vivekananda College, a BA in Economics.) It was only around 1995-96, when he was in the third year at college, that he decided music would be his career. “What sparked that was probably a professional ascendance to a certain extent. I was getting good notices, and I got the confidence that this is something I could do.” There was no opposition from home. “A big plus was that we were comfortably off. My parents fully supported my decision.”

“Even so,” he adds, “at that point, I don’t know if I had the passion for music that I have now. But I loved singing, and when I realised I could make it a productive profession, I decided to go ahead. It was a rational decision.” Looking back, it was also the right decision. There was a time Krishna’s mother would give him auto fare so he could go and attend concerts of the biggest, brightest stars on the Carnatic music firmament. Today, he’s one of them – “a brand,” as he labels himself, borrowing a term from his college education.

Of course, Krishna didn’t just say that. He’d talked earlier about how the leisurely-paced padam is a lost art in concerts today and that it needed to be revived, and I’d asked him if audiences these days have the patience to sit through padams and javalis. That’s when he whipped himself into corporate mode. “The first time you come to a TM Krishna concert, you just listen. The second time, you expect something based on the previous experience. And so on for the third and fourth times. Now who decided those expectations? I did. I fed you with the data every time you came to my concert, and that data formed the basis of your expectations. Put in business terms, I am a brand. The qualities of a brand are decided by the manufacturer, which is me. You buy the product once. If you like it, you buy it again. So if I think I can create an audience that can listen to a padam or a javali, it’s up to me to try and do it. I don’t agree with artists who say that they do things because their audience wanted those things. That’s the biggest lie. Nobody wants anything from you except honesty.”

Some additional Q&A, that made it to Sruti…

Tell us about your earliest concerts.

I told you about the one at Music Academy. Then in 1989, I got an opportunity to perform at the Youth Association for Classical Music. (It was a pioneer organisation that encouraged new talent. Without YACM, none of us would exist today.) I sang my first music season concert in 1991, at Kapali Fine Arts. In 1992, I had my first season concert at the Music Academy. Gradually, I began performing more, at sabhas in Chennai and outside too, in places like Hosur. My 1994 Academy concert was well received. Then in 1995, I gave two concerts at Sastri Hall and these were also very well received. One of these was a varnam-only concert – for the tenth anniversary of YACM – and such a concert had never been attempted before. Many musicians were among the audience. The success of these three concerts gave me the confidence to think about music as a profession.

With the different perceptions, expectations and levels of understanding in the audience, how do you evaluate the “success” of a concert?

Well, there’s only one thing you can be sure of, really. Walking away from a concert, you know how it went. There are so many days my concert is a big success, but I’m not happy with it at all. On the other hand, there could be times when I thought I performed artistically very well, and the audience could be bored. These things cannot be explained.

What about the evaluation of your performance by the critics in the audience?

A critic is one individual. He has certain perceptions based on his experiences as a listener. Those are based on many principles that have governed that person through the years, just like many principles govern me as a performer. So you need to accept that. If you read a review using your own guidelines, it could be totally off-target. What bothers me is when the criticism gets personal. If you come to my concert and write that TM Krishna was not in form and his raga alapana was not up to the mark, I’m absolutely fine with that.

In the music season coverage in local magazines, there have been digs that singers from today’s generation put on a lot of airs – what’s called bigu – on stage.

That’s what I mean. That’s way out of line. I strongly believe that your music is your personality, and how you are on stage is how you are as a person. In any case, how do they know the problems we face on stage? There was this concert once where this photographer kept clicking pictures with a flashbulb during my alapana. I’m very finicky about these things. When he kept doing this repeatedly, I had to stop singing and ask him to leave. Later, a review called me arrogant. I didn’t care, because I had come there to produce good music – for myself and for everybody else – and I need some basic parameters to deliver that.

There was this concert of yours where, after a Kedaragowlai alapana, you went straight to the anupallavi (jalajasana sanakadi…) before returning with a flourish to the pallavi (tulasi bilva mallikadi…). What makes you decide to do something like this? Is it to throw audience expectations off a bit?

Such things happen on the spot. At that moment, I just felt like singing the anupallavi. I never plan my concerts – except for the Academy concerts where I have to give a list (because they ask for it). It depends on what I feel like at that instant. Of course, things like singing a varnam as the main piece have to be thought about earlier. Otherwise, it’s all decided on stage. When I leave for the concert, my mind is a blank slate. I fill it up with items depending on my mood at the moment.

So you don’t believe in, say, picking out ragas that are not similar to one another in the same concert? Because, according to you, there is no concert planning ahead of time, so you may feel like singing a Darbar followed by a Nayaki.

I don’t believe in that philosophy at all. Any raga can be sung after anything. If you are a capable artist, even if you choose two very close ragas, you can sing them different enough so as to not confuse your audience. For me, the main question is: what do I feel like singing? It’s that simple. If I don’t enjoy singing something, I won’t sing it. There have been days I don’t know what to sing and I’ve asked the violinists – many of whom are my friends – for the raga I should take up. I think that’s also a way of challenging myself. But, mainly, that’s the kind of person I am. I don’t like planning. At the same time, I don’t say that my method is better than that of those who plan their concerts. About the only thing I try not to do during the season, for instance, is to repeat a raga. But sometimes, I’ve done that too. But even that is only with respect to the ragas. The kritis, I don’t decide. I love to keep myself as vague as possible.

That means the evening before a concert would be spent doing… what exactly?

If there’s a cricket match on that day, I’ll watch it right to the last ball. If the match is in Chennai, I’ll be at the stadium. I’m a cricket fanatic. Otherwise, there is no routine, per se. I do try not going out. I just chill out; relax in front of the TV.

But what about your regular practice routine? What does that consist of?

My routine has changed from the times I was not a performing professional. Those days, I used to practice in the mornings. Now, I practice at night – past 11 p.m., till about 2 or 3 a.m. I’m a night person; I can’t get up in the morning. But I do not practice if I have a concert, because it brings about a certain fixedness in your mind if you start rehearsing certain things.

You talked about being non-traditional in concerts. How long did it take for you to realise that you could both try something like this and get away with it?

Of course, you can’t do this when you’re starting out. Because you yourself aren’t sure of many things at that point. To a large extent, you sing what you are taught. Over a period of time, you start understanding ragas better, understanding your voice better, understanding your capacity better. And that itself is a long process. It’s only after you reach a certain stage of proficiency and professional comfort – in the sense of being accepted in the musical community – that your responsibility level as an artist increases. That’s when you decide what you want to be known as, what you want to be to the audience.

You travel a lot. Do you tailor concerts according to audiences? For instance, in the north, would you sing an abhang or a Meera bhajan?

When I go to the north, I make it a point to sing only pure Carnatic pieces. Why should I sing something else? If they have come to listen to Carnatic music, they must listen to Carnatic music as it is. Why should we go and sing Yaman Kalyan over there? It would be like a Hindustani vocalist coming here and singing Begada, for example. There are enough people here who sing a good Begada, so the audience would want to listen to something they haven’t heard before. Some things I do, yes. In terms of the pieces, if there’s a Tamil audience, I sing more Tamil compositions.

Now that we’re talking language, do you have a take on the Telugu vs. Tamil song catalogue?

Not particularly. But for me, the Trinity – Thyagaraja, Dikshitar, Shyama Shastri – is the greatest. Everybody else comes after that. I consciously try to bring in at least one composition by each of them during a concert.

As a performer, you obviously have a lot more musical scholarship than the lay audience member. Now, when you try out something new – like singing the neraval on an unexpected line because that makes more sense to you – do you think the audience gets that? In other words, does it matter the extent to which your thoughts get across to a general audience?

Obviously a newcomer is not going to get this. But this is again a learning process for the audience. I cannot go about educating everybody in the middle of a concert; that becomes a lecture-demonstration. To one section of the audience, my singing a neraval at any line won’t make a difference. There’s another section that’s heard a neraval being done on a certain line all their lives, and they can instantly identify that I’m singing it at another place. Then there are the scholars, who know the meaning of the composition, and begin thinking about whether that line warrants the neraval treatment. With all these kinds of audiences, it’s not possible to address each person’s need or awareness level.

You’re one of the top performers today. What do you do to ensure you don’t stagnate and keep evolving?

One is by throwing challenges to myself – maybe singing a new raga, or starting a raga at an unexpected place and seeing where it leads me, or maybe structuring the concert differently. Otherwise, the best way to keep yourself fresh is by learning more compositions. That’s why I am still a student of Seetharama Sharma.

Copyright ©2006 The New Sunday Express, Sruti

Posted in: Music: Classical