‘I am willing to give up the kutcheri’

Posted on December 14, 2013

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What is it about the chirping of some birds that makes it a song? What is the purpose of music? Does it matter whether you are a man or a woman in the world of Karnatik music? TM Krishna, in his book ‘A Southern Music’, lays down the history, evolution and grammar of his art and also grapples with questions about it.

An earlier interview with TM Krishna can be found here.

What made you want to write a book like this? Why now?

Over the past few years, there have been a lot of thoughts in my head about the philosophy of music. Why am I singing? What am I singing? I don’t believe in divine intervention of any sort, but it was funny that during this time my publishers wrote to me and said they wanted me to do a book on Karnatik music. So I thought it was a great opportunity to gather my thoughts, and read more and study more and see if there is a thread, a way to look at this whole thing. In many ways, this book, as much as it’s about music, is about myself as an individual, where I belong in my own sphere and in the larger sphere of society.

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You espouse the concept of “art music,” i.e. giving the idea of emotion a representation in music. Isn’t all music art?

“Art music” is not a phrase I’ve created. It’s been around a long time. “Art music” is used in a specific aesthetic context here. It refers to music that has itself as its engine and itself as its end – not something that is satisfying another social or religious need or anything else. All music is art, but all art is not the same. It has a certain sociological, philosophical, aesthetic context, and of course the aesthetics is built around why it exists. Look at the qawwali. It is art. But it has a specific context. It is about the religion. It is about the emotion involved in the religiosity. But “art music” does not have an external goal per se. Its goal is to abstract the idea of emotion that you and I feel beyond you and I. For instance, love is an emotion. If you can look at love and if you can abstract it beyond its relationship with just me or the self, I think that’s what art music does. If you look at a painting, there’s emotion in it.  You feel it. But it’s not your emotion. It is in that paradigm that the term “art music” needs to be understood here.

The book is a mix of experiential (perhaps even existential) thoughts, philosophy, musical history and musical theory. That’s very unusual.

For three months, I didn’t write a word. I just kept thinking how I was going to deal with it. I don’t think philosophy has any sense if it does not have a concrete existence. I can’t write about some whimsical idea that’s lying in my head. If you take the philosophy of music, its concrete existence happens in different ways. It’s in the aesthetic, structure, construction, and its sociological and historical context. So unless I tie all this together, there is no point in dealing with one aspect.

There are some technical chapters that people may not read. I would request even those who know Karnatik music to read these chapters, for there are things they might not know or might find interesting. You need to know what the construction is like before you start looking beyond the construction. I needed to link all of this together to get a complete picture for myself as I wrote it. If I spoke about time, I had to speak about laya. If I spoke about laya I had to look at what laya has to do with the experience of art. And when I speak about the experience of art, I’m talking about the abstraction of art. And you come to the realm of philosophy. So you can’t disconnect any one of these aspects in a book like this.

The most interesting parts of the book, to me, are your essays on music – your musings, rather, on the Tamil Isai movement and North American tours by artists and E-gurus and Ilayaraja’s (in your opinion, wrongful) transposition of Mari mari nine from the raga Kamboji to Saramati. But to get to that, we have to go through chapters filled with what you call the “construction,” the building blocks of svara, gamaka, raga, and so forth. How much of this do you think can be read and understood? Did you think about a companion CD?

We thought about it. I have written a very detailed piece on the raga. I have dealt with it in a very non-academic sense. But I can’t deal with it in a non-serious sense. Ultimately, music has to be experienced. Words are the worst way to describe art. But I think it is important to conceptually try and imagine it. A reader not very familiar with Karnatik music will probably jump to the essays in the second section, because they deal with societal issues, caste, religion, language, women, technology… But I think the preceding chapters can still give them a feel, if they are interested in art in any sense – they can get a grasp of the music, get an idea of its texture. The best thing that could happen is that the reader goes through these early chapters and decides to go to a concert.

Yes, these chapters are useful. For instance, most of us know where the anupallavi comes in by listening to the song, but you explain what exactly one should look out for, a kind of alliteration called “dvitiyakshara prasa.” While writing, did you have in mind a target reader?

This is not a book written for journals or research scholars. I think the target reader is anybody who is interested in serious art reading of any kind, even aesthetics or philosophy. There are a lot of questions in this book. The last section – the history – is the heaviest part of the book. I can’t comment on what’s happening today if I don’t give a perspective on why it is what it is. I think this book has a lot for a lot of different kinds of readers.

As a practising musician, did you worry about offering a “critique” of the Karnatik concert today? There are parts – as when you refer to some kirtanas as “fillers,” or when you question the need for the violinist to follow the vocalist’s alapana – that could rile a certain kind of purist.

I have been raising many of these issues without talking about them, through my music. This is the first time there is written material by me on why I am doing what I am doing. I seriously feel that, as much as a lot of great things are happening to Karnatik music, serious introspection on the music is an urgent need. We need to look at why we are singing what we are singing. We’re so used to looking at things a certain way that we are not able to see how much we are contributing to the idea of the music itself and ask whether some things need to be altered – not for the sake of change, but for finding more integrity in what we are doing. We need to contemplate on the aesthetic intent of the music as a whole and also the aesthetic intent of every facet within the whole.

For example, if we were to look at the alapana, we can very casually say that an ‘alapana is sung to explore the raga’ or ‘paint a picture of the raga’. But what does this really mean? We cannot stop our exploration at this superficial level. We need look at the raga, its flow, structure, history, evolution and its relationship with the methods of alapana presentation and whether there is integrity in the way we bring this together. This level of serious engagement is necessary for us to understand what we intend to do with the music we have received. The concert is a way of presentation and must seek to present the music in its completeness.

The important question here is whether the way we present Karnatik music today really focusses on the music or is it just a form of entertainment that includes religious and devotional content. I know it’s going to bother a lot of people. I hope it bothers them. I hope they disagree with me, because then we’ll at least talk about it. Let them tell me I’m wrong, but let them tell me what they are thinking. As long as this book makes people think, I’m fine with it.

And then there are other parts where you don the role of the purist yourself, when you say that gamakas sound contrived on a piano/keyboard, or when you say that the minute a scale shows up in a film song it is no longer a Karnatik raga.

We have an issue about what we consider the music, and what we consider the performance. The music – its form, its history, is integrity – is what I treasure. But what we are stuck with is this kutcheri. As far as the kutcheri is concerned, I am willing to give it up. Because, after a point, I think the kutcheri has not looked at the music but got stuck in its own success story. And it is a success story. I will not deny that. But there is a problem. A lot of people have said that I am changing the format in my concerts, but they need to look at it a little differently. It is not a question of format; it is a question of form. It is not a question of whether I sing the varnam first or last; it is a question of what is happening to the form of the art if you are choosing to present it a certain way.

My idea is this: if I can retain the integrity of the form – of the raga, of the tala, of the composer – that is, to me, an aesthetic experience of the art form. I am not willing to sacrifice that for the sake of this success story, which is why I come off as a purist in certain things. And the kutcheri is a success story that overshadows everything else. I can sing the worst gamakas, I can destroy a raga, but if I can package it interestingly into this success story, everything else is forgotten. This is where we are today, and it is, I think, a dangerous position to be in. After my studies – I have studied raga history, tala history for about eight years – I think there are certain things that we need to revisit. I think there are things that need to be treasured. Develop the music – but hold on to what we had and then do it.

Let’s talk about the prescriptive parts, where you put forth your thoughts on what you think a concert should be like. You say, for instance, that “an art music presentation” has no room for light miscellanies like tukkadas, and that “a kutcheri is not a variety entertainment show or a circus presentation where you need to experience the frown of the lion and the snigger of a clown.”

The prescription is conceptual, and it comes back to the idea of art music and Karnatik music. Let’s take a Western classical concert. Every item is an intense piece of composition and music. Every item is presented with the same intensity, and the experience is as intense with a Schubert as with a Beethoven. You don’t have Beethoven being given as a filler, and you don’t have pieces towards the end that are there just to tingle you before you head back home. Then can you please tell me why, in Karnatik music, these tinglers are so necessary?

If you want to call Karnatik music “devotional music,” then I can’t have this discussion with you. We’re looking at it from different angles. But if you want to treat Karnatik music as a conceptual and aesthetic art music form, then there’s no room for these fillers. I do not go to a concert for titillation. I go with the expectation that every piece is going to be an intense experience that’s respected as much by the artist as the audience. Instead, we talk of fillers, as if they’re some fly-by-night operators. “All you guys can relax for a few minutes and then I’ll get back to serious business.” This is ridiculous. I still perform tukkadas. I’m fine with it, though one day I hope I can throw them away – but I don’t get it when people say “After all the heavy stuff, people need to go home with lighter ragas.” I don’t get this idea of one raga being heavy and serious and another one being light and frivolous.

There are also some aspects to the book that have an IMO feel, like when you say “synthetic ragas like Dharmavati have been accepted though they do not contain aesthetic features of a raga.” Are these TM Krishna’s opinions?

No. These are backed by research and study. There are other scholars holding these opinions too. The raga is a complex concept. Looking at the older ragas and how they have evolved, and what their aesthetic presentations are (technically and musicologically), I stand by that position when it comes to Dharmavati.

You don’t drop too many names – except, say, when you discuss MS Subbulakshmi and DK Pattammal in the context of women singers and what they brought to the Karnatik tradition. When you discuss the concept of “intellectual music,” for instance, didn’t you feel like naming a singer or two who, in your opinion, achieved this?

I really didn’t think of it that way, now that you ask me. I have this habit of not including names in most pieces I write. Another reason is probably that if the reader does not know Karnatik music I did not want too many names dropping off the page.

One of the most interesting discussions in the book is when you take up the question of whether an atheist or a non-Hindu can be a Karnatik musician. Are these questions that have been haunting you for a while?

One of the reasons behind them is my own idea of religion and religiosity and philosophy, and my KFI/Krishnamurti background probably has a role to play in this. These questions have been in my head for a long time, and for a long time I couldn’t articulate my thoughts. I remember a time in the late 1990s when I knew I wasn’t religious. When I sang a kirtana, I used to constantly grapple with the idea of people telling me I needed to know the meaning if I had to bring out the bhavam. This used to bother me a lot because I may not really feel that way or believe in that sentiment. Does it make me disrespectful if I don’t understand it? Do I need to understand it? And gradually, these questions became louder. What happens when an atheist sings this music? How does an atheist look at it? I had a lot of friends from different religions and they did not understand one word of what I was singing. How do they deal with this music? That’s why I feel that the relationship between melody and text is far deeper than the linguistic meaning it has.

You divide the book into three sections. The Experience. The Context. The History. It appears that you want the reader to read each chapter in a specific order, but there are going to be those who casually flip back and forth. Can they still get something from this book?

This is not a book that you can read at one shot. It’s a book you’re probably going to read slowly, probably reading some chapters again and again. I think the first three chapters are important. Though they are not specifically about Karnatik music, they lay a basic aesthetic and philosophical foundation for the whole book. I would ideally ask the reader to read the first three chapters, and then take a call. The second section can be read by itself. But in the first section, there’s a building up of ideas and concepts, and I think those chapters need to be read together. But with the second section, you can go back and forth. The third section is completely optional. Everybody need not understand everything. It doesn’t matter. You could read a chapter, go and listen to a concert or watch a song on YouTube, and then come back to the book. I want people to just think and ask questions, and I don’t believe I have the answers – or at least, I hope I haven’t given any answers.

With the way you’ve been structuring your concerts these past few years, and now with this book, it appears that you’re interested in leaving behind a legacy – that TM Krishna didn’t just sing Karnatik music but actively shaped it. It is this something conscious?

Honestly speaking, this book as well as my music of late are very much part of the changes that have happened to be as a human being. It happened over many years, but some things come together at a certain time. I think my whole perspective of life itself is very closely knit to what music means to me. And I think whatever has changed in my music, my concerts, the way I sing is very closely wedded to the idea of what I really believe life should be. I really don’t know whether I’ll leave a legacy or not. That’s not something I’m consciously going for. The greatest thing to me is the marvel of music, the fact that I can marvel at music. When I sing, I sometimes say aha – and many people ask if I am saying it to myself. That’s not it. I’m just marvelling at the sheer beauty that’s there at that moment. That marvelling is, in many ways, a catalyst for this book.

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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