During the release of his first concert film, Margazhi Raagam, the director Jayendra Panchapakesan said, “A concert is the feeling of an artist performing on stage and an audience sitting down and listening.” By that definition, his new film, One, is not a concert film – though you could certainly make the case that it is one. After all, the film does feature TM Krishna’s vibrantly rendered music. It does feature a hint of his heterodoxy – the opening number is a standalone taanam in the raga Kedaragowlai. And as on the concert stage, we do witness TMK’s ™ gesticulations. There’s the one that looks like he’s demonstrating the workings of a windmill. There’s the one where he’s in front of an invisible potter’s wheel, sculpting invisible clay. There’s the one where he’s alternately reining in and releasing an errant kite. There’s the one where he’s weighing air, the one where he is Moses parting the waters. It’s all very much what you’d expect when you’re inside Music Academy.
Only, you’re in the forests of Nilgiris. There’s no fixed vantage – you see Krishna through the eyes of cameras that swoop and swirl around him. There are no supporting artists – no violinist, no one playing the mridangam or the kanjira. There’s just the singer, the drone of the tambura, and nature. Thanks to the astonishing sound design, all recorded live, this is Carnatic music accompanied by birdcalls, the flapping of wings, the sounds of leaves and wind and ripples on water, and even the rustle of the singer’s shawl, as he adjusts it – if you want to know what cloth sounds like, then this is the movie for you.
We may feel that part of the charm of Carnatic music is the ambient noise, everything from the catching-up conversations two rows ahead of you, to the “Excuse me”s of the unapologetic latecomer shuffling past to an empty seat, to the occasional din from the mic, like a neglected child acting up to get attention. This casualness, this communality, this sense of commingling with the everyday, is what makes this music what it is, unlike Western Classical Music, which demands that you take a vow of silence before you seat yourself.
And yet, there is something to be said for listening to Carnatic Music with a vow of silence. The music comes into sharper focus. The voice sounds different – it’s mellower. This may be the result of not having to project to the last row in the auditorium – it’s the music world’s equivalent of the difference between stage acting and screen acting. This may also be the effect of better-quality technology – we actually hear the grain in Krishna’s voice in the lower registers of the Muthuswami Dikshitar composition Jambupathe.
It’s difficult to say what these surroundings have done for Krishna. The film’s tag line says “Experience oneness with music” – but surely there are times on stage he’s experienced this oneness, when he’s slipped into a trance and everything around him, and everyone, has disappeared. And in this format, shorn of the usual distractions, the audience feels what it must be like to be in that trance – we experience some of this oneness. Something so pure emerges from this experiment that there were times I wished even the tambura hadn’t been there, that the film had just been about a voice in the woods.
The minor niggles are easily brushed away. I could have lived without the preamble where a voiceover sets up the film for us, putting into words what we’re perfectly capable of experiencing. The title cards between the songs are equally unnecessary. They, too, try to pin down the singer’s experience, and what’s expansive and magical in the mind becomes trite when expressed in words. But the bigger problem is the lushness of the visual treatment. The camerawork is breathtaking – and yet, there’s the sense, sometimes, that this isn’t nature so much as nature as imagined by a high-priced landscape architect. Each song comes with its own colour scheme (blue for Jambupathe, gold for Bruhi mukundeti, green for Varugalaamo), with costumes in complementary colours. And while it’s refreshing to see a Carnatic musician perform in pants and shirts with unbuttoned cuffs, the picture-postcard aesthetics threaten to overwhelm the unvarnished mission of the project, which is to strip the music down to its essence. When you see Krishna seated just so on a rock, with a shawl draped just so across his lap, the mist snaking past him just so, you may find yourself wishing for surroundings more Spartan. That wish, finally, is granted during the moving rendition of the Thiruvasagam verse Pullagi poodai puzhuvaai. Krishna is seated in what looks like a patch of mud, and as the experience turns less visual than aural, the music, the setting, the lyrics, the listeners, all coalesce into a singular experience, the one of the title.
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