MK Shankar

For TM Krishna, a raga moves and breathes, and the singer participates in it

For TM Krishna, a raga moves and breathes, and the singer participates in it
TM Krishna says he is accused of taking liberties with Carnatic music, but when he does take those liberties he finds greater expression. Pic: Facebook

Krishna thinks it's important to overcome our obsession with the 'golden age' – to stop worrying about what Thyagaraja or Semmangudi might think

The controversy about the conferment of a prestigious award to TM Krishna has become incendiary.

This article is not intended to add fuel to the fire. Rather, it is intended to douse the fire by focusing on the contributions made by Krishna to the world of ideas within Carnatic music and within Indian society in general.

At the core of this cause célèbre is an issue that is both emblematic – and symptomatic ­– of Indian society. As emblematic, any activity that questions caste in any domain of life touches a raw chord in those perceiving themselves as part of the privileged castes. As symptomatic, it speaks of the othering that has taken place, the walls that have been historically erected to include privilege and exclude the ‘other’.

Depending on which side you are, there is something to fight for: privilege on the one hand and social justice on the other.

A musician's quest

By focussing on the questions raised by Krishna and on the answers he has sought for them through his musical journey and through his extra musical journey, it may be possible to take a cool view of the issues involved.

These are important questions and may help to revert attention to core issues rather than getting distracted by anger and intolerance.

Krishna remembers a moment many years ago of intense emotional absorption. This happened in the middle of singing a Thyagaraja keerthana at Mylapore, Chennai. He was experiencing something profoundly beautiful. He experienced a momentary loss of hold on the creative process and felt like he was exiting his body and looking at himself from the outside.

This was akin to experience that deeply religious people often report, a kind of frisson, a kind of intense total self-absorption. But then he is not particularly religious. So where did the experience come from?

Beyond technique and grammar

It came right in the middle of that epoch in his life when he had begun to look at himself as a brand, wanted to be a superstar, to be known, to be written about. It compelled him to pause, and ask of himself what he was doing, what he was singing.

He realised that there was something about music – and art in general – that transcends concerns of technique and grammar. There were fundamental existential questions.

He asked: Where does this music come from? Where does this raga come from? Where do these rules, phrases, and ideas come from? What is this whole thing of old and pure?

He also looked at his familial context – privileged, progressive, cosmopolitan, and English-speaking, where caste was never discussed and so didn’t exist, a home that encouraged questioning and didn’t settle for just any answer.

Carnatic music environment

About this time, an opportunity came his way from HarperCollins to write a book. It saw light as A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story (2016). In researching the book, he explored the environment of Carnatic music and its contents, questions about caste and gender, and his own appropriation of caste issues.

He saw how the people occupying his musical world were creating the world of the other, through separating walls and screens. He saw that his world appropriated to itself – and its art – a position of superiority, culturally, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, politically, and socially.

He saw himself as hitherto having been part of the agency of this othering.

He now asked: why was his world so homogeneous and made up of the same kind of people? And why cannot a non-Hindu or an atheist belong to his world of Carnatic music? Why was it populated with people with a certain bent of thought or religious orientation?

The music class and sabha

In fact, he was confronted by his detractors with the question: why sing Carnatic music when you are inimical to the socio-religious ethos of the music itself?

But Krishna wanted to bring to those shared spaces the larger ideas that he was grappling with and to continue to conduct conversations with whoever was willing and open to a conversation.

He saw that the Carnatic music world began with the music class. It was an environment circumscribed by the stories that are told, how they were told, and the stories that were not told. It was where the student was ‘cultured’. The culturing took place through the stories and codes of behaviour, dress, the idea of culture, music, and implicit boundaries defined through the scriptural world.

This culturing continued in the spaces outside: in the sabha. The same kind of people attended the sabha, ate at its canteens, and flocked to temple concerts.

In this world, ‘political’ was a bad word. The people of this world believed they were living in a world beyond politics, a divine world that religion can have nothing to do with the political and, that on the exalted music plane there are no political questions.

Art is political

This was not how Krishna saw the musical world. If art is saying something, it is creating a perspective and is therefore political. This view applied even to the life and work of Thyagaraja. Was Thyagaraja limited to religious and spiritual themes? Was there nothing political about him and his works?

Krishna saw Thyagaraja as others see him – a genius, a man of great thought, of complex ideas. He also saw Thyagaraja as engaging with compositions as musical endeavour, as musical ideas.

There were also compositions that he saw as problematic. For example, one in which Thyagaraja laments that he has made the mistake of teaching or sharing his music with shudras and with women considered low.

But can’t this be sung simply as a piece of music? Yes, it could. But what if a woman who understands those lines were to listen to him singing it? What if a person from a different caste who understands were to listen to him singing it? How does it affect them? Must he not be sensitive to their feelings?

In the Southern Music’ there are things that Krishna wrote that he later believed he might not agree with and there are things that he would add layerings and nuances to. His idea of ‘art music’ is perhaps something that he has had occasion to reflect on and expand in recent years.

The mridangam makers

The other important contribution that Krishna has made is to bridge the gap between musician space and the space of those engaged in making musical instruments. He wrote Sebastian and Sons – A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers (2020), to bring the micro-world of mridangam makers to the notice of the outside world.

The book enables voices from the community of mridangam makers to come out in the open. Krishna hoped it would create a conversation between maker and player. He said mridangam players who read the book told him that the book had changed the way they looked at their instrument.

And, for mridangam makers, it was an enabler – it allowed them to become part of the conversation. They had had no part in it thus far. Now they did.

Meeting the mridangam makers helped to reveal the kind of pressures that are brought on them – pressures that force them to adapt to norms imposed by the client culture. They experience the pressure of culture, caste, pressure to be amenable to the client which is occupational pressure, pressure even to change their food habits because of the taboos practiced by the client – the relinquishment of beef in the case of Sebastian Sons.

Poetic reflections

In yet another musical and extra-musical engagement, Krishna has attempted at stretching the lyrical base of music to include poetic reflections on nature, on deities other than brahminical, on lives other than mainstream.

This engagement came with the realisation that content of the text is not the determinant of musical form. It is not the meaning but the sound of the word. It is not about ‘Rama’ but about the syllabic sounds Ra and Ma. It is the sonic connotation – the vowel and consonant. And that it is possible to relate to the sonic connotations of a language that we absolutely do not understand.

This is true of songs such as Poromboke ('common lands') or Perumal Murugan’s poems.

But this is not to say that meaning has no space. Human beings relate to the world through meaning, referential, connotative, emotional, cultural, technical and so on. There is vocabulary.

Lyrical-musical rhetoric

There is semantic meaning. While it is true that there is an abstractness to sound – its very physicality, its very sonicity – but if there is need to persuade somebody to think in a particular way or shake them up to look at the same old things differently, there would have to be a larger and more layered discourse, a lyrical-musical rhetoric.

That discourse will be about multiplicity of meanings. Often, meanings are produced not by just the sound itself but one sound in relation to others which together form the sound ideals and sonic world and its specific sonicity.

Krishna therefore started to think about creating compositions in Carnatic music that talk about different things and which come from a dialect of Tamil rather than formal Tamil: Tamil, but not Tamil; the other Tamils.

A 'different' Tamil

He got together with Perumal Murugan at Namakkal to discuss the structure and form of a set of compositions that would be about things the poet wanted to write about, and in a dialect he wrote in.

There was difficulty in uttering new word sounds in Carnatic music because of the smallness of the vocabulary of Carnatic music in the repertory. There are about 200 words and their variants and declensions comprising the vocabulary of Carnatic music

The singer is habituated to utter these sounds but any other word becomes “alien” even when drawn from one of the four languages used in Carnatic music - Sanskrit, Telugu, Kannada and Tamil. Krishna had to work out a way to utter these “alien” words when singing Murugan’s compositions.

They were word sounds that fell outside of the glossary of Carnatic music. His first challenge – which came before the engagement with Murugan – was to musically pronounce the word poromboke. These sounds had never been sung in this Carnatic music environment before. And in and through the exploration in uttering the new “alien” words was an interesting new aesthetic and a new politics at once.

The age that matters

Music and sounds within it are reflective of the epoch. Carnatic music has been stuck in the past and it needs to be infused with ideas that are the product of our contemporary world. Ideas that relate to and are inspired by the questions that are relevant for modern times.

Krishna thinks it is important to overcome our obsession with a golden age and to stop worrying about what Thyagaraja would say if we did this and what Semmangudi might think of that.

There is a need to engage with today – to engage with a new sonic world, a world of new sound ideals. It is the beginning of a new and very long journey. There is need for accomplished writers to create new works. The kind of interaction that he had with Perumal Murugan was very important as the beginning of a partnership between a writer and a musician.

It was all the more important because the writer does not belong to the traditionally circumscribed narrow world of Carnatic music. It was a relationship of creativity of new art. He thinks other musicians must enter into such partnerships and the possibilities would be immense.

Rethinking the classical

Krishna has thought about the idea of the raga quite a bit and has emerged with a rethinking of the idea of classical.

He identifies three elements in Carnatic music – raga, tala/laya, and text – which are related in a composition and in the improvisations within it.

If the three elements, in their interactions, are honest to the form of Carnatic music, then it is Carnatic music. This is true of other genres of music.

If a piece is taken out of the context it has originally been intended for, and if it breathes within the framework of the three elements of raga, tala, text, then it is Carnatic music. So long as the raga as a melodic possibility is floating about in that being, then it is Carnatic music.

Raga as a sonic body

In the process of this long-duration inquiry and engagement, Krishna found his aesthetic palette had changed expanded and changed. His reflection on the nature of sounds, their multiplicity, the experience of their possibilities has brought him the realisation that they are not absolute.

He now looks at raga as a sonic body rather than as a structure that needs to be worked within to realise it sonically. Or, as sonic body limited by particular rules.

He believes that a raga has always moved and that the rules have always moved. Raga breathes and the singer is participating in its movement; in the movement of its sonic body.

Thinking of a raga in this way expands its scope enormously. When he sings today, he is not constrained by a calculus of the notes within the raga space. He embodies the raga movement and lets himself go where it will take him. Even when he sings compositions from the past he sings them differently.

Experiencing freedom

He says there is an accusation that he is taking liberties. But when he does take those liberties he finds greater expression. He feels enriched by the exposure he has had to other forms of music and other music cultures. These offer him a perspective to look back at the space to which he belongs and provide him with a distance from which to look upon his art then and his art now. He finds a freedom in it today that he hadn’t earlier.

The freedom he is talking about is not just freedom of interpretation. It is not just structural movement. The freedom is about whether we can create alternative experiences of a raga. The freedom is to find a new sound in the old sonic body and reinterpret the way the sound of it needs to be heard.

This requires a change in the sound palette. It is also necessary to realise, he thinks, that the sound body we hear as Carnatic today is not the sound body of Carnatic music that was heard 100 years ago.

This can be gleaned from the manuscripts that provide descriptions of how a raga sounded in a certain period. It is a conjecture because a text is not the same as a sound. But still, it is possible to relate the sounds produced in an epoch to the timbres, accents, accompaniments, tuning, temperament, tempo, and the openness of the calibration of the octave relative to the sound of bass and tenor and so on that were prevalent in the epoch.

All these changed because of the pressures of technologies and the pressures of modern life and therefore the inference that music of the same composition sounded different then from now.

Raga as a soundscape

So a raga is not simply a name and a sonic body. For those who do not know what it is also it can have appeal. But for them it is a sound scape and they interpret that sound scape through experience that they bring from their own cultures, even when their cultures are vastly different. But basically a raga is a part of collective knowledge.

One need not have learnt it but only heard it as a pattern of sound with a name. A collective is a historical entity. It has an experience of the larger context of sounds that are systems of difference and that help distinguish Raga X from other ragas, and from other sounds that are also considered music, collectively.

This knowledge is passed on from generation to generation both implicitly through the multiple practices and memorable occasions of the collective, through ritual and through proper repertoires that are taught and sung.

Emotional bonds

The presence of the sounds of Raga X are part of the emotional bonds of the collective not simply as psychological sound. Even without associating with the notion of Raga X as part of the collective experience you may be able to have a great experience. But you will not experience it as a form. Simply as a new, novel immersive experience.

But even for such an experience, you must bring in experiences you had elsewhere, other habituation processes.

They are also collective but do not belong to the culture that you have only now experienced in the form of Raga X. When you experience Raga X from the culture space of its origin, it becomes for you a truly enjoyable musical art form. But the experience is predicated on a variety of parameters, within and without, and the labelling is the first way in which the art form is appropriated as an art form, and not simply as an enjoyable sound body.

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal.)

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