He is “arrogant”. He is “eccentric”. When he performs, he can be infuriating. Audiences cannot understand him. Sabhas invite him with misgivings. Managers are fed up with him. “Don’t sell tickets.
What price music? Reserving seats for those who don’t turn up! How long may I sing? Please don’t garland me. I can’t stand applause. Those cameras bother me. Can’t you do something with the sound system? Take that damned mike away...” These are typical.
Yet, he can move you to tears when he pleads “Varughalaamo Ayya...” His music is evocative. His speeches, brilliant. His writing, original. What a supreme irony that the man who detests labels has to carry this baggage. Talented, avant-garde T M Krishna — who performed in public at the age of 12 and easily one of the highest ranked musicians in the country — says his Jiddu Krishnamurthy schooling taught him to be fearless. An artiste of many hues and many contradictions, he does not believe in the stereotyped kutcheri format. Every concert springs a delightful surprise.
“Who says Carnatic music has to follow this or that pattern?”
A varnam followed by keerthanas, ragam, thanam, pallavi, then tani avarthanam, some thukkadas, a short tillana rounded off with a mangalam is the ‘normal’. But not with TMK. He may begin an alapana in Kalyani. Follow it with Karaharapriya or nothing at all. Period. Ask him why? He will look surprised.
“The Kalyani Alapana was perfect. What more could I add?”
Traditionalists of the old school who are used to the comfort of stereotypes groan with dismay at this sacrilege. But, for those who see the beauty of music unfold itself in the aesthetics of his art, Krishna is the best thing that ever happened to Carnatic music. He has turned it upside down, not with histrionics, but with a creativity that defies imagination.
So what if he asks his violinist to start the kutcheri? Or let his audience share the stage? He may do anything. He may startle his listeners. He may shock some. But, no one can question the sheer beauty and imagination of his art that has exploded on the scene with a force that will not be denied. When Krishna sings, he celebrates music.
Explaining the so called “oddities” of his performances, this one-of-a-kind artiste describes the spell his music casts on himself. A spell that cannot be broken. It is a moment, a tiny fraction of space shared with his audience, that he wants to hold forever. To a listener who missed that moment, this is just another crazy singer. But for those who care to see beyond the stage, here is an impassioned artiste whose music was not for the galleries. It is music that is inspired. In his own words, “It is a slice of a moment, a space so thin as to be almost invisible... like a beautiful ray of sunlight that passes so quickly, we may not even realise it was ever there.”
What music means
Again, the angry exclamation: “You are comfortable seeing things through a window. Nobody likes questioning. No one is ready to let the world enter through that window.” Even though he does not want to be labelled an author or speaker or musician, he is all three rolled into one. His book, like his music, is “the lens through which he sees his world” — the world of music. This introspective quality, which sets him apart from other artistes, is the hallmark of his music that is a sacred experience, not in any religious sense, but as one that wrenches your very soul.
Tutored by his mother, his art was honed to perfection by no less a vidwan than the legendary Semmangudi. Remembering his childhood tryst with music lessons when he held a stick pretending it was a thampura, Krishna has his own heroes today. He is inspired by TV Sankaranarayanan — “there is romance in his music” — and astonished by the magnitude of Sanjay Subramanian’s art. When I question, “Is not sahitya (the meaning) as important as sangeetha?” (the music) he excitedly breaks into a pancharatna kriti and swears that the saint Thyagaraja himself did not sacrifice one for the other.
When TMK talks music, time stands still. Just as when he sings, you are unaware of anything other than the singer and the song. Would it be any surprise then if his listeners, after hearing his impassioned “Rama, Nee samaana yevvaru?” asked in turn, “Krishna, nee samaana yevvaru?”