Musical musings

Musical musings

An outstanding musician, articulate speaker and talented writer T M Krishna has also turned commentator on music, and in the process acquired the reputation of a maverick. And all these facets of him are seen in his just-released book, A Southern Music.

So, the book draws on his wide knowledge of the theory and practice of Karnatik music to present a fairly comprehensive and evolutionary overview; is benefited by his facile writing style; and is also imbued with his constantly questioning attitude towards current practices and attitudes.

The book is Krishna’s critique of Karnatik music — the art and the science, the aesthetics and technique. Krishna’s use of the word art in the book is significant. He uses it in connection with music to talk about a concept called ‘art music’, wherein the music is both the cause and the end, or so we understand.

It is different from the music, which is for a religious or social purpose, he holds since all music is art, but all art is not so. Well, that is what music was for a saint-composer like Thyagaraja.

In effect, A Southern Music, discusses South Indian classical music in its historical, sociological, philosophical and aesthetic contexts.

It is a collection of 27 essays exploring various aspects of Karnatik music and its connection and interaction with other arts, mostly classical, like Bharatanatyam and Hindustani music for example, though he also devotes space to its relationship with cinema. It offers a sweeping overview of the great, complex and continually evolving tradition that Karnatik music is.

The book is addressed as much to the layperson seeking an understanding of the basics of Karnatik music, as the students of advanced levels and the experts. While giving methodical, textbook-like explanations for the fundamentals like ragams (melodies) and thalams (rhythms), it also offers thought-provoking observations on advanced technical aspects and topics of the kind debated by musicologists and scholars like manodharma intricacies.

And also whether the current kutcheri format does justice to the art. Perhaps it is time it was “dismantled and reworked” the writer asks, offering several arguments  for this.

In recent times, there has been a lot of churning in the Karnatik music scene, with several younger generation artistes talking of the need for changes in the approach to training and the traditional concert format.

Krishna himself makes a case for treating currently minor items/tukkadas like padams and swarajatis, besides non-kutcheri items like jatiswarams as serious compositional forms in kutcheris. Coming from a musician of his stature, it may give more momentum to the murmurs for change. Of course, the purists may not concur.

The chapter on the relationship with the Hindustani music tradition addresses the misconceptions about Karnatik music by “connoisseurs of Hindustani music”. He may have added musicians and connoisseurs of Karnatik music since some of them also voice similar opinions at times.

Especially that the shruti sadhana of southern musicians is less rigorous than that of their northern counterparts with the results evident in performances. Krishna offers an intelligent, point-by-point rebuttal of these criticisms. These will be lapped up eagerly by Karnatik music students and aficionados wanting ammunition to defend their art.

The chapter on how Karnatik music has found patrons and audiences in the West is interesting. It could have included the names of musical giants M Balamuralikrishna and mandolin Shrinivas who wowed audiences in the West, the latter playing — to great acclaim alongside western legends — even as a child.

Krishna does not shy away from talking about Karnatik music’s gender bias. However, it is also true that this discrimination is fast losing strength with female musicians receiving their due in terms of performance and recording opportunities, awards and media attention. He rightly stands up for nadaswara vidwans.

While arguing for the democratisation of classical music, he says and it is heartening to read: “Crucial to all this is the revival of the nadaswara as an important kutcheri instrument. We need to provide financial security to the nadaswara and thavil vidwans at large through providing access to diverse artistic space.”

He is also not afraid to point out that government’s attitude to music needs to change, especially in his home state of Tamil Nadu. “Terms and ideas of Tamil musicological history are forced upon ideas that are often Telugu or Sanskrit in origin,” he points out.

At many places, the book is often provocative and deliberately so. Controversial theories or radical ideas are presented. No surprise to anyone who has been following his articles and public speeches or spoken to him.

So, it is possible that some readers, a few established artistes and musicologists included, will not agree with everything he says. The provocation is sometimes needless, some have held.

He is trying to establish himself as a pioneer and a path-breaking musician, hence these views, they say. But then, it is also true many radical thinkers and those who thought out-of-the-box have been seen as provocative or deliberately attracting controversy.

Written as much with passion as with deep theoretical and practical knowledge, the book is of great value. An essential read for students, laypersons and anyone interested in the great and grand tradition that Karnatik music is.

A Southern Music — the Karnatik Story
T M Krishna
Harper Collins
pp 588
Rs. 799