T.M. Krishna is one of those musicians who draws full houses because of his mellifluous voice. One of the most creative artistes of today, he goes on experimenting even during a concert. Some consider him a maverick, not conforming to tradition. At one concert scheduled for three hours he chose to close it with an alapana of a ragam, in just an hour.

He defies the established format of the kutcheri (concert), in which a varnam should be sung at the beginning and the padams and jawalis at the end, with a detailed alapanaswaramniraval, etc., in the middle. He expresses his annoyance openly if someone goes out during the taniavarthanam (of the rhythm instruments). These changes are frowned upon by the puritans. But huge audiences turn up routinely to hear him as his music is par excellence.

With his first book, A Southern Music—The Karnatik Story having come out in 2013, T. M. Krishna talks about his art and his ideas.

You seem to be an enigma. Some say you’re an arrogant genius, some say you’re eccentric and for some you’re a revolutionary musician. A music critic even suggested you’re the sex symbol of Carnatic music. Where is the real Krishna?
Is it possible to describe a person in one line or one word? I can only say that what you see in me is what you get. I don’t hide anything. There’s nothing to hide in the way I speak, behave or sing. There is no hidden agenda. Whether I’m arrogant or not, that is a perception.

I do what I want to do, and say what comes to my mind. I have strong ideas and views on what is happening around me and within me, and I speak about it. Some people think I do and say things to appear different; I can’t sugarcoat anything just to please others. Perhaps that is one of my faults.

But I try my best to seek and search in the direction that I seek life which I find fascinating, beautiful and enriching. I do try to enrich myself as a human being.

Do I make mistakes? Of course I do. Do I have an ego? Of course I do. I am, after all, a human being. But I constantly question my own attitude, the way I live, and because of this I have changed in many ways. I do listen to others. An arrogant person never listens to others.

You mentioned I have been dubbed as eccentric. But everyone has a streak of eccentricity. But the things I do are a part of the process of my constant charge.

 People say often that art comes out of restlessness and an artiste is always restless. I disagree. I think most beautiful creations of art come out when there is absolute stillness.

Would you describe yourself as a restless person trying to do something to bring about change?
I’m glad that you use that word—restless. But I have a problem with that word. Most beautiful things happen only when you are not restless. People say often that art comes out of restlessness and an artiste is always restless. I disagree. I think most beautiful creations of art come out when there is absolute stillness.

I’m not a restless person, but I am a questioning person. Restlessness almost indicates sort of being uncomfortable. I’m not uncomfortable with myself. But I question the way we live. It’s not restlessness. That is a part of my search for, shall we say, quietude? I’m a person seeking to live in that quietude. Philosophically, I do not agree with the idea that change comes from restlessness.

There’s a complaint that you’re indifferent to the audience. Art is not just for oneself—your art is to be communicated to an audience or others, don’t you think?
I disagree with that statement. You say art is for others; I have a problem with the word ‘for’. The word ‘for’ creates almost a transaction: a demand-supply relationship that means something is given back for something taken. This I was doing for many years. But in my own journey, I realised art exists for the beauty of life. It’s not something closely held selfishly for oneself. The most beautiful thing in life is to share.

Does sharing mean there’s a transaction? There’s no giver or taker. Something is just placed and shared. I just place the art to be shared so that every one sees it and says ‘It’s beautiful’.

Whether you’re on stage or among the audience, we all share the art. Art doesn’t belong to the artiste alone; it belongs to all. We as artistes are conduits for the art. All of us are in a space—a shared space where art is created, where the artiste is a fortunate human being to place the art in that environment. I’m not a giver. I’ve philosophically moved into that position. I do not mean to be indifferent to the audience.

Doesn’t that mean you’re singing for yourself?
Not at all. The moment I say I’m singing for myself, it means I’m delivering the product to myself. No. I’m not singing for the audience. I place my art and it is up to you to share it or not with me. That is all. That is no disrespect to the audience.

Then why did you change the format of the kutcheri: the time-tested format which has been in vogue for more than, say, six decades?

The premise and assumption of your question is that the existing format is comfortable, so why touch it. It’s comfortable for everyone, so why touch it. Isn’t that your question?

I’ve deconstructed what you call a kutcheri. In fact, ‘kutcheri’ is a word I’ve decided to dissociate myself from. Deconstructing is not as simplistic as changing the order in the performance.

I know people talk about my singing the varnam in the middle or jawali in the beginning, much against the existing format and tradition. I only want to see what we can do with what we have. We have different forms, manodharma, compositions. Now my journey has been to look at every form, every composition and see what it is by itself.

For example, why do we sing an alapana? A very difficult question. The answer is not so simple. You may say we sing the alapana to discover a ragam. Or it is a prelude to the composition, kirtana? Then, do you mean that an alapana is just an additive?

It’s as difficult to answer as the philosophical question ‘Who am I?’ Is there a beginning, middle or end to an alapana? I realised that an alapana is a complete piece of art by itself. It exists by itself. Then why shouldn’t I sing an alapana alone instead of treating it as the prelude to a kirtana? That’s what I am doing and being criticised for. What’s wrong here?

Likewise, I try to look into each type of composition—be it varnampadamjawali or kirtana. I find it is more important for me as an artiste to be in each one of these compositions aesthetically and musically. And I find that the moment I deconstructed the kutcheri format, every one of these pieces—musical pieces—seemed to flower by itself. Isn’t that the most beautiful thing?

I don’t want to view a composition on the basis of what role it plays in a kutcheri. If you say that this form is not suitable to satisfy the product that the kutcheri is, I shouldn’t use it, isn’t there something artistically wrong with that notion? If that’s so, I’m not interested in the kutcheri format at all.

I have, as I said, deconstructed the kutcheri just to rediscover every one of the art forms we have in Carnatic music. For me, every evening should be different, discovering a different art. In that journey, my discovery of art is far more intense than through the usual format of kutcheri. Discovery of ragam is more intense, discovery of tala is more intense, discovery of sahitya is more intense. I strongly feel we need to create an environment that is not caught up in the trappings of a product called kutcheri.

Unlike northern music (Hindustani—I’m using the term northern as you described Carnatic music as southern), ours is nothing but devotional, spiritual or religious. You seem to say that there’s no need for devotion or religion or spiritualism in music. Even a love song, however erotic, like the padam and jawali has God as the theme. Don’t you agree?

Well, you used many words, spirituality, God, religion, etc. To me they don’t necessarily mean the same. I don’t say bhakti is not needed in music. In fact music is bhakti. What I say is, music is not just the bhakti of Rama, Krishna, Kamakshi, and so on. The same scripture which says nrithyam and geetham are ways of attaining God, also says that pure nadham is bliss. Sound is Brahman (supreme being). If sound is Brahman where’s the need to have words?

I’m not saying sahitya is not needed for music. All our music is not necessarily bhakti music. The padams of Kshetrgya which you have referred as sringara were composed in the Nayaka kings’ court. Though they have ‘Moova Gopala’ (Krishna) there in the compositions, they were inspired by many other things. There were courtesans who might have inspired him. Who knows? You may also have your image or feelings about Moova Gopala. So there can be another view. If the image of Krishna comes into your mind when Moova Gopala is mentioned, I say it’s your personal feeling. I won’t comment on that. Ashtapathis and padams are extremely erotic, no doubt. We can create religious feeling or bhakti with anything.

Take the Khajuraho sculptures, are they religious? Many artistic creations aren’t religious but they reflect the sociopolitical context. If you feel that a concert or Carnatic music is nothing but devotional then why should we go to namasankirtanams where people gather to sing only devotional songs, where you’re inspired by the bhakti content? Or what’s the difference between a Carnatic concert and namasankirtanam?

If that is your intention, devotional satisfaction, why go to a Carnatic concert? Or do you go because you get alapananiraval and swara at Carnatic concerts?

When you sing aren’t you inspired by the lyrics—I mean the sahitya—and visualise whichever God the lyrics describe?
I’ll come to that. Thygaraja is a multifaceted composer. I’ve said that in my book also. He composed devotional music. He composed musical operas and also what I call the art music. His kirtana in ragam Karaharapriya, Chakka Nee Raja, is art music. He also composed divyanama kirtanas sung at namasankirtanams.

What do you mean by art music?
It’s not a phrase I created. It’s been in use for many years. Art music is something whose existence depends entirely on its own melody and rhythm. It’s not there to offer you a religious experience. It’s not political music (like activist music) or social music (folk music). It’s created because of the musicality that is there in it.

In our context it is the ragam and tala and the text. Combination of the three or the triangle of the three creates a certain aesthetic identity. This is interpreted in many ways. I put it this way. Music that creates only the aesthetic identity with its internal components, without having to serve any external purpose, is ‘art music’. There’s an emotional response irrespective of whether you understand the language or not.

In Carnatic music it’s the text, ragam and laya. In varnam, text, ragam and tala interact in a different way. In the thillana, they interact in yet another way. And so in kirtana, too. That is, every composition has its own identity.

Let me come to sahitya or text. In art music, the text need not have a linguistic meaning. If the role of sahitya is only to give a linguistic meaning, then you should not sing Chakka Nee Raja, or Theliyaledhur Rama because the text changes. The text gets elongated—not sung as in the text. Pronunciation changes according to the music. It becomes a musical identity.

In art music, language becomes a part of the melodic sound. Take the word Rama in a kirtana. Does Rama sound the same throughout the kirtana (demonstrates) in all the different places it occurs? Please start looking at the sahitya as something that gives an emotional meaning.

Look at Dikshitar’s kritis on temples. He has done much more than describe the temples. He has given every shabda, every word, a form that is beyond the literary meaning.

In art music, the association of melody and rhythm come together to create an image. Even a Telugu kirtana touches you whether or not you know the meaning. In a varnam, can you understand the meaning? Not even a single word. But it creates an impact on you.

Krishna, you have in your book mentioned Brahmin domination in Carnatic music. You said Veenai Dhanammal (a vocalist and veena player) who was revered as a great musician and Brinda and Muktha were not given their due because they were not Brahmins.
Yes, that is precisely the problem that I want to be addressed. In the early 20th century, the community that took up music and dominated was the upper-class south Indian Brahmins. It was this upper-class community that established a certain single image of Carnatic music and sold it calling it a kutcheri.

The single image is a masculine image of Carnatic music—a male image. Look at the list of musicians considered great in the past, like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Ayyangar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Ayyar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Ayyar, G. N. Balasubramaniam and so on—you can see the male image and domination. They try to establish that a kutcheri or musical performance should be only one particular way—starting with varnam and followed by alapanakirtananiraval and swara—a typical pattern, a rigid format,

Also, we have completely closeted vocal music as the only kind of music. That’s why even a genius like Dhanammal became irrelevant. She was accepted as a good source of music and knowledge. Brinda and Muktha who were considered musicians’ musicians also could not fit into the identity that we have created.

If I try to change the pattern, there are protests. They want to establish that Carnatic music can be appreciated only if it’s in the way they designed it. Who created this image? I want to change it.

In the 1880s, people accepted a concert only with an elaborate alapana of a ragam. We know Mahavaidyanatha Ayyar’s concerts were only like that. There were long alapanas and, remember, they were not always followed by kirtanas. I’m doing just the same now and so deconstructing the rigid kutcheri format.

Even 50 years ago, there were different kinds of musical experience. Take the nadaswaram recitals. They were great musical experiences with long alapanas. People listened and enjoyed them. Then, in the 1930s, the kutcheri format was created. Nadaswaram started to decline and almost died. Instrumental music is almost dead. The musical lineage of the great Veenai Dhanammal is not felt anywhere in the popular culture of Carnatic music.

We Brahmins have established this definition of a kutcheri. We’re responsible for it.

I’m not saying Veenai Dhanammal, Brinda and Muktha were not crowd pullers. I’m only saying we haven’t created an artistic space that will accept them. The idea of a kutcheri is not to strangle and stifle and impose restraints. It should be a bandwidth of different forms and ideas. Why frown when I change the order and sing a jawali or padam in the beginning or when I stop after an elaborate alapana?

A nadaswaram artiste need not play so many compositions to give the appearance of a concert or kutcheri. They now ask, who will listen to Rakthi mela or Mallari? Only if they play kirtanas, they feel, they can sell it as a kutcheri. The nadaswaram tradition is dead because of this.

We Brahmins have established this definition of a kutcheri. We’re responsible for it. We should create an environment where the subtle music of Brinda and Dhanammal will also be in the mainstream along with the Alathur brothers and Seshagopalan.

You were speaking about male domination and casteism in music. Don’t you think society is as responsible as the musicians?
True, but why are we hesitant to talk about it when it comes to music? For example, Madurai Somu was a great musician. Why were the sabhas in Chennai—including the Music Academy—reluctant to feature him in their programmes, because he was from a different community, because Somu was not part of ‘us’.

People may not agree, they may even curse me for saying this, but I stand my ground. Caste is ingrained in music circles. Though it isn’t seen, it comes out, it just pops up. Just imagine Semmangudi Srinivasa Ayyar walking into the Music Academy and Somu Pillai also coming into the Academy. One can see the difference instinctively. It’s too palpable to be ignored.

The popular musician Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan too was ignored by the Academy. He was a Brahmin.
No, no, Kunnakudi can’t be compared with Somu. He went away from Carnatic music. I don’t consider Kunnakudi a great Carnatic musician. He chose a different path. His was a different kind of music which includes film music, popular instrumental music, and he’s a virtuoso. But Madurai Somu wasn’t accepted because he was not a Brahmin.

I know that famous accompanists seldom offered to accompany him.
No, no, it isn’t true. Lalgudi Jayaraman, Umayalpuram Sivaraman, and others accompanied him. We have recordings.

In fact once a popular violinist told me that they did not often play for Somu because he used sing for five hours and he could not sit that long.
That’s nonsense. Would they have refused to play for Semmangudi if he sang five hours?

Not only caste, but there’s gender bias also in this field. Today there are several male musicians who won’t play if the main singer is a woman. There are men who even refuse a concert because a woman is to accompany them. I’m not sure whether this is even acceptable by law. Why do such things persist even today? We should be asking questions but we, including myself, just keep quiet.

You have strongly come down in your book on Illayaraja.
Yes, it’s about the way he used Thyagaraja’s Mari Mari Ninne kirtana. He’s not a Carnatic musician. He doesn’t produce or perform Carnatic music. He took a song from Thyagaraja and tuned it. (The original composition is in ragam Kambodhi.) But he tuned it in Saramathi ragam. Maybe he found the words of the kirtana beautiful, but the original ragam was not good enough.

Perhaps he found Saramathi ragam lighter than Kambodhi, which would suit cinema.
That is his call, the cinema call. He saw the composition and viewed it only as a lyrical piece. He didn’t bother about the tune given by Thyagaraja and embellished by his sishya parampara. In Carnatic music, a composition is not just poetry. It is sahitya and sangeetam evolving into a melodic and aesthetic identity. He could have asked Vairamuthu or Vaali to write some lyrics and tuned it in Saramathi. Or he could have even asked a Telugu poet for lyrics.

But he sought Thyagaraja for authenticity. That’s what I call hitting below the belt. He utilised the Thyagaraja kirtana because he knew that the moment the name Thyagaraja appears people will associate it with Carnatic music. It is disrespect to Thyagaraja. It is opportunistic. How dare you do that?

In fact, when the film was released, one of my gurus, Chengalpet Ranganathan, made it a point to sing the same kirtana in every concert of his in the original Kambodhi. The more interesting aspect of the narrative is that nobody from the world of Carnatic music reacted to it. The reason is that in our own musical community there are many who changed the tunes of the compositions the way they wanted. We ourselves are at fault. How can we point a finger at Illayaraja?

You were on a tour of the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, a land devastated by war and still in news. How did it happen?
Mine was a completely non-political endeavour. In 2010, I went to sing on the memorial day of Neelam Thiruselvan. The High Commissioner asked me whether I could travel to the northern provinces. I agreed.

In 2011, I was the first musician in 35 years to performance in Jaffna, Vavunia and Kilinochchi (once the headquarters of the LTTE). There was enormous interest in music. It was quite an experience. There is a music college there with 300 students learning Carnatic music and dance.

The first year I took Unnikrishnan and Alarmel Valli, who gave demonstrations to 800 people. Some 5,000 people attended Unnikrishnan’s performance: a record for a Carnatic concert.

In 2013, I took Sudha Raghunathan and Leela Samson. And I plan to continue this every year. We will extend it to different art forms like theatre so that there is a cultural revival.