T.M. Krishna is a Carnatic music vocalist, as well as a writer and columnist, whose book A Southern Music: Exploring the Karnatik Tradition was published in 2015. He appeared at Jaipur in conversation with Dayanita Singh (also interviewed in the issue). For many years now, he has spoken widely about the political and social dimension he has brought to his work.
Portrait: Dayanita Singh
Tank I wondered if you could say a few words about Carnatic music and what it means for you.
T.M. Krishna Carnatic music is among the two art-music forms. I use the term art music instead of classical – because I find the word “classical” quite delusional, an unaesthetic way of describing music. So whether it’s Western or whether it’s from India, I prefer to not use classical, but instead I use art music. The two art-music forms are Hindustani music and Carnatic music, and Carnatic music has evolved more in the southern regions of India. And how do I describe the music? It is melody-based music, which means harmony does not play a role in its aesthetic structure. But it is a musical form that is fascinating because it is balanced between composed compositions and the creativity of the performing artist. Both go hand-in-glove in terms of the balance, in terms of importance and how each feeds into the other. This is rather unusual to some extent, because you do find that in most art-music forms it is either composition or improvisation that takes a dominant position, depending on what form you’re talking about.
But here it is pretty much in equilibrium, if I can say that. The music is based on three elements. The first is the melodic element, the idea of the raga, which to put it very simply is an abstract, melodic identity that has structured itself through generations of connectivity and some amount of habituation, as well as emotional and intellectual construction. That develops through a continuous process of listening, singing, both by the audience and by the musicians. The second element is tala and laya, which is the rhythmic part. Laya is the sense of time and has two elements – like time itself – which is interval and event. The relationship between interval and event and that which lies in-between, is laya. When you construct that relationship into a certain number of beats, say eight counts or ten counts, then you have fixed laya into a framework. This is tala. The third element is text, both linguistic and non-linguistic. Carnatic music is formed of this triangular relationship between text, tala and raga. And depending on how you play with these three elements, the components of these elements, their interactivity, the passages of give and take, as well as the way the musicians allow them to talk to each other, the music unfolds. This is the body and the experience of Carnatic music.
Tank That’s amazing! I know these are particularly loaded words, and I just want to tease out perhaps some of the things you spoke about with Dayanita. How do you see words like “rituals” and “traditions” within the context of Carnatic music?
TMK Now, the cliché of tradition not being a fixed thing but being change itself has been thrown around a bit too much without understanding what changes or what is permanent. So I’m not going to use that cliché. I find that there are certain threads: fundamental, structural and aesthetic threads that have been carried down through the generations and are the basis for the experience of the music. Now, the very texture of these threads allows them to be woven in different ways. But however they are woven, the thread is still visible. The fact that you can weave them in whatever way you want is change. Tradition is embedded within, because while receiving the thread from the past we also receive its objective role within the music and the strength of its own form. The aural nature of the threads may change but their intentionality and cohesive bond with other aesthetic threads remains. It is when there is a mismatch here that we notice an aberration in aesthetics.
There is a blurring between tradition and ritual; we overlay ritual and tradition callously. “Convention” is another word we use easily, without giving any thought to its implications. This is dangerous; if a tradition becomes a ritual then two things happen. Firstly, the very intentionality of the threads begins to disappear. Secondly, it loses its continuum and mundane monotony sets in. In this state all that appears to us as creativity and innovation is nothing but an exercise of virtuosity or a reiteration of habituation. We have made this “our” tradition. If I were to view tradition, I should view it removing my judgement from the observation. For example, I looked at music as it was 150 years ago as part of my research – and I can tell you, when I tried recreating that music, it sounded awful. Yes! I’m using this word, awful. But is it unaesthetic? I cannot say that. Because aesthetics is not about preference, it is about the music’s intention, form, structure and experience as one unit. There is, at its core something more to art than: “I like this very much. I’m used to it. Therefore that’s how it should be.”
Tank Many of your opinions have been seen as controversial in Carnatic circles.
TMK Of course what I’m saying is controversial in Carnatic circles, because I am trying to understand the experience of the art form from a dispassionate yet deeply experiential viewpoint. If someone has a religious experience from Carnatic music I’m not here to comment upon it. But I will say this: the intentionality of the music is not to give you a religious experience. Every human being derives what he or she wants from any experience. But if you say that what I sing is religious music because the linguistic meaning of the musical text is religious, I do not subscribe to this view. Of course, if you got a personal religious experience while listening, I will not judge that.
It is essential that we understand that in Carnatic music, the form is abstractive. What it abstracts is human experience, not the literality of life. Even in language we have these layers – the sound of the word, and its meaning. Even within that, there are so many nuances. For example, meaning as understood in prose and poetry is completely different. Language used in a legal documents compared to personal letters differs in intention, structure, form and meaning. Now, imagine language as a creation of music. This is another layer and we should explore this. To put it in simple terms, the way I say a word and the way I sing a word are two different things. Why? Because when I sing it, it is music, it says something aural and abstract beyond what the word means. If we can open this window of perception, something else happens to experience.
Tank How does the current political context affect your work?
TMK If you’re asking me whether I’m a minority in the musical world that I inhabit because of my sociopolitical views, then the answer is “yes” in capitals! Because the Carnatic space is a Brahminical Hindu world, that means the upper caste, upper class, traditional and ritualistic. I’m born in that community, into a Brahmin home and I am part of Chennai’s aristocracy. I am not going to run away from that truth. But I have to be constantly conscious of who I am, what I represent and the power I possess. This makes me self-critical of our way of life and art. And I think that awareness is important. The classic Carnatic hinterland is, in general – and generalisations are dangerous, I know but – in general, in spirit, it is a very conservative Hindu environment, with a pro-BJP stance. I have serious social, political and philosophical issues with the BJP and specifically with our present prime minister, Narendra Modi. Therefore, it does make many people uncomfortable with my writings and speeches in particular.
Tank And is it difficult for you in those environments where you would normally practice your art?
TMK Luckily, I think my music is decent enough to handle that! It’s also true, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that, I’m professionally in a powerful position. This gives me the cushion to say what I want and to be who I am within this community. However, what I say does create conflict and discomfiture, and therefore, people are quick to dismiss me as a commie. Being boxed as a leftist if you hold certain views happens all over the world, right? I don’t believe in any of these tags and none of the extreme responses that I get are going to stop my questioning.
I think the same kind of constrictive narrative is being established as the truth within the art form and its politics, over and over again. This is also a universal societal phenomenon. So, whether you are in Britain, America or India these notions of the religious, the social, the cultural and the moral that are held by the middle and upper-middle classes, are subtly and coercively propagated as “the universal”. It is the same inside of the community belonging to southern India, that practices Carnatic music. We want to stay far away from the lower classes, since they are seen as uncultured, crass and unsophisticated. All we offer them is condescension and the hope that they can become more like us. At the same time, we don’t want to become the upper class because we believe they have lost their soul. Deep inside the reaches of our mind we believe that we are the sociocultural ideal! Breaking this down is a difficult battle. As a result, my larger political and social beliefs about society and India, and thoughts on Carnatic music disturb many people. When I say Carnatic music is not religious music, they immediately connect that with the fact that I am not supportive of the BJP. But that is something that I just have to work with. The conversation has to continue, after all. §