Carnatic musician Thodur Madabusi Krishna has just announced that beginning December 2015, he will not be seen at Chennai’s winter music season, where he has been a maverick performer over the years. On June 10, he posted the news on his Facebook page, excerpts of which read, “Right from when I was five or six the season has been part of my musical universe and I have learnt so much from musicians, musicologists, scholars and rasikas. Unfortunately at the place I am today I am unable to reconcile my musical journey with that of the December season.”
In the rarefied world of Carnatic music in Chennai, Krishna has been even more of a rarity. At 38, he is among the more acclaimed of the young singers to have made a mark in the last decade. Also, Krishna is equally well-known for his attempts to shake up the established social and cultural traditions around Carnatic music through his columns, books and even his effort last December at organising a music festival in a Dalit fishing village, in Chennai, to coincide with the city’s famed music season. “The idea was to create human connections that can make us all better, less fragmented people. Through this festival, we hope to create conversations among people of different sections of the society whose lives rarely intersect. This is only a beginning,” says Krishna.
Born into a family of a well-off upper-class businessman, Krishna’s talent was first spotted and nurtured when he was still a kid by the well-known vocalist and composer B Sitarama Sarma. He gave his first public performance at the age 12, but went on to finish his degree in economics at Chennai’s Vivekananda College before turning to music fulltime. On numerous occasions, he has spoken about his love for economics, and it is a subject he still keeps in touch with. A keen writer, Krishna’s engagement with his audience is not restricted to concerts. His regular columns in The Hindu awaken the sleepy in Chennai. He writes not just on music but even prickly issues, including swearing in today’s language, secularism, wondering why Modi won the elections and Sri Lankan cricket.
Image Courtesy: Hariharan Shankaran
As any regular of the Chennai season would have noticed, Krishna has usually been everywhere. When he isn’t performing, he can be seen cycling to concert halls to enjoy the music of his contemporaries. He is active on social media, and this year, he is even in a film that has been playing across theatres in Chennai. Stretching over 90 minutes, One (referring to the oneness of music) has Krishna singing his pieces against the backdrop of the woods, lakes and mist of the Nilgiris, set to the accompaniment of a tremulous tanpura and the warble of woodland birds. He makes a pretty picture, his rich timbre adding to the magical atmosphere in which music blends with nature’s elegant display.
On the film, Krishna had told a newspaper interviewer, “I do think this is the first time that such a project has been done with any kind of music. The magic is that nothing is artificial in what you hear. The sound is as it was in the woods and hills at early hours and through the day, [and I was] physically, emotionally and intellectually responding to what was around [me]. To add to that, you hear every leaf, the wind, the water all being a part of the music itself.” While One is not a box-office record breaker, given its niche audience, it remains special and worthy of classical music archives for offering Carnatic music in an atmosphere outside the confines of concert halls that are burdened with elitism and caste purity.
But, despite this film and his love for cinema , Krishna has not yet joined fellow Carnatic musicians in playback singing for the movies. He has had offers but has desisted. “I am completely open to the idea but the song has to be me,” he says. Coming from Krishna, the term ‘the song has to be me’ is loaded with meaning. He is well-known for his contrarian views on how Carnatic music is used in South Indian films, and has been outright critical in the past. As he explained in his provocative 2013 book, A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story, and excerpted here, “Another phenomenon that started in the 1980s deserves mention. This is the popular series of lectures and programmes to cull out ragas used in films and then connect them to Karnatik compositions. What is important to remember is that the moment the raga is taken out of the Karnatik music context, it is not a Karnatik raga any longer. Many would argue against this viewpoint. They would say that their window to Karnatik music was, in fact, film music. My problem is not with a person who listens to film music and is exposed to Karnatik music elements, thus leading him to explore the art form. My problem is with Karnatik musicians themselves speaking about elements in film music as being similar to Karnatik music itself. This correlation is dangerous. In making these literal comparisons, Karnatik musicians are blurring the ideas of Karnatik music and disfiguring the thoughts of new entrants.”
Image Courtesy: Murali Raju
Described by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen as “one the best books I have ever read on various subjects”, A Southern Music, ruffled feathers far beyond the Chennai film music fraternity. An effort at understanding his own art and the philosophy behind it, the book is in the form of 27 essays in which Krishna casts his erudite and critical eye on every aspect of Carnatic music — from the kutcheri system of concert programming to caste, gender, religion, language and technology. Most importantly and controversially, he questioned the inherent elitism and the continuing male Brahmin dominance in Carnatic music. “Some maintain this is a ‘figment of my imagination’. The truth is that the world of Carnatic music is not a welcoming one. Being inclusive is not holding something tightly in our palms and telling the rest that they can come in anytime. I will definitely persist in sticking my head out for the simple reason that I love this music so much,” he says in his typically blunt style.
It is not surprising that he is described as arrogant by many in private. While in concert, he would often toss the format around, choosing to sing introductory pieces of a raga, and not the entire musical composition. There are times when, he says, he felt that the initial raga alapana at the moment of his performance was complete as a musical piece, and that he did not feel the urge to sing the whole song. He has on occasions walked out of the hall much before the stipulated three-hour concert time, leaving the audience bewildered. Then, there have been times when he has become teary-eyed mid-concert in an emotional fit. In fact, he has claimed in interviews that he dislikes being called a performer. He sees himself as “a vehicle of sorts for creating art” in the artistic space of a concert hall or a drawing room.
It is entirely in keeping with his spontaneous nature that, in 2011, less than two years after the war destroyed the LTTE, he decided to go to the battle-scarred Jaffna region to perform and engage with students and groups. As was his decision last month to organise the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Vizha, the alternate music festival with fellow musicians Unnikrishnan and Veena Jayanthy, at the fishermen’s village, in Besant Nagar Beach. “I think access to Carnatic music must be given to all to learn, perform and listen to it,” he says.
Image Courtesy: Murali Raju
The concert itself made for an intriguing sight for a visitor. Krishna and a local NGO first helped clean the village. By the fishing nets and rowboats was a salt-sprayed stone wall that announced the concert in graffiti. Krishna plonked on the sands with his accompanists and performed. From balloon-tugging parents and candyfloss sellers to evening walkers and a knot of foreigners, people gathered to listen to one of India’s ace classical maestros. A little dune away, you could spot the slow arrival of the village women in their bright nylon saris and flower-decked heads. “The December music and dance season in Chennai is the biggest in the world and I could not think of a better venue for a parallel narrative to begin,” he says.
While the success of his socio-cultural endeavour remains to be seen, it cannot be argued that Krishna is taking a bold step. He says he has won some friends among his contemporaries who agree about making music more inclusive. His only response to his detractors is to continue doing what he believes in. “Discrimination does exist. We have to question it,” he says. He is also working on festivals to make music more accessible to students and special children, and is currently collaborating with interested groups to revive and archive South India’s musical traditions. “I used to be myopic in my view about the arts about a decade ago. But, now I watch a lot of dance, theatre and painting. I just watch everything that is around me,” he says. If a work of art moves him, he says, he takes it away in his mind.