In a conversation with BARADWAJ RANGAN, T.M. KRISHNA proves he holds strong opinions on everything—from critics to audiences to concert planning. Sruti will be bringing you more such interviews, from time to time, with artists currently performing and making a serious impact on audiences.
Let’s begin with a basic question. With the different perceptions, expectations and levels of understanding in the audience, how do you evaluate the “success” of a concert?
Well, there’s only one thing you can be sure of, really. Walking away from a concert, you know how it went. There are so many days my concert is a big success, but I’m not happy with it at all. On the other hand, there could be times when I thought I performed artistically very well, and the audience could be bored. These things cannot be explained.
Let’s talk about that a little more. As a performer, you obviously have a lot more musical scholarship than the lay listener. Now, when you try out something new—like singing the niraval on an unexpected line because that makes more sense to you—do you think the audience gets that? In other words, does it matter to what extent your thoughts get across to a general audience?
Obviously a newcomer is not going to get this. But this is again a learning process for the audience. I cannot go about educating everybody in the middle of a concert; that becomes a lecture- demonstration. To one section of the audience, my singing a niraval at any line won’t make a difference. There’s another section that’s heard a niraval being done on a certain line all their lives, and they can instantly identify that I’m singing it at another place. Then there are the scholars, who know the meaning of the composition, and begin thinking about whether that line warrants the niraval treatment. With all these kinds of audiences, it’s not possible to address each person’s need or awareness level.
Talking of scholars, what are your feelings about the evaluation of your performance by the critics in the audience?
A critic is one individual. He has certain perceptions based on his experiences as a listener. Those are based on many principles that have governed that person through the years, just like many principles govern me as a performer. So you need to accept that. If you read a review using your own guidelines, it could be totally off-target. What bothers me is when the criticism gets personal. If you come to my concert and write that T.M. Krishna was not in form and his raga alapana was not up to the mark, I’m absolutely fine with that.
In the music season coverage in local magazines, there have been digs that singers from today’s generation put on a lot of airs—what’s called bigu—on stage.
That’s what I mean. That’s way out of line. I strongly believe that your music is your personality, and how you are on stage is how you are as a person. In any case, how do they know the problems we face on stage? There was this concert once where this photographer kept clicking pictures with a flashbulb during my alapana. I’m very finicky about these things. When he kept doing this repeatedly, I had to stop singing and ask him to leave. Later, a review called me arrogant. I didn’t care, because I had come there to produce good music—for myself and for everybody else—and I need some basic parameters to deliver that.
Let’s get back to the audiences. You travel a lot. Do you tailor concerts according to local tastes of the listeners? For instance, in the north, would you sing an abhang or a Meera bhajan?
When I go to the north, I make it a point to sing only pure Carnatic pieces. Why should I sing something else? If they have come to listen to Carnatic music, they must listen to Carnatic music as it is. Why should we go and sing Yaman Kalyan over there? It would be like a Hindustani vocalist coming here and singing Begada, for example. There are enough people here who sing a good Begada, so the audience would want to listen to something they haven’t heard before. Some things I do, yes. In terms of the pieces, if there’s a Tamil audience, I sing more Tamil compositions.
Now that we’re talking language, do you have a take on the Telugu vs. Tamil song catalogue?
Not particularly. But for me, the Trinity—Tyagaraja, Dikshitar, Syama Sastry—is the greatest.Everybody else comes after that. I consciously try to bring in at least one composition by each of them during a concert.
You’ve talked about being non-traditional in concerts, like singing a varnam as the main piece (instead of the usual kriti). How long did it take for you to realise that you could try something like this and get away with it?
Of course, you can’t do this when you’re starting out. Because you yourself aren’t sure of many things at that point. To a large extent, you sing what you are taught. Over a period of time, you start understanding raga-s better, understanding your voice better, understanding your capacity better. And that itself is a long process. It’s only after you reach a certain stage of proficiency and professional comfort—in the sense of being accepted in the musical community—that your responsibility level as an artist increases. That’s when you decide what you want to be known as, what you want to be to the audience.
There was this concert of yours where, after a Kedaragaula alapana, you went straight to the anupallavi (jalajasanasanakadi...) before returning with a flourish to the pallavi (Tulasi bilva...). What makes you decide to do something like this? Is it to throw audience expectations off a bit?
Such things happen on the spot. At that moment, I just felt like singing the anupallavi. I never plan my concerts—except for the Academy concerts where I have to give a list (because they ask for it). It depends on what I feel like at that instant. Of course, things like singing a varnam as the main piece have to be thought about earlier. Otherwise, it’s all decided on stage. When I leave for the concert, my mind is a blank slate. I fill it up with items depending on my mood at the moment.
So you don’t believe in, say, picking out raga-s that are not similar to one another in the same concert? Because, according to you, there is no concert planning ahead of time, so you may feel like singing a Darbar followed by a Nayaki.
I don’t believe in that philosophy at all. Any raga can be sung after anything. If you are a capable artist, even if you choose two very close raga-s, you can sing them differently enough so as to not confuse your audience. For me, the main question is: What do I feel like singing? It’s that simple. If I don’t enjoy singing something, I won’t sing it. There have been days I didn’t know what to sing and I’ve asked the violinists—many of whom are my friends—for the raga I should take up. I think that’s also a way of challenging myself. But, mainly, that’s the kind of person I am. I don’t like planning. At the same time, I don’t say that my method is better than that of those who plan their concerts. About the only thing I try not to do during the season, for instance, is to repeat a raga. But sometimes, I’ve done that too. But even that is only with respect to the raga-s. The kriti-s, I don’t decide. I love to keep myself as vague as possible.
That means the evening before a concert would be spent doing... what exactly?
If there’s a cricket match on that day, I’ll watch it right to the last ball. If the match is in Chennai, I’ll be at the stadium. I’m a cricket fanatic. Otherwise, there is no routine, per se. I do try not going out. I just chill out; relax in front of the TV.
But what about your regular practice routine? What does that consist of?
My routine has changed from the times I was not a performing professional. Those days, I used to practise in the mornings. Now, I practise at night—past 11 pm, till about 2 or 3 am. I’m a night person; I can’t get up in the morning. But I do not practise if I have a concert, because it brings about a certain fixedness in your mind if you start rehearsing certain things.
You’re one of the top performers today. What do you do to ensure you don’t stagnate and keep evolving?
One is by throwing challenges to myself—maybe singing a new raga, or starting a raga at an unexpected place and seeing where it leads me, or maybe structuring the concert differently. Otherwise, the best way to keep yourself fresh is by learning more compositions. That’s why I am still a student of guru Seetarama Sarma.