News & Notes

Masterclass with TM Krishna

Nurturing Fearless and Serious Engagement  with Karnatik Music

“I want you to stop when you are dead with the ideas of a pattern,” TM Krishna reminds his students. As the students sing kalpanaswaram for Deva Deva Kalayamithe, Krishna puts down hurdles in their paths. “That is banned.. you can’t sing that.” Some of them toy with new phrases, while the others stumble over a note. He encourages the latter, “It is only when you sing something wrong can you twist it and discover something.”    The intensity and the gay abandon of this musical improv makes an otherwise high-spirited participants of the 12-days masterclass dumbstruck. The intensive online module on Carnatic music offered by TM Krishna in two batches in August 2020, not only stressed on his radical ideas on manodharma, but also explored the politics and aesthetics of the art form. 

Past and present merged seamlessly in these sessions. Along with Krishna, we went centuries back in time to study the evolution of the kirtana as a dominating compositional structure, the journey of the veena, violin and nagaswaram into the Carnatic fold, and the emergence of bhakti as a favored literary theme in the Carnatic canon. We looked at historical figures like Subbarama Dikshitar, the man behind the iconic work, Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini (SSP), and attempted to place their creative interventions in their historical specificity. A major portion of the work included in the SSP is that of Muthuswami Dikshitar. “Any renowned scholar and artist like him would have had to negotiate through multiple contexts. How he negotiated with this illustrious lineage symbolises the conflicts we have to deal with as artists in the 21st century; we are constantly trying to reconcile what we have learnt vs what we do to evolve this art form. He was also trying to make sense of things and he did it in his own way,” observes G Ravi Kiran, student of TM Krishna who anchored this session with him. 

Some of the participants were so fired up after this session that they pored over SSP to sing new kirtanas after the session ended, says Anand Murthy, a veena and vocal music student from Gurgaon. It gave him a huge conviction in what he was learning. “Another striking thing about a few Carnatic music performers is that they can be pretty secretive; they do not readily divulge their approach to explore a raga or to develop an idea from a kirtana or explore tanam.  And, TMK literally gave it to us on a silver platter. I found the generosity of spirit quite disarming. I would make notes at the end of each class. There were ready references on how to approach a particular raga. These are clearly core processes that I should follow in my ability to weave a swarakalpana.”

T Brinda’s rendition of a Sringara laden padam contrasted with MS Subbulakshmi’s voice dripping with bhakti, the session on gender contextualised the female musicians’ aesthetic negotiations in their respective socio-cultural backgrounds. Listening to these women of yesteryears and hearing their stories were inspiring, says Vidhya Raghavan, another student of Krishna. “They look so unattainable when you hear their music. But, when we humanise them and look at them as real people, you realise the struggles they faced. They were feminists in their own right.” 

Patriarchal mindsets ruled these concert spaces, Vidhya and Bhargavi Venkatram, who anchored the session on gender with Krishna, echoed.  The female artist must take care to follow dress codes, body language and a socially acceptable personal life to be welcomed into the fold, apart from being a good singer. These disclosures led to a vibrant discussion in the masterclass that overshot its time way past the expected limits. 

Participants were a vibrant lot consisting of a global diaspora from different fields bonded by their love for the form. The chat box always buzzed with messages. Krishna had to juggle his thoughts and the cascade of questions that would throw open a new stream of conversation altogether. The lively audience interaction led to some fascinating finds; like the music of a Carnatic musician who is a trans-person. “The 12-days opened up the immense problems of hierarchy and patriarchy that exist in this field. I personally will not be able to listen to the music of the artist, whose politics I actively disagree with the art cannot be separated from the artist. As connoisseurs, it is our responsibility to look at both sides,” says Anusha Dhasarathy, a consulting professional based in Chicago.  

Separating the art from the artist has been a tightrope walk for many. Talking about his favourite musicians endorsing religious fascism, Rahul Gandhi, a physician in New Zealand, says: "I feel conflicted on those occasions because these are artists I have admired for their astonishing musical prowess; they are often epitomes of excellence in performance."

Power hierarchy existed clearly in the way the concert format is structured, says Anand reflecting on the main artist session. “If we stop seeing the ghatam player as an upapakkavadyam and instead as an equal contributor, what different possibilities open up? These questions come from a deep interest. That’s how the art form lives, by examining the possibilities of sound. Otherwise, it is dead.” There were no conclusions being reached. "Through these masterclasses, the point was not to provide black and white answers for anyone, but to burn down what we knew, and build a framework around which to address these issues for ourselves more robustly," says Rahul. 

The idea for a masterclass in Carnatic music arose from the students themselves. Krishna and his students worked quite intensively, by having at least three rounds of one-on-one video calls and general sittings, before each session. And, from the very inception of the idea, the musician was clear that he will address both the aesthetic and the socio-political side of Carnatic music. That is the only way forward for conversations on his art practice, he says. “My politics comes from my art. The two cannot be disassociated for me. We need to have more conversations that do not have these boundaries. In India unfortunately, aesthetics is either treated in an esoteric fashion or just put down to taste and preference. We largely see art as a producer of emotional experiences and the socio-political as its scaffolding. We need to understand them as intertwined beings and engage with both realities with equal intensity.”


Parshathy J Nath

The author is a writer, theatre practitioner and a Carnatic music trainee