T. M. KRISHNA  -- Balancing tradition and modernity

An interview by Geetha Iyengar

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“It’s cool to listen to Carnatic music”, says T. M. Krishna when asked whether Carnatic music and young people gel well these days. Krishna, dressed in black shorts and T-shirt could pass for a typical example of Generation Next – but with a difference. On stage, he is a totally different person, extremely dignified in a kurta and veshti with the “namam” on his forehead as he puts out his best at each performance and is exactly what he says young people could stand for - an ability to be traditional and yet be one with the times. Very articulate and clear in his mind about his priorities and what he wants in life, this charismatic young man shares his thoughts about life, work and his opinions about the world of Carnatic music. It’s a charming family with Krishna’s mother warmly welcoming me, daughter Arya asking what brought me here and little Ananta sleeping peacefully in the crib nearby as I get to know him and share the experience with our rasikas.

Tell us a bit about your family background.

I come from a family of businessmen and I am the first professional musician in the family. My paternal grandmother was a rasika and patron of music. My mother was good in music and learnt from Shri. B. Seetharama Sharma. Watching her sing kindled an interest in me and I started at the age of 6. My first performance was at the age of 12. My father was perhaps the first ardent fan of Mandolin Srinivas and I remember a funny incident when he gate crashed to a wedding reception just to hear him play! There was never any compulsion from my parents to get into the grooves a lot of youngsters get into and they let me do what I liked. I chose to make music my profession ad I have never regretted it. My wife is also a musician and we have two daughters, Arya and Ananta.

Who has been the inspiration in your life as a musician?

The musicians of the 40s and 50s like Ariyakudi, Musiri and Semmangudi mama. Listening to their tapes, I have tried to imbibe those cardinal qualities that made them outstanding in this art.

Does a penchant for music have anything to do with genes or is a musician made?

I suppose genetics does play a role but it has to be supported by environment or background. Just genes won’t produce this interest. The ethos in which you grow up is a very positive factor.

You are described as a singer who stays clear of gimmicks . Would you label yourself as a purist?

Call it purist or whatever but the fact is I am a staunch believer in tradition. Tradition is dynamic, not static. Being purist doesn’t mean you don’t check out other ragas or stifle creativity. Tradition draws a boundary and gives you full freedom to do whatever you want within that framework. Often it is said the artiste gives the audience what it wants. On the contrary you have to decide what to give and so you set the benchmark for yourself.

Ever thought of dabbling in film music?

Frankly I have never even given it a thought and personally I have never given it any significance. Many top musicians have entered the field of music for films and I don’t think it affects their performance or attitude to Carnatic music. It seems to be a myth that the quality of the music deteriorates with an exposure to film music. If an artiste is very strong in music, irrespective of his dabbling in other forms of music his performance as a Carnatic musician will not be affected. 

What was it like to perform during your recent trip to US?

Performing in the US and Chennai is the same. It seems no different and you could well imagine it to be a Mylapore audience except that geographically it is not so. The audience there is as savvy and interested as it is here. No doubt it was a good experience.

You were the Isai Peroli last year. How did you feel and what next?

Great! An award is an incentive. It should make you work harder. It sure creates an immense feeling of satisfaction and is certainly a strong impetus to move forward. 

You were associated with YACM. Tell us about it.

YACM (Youth Association for Classical Music) is the brainchild of Vijay Siva, Unnikrishnan, R. K. Shriramkumar, Anand Siva, K. R. Subramania, B. Kannan and many others. It was founded in 1985. It is a movement to create an awareness and interest in Carnatic music among youth. And the striking thing is that it gave an opportunity for young musicians to perform whereas it had always been that the stalwarts and senior musicians were the only ones to take to the stage. There came a group of young musicians and Unnikrishnan, Bombay Jayshree and others got their breaks in their careers here.

I got involved in YACM in 1992 and was on the committee for 4 years and president for another 4 years between 1992 and 2000. This movement was a renaissance of Carnatic music and a turning point in the field of music as young artistes were able to perform too and gain acceptance as time went by. The "Build a Rasika" program was a very innovative idea of Vijay Siva and it widened the reach of Carnatic music.

The general observation is that the audience is always older folk. Any comments?

I think there is a sea change now and many young people are into appreciating music. It needs a certain maturity to appreciate classical music. Appreciation comes with maturity which is emotional and intellectual maturity.

Your advice to the youth?

Success doesn’t come easily. Work hard, hard, hard! Don’t be in a rush. Cultivate a balance. There are more opportunities now than ever before. The earlier artistes such as Ariyakkudi went through the whole cycle and then reached the top. There is no easy way to good music. It requires sadhana – and lots of it. Don’t forget, “It’s cool to listen to Carnatic music!”

Do you think music is getting commercialized?

What is wrong with commercialism? Unless music is rewarding enough as a career who will take to it? Let us be clear - it is not commercialism at the cost of quality and commitment. Music cannot be a passion for the sake of charity alone. Bhakti is no doubt an important element but nothing stops a musician from getting the returns he should and if he does not, then art is degraded. Unless we make it attractive enough for a musician he loses interest and cannot give it his all to rise to any level of greatness.

What is behind the "crowd pullers" and rave reviews? Are they good parameters to judge a performance?

Quality sustains, quality lives. If an artist starts worrying about these two reactions then his performance will suffer. The great names in Carnatic music stood their ground for many years and they performed till they were 65 plus sometimes. Their single-point aim was to give their best and all else would follow.  They followed this cardinal principle of our philosophy and that explains their eminence.

Geetha Iyengar.

Photo Courtesy: www.tmkrishna.com

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