T.M.Krishna – A Musician then, an Activist now!

So, T.M.Krishna (TMK) did manage to sing in Delhi yesterday, at the original appointed date though under a different aegis. Originally TMK’s concert was to be under the aegis of SPIC-MACAY and supported by Airports Authority of India (AAI). Quoting some bizarre reasons, AAI pulled out of the event and SPIC-MACAY had to cancel/re-schedule the show. It was clear that the reasons for the cancellation were not straight forward as they were professed. It was more to do with people from the Right wing trolling TMK for his views against the Central Government, his open rebellion against the Carnatic establishment, his open declaration to sing songs of other religions on Carnatic concerts and in general for going against the tide on many issues related to music and everything else.

As an ardent follower of Carnatic music, I have been following TMK for many years now. He is a talented singer and among the younger generation of singers, he is right at the top. I live in Mumbai and I usually don’t miss his concerts as long as they are in the weekends! While on stage, you can see through his passion and involvement in his music. Usually he is so consumed by his music, I wonder if he really sings for the audience or himself! His style of singing is very different. In Tamil, we say ‘Konjam izhu izhunnu izhuthu paadarathu’ (Stretch and stretch while singing) He doesn’t usually sing the very popular Kritis which people generally are familiar. He picks up not so familiar and tough Kritis and delves into them. And in the past few years, one can notice that he doesn’t stick to the established format of a Carnatic Kacheri. One can cite many examples but his rendition of the Kriti ‘Hiranmayim,…’ in Raga Lalitha or the more popular Krishna Nee Begane,… in Yaman Kalyani are samples of his talent and brilliance. In the current crop of singers, in my books he is right up there.  Watching him, his expressions and his way of communicating with his co-artists on stage itself is an enjoyable experience.

 Being a genius that he is, naturally he has got a big following among Carnatic music lovers. But, I see that something has changed. And this is not all of a sudden. As per me, it is since 2013 when his book on Carnatic music titled “A Southern Music – The Karnatik Story” got published. Till then, TMK was a gifted Carnatic musician but with the release of the book he also became an author and a controversial one at that. (Confession – I haven’t read the book yet and it is on my bucket list).  In the book, TMK kicked up quite a bit of storm questioning established thoughts and ideas on Carnatic music not leaving even the spelling and saying it is not Carnatic but “Karnatik”!!! In the run up to the release of the book and after, TMK started ruffling quite a few feathers!  And since then, I have been noticing that among the Carnatic followers, he has become a bit of enigma! An individual who is extremely talented in singing but who is a rebel and an eccentric!

True to his now established image of a rebel, TMK stopped singing in main line Sabhas during the very popular December “Season” in Chennai. He started a parallel forum called “Urur-Olcott Kuppam Festival” to take the Kacheri to slums of Chennai. TMK even kicked off “Kacheri on the move” in a moving bus in Chennai during the season – all in an attempt to take Carnatic music out of the Sabhas to the streets! Such initiatives soon earned him the Ramon Magsaysay Award early in his life in 2017 and as the citation claimed in recognition of “his forceful commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions”!  And also a bunch of critics! Still, he went about his mission of breaking the class divide that exists in Carnatic music by collaborating with transgender community on stage in his Kacheris, setting Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s lines to Carnatic music and singing them in his concerts and so on!

In the meantime, I observed that TMK also started articulating his thoughts on matters outside the music domain as well. He started taking up issues related to environment strongly. His ‘Porambokku paadal’ music video was an initiative to use music to highlight the environmental damage done by the Ennore Power plant. Soon, we started seeing him being part of many other issues like taking on Hindustan Unilever against dumping toxic Mercury in Kodaikanal,… He is now a regular columnist and the topics are not restricted just to music. He is a strident critic of the present Modi Government and anything to do with Right wing!

Now in my known Carnatic fans circle, I see a sea change in their outlook and attitude towards TMK and his music. He is no longer the genius he was a few years ago in their eyes when he just limited himself to Carnatic music. He is today labelled a leftist, Naxal supporter and a publicity seeker! He is today accused of raking up issues which is not his domain just to stay in limelight!

I am not hence surprised that TMK is subject to constant trolling on Social media.  Even his erstwhile fans are calling to boycott his concerts as he is a “gone case” as per them! This is where I have a big problem. As I mentioned before, I am an unapologetic admirer of his craft. I am in agreement with some of his thoughts and ideas. I don’t agree with him on many counts. His take on M.S.Subbulakshmi for example, I thought was a lot of conjecturing. Yet, I have no problem in listening to his music. When I listen to his music, I don’t think of his views on Indian politics or Narendra Modi!

There could be a happy ending here! By constantly trolling him, the right wingers and others are in the verge of achieving something that the Carnatic aficionados haven’t been able to, all these years – That of taking Carnatic music beyond the ears of just South Indians! I heard that TMK had a full house in Delhi yesterday at the concert with people even standing for full two hours to listen to his music! And If I go by the tweets with #TMKrishna, I can make out that many probably went to a Carnatic concert for the 1st time in Delhi yesterday and came out intrigued by the form of music!

Today, Thodur Madabusi Krishna might have turned an activist. But he is a musician first. And an extraordinary one at that. So, my appeal to fellow Carnatic followers is, if you don’t like his views, ignore them! But, leave him alone. But, it doesn’t make any sense to call for a ban on his singing! Lest, Music’s loss could become some political party’s gain!

Image courtesy: India Today

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“Notes” from the “Season”!!!

For long as I remember Chennai or for the romantics – Madras had 2 seasons – Summer (for almost 340 days) and the “Music Season” for a month straddling December and January.  But since the 90’s, “Season” has come to mean the Music Season and is quietly giving Chennai its place under the Sun due to its uniqueness and unparalleled virtues in the entire globe.  The last time I was in Madras during the Season was I think in the late 80’s before the evolution happened. So when I got an opportunity this time over to be in Madras last week, though just for a couple of days, I was excited and was keen to record for myself the notes emanating from the streets, sabhas, well practically from all over!

I don’t think there is any other geography in the world where there is such a confluence of artists and their music as in Madras during the Season. Such is the carpet bombing of concerts of artists of varying hue that one is spoilt for choice.  Since I was there only for 2 days I didn’t face that problem and had to pick up from what was available on the calendar. Which is made simple these days with the many “Season apps” on your smart phones where you can search by date, time and the artist. So there I was on the 1st day of the New Year at the Music Academy at 9.00 am for the 1st programme of 2015 (surprisingly Free Entry) – A Flute recital by Shashank another child prodigy of our times.

Academy

While I leave it to the musically erudite to write about the nuances of the Gambira Vani ragam and Evari Mata Kriti,..,… he played that day, let me stick to the interesting things happening around the Season itself.

The Season is unique in many ways. One shouldn’t be surprised if

  • you get to see a packed house at 9.00 am on the New Year day that too for a typical old world Classical music programme!!!
  • in what has become a sponsor driven entertainment industry, you see a clean stage as I saw that day at the Academy without any ugly sponsor branding elements
  • outside the concert hall, you see somebody talking loudly (no surprises here 😉 ) on the mobile phone about the gradations in the rendition of O Ranga Sayi in Kamboji raga by so and so artist which he just heard
  • you see an elderly wishing well – (Nanna Varuve) to a young lad may be all of 10 who would have just finished his concert ofcourse in the morning slot
  • you catch many young things taking notes assiduously while the concert is going on and discussing among themselves in what beat the song was played or such technical stuff in between the programme yes mostly in Yankee accent 😄
  • the mama sitting ahead of you rudely turns around and scoffs at you, “We have come to hear his music and not yours” 😒.  This is when you slightly got carried away by the performance and started humming along in your lesser mortal voice!
  • you see elderly men during the concerts displaying emotions as if they achieved multiple orgasms 😃 😃
  • mobile phones don’t ring at all during a 2 hour concert or you don’t get to see people talking on the phone during the programme like we are used to in movie halls!!!
  • the person sitting next to you appears to be in deep slumber but wakes up at the right times to clap his hands to express his appreciation 😃
  • you repeatedly hear words like Baley Baley and Besh BeshTamil words which have otherwise disappeared from everyday lingo
  • you heard that folks attend concerts not just for the taste of music but also for that of the food served at the Sabha canteens. So don’t be surprised also if you see ads in newspapers prominently displaying the name of the caterers alongside the day’s programme during the Season. Caterers like Pattappa (Padmanabhan at the Academy) and “Mountbatten Mani” (what a name 🙂 ) have become brands in their own right.
  • you observe the sabha canteen food getting discussed and also reviewed in the magazines doing the Season beat. “The Canteen Kaapi was better than the Kaapi (ragam) rendered by the singer” was a popular line of late music critic and sharp wit Suppudu. Today don’t be amused if you hear – “innikku kacherila rasamey illa” (No rasam in today’s concert). It could very well be about the canteen menu rather than the concert 😃 😃
  • you mistook a concert hall to be a godown of silk saree clad mannequins 😃. For, in these days of Televised concerts (Marghazhi Maha Utsavam in Jaya TV, Chennaiyil Thiruvaiyaru in Vijay TV,…) mainly sponsored by Silk Saree vendors is it a crime if you want to look good on camera and where the programme is beamed across continents???
  • the media completely misses the mass “Gharwapsi” which happens every year in Chennai during the Season!  I’m talking of the visiting NRIs, PIOs, Pravasis and what have you who religiously come back to their roots in Chennai to revel in the Season’s proceedings. In the process also fill up all the hotels, service apartments,.. in and around the music catchment area!
  • you happen to catch bureaucrats, police officers,.. who are otherwise stiff necked wearing a relaxed look in Veshtis occupying front rows in sabhas and catching up with the latest in music!
  • the hardcore Carnatic music notes which hitherto heard only within the hallowed walls of sabhas like the Music Academy, Narada Gana Sabha,.. are now heard even in slums that too during the Season. Yes, in an attempt to take the Carnatic music outside the ring of a certain elite – few musicians like T.M.Krishna, Unnikrishnan,.. have for the 1st time come together to stage concerts in and around areas where fisherfolk live. Read more about this novel effort – Urur-Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Festival here.

Carnatic music has not transcended class barriers” has been a refrain of many including musicians like T.M.Krishna. I don’t think this was result of some grand Design or for that matter by Default. It could be due to plain exposure or lack of it. In that sense the global awareness of the Season thanks to the NRIs on the one side and taking the “Season to seashore” as in Urur-Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Festival on the other side could help in transcending all barriers I feel or so one hopes. In fact this was the dream of one of India’s finest filmmakers K.Balachander (KB) who in one of his many hit films – Sindhu Bhairavi weaved this thought of taking Carnatic music to the masses. KB who passed away few weeks ago must be a happy man to see his dream taking actual shape.

On that note,”Season’s Greetings” and until the next Season, have an awesome year 🎵🎵

111204-Sunday Mag-Chennai Music season Toon Credit:Keshav

Mandolin loses its “Middle C” 😢

It’s about 10 days now since music lost one of its great ambassadors – Uppalapu Shrinivas and we, a musical genius. In these times of 24*7 news churning, the sudden, untimely demise of Shrinivas has already moved out of the headlines. In the last one week, “Modi” has submerged the sounds of the “ManDOlIn”. That the King of Mandolin is not around anymore has still not sunk in me which explains this rather late obit piece – a very basic attempt to keep his memory alive by an ordinary remote rasika.

I don’t have to crank my memory hard to recall the first time I heard Shrinivas live. It was around the year 78-79 in Trichy. He was may be all of 10 years and had come to play as part of the Kumbabishekam celebrations of the majestic Rock fort temple there. In that one week long festival there were music, dance and drama programmes every evening. Giving him august company were veterans like Thiruvizha Jayashankar (Nadaswaram) and the late Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan (Violin). I had just read about this young kid who was making waves in the Carnatic circuit in Madras and wherever he went. I am not sure but may be that was his first major concert in Trichy. The memories I have is of a boy clad in spotless white Kurta and Pyjama with a paal vadiyum mugam (extremely innocent face) taking the stage with an instrument resembling an electric guitar which later I was told was a mandolin. Till then I never had seen a mandolin or for that matter a western instrument being used to play classical Carnatic music. Little did I realize then that it was just the beginning of many a ground breaking things this lad was going to accomplish. His dad was there right behind him helping him with the sruti (sur) and also with the much needed energy boosters from a thermos flask.  Every now and then as his little fingers swayed with effortless ease on the strings, he used to see his dad’s face as if seeking for some kind of approval or encouragement.  Which his dad provided with an appreciating smile.  On the other side the crowd started gathering in huge numbers and with every kriti/ piece he played, accorded the approval and appreciation with raucous applause. After every piece he used to do a big Namaste to the crowd, constantly reminding us of his humble upbringing. The ‘Chinnanchiru kiliye’ piece of Bharathiyar which he played at the end of the programme still resonates in my ears.  That day it signalled to me the arrival of a ‘Chinnanchiru’ genius on the music scene whom I started following very closely though from a distance.

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After that, I listened to him live in few more programmes and saw him grow taller rapidly, in musical stature that is. Accolades followed. Appreciation from fellow but senior musicians like Dr.Balamuralikrishna, Dr.T.K. Murthy (he famously removed his ring and put it on Shrinivas’s finger in the midst of a programme in which he was accompanying Shrinivas on the mridangam),… ensued.  As I moved out of Trichy for higher educational pursuits, opportunities to witness his concerts became rare. And there came the audio cassette albums and CD labels to the rescue to be in touch with his musical notes.  From “Mandolin Solo” to “Shrinivas Vs Shrinivas” to “Mandoin Trio” and his “fusion experiments” my cupboard craved for more and more space to store his releases.  By now Shrinivas to Mandolin became akin to Xerox in photocopiers. Mandolin = Shrinivas and vice versa.

The last I saw him live was in Mumbai couple of years ago and that too in a rare programme with Shankar Mahadevan, Vikku Vinayagaram and Sivamani.  He still looked the next door lad. But the way he played the mandolin was as if the instrument was a lifelong slave of him. He kept smiling at his co-artists but this time without any need to seek their approval. On the other hand it was Shankar who was falling at Shrinivas’ feet (in jest though) trying to match his artistry with the fingers with his own vocal chords.  From a higher octave to lower octave, music was just flowing. In Mumbai I keep ruing the fact that most of the classical concerts happen in week days making it difficult to make it.  But this programme happened on a weekend and today I am glad that I got to attend this one.

In one of his interviews very early as a kid a shy Shrinivas said that Bahudari was his favourite ragam.  I am not sure if it remained his most favourite till that fatal lever failure consumed his life.  In that most famous piece in Bahudari“Brova Barama Raghurama”Thyagaraja asks Lord Rama“Will protecting this frail Thyagaraja prove an intolerable burden on you and tax you???” I’m wondering if as fans we should have asked this to the Almighty many times over about Shrinivas. May be he would have been with us today.

As a prodigy in the strictest definition of that term, Shrinivas was never late in arriving at the musical scene. But in life, it is numbing to realize that he became “late” so early in life leaving an empty space in the hearts of his well-wishers. If I say that with his untimely demise, Mandolin has lost its “Middle C” and Carnatic music its “Adhara Shadja” it may be termed as gross exaggeration. But the feeling is one of that. Prayers for his soul to Rest In Peace. And his music to continue reverberating.

Listen to Shrinivas’s “Entharo Mahanubavulu”here.