Song of Surrender

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Maestro as maverick

A rasika's thoughts on TM Krishna's A Southern Music

By PK Doraiswamy


(The portions in italics below are TMK’s views in his own words).

TMK’s book is weighty, wide-ranging in content, with superb command of English and almost audible passion. A few very insightful and debatable views have, therefore, been reproduced in his own words including, wherever possible, their rationale, sprinkled with the reviewer’s comments. The heart of this book lies in TMK’s perception that Carnatic music is pure art music, with unique aesthetics and intent. According to TMK, it should be the goal, and duty, of every Carnatic musician to understand, enjoy, abstract and convey these to the listener without distortion or dilution. This perception has, in turn, led to his firm conviction that most performing aspects of Carnatic music have today become unthinking and formulaic and need to be revisited and reinfused with aesthetic sensitivity. From this conviction flow most of his views.  The 27-essay book has three parts – experience, context and history.


Most chapters open with an almost epistemo-etymological analysis of the concept discussed, followed by a sedate description and a provocative critique.

Many of TMK’s views are insightful and non-controversial. Quite a few others may provoke debate, denial, dismissal and even shock and anger.

The first analysis is that of the concept of music and its aesthetics, going on to convention, tradition and sampradaya. Some of the noteworthy views expressed here are:

Musical aesthetics is the understanding of the intent, form and organization of sounds that impact our senses.

While this sounds ideal, what are the performance parameters by which to judge objectively whether a musician has understood the aesthetics and the intent or not? Do we allow for variation in understanding from one musician to another?

Tradition is a change that retains within it the essential threads that define the whole.

A subtle but vital point.

Is there any way to make society accept and rediscover the beauty of traditional forms instead of compromising with them to suit modern performance needs? Cleverness can build a dam and canals but not the river.

Tradition is not something to be destroyed but something to be built upon– ‘innovation without iconoclasm’.

Examining different genres of music—folk, film, namasankirtana, bhajan, harikatha, western pop and Carnatic—TMK says:

Different genres of music have different intents. Carnatic music is art music and its intent is to explore the abstract ideas of melody, rhythm and prosody, creating an aesthetic unit that is experienced holistically.

By what performance parameters are we to judge how well such an exploration and creation of a holistic aesthetic unit has been done by a musician, or is it left to the judgment of individual musicians and rasikas?

Creative freedom exists within the aesthetics of the basic art form which has elements of both the past and the present. Creativity, therefore, has both rights and responsibility.

In other words, kalpana is not musical anarchy but what Lalgudi termed ‘disciplined creativity’.

The fundamental components of Carnatic music are analysed in detail and critiqued sharply. Some insightful comments made here are:

In its totality, a raga is a combination of musical heritage, technical elements, emotional charge, cognitive understanding and aural identity.

This is a comprehensive checklist to evaluate a raga exposition. The inclusion of heritage is significant: the raga does not start with the musician; it is he who starts where heritage has placed it.

The music of many compositions has been reinterpreted irresponsibly leading to the original composer’s intent being completely lost.

Does he mean a misinterpretation of the dhatu itself, or that the bhava of the composition and the rasa the musician evokes do not always match?

Manodharma consists of two words – mano meaning one’s will and dharma meaning righteousness. This is a challenge to the musician’s ego – how much of it is he willing to give up to let the dharma lead the will.

Who or what should shine on the stage, the music or the musician?

A phrase in alapana or kalpana swaram, if it is true, generates the essential sound of a raga and should not be just a decibel unit. Improvisation born out of purely structural rules that are imposed on a raga lack the organic quality of creativity.

This is the heart and soul of true alapana.

In organically evolved ragas, the phrases have not evolved with the scale of the raga in mind. A linear step-by-step approach to such ragas has resulted in some cases in unnecessary stresses on regions and swaras of no relevance to the raga, leading to a loss of its aesthetic identity.

GNB’s alapanas were of the step-by-step kind but did the ragas lose their aesthetic identity? Is the fault, then, with the method or the musician?

Niraval is unique and valuable because it uses the creativity of the vaggeyakara to kindle that of the musician.

An original, insightful way of putting it.

The mrdanga provides a parallel layer to the experience of music. It gives every melodic movement a rhythmic counterpoint as well as a rhythmic casing.

This is what it should do, but what it is actually doing is described by TMK without mincing words later in the book. 

Kalpana swaras must be guided by the aesthetics of the raga and not the permutations and combinations possible from the bare swaras of the raga. Pre-rehearsed calculations treat raga aesthetics with scant respect. 

Ariyakudi, MDR, Semmangudi, Madurai Mani and GNB never depended on climactic korvais and yet ruled the stage.

Some of the following statements may be true in particular cases but as general propositions are debatable:

Over a period of time, the essential qualities of the music may yield to the prevailing listener environment.  In Carnatic music today, the format has compromised with aesthetics to satisfy performance needs.

The presentation of items in a strict prescribed order does not in any way contribute to the aesthetics of Carnatic music. If this format is dismantled and reworked, every piece can be presented with extensive manodharma and even in chauka kala.


This is perhaps the most controversial view expressed in the book. TMK has not explained specifically how the present format prevents a musician from contributing to the aesthetics.

The irony is that TMK himself has given outstanding performances within the existing format. It is a case of a highly skilful and successful workman quarrelling with the tools for unknown reasons! 

Many varnams and padams are far more complete art pieces than the kirtanas we present. As aesthetic presentations, they can be presented in any section of the main part of the concert and should be presented with alapana, niraval and kalpana swarams. 

A brilliant varnam will already have sufficient aakaaram between syllables like a niraval and after singing it in three speeds and singing a beautiful chitta swaram and ethukkadai swarams, separate niraval and kalpana swarams may sound relatively dull, tiresome and redundant.  

Does the violinist shadowing the vocalist actually enhance the aesthetics of the alapana, or are we conditioned to believe that it does? I see no reason why it is needed at all. 

The same view was expressed by Rangaramanuja Ayyangar in 1972.

It would be better if the vocalist presents an independent alapana of a raga, and the violinist alone presents an alapana of another raga in the course of the concert. 

This is worth a trial. In one of TMK’s concerts, he performed the alapana and the violinist the tanam. It was received well by the audience.

Over the last century, percussion styles have evolved based on personal technique, dexterity and intelligence, without reference to the aesthetics of the vocalist’s music. This results in the aesthetics of the music taking a back seat. The mrdanga vidwans have conditioned the vocalist to render certain kritis at a certain speed.

Many vocalists confess to this privately.

The dominance of mathematical calculations in kalpana swara is the direct influence of the percussionists. The applause is the musician’s bane. It is a drug, and an addictive one. Through the years, musicians have mastered the art of generating applause and trained and re-trained the audience in this direction. 

According to Rangaramanuja Ayyangar, lack of depth breeds a lack of self-confidence and a craving for applause.     

There is science in Carnatic music but if creative musical expression demands the scientific framework being bent, so be it. The reason for the existence of art music is music itself and not logic.  

Lakshana has always yielded to lakshya, as in anya swaras and visesha prayogas. 

There is some truth as well as some error in the perception that Carnatic music is too percussion-oriented. The melodic movements in Hindustani music flow without accents on every beat until the completion of the melodic line, which is always constructed to emphasise the first beat of the tala cycle the sam or sama. The Carnatic compositions clearly display the division in their melodic structure and in multiple places the syllabic and the melodic form is emphasised. This aesthetic makes it necessary that every beat in a tala be a clear division. At the same time, the divided beat approach has resulted in the mrdanga artists developing accompanying techniques based purely on the framework of the tala rather than the melody. This distortion has resulted in the mrdanga artist dictating the manodharma. 

Once when Palghat Mani was accompanying Ariyakudi on ‘viribhoni’ varnam, a rasika commented, “ We are listening to Mani Iyer’s viribhoni and not Ariyakudi’s “. 
TMK has strong views on the gender bias and bhakti orientation in the Carnatic music field:

A Carnatic musician’s training, repertory and musical practice necessarily includes music soaked in bhakti. Do I, as a musician, want to remove myself from this? Yes. I do. I seek bhakti, but to the aesthetics of the music and not to the names of Hindu gods and goddesses. 

If this is possible for TMK in spite of singing bhakti-laden kritis, it should be possible for others too.

Many compositions are chosen less for their aesthetic content than for the religious emotion it engenders or the philosophic content. This can make a katcheri look like an evangelical congregation. 

Dramatic and amusing to read, but surely an exaggeration? .

I also believe that, in due course, we should see if it is possible to engage with Carnatic music without the religious factor.  

By coincidence, the organisers of Tamil Isai movement in their first manifesto said almost the same thing: “ Songs need not always be tied to religion and praise of God. Why not sing about nature or social problems? ”.  Replacing the huge volume of historically evolved bhakti-based kritis, many of them brilliantly composed, with equally good secular compositions is a Herculean, perhaps unnecessary, task and very unlikely to happen.

Recently I heard Gurucharan singing beautifully  ‘silambosai ketkudamma ’ a song entirely about Tamil literature and culture in Saramati after an elaborate alapana ending with kalpana swarams. It is open to musicians of calibre to upgrade such kritis to the status of regular kritis.

The dominance of brahmins in the field of Carnatic music is a fact but TMK portrays this as something manoeuvred and conspiratorial. He, however, concedes that the community has served Carnatic music well:

Carnatic music has been dominated by the brahmin community both in the practice of the art and in audience composition. To believe that strong community support did not play a crucial role in Palghat Mani Iyer’s ascendancy would be naïve. Palani Subramaniam Pillai and Ramanathapuram Murugabhoopathy are two names always mentioned along with Mani Iyer’s. Yet it was Mani Iyer alone who is placed on a pedestal. This is not purely on musical or scholarship grounds. One of few devadasis who was able to create a niche for herself was Veenai Dhanammal. However, she was treated by the brahmin modernists as a storehouse of a bygone, exclusive music which did not seem to have a contemporary place, unless reinterpreted by the very same brahmins. The Tamil Isaai movement was also closely linked to caste equations. Brahmins lived by the Vedas and Sanskrit texts, non-brahmins lived by the various religious texts like tevaram. So caste and language were intertwined in this battle. With the creation of the katcheri based mostly on the kritis of the trinity all three brahmins in Sanskrit and Telegu, and the parallel marginalisation of the isai vellalars from the Carnatic story, the existing social divide deepened.

However, I would also like to acknowledge the tremendous support that individuals from the brahmin community have given to this art form. 


A friend once said in a lighter vein, “TMK is the Alfred Hitchcock of Carnatic music”. When asked to explain, he said, “AH was a master of suspense on the screen. TMK is a master of suspense on the music stage. There is always a suspense about whether he is going to start the concert with a varnam or a mangalam, whether he will sing a tillana next or a virutham, whether after an alapana he will sing a kriti in the same raga or a different one or not at all, and finally, when was he going to end his concert.” Another friend of mine called TMK the Kejriwal of Carnatic music: “Kejriwal wants to flout existing systems, waive water and power charges, claims he is an anarchist and expected his government to be toppled any time. TMK wants to dismantle existing practices like the cutcheri format and use of mike, wants his concerts to be free and once said that, by sticking to his convictions, he may go without an audience one of these days”. Once his comments on violinists and mrdangam players in the book are out, he may find it difficult to find accompanists! Jokes apart, there is no question that TMK is a musician of awesome talent, creativity and mastery. To this, the book now adds musical scholarship and an excellent command of English. TMK indirectly gives his own justification in the book for many of his  ‘idiosyncrasies ’. Enjoyment and evaluation of music will always be subjective, unless they relate to purely grammatical aspects like an apaswaram, a missed beat, being out of sruti, etc. It is impossible to logically prove such opinions right or wrong. Many of TMK’s views in this book are of this type. Rasikas conditioned by listening to their favourite musicians in traditionally formatted concerts may find some of his views strange, unacceptable and even anarchic. In fact, in the absence of specific performance parameters, one can turn round and ask TMK, “How do we know that YOU have understood the aesthetics of Carnatic music correctly?” Only those who approach music with the same degree of detachment and experience it with the same degree of intensity as TMK will understand his viewpoint even if they do not agree with him. But then TMK himself is not out to prove anything. For him, “This book is a search, not a destination; a quest, not an arrival; a musical voyage to see why I stand where I stand.”

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