First published in The Bengal Post
“I’m coming back from a long walk. I went to the temple after years. You know me, I rarely do,” the leading Carnatic vocalist said. He had left a concert halfway to do that. He had gone to pray for the future of Carnatic music, he said, appalled by the vocal atrocities perpetrated by the gifted young performer of the evening. “What shocked me was that people who should know better, musicians and rasikas alike, were obviously enjoying this insult to classical music,” he explained.
In his jeans and tee shirt, slim, youthful TM Krishna hardly looked the part, but he is among the strongest champions of tradition in his art. And he is outspoken about it, sometimes needlessly so, his well wishers feel. In matters concerning music, he tends to wear his heart on his sleeve, though he is also a cerebral musician with a penchant for research into the history and grammar of Carnatic music. For someone still in his thirties, Krishna is quite a veteran on the concert stage, a star, to go by his constantly growing fan following.
Krishna has used his star status to propagate the core values he believes in, for example, refusing to heed requests from audiences overseas for lighter pieces even if those were made popular by the stalwarts of yesteryear. Yet, within the confines of tradition, he does every now and then shock his audience by charting some unorthodox paths in concert rendition. And woe betide the critic who dare fault his approach, for Krishna can demolish such criticism quoting chapter and verse.
For someone with such strong views on the undesirability of tinkering with tradition, Krishna is acutely conscious of the need to take Carnatic music far and wide, to build a future constituency of listeners. Along with another stellar exponent of south Indian classical music, Bombay Jayashri (40), he has forged an unusual but effective team that has achieved remarkable progress in this objective.
Jayashri is a top ranking classical vocalist, with an unusual past—she started as a participant in college culturals and a singer of advertising jingles in Bombay—which explains the prefix to her name, an old Carnatic music convention. She kept honing her classical music skills alongside, until she moved to Chennai, came under the tutelage of violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman, and eventually made it big with her reverberant voice. Like Krishna, she too has a mind of her own, and treads an independent path, deliberately restricting her appearances in the Chennai concert circuit, for instance. Her interviews with the media can spring some unexpected gems. Example, her confession that she listens to Mehdi Hasan, Asha Bhonsle or Mohammad Rafi more often than the old masters of Carnatic music, or that her bhakti is to her music rather than the god she sings of.
One of the ventures in which the two have come together, Svanubhava, is in its third year, and growing every year. It is a three-day annual extravaganza of concerts, lec-dems, quizzes and workshops for students, conducted at a number of venues, including schools and colleges, where the participation has been extremely encouraging, and the level of discourse of a high order. The programme also attempts to bring practitioners of different performing arts on to a common platform. This year folk, theatre and cinema artists joined classical musicians and dancers.
Remarkably, Krishna and Jayashri have both attracted listeners from outside the usual Carnatic music circles, both in India and abroad. While Jayashri has occasionally taken part in experiments with Hindustani musicians, Krishna has stuck to the medium he knows best, insisting that the audience must accept his music in its authentic form. With Margazhi Ragam, a full-length movie of a Carnatic music concert released last year, they helped director Jayendra create a new art form, achieving a quality of acoustics and stage aesthetics hitherto unattained in the field.
Given their relative youth, they both seem headed for greatness in the decades to come.