Did vidwan TM Krishna's recent announcement of his withdrawal from performing during the Chennai December music season surprise anyone? It did not surprise me for one. I would have been startled if he had decided not to surprise us this year, as he has been doing every year for a while now.
If my memory serves me right, it all started with a coffee table book on Carnatic music he co-authored with Bombay Jayashri, followed by articles he began to contribute to the press, first on music (one on the discriminatory treatment meted out to women artists was one of his early forays into writing), and gradually on a variety of subjects social, political and arts-related.
Around the same time, the media reported that he would cycle everywhere during the music festival that year rather than add to the increased pollution of the period caused by increased traffic.
Later came his free cutcheris during the season, which the NRIs thronging the sabhas enjoyed in equal if not greater numbers than such of those locals as could not afford to pay.
And for quite some time now, almost all his concerts have had the surprise element built in-from the sequence and treatment of songs, raga alapana, tanam and so on to the nouveau-democratic seating arrangement on the dais.
In between, Krishna has envisioned and spearheaded several novel concepts and initiatives, including Margazhi Raagam, his cutcheri-as-movie with Bombay Jayashri, Samvada, a series of conversations between senior and junior vidwans he organised in collaboration with the archival institution Sampradaya, Svanubhava, an annual introduction to our arts for students, again initially partnering Jayashri, a revival of temple concert music, providing a platform for up-and-coming artists and One, an experimental film featuring Krishna singing a number of songs amidst nature without accompaniment.
Perhaps his largest, most ambitious endeavour so far has been his magnum opus on Carnatic music, which has won him accolades from such eminent personalities as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.
Through it all, Krishna has maintained if not enlarged his large fan base, even as a number of critics question the sweeping changes he has been attempting in the format of the Carnatic music cutcheri. They are equally skeptical of the merit of many of his pronouncements on his art and its politics as well as the motives behind these pronouncements.
His defenders find much to laud in his rich music and find nothing sacrosanct about the modern cutcheri paddhati invented and inspired by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar in the last century. They love Krishna's intensity and eyes-closed devotion to his music, and his empathy and synergy with his accompanying artists.
They have no quarrel with his verbal exchanges with his accompanists and the audience during his concerts. To them, it is all part of the total TMK package, while the critics find it distracting and disrespectful.
TMK's most recent announcement of his planned abstention from the concert platform during the December season in future, too, has drawn varied responses. Some diehard rasikas are protesting against it, pleading with him, even demanding that he must not deny them the pleasure of listening to him.
Others have expressed outrage at his allegations of casteism, commodification and corruption in the whole season scenario. Yet others have made jokes about it, indirectly questioning the motives behind his decision, accusing him of publicity-seeking gimmickry.
It was only the other day that this column had made tongue-in-cheek remarks about the tendency of our artists to linger as performers long after they have gone over the hill.
In sharp contrast, TM Krishna has chosen to retire too early, it seems, at least from December season concerts. What will be his next move? Will he shift his free concerts to other times of the year? More important still, will he, in addition to his splendid efforts to nurture Carnatic music, launch his own initiatives to attack the ills he has been criticising in his book and other writings?
All we can say with certainty is that there will never be a dull moment with TM Krishna around.