Trolling TM Krishna is self-defeating

TM Krishna (TM) was to have sung at a two-day SPIC-MACAY event at Nehru Park on November 17. One of the sponsors of the event was the Airports Authority of India (AAI), who enthusiastically tweeted out their invitation to his concert. This was retweeted by TM, and then a legion trolls who seem to track him for the express purpose of trolling him, spewed their venom on AAI, who buckled. The entire event was indefinitely postponed citing “pressing engagements” of an unspecified nature.

The Delhi Government stepped in and within a day and half arranged for him to perform at the Garden of Five Senses on the 17th. TM made it clear that if it had been a political party that had extended the new invitation, he would not have performed — there is a distinction between party and Government. Nonetheless what was to have been a simple Carnatic music concert in the park was now a quasi-political musical event in another park. I attended.

1. Trolling Krishna defeats the ‘purpose’ of trolls — in two ways.

Krishna has basically two types of trolls, with much overlap.

One set simply hate him for being political / ‘urban naxal’. They hate him for having thoughts on caste, the environment, freedom of expression, political Hindutva, on anything at all. Worse still, he dares to articulate these views fairly well. He should just ‘shut up and sing’.

The second lot also hate him — but the this hate has a different sort of baselessness. They accuse him of demeaning the hoary traditions of Carnatic music by not only singing Christian and Muslim songs, but by being insidious about it and altering the lyrics of famous compositions for the purpose. This is patently false — neither he or any other Carnatic musician has ever altered lyrics to Christianise or Islamicise them, nor does he have an insidious agenda of appropriating “Hindu” Carnatic music on behalf of non-Hindu prosletysation.

Krishna simply states that Carnatic music is an abstract art form, not a religious one — therefore one may be agnostic to the “content” of its lyrics — it may include paeans to Hindu, Christian or Muslim gods, may speak of love, may speak of the earth, may speak in classical Sanskrit, or Chennai Tamil, and remain Carnatic music. This is enough to anger his critics.

The worst aspersion in the book of his critics is that he sings without bhakti (of course there is no way they can determine this). He must therefore be a lost cause beyond all redemption. Deserving of scorn, contempt, malice and calumny.

Now by trolling the AAI, and converting a simple concert into a quasi-political event, the critics have simply defeated themselves. First, and most obviously, they converted a nondescript SPIC-MACAY Carnatic concert in the park into a a massive event that was only partly about music. TM’s voice was amplified about 100-fold entirely due to the cancellation. Everything became front page news at every stage — the cancellation, the new invitation being extended by the Delhi government and the concert itself — which was covered as a statement for free speech. TM is now bigger than ever in the capital.

Second, they ensured that “Carnatic music”, as they view it, was entirely distorted. At the beginning of the concert TM acknowledged that the “spirit” of the concert had altered over the past few days. And this was reflected in his repertoire — he said there would be a conscious effort on his part to reflect the diversity of India, both in terms of language and religion. If the ‘don’t corrupt Carnatic music’ trolls consider only vintage kritis to be Carnatic music, their trolling had a diametrically undercutting effect. There was only one piece they would have considered truly classical — Nadopasana in Begada by Thyagaraja. In fact there were only 2 other pieces that were also ‘pure Carnatic’— the ragamalika Poromboke Paadal and a Malayalam Shankarabharanam kriti on Jesus Christ. And perhaps Baro Krishnayya by Kannakadasa.

The rest of the concert was essentially a bhakti sangeet concert — including a multi-religious Sabarmati verse, a Basavanna vachana, an abhang, Dhono Dhonney Pushpey Bhora, a Kabir doha, Baro Krishnayya, a verse by Perumal Murugan, Vaishnava janato, Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram, two Islam pieces — one in Tamil in Behag and another Arabic one in Anandabhairavi. It was almost totally a bhakti medley.

Now there were two effects of this ‘altered spirit’. First, there were 3 Christian / Muslim pieces, 1–2 Perumal Murguan verses, and one majestic Poromboke Paadal (which is about the use of the commons and in Chennai Tamil). All these are what the “don’t tamper with Carnatic” critics would consider sacrilege. In a typical TM concert of recent vintage, there would have been just 1–2 pieces of such ‘sacrilege’. So the trolls have not only amplified his voice, but that voice has delivered more of what they don’t like.

2. ‘Krishna-gaanam’ is hear to stay

Second, to the extent that music was even central to the event, bhakti sangeet overpowered Carnatic music. This is actually detrimental to Carnatic music. It is obvious that TM has legion fans for whom their only knowledge of Carnatic music is TM’s music. His popularity does not transfer to the rest of Carnatic music. They are fans of ‘Krishna-gaanam’, not Carnatic music. There was ample evidence of this at the concert — I even heard a group behind me saying excitedly “cutie is here — he’s on stage”. So when trolls alter the spirit of an event with their mindless attempt at curbing TM, convert a concert into an event, and a Carnatic concert into a bhakti sangeet concert, most of who are there, exposed to Carnatic music for the first time, go away with the impression that all that Carnatic music has to offer is in fact bhakti sangeet, maybe with a few added gamakas.

3. The trolls could have enjoyed his concert

Ironically, what TM sings, he sings superlatively. So if his critics had indeed attended the concert they would have been moved and transported with his rendition of Baro Krishnayya or Tukharam’s abhang to Narayana. Whether he is singing with true bhakti (devotion)or not is so immaterial — he sings with immense bhaava (feeling).

4. One Thyagaraja piece is enough for the fans

About an hour or so into the concert, Krishna settled into an alapana of Begada raga, and sang Nadopasana, complete with swaras. As soon as it ended, much of the VIP section, who were there to make a statement on free speech, cleared out, as did about 15%-20% of the audience. A bemused Krishna even asked “Is it okay to sing?”. One ‘proper’ Carnatic piece it would seem, was enough for some of this crowd.

It was endearing to see Krishna attempt to squeeze in as much of Carnatic music as he could at this event that had morphed into a barely manageable beast of its own. There were delightful swaras in Bilahari at “dhim dhimmi…” in Baro Krishnayya. His Vaishnava Janato was sung almost entirely in a superb Suruti.

5. TM needs different Islam pieces

I have heard his Tamil Islamic piece in Behag before and did not think much of it. It was just too slow and repetitive. He should consider re-tuning it. Soon after he sang this piece, there was a crowd request for “Rasullullah” (I think that’s how it’s spelt). It turned out to be an Arabic song (as far as I could make out) and tuned in Anandabhairavi. It sounded quite jarring — of course it could simply be a matter of getting used to — but aesthetically, the language did not go with the idiom. It unfortunately sounded like a parody, without respect for either the lyrics or the music, much like when we as kids have tried to fit English lyrics to Carnatic music. It just sounds very strange. There is of course a history of such linguistic experiments —especially by M.S. Subbulakshmi — but it should cease on purely aesthetic grounds.

6. Poromboke paadal was the highlight for Mr. Kalyanaraman, and for me

There is an assumption that all Carnatic music followers are fairly close-minded, purist in the worst sense, and unsupporting of efforts by Krishna to consolidate the identity of Carnatic music as an abstract art form that it is, rather than just a more technical form of religious (Hindu) music. This is because like in most things, the loudest voices tend to be the most mindless and vitriolic.

In fact, the typical rasika is more like Mr. Kalyanaraman, who I walked with from the metro station to the venue. Now retired in Chennai, he grew up and worked in Delhi for most of his life. He is a casual listener of Carnatic music he says — doesn’t know much about ragas and all that — just enjoys the music. An amiable man, we hunted together for seats with line-of-sight to the stage behind ever shifting Great-walls-of-tripods, out in force to cover the event.

As I was about to leave after the Behag piece, there was a call out for a request from the audience. He assumed it was for Poromboke and got very excited, pulled my arm and told me to sit down. “Poromboke is coming, leave after that if you want”. It turned out to be the Arabic song, but it was indeed followed by Poromboke. He was thrilled by the rendition, and that was the highlight of the evening for him, as it was for me (along with Baro). It is as ‘classical’ as it gets, and set to music by the violinist that evening, R.K.Sriramkumar. It just happens to be about the environment, and in urban Tamil, and one of the first ‘secular’ songs that TM became known for. But Mr. Kalyanaraman was all for it. And he went home very pleased at having heard it live. As did I.

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Vishnu Vasudev

Vishnu Vasudev

I write mainly about my experience as a listener of Carnatic music.