Two Carnatic masters in Bandra

Vishnu Vasudev
17 min readNov 4, 2017


In the past couple of months, I’ve been lucky enough to attend concerts by two top Carnatic vocalists — TM Krishna and Sanjay Subrahmanyam — at the St. Andrew’s auditorium in Bandra, Mumbai. Both were organised by First Edition Arts (FEA), which also produces beautiful videos of their concerts and hosts them on YouTube. These are my impressions of the concerts.

The setting, the crowd, and the artistes’ approach to the audience

Krishna’s concert, the earlier of the two, was billed as “the Essential TM Krishna”. Sanjay sang as part of a two-day Hindustani-Carnatic event called, somewhat blandly, “Crossroads”. He headlined the first day’s double-header. Clearly, as far as FEA went, Krishna was a brand in himself, while they were still getting to know Sanjay as a marketable entity, not withstanding his stature in the Carnatic world.

The Krishna brand of course spills out of the concert hall, even if this public identity is anchored in his music. He is now well known as an activist with democratizing and progressive instincts, speaking (or singing) up on issues such as the environment, privacy, the need for a progressive Uniform Civil Code, and caste.

The attraction of the brand played out in both the make-up and size of the Bandra crowd that turned out to listen to him and equally to be seen listening to him. Many of who may be considered Bandra intelligentsia were there — journalists, editors, movie makers, thinkers, development professionals and what not. The one family I spotted, kids and all, who looked like they were there for the opportunity to listen to ‘their’ Carnatic music was conspicuous in the corner. The foyer was abuzz with chatter, the auditorium packed, each self-deprecating joke from Krishna appreciated with obliging laughter, and each song thunderously applauded.

I did not spot any of them at Sanjay’s concert. The crowd was middling to sparse. The buzz non-existent. Vocal appreciations of “shabhash” and “bale”, and taala-thigh-clapping, however, could be heard. Those who were there were less intelligentsia, and more professionals. Tucked in shirts as against unironed kurtas. Both Krishna and Sanjay received standing ovations (though in the absence of an encore culture, it is difficult to gauge whether that’s just the first step to getting out the door quickly).

That fewer people turn up for Sanjay’s concerts in Bandra is not Krishna’s fault. If there is anyone who consciously works to widen the reach of Carnatic music, it is Krishna. But it does seem like a long haul before Krishna’s popularity is transferred to Carnatic music. There are hordes of fans of the late Balamuralikrishna, who swear they are fans of “Murali-gaanam”, rather than Carnatic music. But their fealty to him is based on the uniqueness of his music. It is very likely that there will be a legion of “Krishna-gaanam” fans. But not because of the uniqueness of his music (after all, how would they know, if they do not hear what else is on offer), but because of what Krishna represents in the public sphere.

Having said that, Krishna makes an effort to make the Carnatic music he sings more accessible to new comers. He invariably (against his instinct to let the music speak for itself) says a bit about the songs that he sings — the raga, the composer, what is special about the piece. Carnatic music can be very intimidating to the new comer, and such information can go a long way in making it more welcoming.

Sanjay, like most Carnatic musicians, sings without any such announcements (unless it is a particularly “rare” raga). He doesn’t have to go the whole hog, but when in a non-traditional setting (e.g. a concert in Bandra), simply stating the raga name after the song has been sung could go some distance in bringing more into the fold. The truly interested first-time listener could go back home and google the name of the raga that she found particularly pleasing and begin her Carnatic journey from there.

Stage dynamics

One of the many performance aspects of Carnatic music that Krishna has been experimenting with is how the various artistes that form a vocal music ensemble are positioned on stage. There are typically four-six people on stage in a vocal concert — voice, violin, mridangam, secondary percussion (typically ghatam or kanjira), and zero (when an electronic tanpura / iphone tanpura app is being used) to two tamburas.

The typical stage set up is sketched out below:

Standard stage configuration for a Carnatic vocal concert

Sanjay’s stage in Bandra typified this standard configuration:

Sanjay Subrahmanyam and team in Bandra — standard stage configuration

Krishna’s main innovation in stage positioning is to share the central space of the stage with as many musicians as he can. When there is no secondary percussion, as is often the case, his stage looks like this:

TM Krishna — stage configuration without secondary percussion

As you can see, rather than sitting at right angles from the voice, the violin and mridangam form a gentle arc with voice at centre.

The variance with the standard configuration when there is secondary percussion is even more stark:

TM Krishna- stage configuration with secondary percussion

You can see that the ghatam player has been dramatically rescued from the dark recesses of the stage and brought up front, to where the violinist would have been in the standard format.

The motivation for these changes is simple — to be more reflective of the team work that a successful concert entails, with each contributor being accorded deserved respect. Especially for a kanjira or ghatam player, this could make a huge difference to their confidence and psyche. After decades of conditioning as “secondary” contributors, it is a clear signal that their contributions are valued. I don’t think the changes have as much of an impact on the way violinists or mridangists see themselves — they know that they are more or less indispensable. I am all for this kind of thinking and experimentation.

In Bandra, however, this seemingly cosmetic change left me cold. For two reasons. First, rather than sitting side by side, Akkarai Subbulakshmi (violin)and Krishna were in fact sitting in a slight ‘V’:

TM Krishna configuration in Bandra, with Kanjira as secondary percussion

This slight V may have been necessitated by space constraints — sitting comfortable side by side may simply have not been possible. Or, it could have been a subconscious angling to enable eye contact between the vocalist and the violinist — which is very natural in Carnatic music. The advantage of the standard “right-angle” formation with vocalist at the centre is that he can easily make eye contact and engage his two primary accompanists — the violin and the mridangam. It would be very difficult to do that sitting side by side with the violinist. Whatever the reason for the angle, I at times felt completely excluded from proceedings, especially since my seat was some rows back toward the middle of the auditorium. It often felt like Krishna was singing primarily to his violinist, to the exclusion of virtually anyone else. I was surprised by this effect, but this feeling of exclusion, however subtle and subconscious, changed the dynamic of the experience a very real manner.

Second, there was a clear dissonance between the new configuration and the musical dynamic between the artists. “There are no secondary musicians on this stage” is the message Krishna wants to send with the new configuration. This statement is patently false at a TM Krishna concert, more than any other current Carnatic maestro. The evening was billed “The Essential T.M. Krishna”, not “The Essential T.M. Krishna, Akkarai Subbulakshmi, Manoj Siva and Anirudh Athreya”. At a TM Krishna concert Krishna is numero uno — he knows it, his accompanists certainly know it, and willy-nilly, it shows.

Krishna has been experimenting with his music and the concert playbook for a few years now. This is a fully legitimate enterprise that he must undertake to be able to perform with integrity. The side-effect though is a clear sidelining of his accompanists. Part of this is purely musical and cannot be avoided — the slowing down of his renditions means that percussion has a smaller role to play in the general scheme of things (though he will likely disagree with this assessment).

The other part though is entirely inflicted by Krishna. In the standard concert, accompanists know exactly where they stand — when they can and should take centre stage, when they have a major contributory role, and when they are truly secondary. This allows them to shine with confidence. Let’s take two standard concert protocols to see how they are transformed at a Krishna concert. One is alapana (free improvisation of a raga). In the standard format, if the vocalist goes into a substantial raga alapana, the violinist follows with a shorter, but no less expansive version, for about 2/3 of the time of the vocalist’s alapana . In many instances, the violinist can even outshine the main artist (since they could pack in as much musically in a shorter duration)and is duly applauded. Often a good violin alapana will build off the vocalist’s rendition. At a Krishna concert, all of this goes for a toss. He may start an alapana in one raga and end up singing three other ragas (as he did in Bandra), leaving the violinist entirely confused about her role. Does she build on the first raga, develop an entirely different raga, or just stay quiet? The alapana also yo-yos back and forth between the two at a Krishna concert. Instead of the violinist having a clear “second-slot” to develop a raga, Krishna can come in at any point and take it back from her, presumably because he is feeling inspired in the moment. The violinist may see such behavior as a compliment, but in her shoes, I’d be annoyed at not having had the chance to see my musical idea through myself. Krishna, perhaps aware of this, tries to compensate, by conspicuously asking the violinist to take centre stage in the improvisation section. At this concert for example, after a brief dilineation of Khamas, he coaxed Subbulakshmi into playing a tanam in Khamas, before the song. So he shone the spotlight on her, but it came across as distinctly patronising. What if she wanted to play an alapana? This Khamas taanam ended up being the only significant piece of improvisation from the violinist in the entire three-hour concert.

Another standard element of a Carnatic concert is the ‘tani-avarthanam’ or percussion ‘solo’ by the percussionists. At the Krishna concert, after a certain song, he indicated to the percussionists that it was time for the tani. They began, but in what seemed like barely a minute, he pushed them into a “korvai” — a precomposed rhythmic pattern that indicates the end of a tani. So that was the end of that. Then, perhaps by way of compensation, he announced the piece that was going to follow, and said “and then I will hope to hear more from Manoj and Anirudh”. Again, patronising. Once they had started, I was hoping to hear more from them now, not later. And a tani is standard practice, not something bestowed by the vocalist. Perhaps the comment was for the Bandra crowd that does not know what a tani is, but it sounded bizarre. Carnatic music just does have space for a “conductor”. And when the second tani came around, it was slightly longer, but Krishna again shepherded them into a premature korvai. So we got two very curtailed tanis instead of one fully developed one. This had nothing to do with time constraints and entirely to do with whimsy.

Neyveli Venkatesh and Varadarajan, playing the mridangam and violin at Sanjay’s concert were excellent on the day and got to meaningfully contribute to proceedings throughout the duration of the concert. Their impact on, and therefore standing in the concert was easily twice that of Manoj Siva and Akkarai Subbulakshmi. At the end of the day, if you were listening to rather than watching the concerts, and were to judge which accompanying cast had been accorded greater respect (musically speaking), the answer would be crystal clear. Sanjay may have occupied the central space, but Krishna was unequivocally centre-stage.

What about Rajaganesh, the kanjira player sitting in the corner of Sanjay’s stage? He was completely overshadowed and overlooked. If he had been seated up front, could that have made a difference? Maybe, but I doubt it. The secondary percussionist’s role in a Carnatic concert is largely determined by the mridangam player. He can choose to operate in one of three modes and the kanjira / ghatam player has to follow:

Percussion modes in Carnatic music

Sanjay’s concert operated in a very dominant mridangam mode, leaving very little space for Rajaganesh. There are other kanjira and ghatam players past and present who operated very much in the ‘balanced’ mode with mridangam players and had an equal role to play, even though they did sit in the corner of the stage. Ramnad Raghavan was a particularly sharing mridangist, and in his many concerts with V. Nagarajan as kanjira player, the kanjira has a strong presence. Recordings of Gurvayur Dorai (Mridangam) and Vaikom Gopalakrishnan (ghatam) show a largely equal partnership. Percussionists like Harishankar (kanjira) and Vikku Vinayakaram (ghatam) found a way to make their presence felt regardless of who was on the mridangam and where they sat.

It would seem that the respect accorded to accompanying artistes have very little to do with where they sit and everything to do with the freedom they are allowed to express themselves.

Finally, if respectful seating configuration is important to Krishna, I offer the following suggestion:

Proposed seating arrangement for TM Krishna

This arrangement (subject to platform space) would allow him to engage the violinist without having to angle away from the audience. Also, if dignity is bestowed by stage position, the tambura player deserves a seat at the table. Finally, it also has an advantage over the standard configuration — the secondary percussionist who typically interacts a lot with the violinist will have a direct line of sight to them, rather than being blocked by the vocalist.

The music

The music at Sanjay’s concert left me fully sated, content and buzzing. I had high expectations and they were met. It’s like spending a whole day playing a sport you love — it feels very familiar, but there is always a new twist in that particular experience of it. He started with a varnam in Kalyani. We had Sahana, Reetigowla, Khamas, Neelambari, Mohanam. All through we had significant doses of improvisation, sometimes neraval, sometimes swaras, occassionally both, with Mohanam being given an extensive alapana treatment, but no post-krithi improvisation. He took up a ragam-tanam-pallavi (RTP)in the raga Kalyanavasantham. The ragamalika swara section of the was absolutely brilliantly executed. He chose three Hindustani ragas, each of which has a Carnatic cousin. Durga (Suddha Saveri in Carnatic music), Jog (Nattai) and Bhairavi (Sindhubhairavi). It was thrilling to realize thrice that he was going North and not South. For those several minutes he could have been a Hindustani musician at the top of his game — he mastery was consummate. There was a Subramanya Bharati ragamalika and a Purandara dasa song in Tilang. There was so much going on, and through it all Sanjay sounded like he was fully enjoying himself. His style of singing full of effort but his performance effortless. I have a few quibbles with his penchant to introduce rhythmic gymnastics often and unnecessarily (for instance in the krithi Janani Ninnuvina in Reetigowla raga, which is a most reposeful and meditative composition), and some aspects of his vocalisation (rounding out notes especially in the lower parts of the octave, it sounds like soaw, goaw, moaw and so on instead of sa, ga and ma). But these are minor quibbles.

If Sanjay’s concert was like a banquet, Krishna’s was more of a tasting menu. There were a few dishes that were brilliant but the composite left me very hungry. I’ve largely stopped listening to Carnatic music studio ‘albums’ and much prefer listening to recordings of live concerts. Concerts, typically lasting between two and three hours provide a wider canvas for the artiste to fully explore his music, be inspired in the music and delve into a raga or two or three or four. The magic of the concert experience is in the scope for improvisation, whether pre-song alapana or post-song neraval and swaras.

Where I felt hugely let down by Krishna’s concert was the lack of any substantial passages of improvisation. The moment when I felt soul-crushingly betrayed was when he started on a Surutti alapana. I was super excited. This was one of my favourite ragas, one that is rarely given its due these days. I thought, “wow, a Surutti alapana from Krishna would make this whole evening worth it, regardless of what happens next”. What happened next was after just a few moments of Surutti, as he was on the upper Sa note, he switched inexplicably and seemingly accidentally to Shankarabharnam. He sang Shankarabharnam for a bit, then switched to another raga which I forget, and then to Anandabhairavi, before singing a song in Anandabhairavi. This was simply callous.

Now, one way to interpret what happened was that this is true genius — being so involved in the moment and letting the music speak to you, so much so that you just have to switch ragas because that’s where the raga is taking you. But that is also what a bathroom singer does. It is simply lack of discipline. And a lack of respect for his audience. If I were listening in on a practice session by Krishna, I would not really mind this musical equivalent of stream of consciousness — I would even be thrilled at having the sheer privilege of being in the room. But this was a ticketed concert and I felt utterly let down.

The only other substantial alapana that he took up was as a prelude to Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s chaturdasha ragamalika (ragamalika with fourteen ragas) Sri Vishwanatham. His alapana covered all fourteen ragas, giving glimpses of each. Which was pleasing and fine, but seemed lost on everyone. A new Carnatic listener, not familiar with the ragas or prior knowledge of which ragas to expect would hardly be able to fathom what was going on. As a Carnatic regular, I was disappointed that the only substantial alapana of the concert ended in 14-part dissipation. It just felt Krishna was simply not interested or in the mood to get into any sort of focused exploration of a raga. Even his choice of Sri Vishwanatham seemed like a ploy to get towards the concert’s end without having to think or invest too much of himself. Just prior, he had asked the organisers how much time was left.

If the overriding drawback of this concert was insubstantial and loosely executed improvisation, his brilliance shone through in the renditions of songs themselves. You close your eyes, and you are immediately immersed. While I did very occasionally “switch off” from the music and let my mind wander during the Sanjay concert, it is almost impossible to do so once Krishna launches into a rendition. The highlight of the concert was the opening piece — Gajavadana in Todi, composed by Kumara Ettendra. As Krishna explained after, the specialness of the composition is the chittaswaram passage in which the composer brings out about a dozen different shades of the Ga note. Once the concert is up on YouTube, I am sure I will return to this piece and Sri Vishwanatham again and again.

Of the seven compositions rendered by him that night, three were the result of what has been Krishna’s ongoing project to free Carnatic music from Hindu piety’s chokehold. This is a very important mission, not as a political statement in any secularism vs. Hindutva debate, but as a way of widening the relevance and reach of Carnatic music. I’ve written about this before, when Krishna’s Poromboke Paadal, a song on an environmental issue, was released. One of these was about water, by the poet and author Perumal Murugan (in Hameer Kalyani). Another by an village / town head from the late 19th or early 20th century who, inspired by Kalidasa’s Meghadhutam created his own version with a peacock as messenger instead of a cloud. The verses sung by Krishna and set to the raga Khamas has the peacock describing what he sees as he flies over a bustling and advanced Trivandrum. He spots the government health clinic and dispensary, children at school and a temple providing free meals, among other things. The third was a poem by DV Gundappa, set to Behag. The song is addressed to the figurines on the friezes of the famous Chennakeshava temple in Belur. They are teasingly reminded that while they may be very beautiful and alluring, the throngs at the temple are going to walk right past them to see Chennakeshava, who is the real attraction! All three songs were delightful, and while none was truly in the calibre of the traditional repertoire (musically speaking), they were almost there (with the Hameer Kalyani piece being most developed). I look forward to more of this from Krishna, it is important that he keeps trying. I’d be even more supportive of this if instead of three of seven songs in a concert being of this experimental nature, ratio was closer to three out of nine or ten, to give his concerts more heft.

The last song, a Tagore piece was completely wasted on me, and purely aggravating given that it had taken one out of seven slots. Rabindra sangeet is not Carnatic music. It is tolerable, just about, if it is one of several late concert “tukkadas”, not when it consitutes close to 15% of the evening’s offering. It was so slow and meandering that at one point the percussionists more or less gave up. I went back home and googled the song and it’s meaning. I’ve forgotten what it was, but I remember noting that the lyrics were somewhat appropriate given the concert had been dedicated to Gauri Lankesh who had been shot a few days before. In that moment though, with me not understanding Bengali, and with little in it music-wise, it seemed a total waste.

So on many counts I felt like an “injured party” at the end of the concert, with Krishna not having kept up his end of the bargain. But it also felt like Krishna was singing from an injured place, with something immense weighing down on him. Maybe it was Lankesh’s killing, but it felt like it was something deeper and longer lasting. It was as though he actually does not want to be performing. That he’d rather go away and finish this very personal musical journey away from the public eye, and come back with more enthusiasm, but for whatever reason, he has to keep going. I am likely completely wrong, but the overall mood I came back with was slightly depressed.

The verdict

If Sanjay and Krishna were singing at the same time at venues next door to each other, which concert would I attend? If the concerts were being recorded and hosted on YouTube by FEA, the choice is clear — Sanjay any day. I could go home and watch the Krishna concert, and not miss out on anything, musically speaking. His concerts are more curation than concert — there is little binding the pieces together, there is little that that lingers in the air once the song is sung. But watching a beautiful video of a Sanjay concert is not the same as being there, feeding off the energy from the stage, revelling in the twists and turns. At the Krishna concert, after a song, I waited for the next song wondering what was in store. At the Sanjay concert, after a song, I just wanted more.

If the concerts were not being recorded, then what? Then, surprisingly, it becomes something of a toss up. Sanjay is the way better bet, musically. The chances of being disappointed, even slightly, are minimal. But the level of engagement at a TM Krishna concert is just so high. There is a chance of absolute brilliance within those three hours, but the chances of going back sated are average.

And yet, I am involuntarily tuned in to Krishna’s musical journey. Will his tempo be slightly up (hopefully) or irredeemably slowed since the last time round? Is he singing with more abandon, or is he still almost imperceptibly burdened? Has he been able to tune non-religious verses more convincingly? After much exploration, he has found new joy in a few of the old ways? Has he been able to find a more sustainable via media between wanting to micro-manage and wanting to be respectful?

And in this, I may be no different from the rest of the Bandra folk — I simply find TM Krishna too compelling to ignore.



Vishnu Vasudev

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