The invitation read, ‘Join us for a mesmerising evening with world renowned Carnatic classical artist TM Krishna, an event to celebrate and embrace the legacy and creativity of Indian art and culture’.
Any concert of Krishna is always teasingly enchanting. It is also provoking, disturbing, awakening. There is never a dull moment. It is a feast for the purists of the art form, delightful for the avant-garde, and is full of surprises to the devout believers, who are pantheistic in their outlook. But the religious fanatics bristle at his irreverence toward sacredly held beliefs and feel outraged. The old, who are true connoisseurs of classical music grudgingly admire him, even though he is unconventional. The modern youth who are drawn to classical music, and students of the art adore him. He has a huge fan base — he is gifted, charismatic and daring. His music and his views have evolved and are shaped by eclectic interests and deep research. He has authored books on classical music, art and the artisans of classical musical instruments and their loving devotion to their age old craft and their alienation and neglect. He is a prolific writer on contemporary issues and an intrepid activist.
His music and his repertoire of actions always baffle you. He is a modernist rooted in tradition. An unbeliever, who mesmerises you when he sings devotional songs in temple festivals. An innovator and a disruptor, who does not subvert but challenges and questions our cultural and social spaces in the realm of art and its orthodoxies and traditions and its undercurrent of politics that are often exclusive and discriminatory.
He may not draw universal praise but he sparks a lively debate and enriches art by celebrating various art forms , drawn from all languages and regions of India and also from across the seas.
The theme of the concert, as provided by the organisers, probably meant the confluence of various music and dance forms of India . But Krishna interpreted it a bit differently. In his brief opening remarks, he said that he has chosen compositions and lyrics from the ancient to the medieval and the modern that reflect the rich diversity of our land but also that he chose them for the meaning of their texts and their philosophy in the context of the contemporary events and issues that we are grappling with.
He began the concert with a well-known composition by Gopalakrishna Bharathi in Tamil in vilamba kaala or slow tempo unlike the traditional practice of starting with a varnam, which is a mixture of lyrics and musical notes (swaras) rendered in multiple speeds. A traditional opening item that sets the tone and mood of the concert and a warming up for the artiste to get the right pitch and rhythm before easing himself into the main section of the concert. This may probably be the first sign of discomfort to the conservatives for not following the beaten track. But if one can suspend analysis and judgement and be immersed in the moment unthinkingly and listen to Krishna’s singing, one is transported into that oceanic ecstasy that only music of a maestro bestows.
Krishna’s mastery and rendition of kritis, ragas, alap, tanam, pallavis, kalpanaswaras, niravals are refreshing and cast a spell on the audience.
After offering a bouquet of four ragas (ragamalika) with a tanam, Krishna sang the edicts of Emperor Ashoka, chosen from among the many rock cut proclamations across the Buddhist sites 2,500 years ago. Krishna in collaboration with historians, linguists and Ashoka University after extensive research set to tune the pithy texts in Prakrit, a language extinct except in surviving enigmatic hieroglyphs, and released it in public some months ago. It is an ongoing project. The central message of the edicts are harmony, peace and path of Dharma or justice. Ashoka, who in his initial reign was a ruthless warrior, and turned a pacifist in later years asks in one of the edicts that Krishna rendered – “Ashoka won the Kalinga through war. But did Ashoka win the hearts of the people of Kalinga? “
Among other notable offerings of Krishna included a Tyagaraja composition and the popular Sanskrit song ‘Janakipate’ by Papanasam Sivan, were two vachanas by two renowned Veera Shaiva reformers, Jedara Dasimayya and Laddeya Somanna. Dasimayya’s aphoristic poem, written 1,000 years ago, was way ahead of his times. He wrote on many ills of society including denial of equality to transgenders and their excommunication. Here is the translation of Krishna’s song: “If one has bosom and tresses, they call one a woman/ If one has moustache and beard, they call one a man/The soul that hovers in between is neither man nor woman. “
He sang also a rare verse by the great saint-reformer Narayana Guru in Malayalam, ‘Anukambadasakam.’ Stunning verses in their import that ask who the supreme is, is he Rama, Buddha, Jesus, Shankara, or the Prophet?
He also sang towards the end the favourite hymn of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘Abide With Me’, as a homage to the fallen soldiers and martyrs in the wars. He ended with a moving Meera bhajan.
The high point of the concert was when Krishna sang an Urdu song on Lord Krishna ‘Krishn Kanhaiya’ with lilting melody by the famous Pakistani poet, Hafeez Jalandhari, one of whose poems is also the national anthem of Pakistan. Krishna mentioned that he took the help of Shubha Mudgal, the eminent Hindustani singer, to set it to music. The lyric of this poem is remarkably evocative of the many-splendored persona of Krishna ending with – ‘Oh, my dark one, the light of India, Drape me in your robe.’
When Krishna concluded the two-and-a-half-hour concert there was a standing ovation.
Shakespeare’s immortal lines came to mind: ‘If music be the food of love, play on’.