In many ways, TM Krishna, one of the most popular young Carnatic vocalists today, is a trend-upsetter. An economics graduate, he has been singing for 25 years, having performed his first concert at the age of 12. He breaks conventions with ease, but is the least apologetic about it—he says he does what his heart tells him. This December-January, during the Chennai’s month-long music season celebrating the performing arts—particularly Carnatic music—he has decided that all his concerts will be free. He is also not singing at the Music Academy, music lovers’ mecca in Chennai. (It is de rigueur for any musician who has arrived to have a prime time concert at the Academy.) That apart, he turns the traditional concert structure upside down sometimes.
Krishna is singing, lecturing, travelling, and also busy promoting his book, A Southern Music: A Karnatic Story, which was recently released by Prof Amartya Sen in Chennai. We decide to meet for a typical South Indian breakfast at the New Woodlands Hotel. The place buzzes during the season, being centrally located and easily accessible from many places where the concerts are on from morning till night. Dosas at the Woodlands are almost emblematic of Chennai’s food culture. Besides, the authentic South Indian coffee the Woodlands serves is no small pull.
We order coffee and agree on a high-carb breakfast. Krishna asks for pongal and vada and I settle for hot, crisp dosa and, of course, a plate of vada. Coffee arrives almost instantly. As we wait for it to cool a bit, I ask Krishna about his book. “There was really no specific trigger. I have been asking myself a lot of personal musical questions. A lot of thoughts were crowding my head which I wanted to explore further and share. I wanted to look at different contexts and different spaces. I have written about the philosophy, aesthetics, political context and technology of music. It is a huge sweep,” he says. It is actually many books in one—Krishna examines a number of issues that Carnatic music must face up to: questions of gender and caste, the role of religion and of lyrics inspired by devotional sentiments, the diaspora and its relationship to ‘classical’ music, to name a few.
The pongal and dosa arrive. The Woodlands is known for its quick service. But they are indulgent with people having serious conversations. We are allowed to linger over cups of