On a Monday morning in December, I made the error of arriving on time for Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna’s concert at one of Chennai’s oldest music organisations, the Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, in the heart of Mylapore, a hub of Tamil brahmin culture.

I walked in smugly, certain of getting a seat on a weekday morning. Moreover, this wasn’t the Music Academy, the most prestigious venue for Carnatic music concerts, and dozens of other recitals were going on at other venues in the city at the same time.

But I was startled to find not only the hall full but also the two courtyards outside, in each of which the organisers had set up huge screens, speakers and about a dozen rows of chairs to accommodate those who hadn’t been able to get inside. Knots of people were also standing outside the two entrances to the hall, blocking the view. I had no option but to join a group of people sitting on the floor in one of the courtyards. Punctuality was not good enough.

In the hothouse atmosphere of Chennai’s annual December music season, a nearly century-old festival of Carnatic music that draws thousands of local aficionados as well as music lovers from all over India and the world, performances by popular vocalists such as Krishna have an electrifying ambience that testifies not only to the singers' allure, but also to the rasikas' (connoisseurs') passion.

Yet on that day, behind this stirring scene of a serious musician enthralling an audience in love with this highly sophisticated musical form, there crackled currents of subversion. For Krishna, while remaining highly classical in his renditions of individual ragas and compositions, was bending, breaking and overturning norms that have defined the Carnatic kutcheri (concert), for almost a century.

A few examples provide a flavour of his radical approach. He chose, for instance, to sing in the middle of the concert a padam, a fluid, subtle form that is usually sung very slowly and almost always presented towards the end. Then, he rendered an alapana (an introductory, improvisatory exploration of a raga without rhythmic accompaniment) but did not follow it by singing a composition in the same raga, a practice taken so much for granted that it is almost sacrilegious not to do so. Sometimes, he says, he has nothing more to say about the raga after the alapana. Why continue for form’s sake?

A few days earlier, at another houseful concert, at the Krishna Gana Sabha, he chose to do a niraval (an improvisatory form that involves the musician creating his or her own melodic variations on one line of a composition to rhythmic accompaniment) while rendering a javali, erotic poetry set to music, which is almost never picked for such elaboration, perhaps, says Krishna, because of prudishness about its explicit content. Yet, these have the musical potential for such exploration, he contends.

He is not posing these questions for the first time. About five years ago, he began reworking his concerts, offering brief explanations for his changes in the midst of performances. So far, despite scattered reactions of bewilderment, anger and dismay, he still has the ear of audiences, as I realised that Monday. Some admire him all the more, grateful that he is giving voice to their own, longstanding, sometimes inchoate, disquiet about certain aspects of the modern kutcheri.

Now, with the release of his book, A Southern Music, his challenge to the status quo has found its most cogent expression yet, with the potential to spark a deeper debate drawing in the music community. The book is a thoughtful and original exploration of the essence, history and sociology of Carnatic music by an artiste capable of reflecting deeply on his sphere of creativity and communicating his thoughts lucidly.

Published by HarperCollins, it was released by Amartya Sen in Chennai in December. In this interview, Krishna, who epitomises Sen’s argumentative Indian, says he is not deviating from the system for the sake of it but believes that mindless adherence is tantamount to losing the essence of Carnatic music.

At your concerts, you have been telling the audience not to think of what they are listening to as a concert. What do you mean by this? Is it not an irony?

I actually say that they are not listening to a kutcheri. I do not use the word ‘concert’, which is a musical term. The word kutcheri does not only denote a concert. It importantly denotes a certain specific method of presenting Carnatic music. When used in the Carnatic context, the kutcheri also carries the burden of addressing a cultural and social group. I would like to distance myself from this.

My interest is only in the aesthetics of the art that can touch any engaged person. To me, a concert is a shared space for art. The musicians and listeners are there to experience the creation of this art. The integrity and honesty of the musician must be directed towards the aesthetics of the music.

The word 'aesthetics' itself must be looked at deeply and must direct the presentation style and concert format. This means that the listener too is immersing himself, or herself, in the aesthetics and letting the presentation flow according to the singer’s musical direction. Therefore, a concert is not a fixed box in terms of the experience it provides, but responds to the aesthetic direction taken by the musician without being bound by presentational traps and compulsions.

Over several chapters in your book, you develop your critique of how the format and compulsions of a contemporary Carnatic concert violate the musicality and aesthetics of the form in several ways. One such is the practice of singing so-called “light” pieces at the end of a concert. Would you like to elaborate?

My point comes from the philosophy that any art music form is, by its very nature, a serious and intense experience. In a way, it is like connecting with a painting of Rembrandt, or feeling the movement in sculpture. Within this intensity, we experience various emotional shades, all drawn from life, but abstracted into the art. This is exactly what a Carnatic music concert should be. The problem with the lighter pieces at the end of a concert, tukkadas as we call them, is that they are meant to be presentations that need not have this serious, abstractive quality.

Some musicians argue that after the ‘heaviness’ of the concert’s main section, it is important to let audiences go home with lighter pieces that do not tax them. Therefore, the treatment of ragas in these lighter pieces is generally superficial. Musicians also use the term ‘light’ ragas. I don’t think there are light and heavy ragas. There are ragas, and all of them are serious melodic creations.

Light compositions are usually those that evoke obvious and literal religious fervour; sometimes, even romantic and patriotic fervour. But you may ask how is this lighter? It is so because it breaks down the basic quality of art music, which is to go beyond the literal to the abstract. When this is not considered a necessity in a rendition, then it ceases to be art music. This is unacceptable to me. Every piece in a Carnatic concert must be treated as being an abstracted art creation. If this is ignored, then these light pieces are unnecessary.

In your book, you have rued the fact that performers often work towards eliciting applause. Surely, it’s not wrong for a performing artiste to want applause? Do you not want it yourself? What does applause mean to you?

First, what does applause denote? Does it denote musical appreciation? An emotionally touched individual? A moment of epiphany? Or is it only connected to a high level of adrenaline,  generated from speed, volume and power, as it is today? This I am not interested in. I also need to ask whether applause is the best way to show appreciation. Does silence actually do it better? Those few times when we hear a soft ‘aha’ from a listener, aren’t these the real musical moments?

Applause has become routine. After every composition or alapana, we applaud. Do we know why? Are we reacting to the music or is this a mechanical interlude? Or do we feel compelled to make the musician feel that he has done a good job? The musician values her own creation based on the loudness and length of the applause. Isn’t this nonsensical? We are not looking at art here, only some kind of a show that needs to tickle us. This is not Carnatic music to me.

Also, I do have a problem when applause is the musician’s aim. This is the most dangerous trap. I can tell you now that I can choreograph a full-fledged concert, and tell you in advance the moments when I can force loud applause from the audience. This means that the concert is some kind of contrived presentation to elicit an applauded high. When the musician has mastered it, he can do the trick all his life and believe that he is creating art. But is he, really?

I did do this for a period of time and played the same game, and then I felt that I was not creating art. True applause must happen when the music envelops everyone through the focus given to creating art objects by the musicians within the space shared by the listeners. The aim is not applause, but the spontaneous manifestation of emotion that sometimes can be in the form of applause. This is a rarity today.

From listening to your recent concerts, I get the sense that you are trying to infuse a sense of repose into performances, reminiscent of the best Hindustani recitals. Is this an accurate assessment? Were you partly influenced by the manner in which Hindustani music is rendered?

This is a very interesting question. It implies that repose is not an essential part of a typical Carnatic concert. This itself is a result of the modern kutcheri. Yet repose is embedded in the melodic and rhythmic movements of Carnatic music. Repose is also not just connected to speed. Repose can exist even within a lightning melodic phrase or a thundering rhythmic combination. Repose is the balance, stability and stillness that comes through the music.

But the pressure of the kutcheri and the drive to elicit excited applause has destroyed this largely, though there have been a few musicians who have tried and retained this quality. I am deeply influenced by the music of T Brinda, T Balasaraswathi and T Vishwanathan, whose music was all about repose.

But I must say that I am also influenced by the best of Hindustani music, especially in the way every swara (note) is created like a complete musical quantity, looked at from every angle, letting the various shades emerge, touching it, transforming it and letting it soak within the musician and all those present. I am deeply moved by the music of Kumar Gandharva.

You have said that your views evolved from a deeper questioning of your own motives for singing Carnatic music. But your critique carries an implicit criticism of the way many musicians are performing today. Do you worry that you might ruffle feathers?

I am as much part of this community, and every criticism is addressed to me as much as it is to everyone else. Maybe people will be upset. Anger is the normal initial reaction and I expected it. My only hope is that after it subsides, we can have a serious debate on these issues. I am not saying that I am completely right but I do feel that the points I make deserve serious attention. Therefore, I hope that we can discuss these problems without getting caught in the personal.

You have said that you want people to engage with what you are saying, even if they disagree. Have they? In particular, what are other musicians, especially of your generation, saying?

Some musicians have spoken to me after my concerts and said that they understand what I have done. They have said that they can feel the space that has been created by redefining the approach to music and its presentation. I also know that other musicians have been adopting a few of the ideas I have presented over the past five years without actually speaking about it. These are good signs.

It is important, though, that the musicians who agree with my thinking find their own way of creating a free and uncluttered artistic space and not repeat what I am doing. It will take time for the music world to completely understand my thoughts and there is no need for everyone to accept my interpretation. I also don’t expect anyone to come out in the open and say that they agree with or support me. I am happy to travel this path alone.

Many people were upset that you had ended one of your concerts this season an hour before the scheduled time, saying you just couldn’t continue. What happened?

The truth is that this is a question that I would prefer not to answer, but I am going to try. I don’t believe that I terminated the concert or ended it abruptly. Some wrongly think that I had hit a wall creatively or that I was not in the mood. I had actually reached a point of fulfilment. In that state of repleteness, I felt there was nothing left for me to sing. Silence and solitude were the only things I needed.

I may have been able to sing for another hour, but would that have been music? I have reached this place many times but the ground reality of the concert hall has quickly taken over and I have continued. But on that day, I just moved away from singing any further and realised what I had done only when I got into the car to go home. Did I shortchange the audience? Some may believe that I did.

Moreover, it had nothing to do with the fact that the concert was free. The same thing may have happened even if it had been ticketed. Music is not about delivering a fixed number of hours’ worth of singing but about transcending the earthiness of being. Is it correct for me to expect everyone present to share this feeling? Maybe not. But it happened. It may happen again. It is born from my giving myself up to music, which is the only reason I exist.

You are at the peak of your career—in an enviable position of being applauded by both the lay public and the cognoscenti. Have you not embarked on a risky path professionally by questioning the foundations of what has made you successful?

I have thought about this many times. Yes, it is risky. At this stage, if I continue to do for the next 30 years what I have been doing for the past decade, I can retire as a successful and popular musician. In a way, it is crazy for me to do what I am doing.

But I am not doing this for reasons that have anything to do with TM Krishna, the performer. I do not even like the title ‘performer’. I am in this mode because I passionately and insanely believe that music has given me a window into life that is taking me somewhere. This is what made me research history and understand technique, but at the same time breathe the music as art and let myself be embraced by its strength and grandeur. I am not afraid of disappearing from the popular stage.

Here are two videos that illustrate some of his ideas:

1. Recorded during the music season in December, TM Krishna both sings and reflects upon his musical journey.

2. Here, he presents a composition in raga Yamuna Kalyani. It is an exquisite rendition, exuding an intense serenity.