I vividly recall that day in 1998.
It was during the study holidays ahead of my third semester examinations. I found it particularly hard to get a hold on the subject of fluid dynamics. A friend’s father offered a helping hand and had asked me to come over.
He and his wife were sitting on the porch, stringing flowers they had picked from their garden. The radio was on in the background. Someone was playing Pankaja Lochana on the violin; a Swati Tirunal composition. As we exchanged pleasantries, none of us bothered much about the music.
A bit later, as I opened my book, gentle strains of the raga Sindhu Bhairavi filled the room. The aalap could not have lasted for more than two minutes. But in that short burst, I felt as if there was a vital message to the world that was incredibly simple yet profound.
I wanted to know who was playing this transcendental music. “Oh! Who else can play like this?” came the reply. “It is TN Krishnan!”
We pretty much spent the rest of the day without another glance at the book.
It took me another five years to hear Krishnan live. In the meantime, I had listened to several of his old recordings, especially the ones in which he had shared the stage with great masters. Some of his memorable repartees that I cherish include a Khamboji aalap in a Madurai Mani Iyer concert, a Karaharapriya with Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, his teacher, a Pantuvarali with GN Balasubramaniam and a Yadhukula Kamboji in an Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar concert.
In all those recordings, what stood out was his conviction in what should be presented and the awareness in maintaining the overall aesthetics of the concert. He was not trying to prove that he could reproduce every bit thrown his way (in Carnatic, the violin follows the singing closely). Neither did he play something that sounded totally different from the raga image painted by the singer.
This is not to show disrespect to great violinists who managed to pretty much reproduce whatever the vocalist sang instantaneously. I point this out only to emphasise that there are alternate ways to accompany the singer that are equally effective , like how Krishnan did.
I completed my masters degree in the United States in 2003 and headed back to India. A friend sent a bunch of recording tapes as a parting gift. They included a couple of violin solo concerts of Krishnan and a duet with another great violinist M Chandrasekaran.
Both the solo concerts were top-notch recordings. One had the song Manasu Swadheenamai as the main piece and the other had a detailed Ragam Tanam Pallavi (aalap, syllabic interpretation of the raga and the song) in raga Shanmukapriya.
And then there was a Bilahari raga played by Krishnan in the duet concert. The aalap was a short five minutes. In that brief period, you could hear Chandrasekaran’s voice of appreciation at least 20 times. His excited exclamations of acknowledgement and admiration made it so endearing that I keep going back to it.
After listening to those recordings, I was sure I would listen to him live at the earliest possible opportunity. That moment came in December 2003.
It was the year when Krishnan’s guru Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer passed away. He did a solo concert at the Raga Sudha Hall in Chennai as a tribute to Iyer. The Kalyani he played that day was easily one of the best in the raga I have ever heard. When he finished the raga essay, renowned singer Chingelput Ranganathan got up and declared: “This and only this is the real Kalyani!”
Egged on by his fellow musician’s emotional response, Krishnan went on to describe how Semmangudi would insist on handling the Nishada (the note Ni) with the gamakam almost taking it to Shadja (the note Sa) and wouldn’t accept it being dealt any other way. Those were lessons worth their weight in gold for every student of Carnatic music.
Brief and sublime
Some of the most exhilarating moments in his concerts were not necessarily from the elaborate renditions. His short essays before kritis can create a profound impact that can last a lifetime. One such rendition I recollect is of the raga Saramati he played before the kriti Mokshamugalada. The raga aalap which lasted for a mere two minutes sounded so complete that it created an illusion that there was nothing more left in the raga to explore.
I first heard him perform at the Music Academy in Chennai on January 1, 2004.
If you had done the grind of sabhas hopping in Chennai from 8 am to 10 pm everyday during the December season, you would empathise with my emotional state as I entered the concert. The feeling of fatigue due to continuous listening without much chance to reflect on what you had heard; the frustration that creeps in because of physical exhaustion and lack of sleep; the sinking feeling that the season was coming to an end–all created an imbalance in the mind. Krishnan’s concert that day gave me the much needed closure.
It was followed by a few more opportunities to start the year with his concerts. Statistics may show that he played more concerts at the Music Academy on Christmas, when he would famously greet the audience with a quick “Jingle Bells” in the Carnatic shade, than on New Year’s day. In my mind, I always associated his concerts with the New Year. I guess my mind just transposed December 25 with January 1.
Several years ago, during the December season, as I was walking back home after a Krishnan concert, I ran into a friend. When I told him where I had been, he asked me, “What was new in the concert?”
I couldn’t answer him immediately. I mulled over that question for quite some time.
If we were to walk through a garden of fragrant manoranjitham flower every day or watch VVS Laxman caress the ball past mid-wicket for the zillionth time, or watch Roger Federer hit a backhand winner kissing the baseline for the nth time, would we ask what was new in it?
The tonal purity of Krishnan’s playing and the pristine beauty in the musical melodies he conjured were similar to the experiences listed above. One never felt the need to look for something new in his concerts.
His sidhdhi to juxtapose appropriate tonal shades effortlessly amazed me to no end. I am not sure if an English term exists to describe the word “sidhdhi.” It is not just the capacity to understand the progression and internalise the phrases. It is that higher level of expression which enables the artist to naturally manifest phrases with befitting aesthetic dynamics.
When the raga aalap inched towards the climax, you could hear him play long phrases. If you closely observe, every phrase would be dynamic with multiple tonal shades. You can often hear him pluck the violin string after a phrase. I used to think this was his way of checking the sruti (pitch) alignment of his instrument. I realised much later that even those plucks were done aesthetically. For example, when he plucks the string to check the Tara Shadja after a ‘Da Pa Ma Ga Ri’ in raga Bilahari, it strikes you with a feeling akin to a stream of scented water sprinkled on you at a wedding.
Another noticeable element of his playing was his strong conviction in his musical values. What were those values? He explains them succinctly in his acceptance speech for the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award of the Music Academy in 1980:
“Sometimes even a most simple turn of a phrase will bring out more ‘raga rasa’ and ‘raga bhava’ than elaborate virtuosic display. The fundamental music aim is to evoke response in the rasika. The rapport can be achieved easily by simple but beautiful statements of music.”
I remember a Poorvi Kalyani display in which, when he approached the upper Shadja, his playing got softer and the overall volume of the sound reduced significantly. I felt my body respond to it. I could feel I was trying to sharpen my hearing as I moved towards the edge of the seat.
How did he know with how much intensity he should play that particular note?
I’m sure I’ll never figure it out. I’m happy that I could experience the bliss even if I cannot figure it out.
Adieu, Prof TN Krishnan. Thank you for enriching our lives.
Legendary Carnatic violinist TN Krishnan died in Chennai on November 2.
Lalitha Ram is a writer on Indian classical music and has published biographies on Carnatic legends GN Balasubramaniam and Pazhani Subramania Pillai.