India's Radical Classical Star

Vocalist T.M. Krishna is a master of Carnatic music — a rigorous South Indian style.

India's Radical Classical Star

By Sanjena Sathian


Because this man is challenging what music and joy should be. 

By Sanjena Sathian

His hand gestures are grand and performative. His words are as rapid as his train of thought. He races ahead, and as he speaks, the weight of Indian society itself bumps along in his wake like tin cans tied to a speeding car. Catch up! The restless boy genius seems to call to those who lag behind. 

And who trails T.M. Krishna, huffing and puffing, annoyed and critical? India’s artistic establishment — the tastemakers with conservative palates, the ones who have reigned for decades, who do not expect to be challenged. Least of all by someone like Krishna, who came up through their very ranks. At 40, Krishna is India’s great musical wunderkind, one of the, if not the best, classical vocalists working today. He is the kind of artist whose talent and proficiency one cannot deny; if you don’t like his singing, it’s on you — a matter of personal taste. “He’s an important guy here,” says Lakshmi Sreeram, a musician trained in both northern and southern classical styles. ”He’s at the top.” 

You have to tread carefully while describing Krishna — what he does, what he believes, what he objects to — because he has begun objecting to almost everything. Instead of spending all his days performing Carnatic music — the rigorous South Indian form in which he is trained — he has branched out, devoting much of his time to dissenting. Krishna has ventured into scholarship, penning a 500-page-plus tome on the history and aesthetics of the form; he writes op-eds in India’s top newspaper about things like caste and politics that might seem completely unrelated to his art, and he’s embarked on a mission to democratize a style of music that was once locked in the concert halls of the upper castes alone, bringing it to audiences in villages and, well, less than classical environs.

Though Krishna initially tells me he is asking “only musical questions” and “not social questions,” he later adds that those “invariably lead to sociopolitical questions — because the aesthetic cannot be divorced from the politics.” His points are large; they have legs beyond art. Tradition, he’s arguing, must be questioned. The old guard should be challenged. His critique comes at a fortunate time, when feminism and low-caste rights are on many tongues. This is an artist having a moment, becoming a public intellectual and doing so in a uniquely Indian fashion.

For a crowd of progressive-thinking Indians, he could be a messiah.  

Krishna’s zeal is nowhere more visible than when he is onstage — he is famously expressive, drawing his hand out in long, romantic lines as if carrying the soul of the sound from his pipes to your ears. But you feel that ardor even when he’s onstage and not singing. One evening in north India, Krishna delivers diagnoses for Carnatic music’s affliction. Here, in public, his thesis unfolds in part as an accusation against his audience — secondarily, you hear that he too is complicit as a privileged, male, well-off Brahmin. But he seems to delight in prodding the admirers who call him Krishna-ji respectfully as they ask their questions. Someone asks what his message is. He dismisses them sharply: “I have no messages, only questions.” Indian culture comprises a bunch of culturally, intellectually exclusive “clubs,” he asserts, with no desire to self-examine. “We keep saying music is divine,” he tells me later, “but I think it’s a bit of a fraud if you’re not willing to also say it’s the same music that has alienated people.”

The audience stares on, magnetically drawn to his confidence; shortly after, they will follow him from the stage area until someone physically parts the way for him to pass. For a crowd of progressive-thinking Indians, he could be a messiah. But he slashes at his worshipers’ devotion. “Be careful if you agree with me,” he warns the bobbleheading onlookers. “Because that’s a club.” 


To an outsider, Krishna — whose full name is Thodur Madabusi Krishna — might not seem radical. He was raised in a well-off Brahmin home in Tamil Nadu, in South India. He was formally training at 6 and performing at 12. By his 20s, he was clearly excellent. He dresses, at many public events, in classic Indian attire — soft cloths and respectful collars. 

Gettyimages 495488466

Krishna’s been called “Carnatic music’s sex symbol.” 

Source Getty

And yet this is a man who has earned headlines like “Carnatic Music’s Sex Symbol,” and whose every twitch seems to catch the eyes of the media, and over things that seem as minute and far less sexy than what Jennifer Lawrence wore while grabbing coffee. He declared he wouldn’t perform during the “season,” the stretch of December when Carnatic musicians gather in Chennai for a stream of performances. Gasp! He switched up the standard order of pieces during his concerts — normally, vocalists follow a precise program, placing certain compositions first, middle, last. God forbid! 

He interrupts me, disgruntled, as I start to ask what’s happening below the surface of these changes. “What people have not understood is that it’s not just order the of the songs,” he says. “People who are still saying it are not listening to me! Changing the order is a process. By dismantling that, you’re dismantling a so-called purpose.” In some ways, it’s a “disruption allows you to disrupt” argument; he’d say being disruptive offers a chance to evaluate the form itself. N. Ramanathan, a musicologist and Carnatic scholar, agrees with Krishna that “musicians are not examining” their form. “The question is: Why should they?” Performers, he says, particularly in Carnatic forms, are able to rest on the predictable rhythms of the concert circuit; if it’s thriving, there’s no need to explore Western or Chinese music, for instance. “I don’t think the South Indians are really open to those,” he says. Sreeram agrees: “There’s no widespread move to break with tradition … even with the younger singers, it’s as conservative as it was yesterday.”

I ask Krishna if he thinks his audiences are following the philosophies behind his various principled protests. “I don’t care if they understand.” He cites conversations with people who, four years ago, asked him just that: What was he doing with these tweaks and fiddles? “Many people have come to me and said, ‘Mr. Krishna, I don’t know what is happening, but experientially, there is a difference.’” What is that difference? “I’m not going to verbalize it,” he says brusquely. Art, Krishna says, is private, vulnerable. What he will say is that every question of society is “also a question of my own self.” For a moment, a glimpse behind the ego: I imagine, like many geniuses, that he must be hard on himself. 

This last aversion to certain vocabulary recalls his objection to the standard lexicon: He won’t even let you use the normal words for describing Carnatic music, arguing that words like “classical” or “traditional” black-box and falsely elevate the art. Normal epithets following Carnatic music include “ancient art form” and “thousands of years old.” This he pooh-poohs. “The idea that the art form I practice is very, very old is a lie,” he says, tracing the birth of today’s Carnatic music only to a century or two ago. And it isn’t pure, he notes — it has eliminated elements of its own history: take devadasis, or temple dancers who once wedded themselves to a deity but who, over the years, evolved into prostitutes. Their music, he says, has been “wiped out from the whole scene,” though it is “very rich, very Carnatic.” Why? Awkwardness around sex. 

For decades, he didn’t have to think about what the form was. When you are winning the game, why question its rules?

Brahmin puritanism — something Krishna does not suffer from. Raised in a “very, very open home,” he says he could even talk to his mother about masturbation. The family sent him to a school based on the principles of Jiddu Krishnamurti, a famed spiritual figure once hailed as a savior by the mystical theosophists. Krishnamurti schools hold the same status as, say, a Montessori for being hands-on, a little funky, progressive. But despite that questioning culture, for decades, Krishna didn’t have to think much about the whats and whys of his music. When you are winning the game, why question its rules? 

Until, about a decade ago, when unrequited questions began to creep into his consciousness — what is music, what is beauty, what is the point? (The kind of musings that are the privilege of the extremely talented.) “My own music was not moving me,” he says. “I knew I was a delivery mechanism. And I knew I was a darn good one. … But I knew, seriously, that there was no music in it.” 


One day, he and a colleague began to reconstruct an old composition written down in the 1904 book Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini by famed Subbarama Dikshitar. The pages used a style of notation foreign to today’s artists, which they tried to follow to the T. “It sounded awful to my ear,” he says — but suddenly, a window opened to an alternative version of this art form which so many brag has remained the same through centuries. Some years later, it happened again: Krishna encountered a folk dance performed in Tamil Nadu called katti kooti (he dislikes the word “folk”) that, once more, wasn’t to his taste. But it held a position of beauty for some, and he says he became open to discovering a new artistic context.

It is a strange way to make his point: Much of the other artistry he talks about (with me, at least) hasn’t seduced him. His turf, Carnatic music, still seems to dominate his heart. Indeed, Sreeram says Krishna is actually very conservative in his adherence to the music itself; it’s presentation he’s messing with. This is not a story of a traditional artist turning to fusion, mishmashing the old with the modern. It’s a Prince Siddharta–esque tale: He was asleep, and now, he is awake. 


Of the years before the musical enlightenment, Krishna says, “I wasn’t a jerk” — but arrogant? Definitely. (He credits his wife, fellow vocalist Sangeetha Sivakumar, for keeping him grounded.) On the phone, she leads me to believe this is true, telling me affectionately, “He can be very annoying,” and “He’s so arrogant.” When he and Sivakumar, who is six years older, met, she was the better-known one. He was just coming up and joined the ranks of her group of musicians, a gaggle of friends who today comprises the top Carnatic echelons. They jammed together, hung out and a romance bloomed — in secret. Sivakumar and Krishna dated mostly in his home, where his parents were cool; she describes herself to me, in contrast, as a “village girl” from a more traditional family. The age difference was scandalous. 

They wed when he was barely 21. “A child marriage,” Sivakumar jokes, “my friends used to rag me.” Three years into their marriage, Sivakumar says he had taken the crown as the best of their group, though he was the youngest. Talkative, blunt and lively, Sivakumar is honest: “In a way, marrying him was a setback for me,” she says. People stopped calling her for concerts, pushing her abilities to the backseat. She watched Krishna’s ambition bloom as a member of the “next generation” of musicians. What he’s doing today, taking performances to villages where most would say no one has the refined sensibilities to appreciate Carnatic music, writing a 500- plus-page tome on Carnatic history and theory, is “an extension of what has been there all along.” She says he thought, at some point, “What do I do next? Not the next award, going on getting bigger and bigger.” 

Though his scholarship has garnered him praise from people like economist Amartya Sen, it hasn’t won everyone over. New Yorker writer Samanth Subramanian penned a not-so-adulating review of his book-length exploration of Carnatic traditions in The Caravan: “A Southern Music is sloppily written and too timidly edited, so Krishna’s inclination to be verbose obstructs our absorption of his arguments.” And Subramanian’s criticism might be applied to some moments of conversation with Krishna, when he moves into the deeply abstract; occasionally he tells me he can’t offer specifics in part because of the deep technicalities they will entail. Subramanian writes: “Krishna’s abstention from the use of examples or anecdotal experience anywhere is mystifying, and it can nudge his prose — already highly wrought — into bewildering territory.”


“I have no messages, only questions.”

Source Courtesy of T.M. Krishna

Perhaps Krishna’s not to blame — these topics don’t lend themselves to simplification; he seems to be attempting a grand aesthetic philosophy on the scale of Adorno or Nietzsche. Ramanathan says public conversations on Carnatic music are “kind of like having a public discussion on Einstein’s relativity.” Maybe 50 or 60 people in an audience of 5,000 will have the context, vocabulary and interest to connect, Ramanathan estimates. And why should a performer be the one expounding on such things, Ramanathan asks? “These superstars, they talk,” he hmmms. 

And then there is the question of Krishna’s audience, who oscillate between enchantment and annoyance. Sreeram, who says she’s got no issue with Krishna’s habits, says others have “a feeling that he doesn’t respect the audience.” She refers to a debate within the tradition: “Is there a contract between the performer and the audience? I think there is some expectation, certainly.” But not for Krishna, who once declared halfway through a free concert that he would not continue. His contract, she posits, is with the art itself. Which is precisely what he tells me.

“I don’t believe I’m singing for the audience,” he says. Does he have a contract with anything else, I ask? “The whole engagement for the audience and the singer should be with the art form.” And then, in the most limpid moment in our long conversation, I hear him speak of his ultimate faith in art, that fey and abstract word. Sometimes people refer to Carnatic music as a devotional tradition; but suddenly, I see Krishna in his temple: The audience are pilgrims, and he is the priest. “I see a performance space,” he says, “as a space where art is hanging, and we’re all sitting and looking at it — in wonderment.” Art, it would seem, is the diaphanous, difficult deity.