UChicago Presents: You come from a musical background – your mother was trained as a Carnatic musician, and your uncle was one of the founding members of the Madras Music Academy. What was your early musical life like?
TM Krishna: I never dreamt I would be a musician. I learned music like many upper-caste children learn Carnatic music, especially in southern India. I did my undergraduate in economics, and it was around that period when I was about fifteen or sixteen that I was also singing concerts at a “junior” level, when my colleagues, compatriots, and senior musicians looked at me and said, “I think you should take this seriously.” And that’s when it struck me that I had a choice between economics and music… Luckily for me, music worked out.
UCP: Your performances are known for subverting the expected format of a Carnatic concert. How do your concerts differ from the format of a so-called “traditional” concert, and how might this format help a new listener connect with this music?
TMK: I started my format change very organically; it was not an overnight happening, where I believed this could be broken down. My question is simple: if the music doesn’t live beyond breaking down this format, does it deserve to live? And I’m glad that I was proven wrong, because the music itself is far more profound than how I perform it.
So, one of the things I experiment with is bringing compositions that are not traditional, compositions that address very contemporary issues, or compositions that are in dialects that are not part of high culture, but dialects used by the common person on the street – why can’t that be part of what we falsely believe is pristine art? These are all the ways that I’m trying to question the content of the art.
UCP: What do you hope a new listener to your music, or Carnatic music in general, might take away from one of your performances?
TMK: It’s a tough question to answer, but I think you just need to come and listen to the sound. Don’t worry about not understanding a single word of what I’ve sung... just allow the sound to enrich your experience, and just look at the way we musicians onstage are going to be involved in diving and drowning ourselves in the music.
I think it’s also important that in a world where we are dividing ourselves on the basis of nationalities, in terms of belonging, it’s important that people who engage in the world of art also learn to transcend the aesthetic barriers that exist… I think that questions of immigrants, of minorities, the questions of color, of race, of caste, of gender, are all being formed by allowing ourselves new aesthetic experiences from diverse cultures, and I do hope this will be one such experience.