The pursuit of a rigorous and multivalent art form like Karnatik music presents many intersections for a contemporary practitioner. In his primary identity as a Karnatik musician TM Krishna has had a brilliant and early start since the early 90s, going on to add more dimensions and ingenuity to his musicianship while simultaneously broadening his artistic concerns with every passing year.
In order to be true to the calling of an artist responsive to the times, a musician from the Indian Classical music tradition must not only master and perform this exquisite form in diverse concert circuits but also continually if silently and inwardly probe, make and remake, refresh and reconstruct, its many signifiers and its expressions. All of this while keeping open the lines of enquiry and communication with the form’s many cultural pasts as well as with the artist’s contemporary sense of self and responsibility to engage with the world.
In this wider arc of artistic possibilities, Krishna has over the last two decades forged an uncharted path. As an artist who has enhanced his sensibilities by steadfastly making personal discoveries, understanding the world and its inconvenient truths, sharing his experiences through his music, he is the rare Indian Classical musician today who is able to strike a chord with listeners beyond the confines of conventional classical music circuits.
Trained with the distinguished gurus, B. Seetharama Sarma, Chengalpet Ranganathan and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, Krishna’s concerts reflect his rigorous learning as a wholly classical musician. His concerts are able to please the most fastidious of rasikas as well as a community of musicians across generations while also being infused with his own distinctive aesthetic choices and expression. Simultaneously original, subtle, traditional and innovative, this is an example of a musician’s ability to expand the territory of its influence.
Maintaining the exacting standards of the form as a musician and also as a writer, researcher and critic, TM Krishna has widened the reach of Karnatik music among new and eclectic audiences in India and abroad. This ability to draw in new listeners and communicate the magnificence of Karnatik music without intimidating them with references to the famed exclusivity of its form or its historical position as a rarefied genre, is a rare instance of transcending the structures of a limiting ecosystem while being located within it.
Rejecting the inimical notion of a circumscribed area marked out for an artist, and believing instead in remaining connected to all facets of the human condition, Krishna has started and is involved in many organisations whose work is spread across the whole spectrum of music, society and culture.
For more than a decade now, the musician has been through an essential shift in outlook. Viewing the world through the mutable lens of an enlarging artistic and personal consciousness, Krishna has partnered with individuals and collectives working at the intersections of social change, a new politics for contemporary India, a fresh new imagining of the wider universe of the Arts.
His path-breaking book A Southern Music – The Karnatik Story, published by Harper Collins in 2013 was a first-of-its-kind philosophical, aesthetic and socio-political exploration of Karnatik music. He has been part of inspiring musical productions and collaborations that are unique and unusual aesthetic conversations between art forms and communities across social spectrums. For this he was awarded the 2014 Tata Literature Award for Best First Book in the non-fiction category.
He has co-authored Voices Within: Karnatik Music – Passing on an Inheritance, a book dedicated to the greats of Karnatik music. His long-form essay MS Understood, for The Caravan was featured in The Caravan Book of Profiles, as one of their “twelve definitive profiles.” It has been translated into Tamil and published as a book ‘Katrinile Karainda Tuyar’ by Kalachuvadu Publications.
His book ‘Reshaping Art’ published by Aleph Book Company in 2018, asks important questions about how art is made, performed and disseminated and addresses crucial issues of caste, class and gender within society while exploring the contours of democracy, culture and learning. His latest book Sebastian and Sons published by Context in 2020 traces the history of the mrdangam-maker and the mrdangam over the past century. It received the Tata Lit Live Award for the Best Non-Fiction book for the year 2020.
He has been part of inspiring collaborations, such as the Chennai Poromboke Paadal with environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman, performances with the Jogappas (transgender musicians) and co-conceptualising and performing Karnatik Kattaikuttu, an unusual aesthetic conversation between art forms and communities that belong to two ends of the social spectrum.
His partnership with India’s leading contemporary Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, is unprecedented. Rarely have a poet and a musician who are contemporaries, collaborated to bring out works of art on the ‘classical’ stage. He has also been a pioneer in bringing the poetry of the social reformer and philosopher Sree Narayana Guru into the Karnatik fold. In collaboration with Ashoka University, TM Krishna is also involved in The Edict Project, an attempt to reimagine Ashoka’s edicts in musical form. The project aims to create vibrant aesthetic, socio-political and academic conversations around the edicts.
He is the driving force behind the Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha (formerly Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha) and Svanubhava festival. In 2016, Krishna received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in recognition of ‘his forceful commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions’.
He is also a recipient of the award Isai Perarignar (2017) from Tamil Isai Sangam. In 2017 he received the Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration Award for his services in promoting and preserving national integration in the country. In 2019, he received the Swathi Sangeetha Puraskaram the highest honour for musicians, instituted by the Kerala State Government.