Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” Frank Zappa once said in what must have been cynical jest. It is indeed not an easy task for the mind and words to discuss a matter of deeper, finer emotions and rhythms. But there is a joy when the puzzle is cracked — or even attempted.
Thodur Madabusi Krishna, one of Karnatik music’s talented and successful singers with a cult following, has done what, in the hidebound world of southern Indian music, is a rarity. Not only has he written exhaustively and eloquently in the English language about a genre of classical music not sufficiently appreciated in parts outside its original zones, but has taken it several steps further. 38-year-old Krishna displays significant intellect, scholarship and articulation as he plays singer, teacher, anthropologist, historian and philosopher in an encyclopaedic work that would do well to sit on every university shelf.
The catch: Krishna is a bit of a stuffed shirt. He loves to, time and again, touch on his core mission of upholding the authentic grammar of the musical form which has “evolved” enough to cause confusion (starting from the spelling: Karnatak, Carnatic, Karnatik?). There is only a fine line dividing the purist from the puritan, and the singer dangerously flirts on the edge. Witness, for instance, questions being raised on the aesthetic value of Raga Dharmavati, much appreciated by many for its melodic soulfulness but described here as “synthetic”.
The book makes for a fascinating read as it explodes myths (such as the one about the Hindustani and Carnatic genres have common roots, or that southern music does not emphasise on shruti (tone)). Krishna, politically correct while being classically purist (what a lovely combo!) discusses caste and gender bias in music, throwing up golden nuggets in the process. Did you know that it was Bangalore Nagaratnammal, of devasasi (courtesan) descent who build the Samadhi (memorial) to composer Saint Tyagaraja at Tiruvayyaru? Or that Gopalanayaka, who founded a major Karnatik tradition, is said to have been a part of the court of Alauddin Khilji at the turn of the 14th Century? Or that the tambura is a word of Persian origin?
There is more to this than fascinating trivia. From the definition, structure and ways of etching every type of alapana or composition to analysing the kutcheri (concert) as a generic concept, Krishna approaches each topic with a mathematical precision. His abstractions can sometimes be tiring, and perhaps better articulated in a lecture demonstration. There is much in this book to make the backbone of a fascinating television or YouTube series.
The purist Krishna grumbles about how fusion tends to ruin the purity of the classical in a feedback loop (where the players do both). I just saw him recently sharing time with guitarist Prasanna at a concert, and felt the southern classical tradition has only been enriched by a jazz-like style. But Krishna is a bit of a stern thinker who believes that Karnatik music is basically about following a certain tradition in search of a holy grail, which, for want of any better expression, is best described as the quest for some kind of an inner ideal. The intellectual liberal in him, however, discusses how everything from cinema to technology has engaged the Karnatik form in a fair, exhaustive manner.
At 588 pages, there is much in the book that stimulates the mind – and not without its element of contention or controversy. Thus far, southern classical music has been a club affair for those within, or an object of laboured contemplation for outside scholars, mostly Westerners. Krishna straddles the two ends with convincing authority. His book should help place Karnatik music in the global classical league with a sense of authenticity that he craves for in his music.