T. M. Krishna dons M. S. Subbulakshmi's mantle
Krishna appears to be the best successor to Subbulakshmi as a public performer of the somewhat esoteric domain of classical music upholding a distinct political opinion.
I do not propose to hold forth on the musical prowess or legacies of M. S. Subbulakshmi, or T. M. Krishna. That requires technical qualification and a profound appreciation of their skills as musicians. My objective is more limited. It is to respond, in passing, to their role as public intellectuals through their music. Krishna appears to be the best successor to Subbulakshmi as a public performer of the somewhat esoteric domain of classical music upholding a distinct political opinion. I will presently elaborate on what I mean.
Our response to music, or the way we as human beings come to associate our personal experiences to listening to a piece of music, both defines us as individuals and offers a glimpse of our distinct biographies to anyone who cares to pay attention. The music that we are exposed to during our early life forms our character and influences our outlooks as much as our mature choices and later exposure direct us to the music that we come to favour subsequently as soothing or exciting. Every piece of music, in case it is familiar, brings back memories and associations, which in turn leads to the next piece we choose to play or listen to when no one is around to tell us how to go about curating our musical preferences. When we know what we are doing, there is no need to follow all rules to the letter, for rules themselves are humanly made, and are often outdated or superseded by necessities that music and musicians often intuit instinctively, well before, or better, than the rest of us. It is just as true of entrepreneurs or sportsmen, or pretty much anyone who pursues conscientious excellence, beyond conventional wisdom, or disciplinary orthodoxies.
The heavily worded preface above is to highlight the preciousness of what often appears obvious and unremarkable, things that happen to us so often that we do not spare a thought for them. Like a great many others, I was listening to music this morning, on YouTube, while getting ready for work. There was no pressing deadline to meet, and the sky outside was pensive. It has been raining for a few days in the morning; puddles are dotting the roads here and there, but the city has been functioning alright. I was teaching a Mughal History class yesterday, and we were discussing Baburnama. Students were surprised to discover silly little details about mighty emperors, such as how Babur ‘touched a razor’ to his face for the first time when he was as old as 23. We immediately broke into an impromptu discussion about how men from different ethnic origins do not grow beards at the same age. We have great plans ahead. We will be reviewing the movie Baiju Bawra in the next class, with a view to how popular legends intersect with documented histories in different times and forms, and to what effect. When I went to sleep last night, I was listening to light Hindustani classical music.
This morning, I woke up to several obituaries of musician Khayyam, who passed away yesterday. He composed music to a large number of film and non-film lyrics during a long and successful career. But a majority of those publicly mourning him on social media somehow tended to post only one of his famous creations - Woh Subah Kabhi To Ayegi. The song was originally written by poet Sahir Ludhianvi and set to tune by Khayyam for a 1958 Hindi film called Phir Subah Hogi. But it has long outlived its immediate origin and since been freely appropriated by anyone who wishes to sing of hope amid hard or dark times. I was intrigued by how the patently soft, lilting and languid voice of Mukesh, who generally sang in low pitches and was famous for his romantic numbers, could be turned into an anthem of protest and positivity at the same time. I was thinking about the irony of how a song of hope could be experienced both as an anthem of protest and also, as I saw on social media this morning, as a dirge to its recently deceased composer.
This train of thoughts led to Mukesh as a voice. I have long wondered why he has not acquired as legendary a status as a Hindi film singer as his contemporaries Md. Rafi or Kishore Kumar. Is it because he was branded early on as a soft romantic voice? Did he not get to sing a large enough variety of songs because the range of his voice was limited? Or was it because our imagination of what protest songs or marching songs must be like was itself limited? I kept playing one Mukesh song after another on the loop and kept getting even more confused with my circular queries.
That was when I stumbled onto Allah Tero Naam, and Jaidev. I had been thinking about the contemporaries of Khayyam and Mukesh. Why do we not remember Jaidev so much? Is it because he has not a large enough oeuvre? Why is Jaidev considered any less of a talent than the Barman father-son duo or Salil Chaudhuri or Naushad, as in why he remains respectable but his name is not counted among the all-time greats of Hindi film music composers? Allah Tero Naam has been playing in the background, as I move from one version to another.
Now, T. M. Krishna too has recently sung a version of Allah Tero Naam. Like Who Subah, Allah Tero Naam has long transcended its immediate origin and survived in the popular imagination in India as a tribute to its secular core as a national constitutional space. It was originally made for the 1962 Dev Anand film Hum Dono, which featured several other outstanding compositions too. I was by now deep into the Shahir Ludhianvi territory, and after another half hour and past five or six Sahir classics, I was once again convinced that he must have been one of the greatest film lyricists during the fifties and sixties. Incidentally, he had penned both Who Subah and Allah Tero Naam.
Krishna’s version, in turn, reminded me of his recent activism. He is not only a superlative classical vocalist but a most conscientious liberal Indian voice too. Over the last several years, he has publicly spoken and written on many intensely politicised social and cultural concerns in contemporary India, such as caste, gender, reforms in social practices, and orthodoxies in the training and performance of classical music. He was honoured with the Ramon Magsaysay award in 2012 partly for his work promoting art’s power to ‘heal India’s deep social divisions’.
Krishna is a Tamil, and Hindi or Urdu is not his home language. When he was singing Allah Tero Naam, he had to make a conscious effort to reach out to a larger audience to convey the larger idea of music enabling a greater unity across language, culture, or schooling in a given genre of music.
By now, the YouTube algorithms lined up a number of Subbulakshmi songs, particularly the ones she sang in languages other than her native Tamil. As a Bengali, I immediately clicked on a couple of Bengali numbers. I have heard them in the past but now started thinking afresh about how they came into being. She was wildly famous, but it was her pronounced nationalist politics that possibly inspired her to try out what she considered good music in other languages. Which province or language it came mattered less than what the words meant or how they appealed to her musical sensibilities. There is plenty of published material on the convergence of her music and her politics. Those interested in her are aware at least of the famous biography by T. J. S. George.
A couple of chance associations interested me in thinking together of Subbulakshmi and Krishna this morning. Both of them happen to be upper caste Tamil exponents of Carnatic vocals who reached out to a wider pan Indian audience through their rendition of songs in other Indian languages. But more importantly, they were both politically conscious performers. Subbulakshmi, of course, was a more conventional mainstream Gandhian nationalist. But she took care to carry the messages of a Gandhian nationalism through her appearance and performance if she herself spoke or wrote very little. Krishna, who is of far more recent vintage, both sings in non-Tamil languages and writes and speaks regularly on a number of controversial questions around the deeply politicised nature of social and cultural institutions and practices in India. In late 2017, his outspoken opinion about Subbulakshmi’s presumed conservative streak during the latter phase of her career had ignited some controversy. Krishna claimed that Subbulakshmi was forced to deliberately underplay her non-Brahmanical roots, conforming to the strict requirements of a Brahmanical appearance and conservatism, effectively curtailing a great many potentially liberating dimensions in her style.
Many had misconstrued the observation as an insult to the legacy of a revered legend, and Krishna was taken to task, particularly in the trigger-happy domain of social media. But to those who agree to think with some patience, it will be obvious that it was nothing of that sort. If anything, Krishna had been speaking of Subbulakshmi as a victim of an oppressive system, one in which she had to conform to inflexible norms in order for her excellence to overwrite her less than conventionally acceptable origin. Krishna was in effect condemning the stifling norms which characterised and regulated the highly Brahmnical universe of Carnatic music in Tamil Nadu, and those who set or preserved them. It is in this sense that I felt for a moment that Krishna here was speaking to protect and defend the legacy of Subbulakshmi, not unlike a son or grandson would have stood up in defence of his mother or grandmother. If we step aside for a moment from the conventional blood- or gene-centric idea of family or kinship, it is not a far-fetched assumption at all. No contemporary Carnatic vocalist has inherited the eminently politicised public profile of Subbulakshmi more explicitly than Krishna. The typical Carnatic music maestro is otherwise entirely apolitical and remains lost in his or her esoteric world of training and performance.
Subbulakshmi pushed me to Amonkar, and I chanced upon a 2011 interview of Kishori Amonkar. She spoke excellent English, at times with a slight American accent, and her choice of words was precise and exquisite. Yet, there would be long pauses every once in a while, and she would trail off, as though she expected you to complete the rest, as though she considered completing a sentence an avoidable formality. She felt as if she was speaking to an initiate. The journalist was visibly overwhelmed and would ask mundane questions. Amonkar would respond with childish delight and authority, as though she were talking to a novice. One of the questions was about her recent attempts to return to the origin of the classic Indian music right back to the Vedas. She wanted, she said, to liberate tunes from the trapping of words and gharanas, which were manmade and therefore reeked of human vanity. She spoke without the slightest trace of self-consciousness whatsoever. Yet, I was immediately struck by the sheer audacity of her ambition. How does someone talk about going beyond a few thousands of years of institutionalised norms, and how is that even humanly possible?
But Kishori Amonkar was no ordinary voice or mind. She was among the finest exponents of classical Hindustani vocals in late twentieth-century India and had been universally called a genius very early in her career. Geniuses like her did not think, or speak as we ordinary mortals do, nor do their dreams or ambitions flow through measurable or definable channels. If she said something to the effect of thinking or setting music free of the confines of words and the gharana grammar, it made sense to her at a level of meaning or sensibility that would take the rest of us generations to understand, leave alone accomplish. But to me, it made sense somewhere else. It appeared to encourage something I have been thinking about all this morning, that there is no definite route through which to connect to sublime music. How else do we explain how individuals respond to tunes or notes that take birth or grow in completely alien circumstances? How else does one make sense of music therapy? There has to be a meta-linguistic neurological level where music as notes or rhythm can forge connections across cultures or words. If and when it successfully happens, we can feel it, physically as much as mentally, for at that rarified space, connections or appeals follow their own elevated rationality. Krishna, Subbulakshmi, and Amonkar are family at that level, and so are we.