Ever since TM Krishna (TMK) started teasing us with very well cut promos for his Friends In Concert programme in the past couple of weeks, the expectations were quite huge. Not just because TMK is a gifted musician but also in the way the programme was packaged as an experience. An experience in which TMK and his friends, who have also been his fellow travellers on the musical stage, would come together not just to perform but to collaborate in a relaxed setting that may end up being a concert. The teasers indeed gave an idea of what was coming, but I must say that the concert itself when it was premiered on Friday turned out to be path-breaking.
This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Chennai music season has gone online with most of the concerts being streamed into our homes. This attempt by TMK is also in line with that experiment, with the concert being made available for a restricted number of days for those who pay.
We all know by now that TMK is a rebel with a cause. Even on the musical stage, he has been a rebel. In the sense, he has been striving to break established stereotypes and bend the norms. For a few years now, he has been questioning the need to follow the well-established “kutcheri” format. A typical kutcheri format which is followed by most Carnatic musicians opens with an invocatory varnam, followed by a few kritis with raga alapana, a main piece, then a Ragam-Thanam-Pallavi rendition followed by thani avartanam by the percussionists and a wrap-up with small kritis called thukkadas at the end. TMK has for long stopped following this format. I have been to one of his concerts where the percussionists had the opportunity to do the Thani Avartanam twice instead of just once which is the normal. In another concert, he opened with a detailed raga alapana instead of a short Varnam. In this pre-recorded and edited concert, he goes a step further in breaking many established traditions of a kutcheri format and we don’t complain.
Like opening the concert with violinist Shriram Kumar playing a few ragas one by one and TMK actually accompanying him, like having just two Ghatam players to provide the percussion for a section, like having a thani avartanam with two mridangams, like TMK and Sangeetha Shivkumar singing the same kriti (a mellifluous Tunga Tiravirajam) alternately in two different ragas, the concert is full of surprises and never seen before innovations.
TMK has been talking about taking Carnatic music out of the sabhas to the streets. Here, he manages to take it from the confines of a concert hall to the thinnai of a house, under a tree and so on. Shot in Dakshin Chitra, a museum for south Indian culture and heritage at Muttukadu, near Chennai, the location takes us back to another time when the world was more serene, beautiful and soulful. The different sections have been shot in different settings, some indoor and others outdoor. So much so, in a section, the artists continue to play when it starts raining. The sound of the pouring rain blends nicely with the rich melody of the music.
This reminds me of an earlier attempt by TMK to sing and shoot a musical video titled One inside a dense forest amidst chirping birds, swaying trees, croaking frogs, streaming water and so on. His attempt was to sing along and capture those natural sounds without any accompanying instruments. In Friends In Concert, which has been conceptualised and curated by TMK himself, he continues with his earlier attempt but with accompanying artists and instruments.
Not just the music and the setting, the production values stand apart in the whole concert. With drone cameras and multiple angles capturing the performances, some of the visuals are a treat to the eyes. In particular, one drone shot which gives a bird’s eye view of the location amidst lush greenery is breath-taking. Also the final closing shots of artists joining in a sequence visually and musically was just brilliant. In all, the entire concert is packaged very well with a blend of some great music and fine imagery edited nicely into a slick presentation.
Kudos to Rithwik Raja, the director of the show who had to contend with the finicky weather and cyclone effects, and could still bring the vision TMK had in his mind on to the screen. Considering the high expectations the show whipped up among the fans, unless done very well, it could have been a huge disappointment.
At Rs 2,500 for an access in India for a two hour show, I thought that the price was quite steep. On the other hand, at just US$50, it seems more reasonable for NRIs. I would conjecture that a high price in India would have kept away quite a few rasikas who otherwise would have been interested. TMK usually talks about democratisation of Carnatic music and I feel that a price between Rs 500 to 750 would have helped that cause here.
The other aspect I felt would have worked better is, if the concert had been more informal, just like what we saw in the promos. Considering the fact that this was positioned as kind of a jamming session between friends, I expected a few more informal collaborative sets. Indeed the artists looked relaxed and were performing with a visible camaraderie. A bit of banter and some ideating sessions in between would have made the show more interesting and novel. And accordingly, the duration could have been about three hours. The concert had five sections and I thought it ended so soon.
Nonetheless, the concept of having a set of friends perform and present is unique. And more importantly, the transformation of the idea from paper to screen has been magical and it has raised the bar for the future seasons. With its superior aesthetics and musical quality, TMK’s Friends In Concert brings not just music to the ears but to the eyes as well.
Anand Kumar RS is a management professional by week and avid blogger by weekend. He writes on politics, business, and films.