Sensuality in Music – Lec Dem by T.M. Krishna

Vidwan T.M. Krishna (TMK) presented a lec dem on “Sensuality in (Indian) Music” for Karthik Fine Arts’ Natyakala conference on 22nd Dec 2007 at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mylapore, Chennai. He was accompanied by Vid Amritha Murali on the violin and Vid K. Arun Prakash on the mrudangam.

Here is a gist of the lec dem:

General observations:

  • Music being an abstract and ‘non-physical’ form, putting experiences into words and conveying them through music is much harder than conveying the same through dance where you are actually watching the emotion(s) being conveyed
  • Whether it is dance or music, what is aesthetic and what is not is completely dependent on the individual performer. It is so very subjective. It depends on the background of the individual, what he/she has been exposed to, where he/she lives etc. What is sensual and what is vulgar is again a subjective thing
  • The times that we live in has completely changed the way we view this. In today’s urban aesthetic, we have a certain impression of what sensuality is and what it should not be and that’s what governs our view of the art forms. Musically there has been a huge amount of change in what one would call/not call as sensually aesthetic years ago to what a person might/might not perceive as sensually aesthetic today
  • The bhakti concept is ingrained in Carnatic music probably far more than in other types of music. A lot of people view Carnatic music as a way of bhakti sans shringara.

Difference between singing for music and singing for dance:

  • When a person sings for dance, the sensuality in the voice is interwoven with the sensuality of the dancer. Both have to draw from each other. The musician has to see what the dancer is doing and the dancer has to be sensitive musically and not just lyrically to bring in the sensuality
  • A vocal concert is a totally different ball game. The experience here is not drawn from the audience. The singer has to first experience the sensuality and only then does the transfer happen to the audience. Only then does the audience feel it. How much a singer internalizes his music and how much skill he/she has also matters

Sensuality of voice:

  • A voice is to music as a body is to dance. Many people claim some singers’ voices to be very sensual. What is it that makes a voice sensual?
  • The feel that the voice has for music is what brings in the sensuality. Brindamma would sing with a lot of love and passion which would make her music so sensual.
  • Sensuality thus does not lie in the voice but in the way the voice is used and the passion that is put into singing.

{TMK played tracks of Vid T. Brinda (audio clip of an alapana), Vid G.N. Balasubramaniam (the song “kaNNanE en kaNavan”), Vid Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer (the jAvaLi “marubAri tALanEnurA”), Vid Ramnad Krishnan (the jAvaLi “mODi jEsEvElarA”) to demonstrate a range of voices and how singers brought in sensuality in their music}

Sensuality in lyrics:

  • Lyrics can drive sensuality (ex. kaNNanE en kaNavan, padams, javaLis). But it’s not necessary that for a song to be sensual, the sensuality must be driven from the lyrics alone
  • There is sensuality in pure music itself, sans lyrics
  • When you sing with an approach of gay abandon, you are bound to move to a state where you experience a high level of sensuality yourself and eventually end up transferring that experience to the audience too.

{TMK demonstrated this by singing portions of kharaharapriyA alapana around the dhaivatam, as Vid Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer would sing it, for 4-5 minutes with gay abandon. He also sang the ragam mukhAri as an example}

Sensuality and the composer:

There is a point at which, as a musician, you go beyond the content put in by the composer. The singer’s experience as an individual is what drives the music, more than the experience of the composer when he/she composed the song.

Sensuality of ragas:

  • Some people feel that certain ragas are by themselves sensual. kApi, hamIrkalyANi and behAg are placed in this category by the average concert listener. punnAgavarALi, dhanyAsi and aTANA aren’t. But there are (sensual) padams in punnAgavarALi too
  • All ragas have enough modes of expressing sensuality

Sensuality and the system of music:

Somehow Hindustani music is considered by many to be more sensual than Carnatic music. This might be because of the lyrical content (bhakti-oriented) in Carnatic music vis-à-vis the romantic poetry in Hindustani music.

Sensuality and pace:

  • We generally believe that anything that is sensual has to be slow
  • GNB’s brighas are one example of how sensuality can be there in a faster pace too
  • “rAga sudhArasa” by GNB is another example. There is so much of sensuality when he sings the anupallavi line “yAga yOga tyAga bhOga phala mosangE” with all the ornamentations and then joins back the pallavi line
  • mA jAnaki” by Madurai Mani Iyer with the neraval at “rAja rAjavara rAjIvAkSa vinu”at a pace that is neither slow nor very fast is, for example, very sensual. There is a sense of playful romanticism in the way Madurai Mani Iyer sang his songs
  • The lyrics have got nothing to do with shringara in these examples. But the music itself has provided that element of sensuality, even in a bhakti composition

{TMK demonstrated the 2nd and 3rd bullet points above}

Sensuality and percussion

Percussion can help build or completely destroy any kind of sensuality that the singer is trying to experience and create

{TMK and K. Arun Prakash demonstrated the creative process through the jAvaLi “jAnarO I mOgamu” in ragam khamAs}

Sensuality and vulgarity:

  • When does a vocalization move from sensuality to vulgarity? It happens when the singer tries to vocalize beyond the music
  • Accentuated attempts that try to force sensuality into the minds of the listener do not work
  • Vocalization should naturally bring those movements that bring in sensuality. This is where the greatness of the past masters lies

{TMK demonstrated the same by singing different portions of alapana of the ragam kalyANi and how accentuation at certain places can cross the thin line between sensuality to vulgarity}


Sensuality in music and the way it is portrayed is completely a reflection of the individual who is singing.

(Please note: The topic is a highly subjective one and people could have differing opinions. Though I have tried to capture TMK’s views on the subject to the best of my abilities, it is possible that I might have misunderstood/misinterpreted what TMK said at some places. The mistake in such cases is entirely mine. I have also taken the liberty to organize whatever TMK spoke into the different buckets above)

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