T.M. Krishna on Mountains, Music and Hitting the High Notes

For the Carnatic music vocalist, mountains, like his art, teach him to shift boundaries. | As told to Akhila Krishnamurthy.  
T.M. Krishna
Carnatic music vocalist, T.M. Krishna. Photo by S. Hariharan.

“I still remember that day vividly. I was at the outpost of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police force, about 45 kilometres from China and very close to the Milam Glacier in the Kumaon Himalayas. It was about 4 p.m.; I took my sleeping bag outside my tent, lay down on it and all I did was look at the sky.

The next morning, my brother, a group of friends, and I trekked to the glacier, and it was sheer magic. I felt something so deep; it was as if I could breathe in a way that we don’t normally do. It was my moment of epiphany. I knew I had to keep coming back to the mountains.

That was in 2010. Strangely, when I think about it, that year also coincided with a perceptible shift in many aspects of my music—the way I sang, my relationship with aesthetics, the socio-politics of music, everything found a newer meaning and expression.

And then, exactly a year later, I met Badri Vijayaraghavan, a seasoned mountain climber based in Chennai. I told him I was keen to climb and since then, we’ve become climbing buddies, making that experience an annual ritual, allowing the mountains to move us in a way that only they can.

T.M. Krishna and fellow climber Badri Vijayaraghavan, Mount Elbrus in Russia

Every year, artist T.M. Krishna and fellow climber Badri Vijayaraghavan push their limits by scaling mighty mountains together. Last year, the duo reached a new high by summiting Mount Elbrus in Russia, Europe’s highest peak. Photo Courtesy: T.M. Krishna

That’s the thing about mountains; they allow you to quietly and deliberately look at everything that is going on, within and outside, enabling almost an outsider’s perspective of who you are, what you are doing and how you live your life.

My journey in climbing—I had only trekked until then—began with Ladakh when we summited Stok Kangri, the highest mountain in the Stok range of the Himalayas, at 20,187 feet. For a first-timer, I think I did well, and since then I’ve been hooked.

Climbing is addictive; and it’s not because it’s a quick-fix solution to all your problems. I think the mountains provide me the space to return to my life with a sense of calm, breathe better and let things flow.

It’s not easy, mind you. Climbing instilled in me the need and importance of physical and mental discipline. I train religiously, almost rigorously, through the year to prepare for a climb that is
almost always a life-changing experience.

Yet, no amount of preparation is enough because the mountains will throw you a challenge that you’re either unready for or never anticipated. I remember this story from my climb in Bolivia couple of years ago. We planned to climb two or three mountains and after summiting one of the mountains—a very technical climb—I was gearing up to summit Huayna Potosi which is about 20,000 feet above sea level. At about 3.30 a.m., we were climbing a 30-foot ice wall. I was double harnessed and my guide who went up first wanted me to pull myself up; she was confident I could do it, and so was I. But just as I attempted it, my ice axe slipped out of my hand and fell into a crevice about 20 feet below, and my climb was over. I was very angry; angry with myself and with the situation, but in hindsight, I know that story taught me a lesson in being better prepared and never taking the mountains for granted.

Stok Kangri, Ladakh

Stok Kangri, Ladakh. Photo Courtesy: T.M. Krishna

I think climbing is both a science and an art. The art aspect is in the very act of climbing; mentally, it requires clarity, discipline, acute awareness, and copious endurance to deal with the fatigue that almost always seeps in. And then of course, there is the technique of climbing—how you walk, how you rest—which is the science of it.

I think that coming together of science and art also resonates with who I am, as a person, as a musician. I have always loved pushing myself, my creative boundaries to the very end, to see what will happen, after all.

As an artiste, I’ve always been amazed at the sense of wonderment that envelopes me every time I’m up there in the mountains. And after all, art too is about that wonderment—to be deeply moved and to reflect about yourself and the world you live in.

I love that a mountain has a personality and a mind of her own, and must allow you to climb her. I know I use the feminine gender in referring to the mountains but for me, the mountains, like music, is a woman. That apart, I’ve learnt to appreciate the very opposing personalities of the mountains; every mountain from afar is intimidating but when you start climbing, you almost feel a sense of embracement. It’s like she has granted you the permission to make her your own. That respect that the mountain commands—in a way that she is both delicate and powerful at the same time—has made the journey and the return to reality, exciting and humbling. Incidentally, last year, Badri and I meant to climb Cotopaxi, a volcanic mountain in Ecuador but it was fuming and we couldn’t.

The mountains have also become for me a storehouse of magical experiences, aesthetic and visceral. Last year, Badri and I summited Mount Elbrus in Russia, the highest mountain in Europe, and the 10th most prominent peak in the world.

My guide, Lisa, and I were on our way, climbing a good slope on hard ice. In the wee hours of the morning, at 4.40 a.m., Lisa said, “Krishna, look to your left.” And what I saw will remain with me forever. I saw in the sky a shadow of Elbrus; it was like a triangle on the sky. It was an incredible sight filling me with humility and a sense of the fantastic. And I don’t know if it was that visual creative or the fact that I was in good shape, but we actually summited Elbrus in a ridiculously short duration—a mere five hours and 50 minutes. Ask anyone and they’ll say the climb and descent takes nothing short of eight hours.

I’d be lying if I said there is no sense of achievement that comes with every mountain you summit. It’s also a very cathartic experience. To be honest, I’ve cried on every mountain top, and almost naturally, when I reach the top of a mountain, I do what I know best—sing.

T.M. Krishna singing atop a mountain

Be it Russia’s Mount Elbrus or Stok Kangri in Ladakh, climbing a mountain is a moving, visceral experience for T.M. Krishna. He celebrates the feat with a song or two. Photo Courtesy: T.M. Krishna

I’m also always intrigued by what is perhaps the most interesting thing about the process of climbing—you don’t run while climbing; you take short, steady steps and never stop. Nobody is ever in a hurry; climbing reinforces the idea of slowness. It’s about focusing on every step, every moment. It’s about being measured and consistent. It’s a lot like life; you just have to keep going and as long as you do that, the summit will come.”

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