By Sukant Deepak
New Delhi, March 15 (IANS) He says that he is a singer whos music has nudged him to write and speak. That they live only together, but the source remains music. Insisting that art is the act of making us vulnerable, in a positive sense, Carnatic vocalist, writer and activist TM Krishna asserts: “To feel and sense in such a way that our socio-political safeguards collapse… That is subversion.”
Known to break conventions, not just in the classical world – singing with transgender musicians, not following the structure of a Carnatic concert, bring poetry (Perumal Murugan’s) to the stage, Krishna, who has written and spoken across platforms on religious reform, combating communalism, and was recently in the news for his concert at Shaheen Bagh in the capital, is one of the very few classical musicians who has been speaking openly against the establishment.
He asserts: “These are personal choices and therefore I cannot speak in terms of right and wrong. But I will say unequivocally that the lie paraded by many artists that they and their art are non-political needs to be busted. Every act is political, so is this fraudulent statement of being non-political. And if it is born from fear and a need for self-preservation, then it is nothing but a political statement. I sang at Shaheen Bagh because I am in admiration of all the women who are leading one of independent India’s most significant protests. It was an act of solidarity. Not for a moment did I think of backlash.”
Recipient of the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay Award for “his forceful commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions, breaking barriers of caste and class to unleash what music has to offer not just for some but for all”, Krishna, who learnt music under Bhagavathula Seetharama Sharma and Chingleput Ranganathan feels that terms like ‘Urban Naxal’, increasingly becoming part of the media’s vocabulory are created to promote hatred and anger.
“Those using it are wittingly or unwittingly participating in fear mongering. While we need to robustly challenge these terms, let us not get caught in only reacting to these traps. We have to address the larger issues that are designed to alter our social fabric permanently,” he told IANS.
Part of the team that started Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha festival, now called Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha, which he says “cuts across caste, religious, economic, gender and occupational lines and attempts to be a questioning agent”, he is interestingly a believer in tradition, though he adds that he believes in the one where beauty and splendour co-exists with the ugly, uncomfortable, discriminative, insensitive and unthinkingly habitual.
“Such a tradition need to constantly under watch and questioned and that is why it is dynamic and moving. When we fossilise tradition as ‘perfection living in the past’ it becomes a violent oppressor, even if the experience is beautiful for those who inhabits its inner quarters,” says the musician who gave his first performance at the age of 12.
In fact, his latest book “Sebastian and Sons”, published by Westland Books recently, which centres around the instrument maker and not the musician, tracing the history of the mrdangam-maker and the mrdangam over the past 100 years, was born from self-realisation.
“I had a realisation that pointed to my own blindness towards instrument makers and their pivotal role in giving life to music. This ‘ignoring’ came from my own casteist nature. Working and writing this book has been both a personal and a socio-cultural journey,” he says.
Stressing that he made it a point to go into every detail of the making and not only document their work, but also to make the reader aware of the sheer magnificence and detailing of the mrdangam-maker’s work, he adds: “Even in literary circles, there is snootiness towards certain kinds of technicality (knowledge). We will not complain about reading numerous pages in Watson’s ‘Double Helix’ that reads like latin only because we are programmed to respect that kind of knowledge and people, and therefore complaining would make us seem lesser. But when it comes to engaging with the work and wisdom of mrdangam makers, it suits is not to know so much, superficial understanding suffices. Even the so-called progressives will be happy to only understand the social dynamics. Caste is at the foundation of this intellectual discrimination. This book hopes to challenge this hierarchy. The reader must grapple with his own inability to understand.”
Preferring not to talk about his next book, though working on a few ideas, one wonders about the reactions he gets from his peers in Carnatic music, considering the fact that in ‘Southern Music’, he wrote about caste and religious exclusion in Carnatic music and the latest one focusses on instrument makers who mostly belong to the Dalit Christian community.
“To a large extent, my peers have been ambivalent and un-engaging with the conversations that I have been involved in. But this does not surprise me wee bit. I am glad that they are at times forced to respond and react because now there is no running away from these realities. I am optimistic about the next generation who are without doubt talking and debating these ideas. There are somethings that are changing, albeit slowly, unconsciously and at times only because someone wants to be seen as ‘progressive’. But that is fine, any movement is positive.”