Open Conversation

‘We musicians sit on the high horse of religiosity,’ says TM Krishna

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Open conversation with TM Krishna, Carnatic vocalist and writer

NO ONE IN India understands better the social structure of identity in the context of the classical arts. Since the publication of A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story, in 2013, musician TM Krishna’s experiments in form and content on the concert stage have evolved into a subversion of caste, religion, language and dialect. He has moved the concert from Brahminical sabhas to the sands of a fishing village, and brought overlooked instrumentalists and so-called folk artists to perform at hallowed venues. He has lent his voice to a song of solidarity about a dying estuary in Chennai, tuned poems penned by Tamil writer Perumal Murugan in his period of silence, and where his voice was not enough, written scathing columns against cultural hegemony. Overtly political and argumentative, with the Magsaysay Award for 2016 tucked into his roll of honours, Krishna is a rare artist who is keenly aware of where and what he is.

The morning after a recent concert in Bengaluru that included a statement piece penned by Perumal Murugan, we met at Captain Gopinath’s handsome residence where Krishna was a guest, and spoke for over two hours on his evolution as an activist-musician.

You are prolific in all that you do—writing, speaking, singing. When musicians focus on their art alone, does that imply a willful negligence of social duty?

I get it when a musician says, ‘My job is to sing.’ I was like that for a while. But there are layers to this statement when it comes from an artist who is part of the so-called classical world. There is a general notion that anything classical is esoteric, timeless and spiritual. When I sit in a classical music class, my teacher is transferring all this baggage to me. When you attend a concert, you are not just getting music, you are also getting a lot of these ideas about the supposed superiority of the art. We musicians sit on the high horse of religiosity and spirituality, almost like pontiffs, protectors of all that is high and pure in Hindu culture. Asking us to respond to socio-political change is like asking the middle-class to enter party politics. This affects the way we deal with society in general. Also, we do not want to address many social truths because our audience, like us, is upper class and upper caste. Why ask questions that make us vulnerable?

When did you start asking these questions and thinking about the privilege associated with Carnatic music?

It wasn’t an incident or some sudden epiphany that got me thinking. It started with my research into the history of music. I came to it from a very technical standpoint. I was looking at older notations and interpretations and some of them sounded ugly to me. This was a shock. Inside this whole notion of timeless hoary beauty, there was something from the past that sounded terrible to my ear today. So I had to ask, what is it that I am carrying forward?

The first question for me was the question of beauty. How is beauty determined? Because of the homogeneity that exists in the people listening to, singing and critiquing Carnatic music, we end up reflecting each other’s idea of beauty. This is true of every art form, whether elite or subaltern. All art forms are trapped within their own identities. When I think about our sense of beauty and what is ethnic, what comes to mind is how our homes are all so similar. People like us all have Fabindia curtains in orange and earthy colours. You go anywhere in India and urban educated upper-middle-class people are all the same. This homogeneity is inspired by socio-cultural and religious narratives and this is all so jumbled together that I don’t know if we can separate them. Beauty is deeply embedded in such notions. So koothu will not be considered representative of our pure heritage, while Carnatic music ticks the boxes of all that is considered beautiful in India.

There is also skin colour and gender. Even in the classical world, a dark singer, especially if she is a woman, will have a tough time. So beauty is definitely a deeply problematic idea. Look at how our puja room looks and how a concert stage looks.

I don’t call myself a performing musician. I never use the word ‘accompanists’. When I started talking about culture, art and class, it was a completely new discourse in the Carnatic world. I was feeling the newness of it

Your rebellion started with breaking the Carnatic concert structure...

I wouldn’t call myself a rebel, but I am a problematic figure in Carnatic music. At yesterday’s concert, I wanted to wrap up after Sankarabharanam. I asked Shriram (violinist RK Shriram Kumar who shared the stage with him), ‘Kalambalama (shall we leave)?’ At that point, there wasn’t much I could offer, aesthetically and artistically. That is not to say that what I sang after that wasn’t pretty. I have felt like this many times before and Sangeetha (a Carnatic musician and his wife) and I have talked about it. If I wanted to be completely honest to myself, I should have left. I have done it at a concert once, when I felt that there was so much music around that there was nothing else left for me to do. But it exploded into a big issue about the responsibility of the artist, the expectations of the audience, ticketing, and multiple things. I walked straight home afterwards and sat quiet for three hours. Sangeetha was at her computer. She looked at the clock and said, ‘So you did it.’ That’s all she said. I’ve felt that way many times since, but I think, unfortunately, I have held myself back. I realise the complexity of the questions I have to answer and I don’t know if I want to deal with that.

Do you worry about spreading yourself thin?

This is something I constantly think about and at times I do have too many things on my plate. But everything finally goes back to singing. Every time I ideate, speak, write, hear others share perspectives on life, environment, gender, caste, protest etcetera, in some unexplainable way it enriches every raaga I sing. I cannot explain this with examples, it is just palpable, keeps me aware, open and unresolved.

You sing about Allah and about Chennai’s Ennore Creek. You work with Tamil writer Perumal Murugan who was hounded into silence. I think the messaging in these songs works because of the brand that you have become.

The intention of classical music is not to literally create social or political change, but we can use the aesthetics of the form to raise our voice. The music must be grounded in the reality that exists around. I will go a step further and argue that abstraction in art occurs only when our feet are grounded on the streets, not when we float like disconnected puritans.

If you remember, there is a part in the book where I talk about language and about the sonic as a syllabic aesthetic unit, the idea that you can get bhava from the way a ra or a ma sounds and not necessarily from the words that invoke God. The tenor of my discourse has moved because I realised nobody was getting it. I thought, what if I sang on various subjects? How would people respond? Would they remain trapped in linguistic meaning? Would these new themes then become crutches? But I then realised that if the canvas of meaning is enlarged, people may start experiencing divinity in thoughts that are not divine, or even in ideas that disturb them. That’s when I started changing lyrical content on the concert stage.

I have worked with Perumal for nearly a year now and we (Shriram Kumar, Krishna, Sangeetha and Arun Prakash) have tuned 11 of his compositions. His kirtanas cover a wide range of themes— from non-irrigated agricultural land, love, the five elements and the mind to the palm tree. My hope is to keep moving the discourse to a point where it really doesn’t matter what you are singing about. You may get to a point where Rama is equalised with a palm tree or a dog.

There is also skin colour and gender. Even in the classical world, a dark singer, especially if she is a woman, will have a tough time. So beauty is definitely a deeply problematic idea

Other than subject, I also want to explore the impact of dialect and the religious/ritualistic from other caste cultures. It is something I hadn’t factored in when I wrote the book. For instance, a Mariamman (a non-upper caste Tamil goddess) paattu in a Carnatic format would be interesting. It would invert the idea of the deity in an upper caste context. Similarly, if you could sing of Krishna in a non-upper caste dialect, in Chennai Tamil for instance, it would do very interesting things to the idea of meaning. So even the religious can be subverted. So these are movements that I keep exploring.

What inspires an artist practising a very abstract art form? What is the source of musical spontaneity?

With classical music, at one level you want to separate the music from the world around. But even if you take it as a purely abstract art form, it has to be grounded intensely in reality. That is the problem with the classical arts. They do not see the connection because of the other baggage built around it. The moment you talk about spirituality and the mystical, you are looking at a different paradigm where the concrete becomes a problem. So at one level, when a classical musician sings an alapana, he says it is pure abstract imagination. At another level, when he sings a Tyagaraja kirtana, he believes that he needs to be completely devoted to the lord. To me, there is a conflict in these positions.

Personally, I have found that the more real I got about myself, I found abstraction to be far more profound. You have to be a receiver and an observer of things around you. Unless you are willing to deal with beauty and ugliness as reflections of each other, you cannot abstract. To be spontaneous, you have to be constantly aware of where you are. There are times when the same phrase of music that has been sung for 50 years suddenly becomes spontaneous. That is when the real gets translated into the abstract.

Do worldly events and incidents directly affect your music?

We subconsciously react to incidents. It happened to me recently when Amit Shah made a statement about Gandhi being a ‘chatur Baniya’. I read about it in the papers. Later that day, when I was singing at a SpicMacay concert in Delhi, I felt like singing Vaishnava janato. Was it coincidence? Was it in my subconscious? I don’t know. I have sung it before, but that day it became like a response to what had been said that morning. And I do a little play with the song. In the line ‘Rama nama shu thali re lagi’, I make it ‘Rahim nama’. Political and social incidents do affect you subconsciously, but it really becomes art only when you are able to abstract something out of it, not if you are going to say, ‘I will address the incident in some fashion.’

A relevant parallel to the classical arts today is Sanskrit, an ancient language accessible only to a select few. How do you feel about Sanskrit pride?

Sanskrit is a gorgeous language and as a musician trained in the Carnatic tradition I have breathed its musicality for many decades. But, I am not Sanskritist. Sanskrit may not be a living language in a sense of usage, but it lives in the thoughts, view points, opinions, feelings and beliefs it baskets. And further, the language itself curates the nature of intellection. Sanskrit is therefore not just a medium but also a source of numerous perspectives designed by its semantics. And if we were to read Sanskrit in that sense, it is very much alive, because in engaging seriously with it, we are enriched by its every nuance, shift and direction.

The music must be grounded in the reality that exists around. I will go a step further and argue that abstraction in art occurs only when our feet are grounded on the streets, not when we float like disconnected puritans

But pride is a different emotion. Behind the proud lies the feeling of being greater, better or superior. This for me is unacceptable. Regrettably, many times, Sanskrit lovers and scholars come from a position of superiority and that immediately affects the tone of the conversation. To be in Sanskrit’s rapture is one thing, but to use its aesthetic glory as a weapon to directly or subversively denigrate other languages or cultures is disgraceful.

What complicates Sanskrit pride even more is that the language is trapped in a largely upper-caste Brahminical identity. It is upto Sanskritists and linguists to find ways to give fresh life to it, so that it can go beyond this bind. But it is essential that this is not treated as a defence mission, to prove Sanskrit’s non- Brahminical antecedents. We have to liberate, argue, accept, embrace and discard ideas within Sanskrit. Let us celebrate it, but accept its social- constructional problem.

You are a political artist from a land of political artists. How do you feel about superstars running the show?

Cinema was an important fulcrum in the social reform movements of the Dravida Kazhagams. We are still living under that imagery. The larger problem seems to be the widespread apathy towards being politically responsible citizens. Tamil Nadu was a land full of such possibilities, but in the last three to four decades we have become timid, more interested in self-preservation. As citizens of this country, there is an inability to participate in democracy. I do not think we have ever shed our feudal shackles. And hence democracy is not received as an everyday right. The only time we exercise our citizenship is when we vote. But that too is manipulated through the agencies of caste, economy and social might. In this condition, we are always looking for saviours and in this country. They emerge from cinema, religion or political aristocracy.

Coming back to democracy in the classical arts, do you worry that not just your music, but also your writing and intellection are only accessible to the privileged?

Let us be very clear. I am English speaking, upper class, upper caste, I am every privilege you can think of. I am not going to run away from that reality. When we curate festivals like the Urur Olcott Vizha, we try to engage with multiple communities and other art forms. But it’s a very complex discourse because you have to constantly remind yourself where you are coming from.

There is also a parallel discourse in regional languages. When my writing gets translated into Tamil—The Hindu [in] Tamil used to pick it up—the audience is very different. The responses I have got—of disagreement, rejection, anger—from that audience that you and I may not consider privileged have been far more interesting than anything I have ever got from the bourgeois community. Because it came from far more personal experience than I have in that sphere. It challenged notions of what I was proposing. I also do participate in public conversations on these themes in Tamil.

When you shift spaces of performance, that too shifts discourse. When I sing at places that are not natural to the privileged, then it changes the way they look at the music. I think, rather than shift the audience, I am trying to shift me so that I receive from different audiences.

But the activity of thinking and moral imagination is considered the preserve of English-speaking intellectuals.

The discourses in non-English languages are far more direct. Discourses in English are very antsy in comparison, but the English educated intellectual community does not treat intellection in other languages with equal respect. This is connected with the problem of schooling. We are all sending our children to private schools where language discrimination is already being built in at a very young age. How can we change the texture of public schooling? Why don’t we have multilingual newspapers? These are some important questions.

One common criticism against your generation of musicians is that you don’t teach enough. You are too busy performing.

I think that is not fair. Most of us teach. I have not taught as much as I would have liked over the past three to four years, but I have had about a dozen serious students and most of them are on the concert stage now—Rithvik Raja, Vignesh Ishwar, G Ravi Kiran, Vidya Raghavan, Bhargavi Venkatraman, K Thanmayee. It is not that our generation of musicians is more ambitious, it is just that opportunities are far more than ever before. You can travel around the world. The pressure of performing is much more today, so you probably don’t have as much time. But our generation still has managed to make time. When I take class, it’s four hours gone from my day. This generation has spent more dedicated time with their students in terms of class hours. Two generations ago, gurus would ask you to attend their concerts and learn from them.

You have mellowed with age. When I say ‘classical’ and not ‘art’ music, you don’t snap.

I’ve lost some hair, I’ve gone grey, and that is playing a role. The shift is that I understand where you are using that word from. I still find the word problematic. I don’t call myself a performing musician. I never use the word ‘accompanists’. When I started talking about culture, art and class, it was a completely new discourse in the Carnatic world. I was feeling the newness of it. There was a huge wall in front of me and I was pushing at it with greater effort. At one point, I realised I could push at it in many different ways. I am less angry now. I’ll let certain things pass and push certain things. Even if the points you tap at are slightly different, you can still move a person.