It is true that Girish Karnad is a giant in a land of literary phonies. His plays, most based on myth and history, will be as good as anything India will ever produce. There is also merit in what he says about VS Naipaul. That Naipaul cosied up to the BJP is hardly a secret. Whether he is anti-Muslim is debatable but that is just a fine distinction in liberal eyes.
Yet, there is one point of Karnad in his harangue which makes little sense. In his words during the Tata Literature Live festival: “None of the three books Naipaul has written contain any reference to music. He’s gone through the whole of India without responding to Indian music. That only means that he’s tone deaf.... if you don’t understand music, if you don’t respond to music, then you cannot respond to Indian history because the real development of Indian culture has been through music.”
Music, perhaps, is one way for anyone striving to understand Indian culture. But the reverse—that the tone deaf are condemned to perpetual ignorance of Indian culture—is not true. For archaeologists, culture is material remains and stones don’t sing.
You could even argue that there is nothing called ‘culture’ except a vague idea. It can only be interpreted, not understood. Consider this: the beginnings of India’s second urbanisation (after the Indus Valley’s disappearance) starts in the 6th or 7th century BC. The political idea of India begins then with the Magadhan and Mauryan empires. The beginnings of religious culture can be traced to that age when Buddhism, Jainism, Samkhya and other philosophies become organised. They are all part of the Indian experience even today. But, you have no idea what Indian music was even as recently as 1,000 years ago.
Without knowing a single musical note, you can interpret the development of a culture through the prism of religion. Or architecture. Or anything. Or all together. They will all be valid interpretations. There is also one more curious irony in what Karnad says. If being tone deaf is such a disqualification, what about those who are actually deaf? Should they forget about understanding the development of Indian culture?