Raga and the rebel

Shriya Mohan | Updated on June 22, 2018 Published on June 22, 2018

Classical enfant terrible: The conservative milieu in South India views TM Krishna as a ‘demolition man’, splicing Carnatic music in unforeseen ways   -  SHAJU JOHN

Carnatic singer TM Krishna’s latest book forces us to see the politics that fuel Carnatic music and argues for social transformation through art

For four years, the renowned Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna has organised the Uroor-Olcott Kuppam Vizha on the sands of a fishing village in Chennai, creating a platform for diverse classical, folk and alternative musicians to come together and celebrate oneness. He remembers the performance by Sean Roldan and Antony Dasan in the Vizha festival in 2016, which had struck an infectious jubilant chord with the audience. Suddenly everyone — adults, children, fisherfolk, businessmen, artists and students alike — rose up and started dancing with abandon. “This was that spectacular moment when art just exploded and everyone surrendered to its beauty — beauty that was not crushed by caste, class or religion, genuinely ‘no strings attached’,” he writes in his new book, Reshaping Art, published by Aleph Book Company.

“The situation opened up vistas within our minds. The upper castes and fisherfolk shared music, dance, tea and bajjis. They smiled at each other, recognised each other’s culture and were surprised that they could interact. Non-transactional conversations were endearing,” he writes further.

Call it a TM moment, if you will, but these are the instances the vocalist is seeking to discover and celebrate. For him, there can be no greater purpose. It has been a decade since he nonchalantly sidestepped his Carnatic rockstar status and began channelling his energies and talent to widening the scope of the Carnatic art form, breaking formats and freeing up a caged musical tradition. “Carnatic music needs other ‘bhavas’ beyond the Hindu, including other religions and real-life themes that encompass humanity. Today, Carnatic music’s interpretation of Hinduism is limited to the brahmanical. That needs to be expanded,” he tells BLink in an email interview.

In Reshaping Art, he questions how art is made, performed and disseminated, and argues for art and culture to be used as vehicles of social reformation to bridge caste, class and gender disparity. But how does one popularise this idea in an environment where both folk and Carnatic audiences view the intermingling with suspicion and misgivings?

“Intrinsically, most people are open to a changed world view. It is social taboos and habituations that make it difficult for many to make that crossing. Sometimes, the case is that no one tried, pushed or asked. Therefore, to address this violent dogma of purity and pollution, we need people from across the social spectrum to create platforms. We need many small platforms, not mega-events. It is essential that such ideas evolve organically. We have to be constantly watchful and we must challenge our own judgemental nature and the inherent asymmetry in society and culture. I do think there are many young people who are attempting such crossover artistic endeavours in different parts of the country. Hopefully, this will lead to the smudging of artificial binaries such as folk and classical,” he replies.

Demolition man

Reshaping Art is likely to alter the way you assess an artistic experience. Krishna attempts to modernise Carnatic music in several ways. The first is by bringing in contemporary, political lyrics that delink the Carnatic experience from a religious one. For instance, he had collaborated with music composer Kaber Vasuki and environmentalist Nityanand Jayaraman to sing through a pollution mask about the decimation of wetlands in the music video ‘Chennai Poromboke Paadal’. He had also collaborated with Tamil poet and writer Perumal Murugan to protest against the imposition of Aadhaar. Krishna has partnered with the fishing community, and has long term aesthetic collaborations with the kattaikuttu, a rural Tamil theatre form, and the Jogappas, a transgender community native to the Maharashtra-Karnataka border region.

Another of his attempts is to push the envelope regarding the venue for Carnatic performances, hitherto confined to Brahminical spaces. Whether it is the fishing villages for the Vizha festivals, or Mumbai’s British-era Afghan Church, where he performed last December with ghatam icon Vikku Vinayakaram and earned the wrath of purists for singing songs like ‘Allah-vai naan thozhudhaal’, penned by Tamil sufi poet Nagoor Hanifa. “I demand that the so-called classical itself undergoes aesthetic transformation,” Krishna says.

But his critics ask if the lyrics, performers and aesthetics are all transformed and reshaped, does it even make the cut to Carnatic music anymore?

A new audience

The conservative Carnatic milieu of South India views Krishna as some sort of ‘demolition man’ who upturns popular notions, splicing Carnatic music in unforeseen ways, questioning the intelligence of its most ardent and loyal audience. Now, you have a left liberal intellectual who has never been interested in Carnatic music before, listening to him, appreciating him for his politics first, and music next. In all this, several musical vidhvaans, once Krishna’s fan base, have distanced themselves, altering the feedback loop that is important in strengthening every art form.

“I disagree that the vidhvaans and rasikas have distanced themselves from the music I render. Even if they are not in agreement with my social discourse, many still come for the music. So the loop exists. I am an insider as much as I am outsider. Over the years when my music changed, many who initially disliked what I was doing have come back and told me that they love the openness and freedom that I have brought into the concert experience. It is this experience that brings change and allows people to listen to other discourses,” he says.

Together, unbound: TM Krishna performs at the 2018 edition of the Uroor-Olcott Kuppam Vizha at Elliot’s Beach in Chennai. The Vizha is a platform for diverse classical, folk and alternative musicians to come together and celebrate oneness   -  S NARAYANA SWAMY

According to Krishna, we presume that those who are traditionally insiders are there purely for the music. “This is untrue. They are in Carnatic music for many reasons including caste and religion, even if they do not realise it. I demand that we open the music to a much larger set of ideas, views, perceptions that will contest each other. This is how an art form organically evolves, otherwise it is just a hardened, crusty contraption even if it remains beautiful to those who own it. Art does not speak on its own, it needs to be constantly shaken and stirred,” he responds.

But when will the ideas reflect in his music in a more organic way, so that a lay-listener, unaware of Krishna’s ideological battle in the background, is moved by his music, without necessitating his lengthy introductions? Isn’t that the point of any art, to speak on its own, across languages and ideologies?

“The presumption is that ‘everyone’ has been coming along for all these years and that art forms such as Carnatic music have an open architecture. There cannot be anything further from the truth. Not everyone will ever come along, but if a diverse set of people participate and bring into the art their sociocultural identities, then the art will speak. This is a battle for aesthetic and socio-cultural equity,” he says. He won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award in 2016 in recognition of ‘his forceful commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions’.

The award committee got ‘forceful’ right. In his book, too, Krishna’s tone is pedantic, making a reader feel like a student at a rather stern lecture.

“The art world is divided and people do not come together in search of only aesthetic beauty. We have to trick their sensory receivers into forgetting who they are and where they come from. If we present socially unequal art forms on the same stage, a lot of care needs to go into the way the unknown art forms are presented. Effort must be put into educating the audience about the cultural context of the forms and its people, all with the utmost respect. Their cultural histories must be toasted. The audience must be prepared to receive and then, when the art unfurls on stage, we discover people. Words such as folk, light, strange or colourful must never find place here. Every art is serious and that seriousness must be retained,” he writes.

On YouTube, when I watch Krishna’s musical collaboration with the Jogappas, which he cited as “revealing and enriching”, I couldn’t help but feel that I had to be appreciative of the collaboration in order to side with the right kind of politics, or out of respect for him. Despite the interesting story behind the collaboration with the Jogappas, there was a stark, unbridgeable difference between them in voice and tonal quality. Not for a moment can a listener be tricked into seeing the two merge. But in Krishna’s world, are we allowed to say this? Is there such a thing as ordinary or subpar music if it emerges from the downtrodden with complex histories of strife and oppression? Won’t our listening then be an act of charity?

Krishna would have us believe that it is our elitist biases that make us appreciate him over the Jogappas. But is it so simple? “The market is discriminatory and hence will not find any use for arts that do not find social acceptance among the high and mighty. But we must persist,” he urges in his book.

Teaching thought

I once watched Krishna perform at Tiruvannamalai’s Ramanasramam. A rather serious-looking, veshti-clad Krishna came into the packed hall, walked up to the stage the members of the ashram had carefully built together (by placing jamakalams over wooden dining tables), sat down in padmasana, wore a thoughtful silence, then leaned into the mike and gently asked, “If any of you don’t object, would you mind if I sat down on the floor and sang, instead of sitting on this stage?”


Reshaping Art TM Krishna Aleph Book Company Non-fiction Rs 399


A silent audience stared blankly and blinked in confusion. Taking it as collective consent, he and his troupe climbed down from the stage as the audience fanned themselves, not knowing what else to do. When he sat on the floor, eye-level with his audience, it was as if an uneasy storm had settled within him. It was only then that his music poured forth.

He had not wanted to sing at them, but sing for them. With Krishna, rules and formats always need to be questioned. No performance of his, no matter how insignificant, would be a staged formality.

Today, the very act of listening to Krishna amounts to confronting your own privilege and the inequality you have had a hand in perpetuating.

It might be that he is asking too much of his audience in the thought-fest he invites us to participate in through his music. But in India, where inequity is so entrenched, we could use Krishna’s musical tide to help us come of age.


Published on June 22, 2018
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