You have got the Magsaysay award this year for ‘ensuring social inclusiveness in culture’. Will the award change anything for the arts and artistes?
I am the same person, pushing the boundaries that our social order has drawn around us. There is no doubt that the award has brought the spotlight on art, artistes, society and the complexities involved in this interaction. The award has reassured me that art is seamlessly connected with the living. Art forms and artistes cannot conceal themselves in an artificially constructed, synthetic ‘paradise’, believing that we offer something beyond the temporal. Art is truly transcendental when it comes from complete awareness of its environment. This award has also helped me start conversations with those who share similar ideas, opening newer possibilities.
After you decided to accept the Magsaysay award, you’ve been called an average singer and an armchair activist. How do you react to such accusations?
I have not reacted to these statements directly. Such statements have come from within the Carnatic fraternity and beyond. My process has been about diverse art forms and attempting to create intersections for the arts and people. This involves democratising art forms, creating a welcoming environment, developing sensibilities and challenging status quo in form and practice. Many people who have made these colourful statements seem to have very little understanding of the nuances involved in such a complex, long journey.
In many of these comments, there is a caste and class related tightening of the fist, and, hence, an inability to look within and around. Having said that, it is fascinating that people who, just about a year ago, proclaimed that caste issues in Carnatic music were just surface-level aberrations, are now complaining that I have not done enough. At least, now they realise a lot needs to be done. So, in that sense, there has also been some progress.
In the criticism around the prevalent Brahmanical order in the arts, non-Brahmanical names such as Mandolin Srinivas, Tanjore Balasaraswathi and Sheik Chinna Moulana have been seen as counter-points. Doesn’t this idea negate the struggles they had to go through because of their non-Brahmanical social address?
Absolutely! It is disappointing that we are trying to pat ourselves on our backs by using these people as ‘poster boys/girls’. Let us be a little more honest. This is my request to everyone. Whether it was Pazhani Subramania Pillai, Rajaratnam Pillai, Balasaraswathi or Madurai Somu, it was an uphill task. Are we going to be blind to these truths? Are we saying that the Brahmin and the Brahmanised are not recognised consciously and subconsciously by us and this does not influence our impressions and choices? Please look at the music festival concert lists and you will see that this is a Brahmanical art form. We have rarely bothered to address this issue. Even when we have, it was with condescension. This has to change.
Haven’t non-Brahmanical musicians, who have made a mark in Carnatic music, Brahmanised themselves? Can a Dalit remain a Dalit culturally and receive acceptance? These are complex questions that we need to think about. And why are we only talking about the people on stage? Let us take a caste census of the audience in Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai, San Jose or Chicago. We will find it is almost completely a Brahmin or Brahmanical audience. In a few cities in the world, we will find a number of Sri Lankan Tamils. But even they fight for acceptability from us.
Do you think caste and gender issues in Carnatic music are not different from the ones that already exist in other fields?
The fact that there there are many women CEOs, chief ministers, bureaucrats, doctors and engineers does not erase the truth that ours is a patriarchal society, where women are still treated as mere objects of desire. The situation in Carnatic music, as far as caste and gender is concerned, is no different, and therefore this needs to be said openly and fought.
The decision to give an award lies with an organisation. The decision for its acceptance lies with you. Some questions have been raised about both, calling it “premature”, that you should have continued your endeavour for much longer and made tangible changes before accepting the award. How do you react to these statements?
These statements will not affect the work because the problem is now out in the open and no one can wish it away. The next generation is sensitive and understanding of this discourse. Over the years, I have had some wonderful interactions with the young. They may not agree with all of my methods, but they recognise these problems and know that we need to deal with them. We are all just trying, and, in the process, learning.
You are accused of politicising music.
If anyone believes that politics does not exist in music or any form of art, they are disconnected from reality. I am stating the obvious through my musical practice, action, writing and speaking, and I’m not the first one to do it. I make people uncomfortable because, while they could brush aside Western scholars or Dalit writers, they cannot ignore an insider who has been part and participatory in this discriminatory world.
Do you think your columns that deal with a range of subjects — from Narendra Modi to art — are a reason for that?
That is also a strong reason for the reactions. It is true that the Carnatic music community across the globe is largely status quo-ist. I am not comfortable with many things our Prime Minister says (or does not say!) and does. Nor am I a BJP, VHP or an RSS supporter. Since mine is a socialistic, non-Hindutva, secular political position, it has been difficult for many people (to accept it).
Do you think the media coverage of Uroor-Olcott Kuppam Marghazi Vizha, the music festival held on a beach and near a fishing village, was misleading? It became all about taking classical music to the slums rather than an attempt at not making classical forms a conserve of certain spaces only.
Our discourse has always been about creating level field, allowing for a respectful interaction of people and art. The whole Uroor-Olcott Kuppam Marghazi Vizha has moved with this spirit. This is a festival where the Carnatic and Bharatanatyam breathe in Koottu and Gana, while Paraiattam smiles with rock. The media also missed the fact that the people of the village share the art forms that they celebrate with the near-aliens from apartments and bungalows. What we saw in the media was only a reflection of how all of us think and feel about ourselves, the classical and the ‘other’. And since judging people and art are intertwined, such statements only revealed our own privilege. But to the credit of journalists, some of them accepted this error, which was courageous and honest.