If art cannot exist in isolation, can artistes do? It is a question whose answer demands participation that goes beyond artistic realms. It is a query which underlines the innate distinction between an artiste and activist, and examines the privilege that allows this separation to co-exist. It also sanctions identifying their silence, if any, as a shortcoming, and trace its extent in art.
Carnatic vocalist and writer TM Krishna has been striving to dismantle this duality. And he uses both his identities — a musician and upper-class Brahmin — to call out class inequalities in the worlds occupied by him.
He is one of the speakers at the ongoing Tata Literature Live! The Mumbai Litfest, and in an interview with indianexpress.com, Krishna addressed questions regarding his activism, if his empathy runs the risk of being condescending, and if awareness enriches art.
In your first book A Southern Music (2013) you dedicated a chapter to caste. In your second book, Sebastian and Sons (2020) you documented the lives of the mrdangam makers, who are mostly Dalits. Even on social media, you are vocal about caste and constantly call out privileges that come with it. Do you think art and activism need to co-exist or can they exist independently?
These are words that are defined by the load we place on them. If activism is seen as a conscious act beyond our own sphere of art-work, then it becomes a separate entity. If we perceive art as action, activism is inherent whether we recognise it or not. Everything I sing has social, cultural, aesthetic, religious, and political messaging. The nature of conglomeration within every art form by its very existence is an activist-y statement. Therefore activism is inherent in all human actions. All I am demanding is a recognition of that and the desperate need to make the art world conscious of its inherent un-equalness.
In relation to this, do you think such awareness has any bearing on the kind of artist one is? Has that bettered your craft in any way?
Of course, it does! Once we question our every thought and action, the art object is altered. For me personally, it has been a disturbing, difficult, and liberating experience. Reflection forced me to come to terms with my own biases and blindspots. This meant that many things that I thought were intrinsic to the music I sang needed to be discarded. I was not sure if anything would be left! But what remained, according to me, was Carnatic music liberated from the clutches of myopia. Have I found the perfect Carnatic world, definitely not, but this is an open, moving raga, and that I am happy with.
Being an upper-class Brahmin, were you constantly negotiating with a savior complex while writing Sebastian and Sons. Was the line between you being their voice and a medium to their stories difficult to keep in check?
A brahmin writing a book on mrdangam makers — let us be honest, this just sounds off! Therefore, it was imperative that I problematise my position and thought in engaging with the people, subject, and history. And in the book, I do that. Am I claiming that I have figured it out? Absolutely not, but I know how to step back and watch myself constantly, and I have many friends who make sure of that. I am still learning, and probably will until the day I die simply because I will never experience socio-cultural discrimination.
As an artist who enjoys certain privileges, how do you implement your awareness, and is there a correct way to do it without coming across as patronising?
We are patronising when we are not aware! When you are acutely aware of your privileges, relationships are built on respect and equality. And whenever the inner monster of condescension makes an appearance, and it will, the just voice within will warn you. But I will still insist that we need to surround ourselves with people who will keep us in check.
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