This edition of Express Adda, held at The Claridges, New Delhi, hosted Carnatic maestro TM Krishna. In a discussion with The Indian Express Deputy Editor Seema Chishti and Associate Editor Amrith Lal, Krishna spoke about challenging the established order, questioning privilege and how art changes the way you deal with the real world.
On challenging the world of Carnatic music
It was not as if all through my life, I was up and out there, challenging everything in a very frontal way. I grew up learning Carnatic music. It is only after a period of time, when I was in the world of music, that these questions lingering in my head came out and these changes happened. For me, the whole journey began with singing, the act of making music. The questions were internal and personal — on the act of music and what it was all about. From there, in concentric circles, it has enlarged into questions of society, politics, culture, music, and aesthetics. So how has my little world of Carnatic music responded? I think there’s been a journey of response too.
Initially, when the questions were just about my performance style, I didn’t like the word performance and said you can’t call it a performance. I had aesthetic issues with the way Carnatic music presentation was happening on stage and I started changing it. The first reaction was shocking, that this is not even giving the experience of a concert, there is no completeness to it, there is no start, middle body and finish to it. There is a problem here and this cannot be accepted, it is challenging hundreds of years of tradition. So it was pretty much a very direct attack on me as a musician. And then these questions also started becoming about society, about the social texture of Carnatic music, about the politics in it, about gender, caste and then things got murkier to some extent and harder to deal with. So the resistance became louder.
So if you ask me about the seven or eight years that it has happened, my political position gets kind of saddled onto it. I have made no bones about expressing my political position and what I think of the present establishment. If you put all this together and look at the community that usually engages with the world of classical music, this becomes deeply problematic. Because then it seems that here is a person who does not believe in the rich Hindu tradition, doesn’t seem to believe in its rituals, is questioning Tyagaraja, is questioning the format, is questioning the government which is seen to be towards this idea of a monolithic Hindu tradition that is believed to be 4,000 years or 10,000 years old.
On overturning the idea of a concert
Every art form has two parts to it. You learn the art and there is the presentation of the art. To put it very simply, the presentation is the manifestation of what the art is. It’s possible that at one point, presentation becomes the art. Then it becomes very, very complicated. Then what am I learning? Am I learning the art or am I learning the presentation of it? Secondly, does the art become trapped with one form of presentation? That’s the other question and this is a very aesthetic question that can be addressed to very many art forms. Coming to the art form that I practise, over the last 100 years, there is a certain format and a certain format of presentation that has come into being. And when a format becomes successful, that is something everybody follows and it’s as simple as that. So this format became successful and the greatest of musicians followed it, not to the T as there were little nuances and changes that they made. It would be wrong to say that everybody carbon-copies this form. But overall, this format represents a certain basic and the only way of experiencing the art form. But the point is that the art is lost at some level.
On caste in music
In Carnatic music, there were two caste groups—the Brahmin community who were the musicians and music scholars, and the devadasis and the Isai Vellalars (I am clubbing them as one community because they were one community). Isai Vellalars were the ones who played the nagaswaram, thavil and also the mridangam for the dance of the devadasis, these were the communities who were in communication through which the art form evolved. But through the late-19th century, and like everything in India post 1850s, a lot changed, and this too changed. This was the time Carnatic music slowly moved towards the city of Madras, it became more Brahmin and upper-class centric, which also became apparent when the devadasi system was abolished.
The greatest tragedy of that act was that it didn’t recognise devadasis as aesthetic, artistic human beings. Therefore, no care was taken to see what happens to these great dancers and musicians. We see devadasis only as dancers, but they were great musicians too, let’s not forget that. The men in the community who were doing nattuvangam for the dance became nattuvangam artistes for upper-caste women. Nagaswaram is still a Isai Vellalar occupation, thavil is still in the same community. But thavil and nagaswaram have been completely pushed from the mainstream community. If you go to the famed Chennai December season, there are about 2,000 concerts. If there are more than 10 nagaswaram concerts, I’ll be shocked.
There is caste, there is discomfort about the community, there is discomfort in the relationship, and in the cultural difference. All this has contributed to the downfall of the nagaswaram. Carnatic musicians will always say it’s not true, we have taken so much from the nagaswaram vidwans. Appropriation does not mean you respect somebody, it means you disrespect the community even more. If there was really respect, there should have been serious social engagement with the community to make them an active part of the Carnatic music community. This is an aesthetic, social and political question.
On raising questions from a point of privilege
I come from every privilege possible. I come from caste privilege, gender privilege, economic privilege, urban privilege, I come from a certain kind of English speaking privilege. Did I grow up in a house where caste was discussed? No. I was as blind to caste as anybody else of the kind of privilege I come from. I studied in what is a very liberal school — J Krishnamurti Foundation’s The School — but it is very elitist, a bunch of similar kind of people. It’s like going to Ashoka (University), it’s the same feeling that they are different, doing great things to the world. Rubbish! The first time I came in contact with people who were not of my caste was when I went to Vivekananda College in Mylapore, and studied economics.
It’s the first time I met people from different sections of society and honestly, I don’t think I mingled with them well. After class, little groups are formed, that generally tell you who is from where. Interestingly for me, all this came from music, so I am eternally thankful to music. For me, when this happened in music, I somehow felt for those few moments, I was able to be a person I can never be normally, be sensitive in a way I can never be normally. Art changes the way you deal with your real world, it takes the real world and abstracts it in a way you will never see. The more I immerse into Carnatic music, questions of history start erupting, questions of beauty start coming up. These kind of questions started troubling me.
The moment you’re asking these questions, you’re also asking who is saying this, who is the one engaged, who are the communities engaged, who are the communities not engaged, why are they not engaged, what are the circles that are being built, what are the ownership structures, and what are the control mechanisms. So a simple question of why Raga Sankarabharanam is like this can lead to the question of saying who owns Sankarabharanam and why? Art happens when the artiste and everyone engaged in it is keeping alive the complexity, and making sure that the idea of beauty and ugly are not opposites but intertwined, which is social or aesthetic.
On making music on bus route 29 C
My wife Sangeeta Sivakumar, who is also a very accomplished musician, always says that her first love is 29 C. It was her bus ride everyday to college, but that’s not why we chose 29 C. We had a relay of musicians of multiple genres — rap, devotional, Nama Sankirtana, percussion ensemble and fusion. I got on one of the bus stations to just see what was going on. We decided that Besant Nagar in Chennai will be the destination because it is close to where we work, near a village called Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha. It was a relay. Artists were told which bus stop they have to get in and sent an SMS with the licence-plate number. I was there and these younger guys said you have to sing, so I just landed up singing. It does so many things.
The idea of the space is something we don’t realise. The fact that this (the Express Adda) is happening in a hotel defines who will come to this space and who won’t. The idea of space — even before we realise it — has already curated the art, the artist and the audience. If you collapse it, it puts everyone in discomfort, and I love putting people in discomfort. At the same time, for artistes, it is a complete process of rediscovery. You are stripped of everything you protect — your stage is gone, distance from the audience is gone, the mysticism has completely collapsed, because that’s our most prized possession. So then it is only music. Now, I usually know my audience. Here, the audience may think my music is the worst thing in the world. They may hate it. They may boo me. It opens you, very importantly, to rejection. Art should be frontally open to rejection, not these critic kind of rejections; that is cultural acceptance that leads to a kind of criticism.
When you use the words ‘serious’ or ‘aesthetic’ in music, those are also words that have been used very often to create a hierarchy between the classical and the non-classical.
Thank you for saying that because I have understood many serious things of many art forms. One of the things we do with classical music is that this is serious stuff, or that is easy stuff, that can run in the background. Classical music cannot run in the background and you have to know every nuance. This was a lesson for me too. I started engaging with different art forms and was able to get into that aesthetic, which is the whole experiential body of an art form curated by its structures, sign posts and forms. Seriousness is about intensity, a certain commitment; it’s not rule-bound. Seriousness is about being able to enter the space of that art. You go and watch a Shah Rukh Khan film. Can you enter that space of a Shah Rukh Khan film? That is seriousness.
Sumangala Damodaran, Associate Professor, Ambedkar University, Delhi, author and musician
Does your peer group get what you are doing, that you are trying to de-institutionalise certain hierarchies, or do they read it as something completely different?
Many of them don’t even recognise the discourse. I will give you an example. There was this huge hullabaloo about something I said about MS Subbulakshmi. I said that if MS Subbulakshmi, hypothetically, did not look the Brahminish beauty and was dark-skinned, would we celebrate her the way we celebrate her today? And I went on to answer it for myself, and I said I will be truthful to say I will not. I may still think she is wonderful and like her music, but will I revere her, worship her, celebrate her like we do today? I would not. This became a major issue among my peers, and the community, and everybody took great offence to this. What was very troublesome for me was the fact that there is no recognition of caste and gender as being a serious problem, that bothers me with a lot of the privileged community. There is no engagement.
Ajay Gudavarthy, Associate Professor, JNU, Delhi
There is no time-specific raga in Carnatic music as there are in Hindustani music. Would you like to explain?
I think we were smarter than you. I will tell you why. Ragas have been allotted time. If you go to a temple, the artiste attached to the temple will only play certain ragas at certain times. So, there is a time association even in Carnatic music, but I think what we did not get trapped in is this idea of time. I have a criticism of the Hindustani system vis-a-vis time. The idea of a raga and time is abstract. So if a raga gives an idea of early morning, it is the experience of the early morning that you are getting. It doesn’t mean that the experience has to happen only in the early morning. Because the whole art form is about creating that abstractness of real life, so why is there a time and raga. Otherwise you are going to have ragas dying, because concerts are not going to happen at certain times anymore. By accident, the Carnatic musicians never got caught with this; we can sing any raga in a concert.
Justice Mukul Mudgal, former chief justice, Punjab and Haryana High Court