Renowned classical vocalist and social activist TM Krishna spoke at the fifth edition of the Kerala Literature Festival (KLF) in the beach-town of Kozhikode. His latest book Sebastian and Sons chronicling the life and work of mridangam makers is slated for release. An outspoken critic of the BJP-led government at the Centre, Krishna, in one of the panel discussions, dwelled extensively on the relevance of the national anthem Jana Gana Mana in the present context of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act.
On the sidelines of the event, he spoke to indianexpress.com about the meaning behind the unsung original Bengali verses of the anthem written by Tagore, the ongoing CAA-NRC protests, and how he channelises his music to spread awareness.
How does it feel to visit Kerala?
It’s my third time at KLF. On previous occasions, I have both come to speak and sing. It’s always a pleasure to be back. I’ve actually seen this lit fest grow. I can see how it’s become multi-dimensional and fabulous.
Anything that stands out at KLF compared to other literature festivals?
First of all, the location. You’re right next to the sea here. Also, I feel the spirit of conversations and the openness. The thing about a literature festival is the possibility that everyone can express themselves easily without restrictions. I think Kerala in general and KLF, in particular, allows for that possibility and it’s fabulous.
You spoke about the unsung verses of our national anthem at the panel session earlier, explaining its relevance in today’s political climate. Are you surprised that we as Indians, a lot of us, don’t know about it?
I didn’t know. I’m not surprised that most of us don’t know about it. I always knew it was a larger song. But I never bothered about it. Most of us didn’t. A friend of mine, Gopalakrishna Gandhi, asked me, ‘have you seen this?’ He sent me the PDF from Mahatma Gandhi’s bhajanavali which is used in the Sabarmati Ashram. I was completely blown away, especially in the context of our politics today. It’s so important that we sing those lines and the anthem is not restricted to the operative part, but the larger song part. I sing it quite often and it’s a very emotional connection to what we believe is this beautiful land.
Do you feel the unsung portions should have been a part of our anthem?
That’s a tough one. There are two parts, the aesthetic and some structure point, and there is the political and ethical point. Politics and ethics wise, I think many of these verses should be in it. When we call out every religion and when we call out the Northeast. It’s important. But I also understand why a national anthem is never more than a minute. There’s a structural issue and I understand why it was not included. But I would urge at least the line that talks about the hills of the East is somehow brought into the anthem. The very fact that I call it the Northeast. I don’t say Meghalaya, Tripura, Manipur, Assam but I say northeast as if it’s just one cluster. That itself means there’s a second treatment we give as a country. I think maybe we include that expression and act upon it. It will be an important addition.
Does that help bridge the divide with the region?
These are symbols. The divides are bridged in different ways – cultural, educational, economical, political etc. These actions and nudges are as important as building bridges. The fact is that people from the Northeast are picked on in universities. There are racist remarks made against them. I think it’s important we include the expression ‘Eastern hills’ in the anthem.
You’ve said how it is important to sing the national anthem more often, especially in today’s turbulent context. It used to be mandatory in cinema halls before the Supreme Court struck it down. What are your comments on the rule itself?
It’s the most un-aesthetic idea. I’m an artist. Hypothetically, if you’re a filmmaker and your movie is about to start, as a filmmaker, you want the audience to enter the space of the film. Before that, if you put the national anthem, it disturbs the entire aesthetic preparation to watch a film. So just as an artist, it’s a dumb idea. As a citizen, it’s deeply disturbing because you’re forcing me to act in a certain fashion and show my allegiance to this country by my act. I find it extremely intrusive and undemocratic. When this rule was in operation, I entered theatres late. I made it a point. I was not interested in being forced to sing the national anthem. I’m a musician and I sing. Just before the New Year, we did a recording where I sing the anthem and (actor) Naseeruddin Shah reading the Preamble. I sang it with such happiness and pleasure. But that was done on a free will.
The national anthem is now being sung across the country on the streets as part of protests against the CAA-NRC…
Completely, hats off to the young people. They’ve shown older people like me what it means to make something a cultural idea. They’ve made the Preamble a cultural idea. They’ve made the anthem an idea of celebrating who we are. I think we owe it to them. They’ve recaptured it for us. It’s being sung without formality. It’s sung without being pressured to do so.
There are protests across cities, towns and villages against CAA-NRC. Are you surprised by how far and how long the protests have spread?
I think the cardinal mistake the government of India has made is attacking students. That’s what has brought students together. It has woken up a lot of the young, middle-class people of India into the realities of the government we have today. That they would go to any extent to shut people down. I think it was a dastardly, ugly wake-up call. Nevertheless, the wake-up call that has galvanized so many young people. It’s really wonderful to see them sitting through nights and nights. I was worried in December that all of this would peter out after New Year’s. The fact that it has not is a celebration that we’re finally waking. Young people are waking us up. I would hope that political parties don’t take away the voice from the young people. It’s the job of the political parties to do two things now. One, amplify the protests using your party machinery. You’re not doing it. You’re doing a bad job of it. Two, stay behind the students. Let them lead the way. Let them be the front of this protest. I think it’s essential that political parties with networks and cadre do these things.
The ruling party, AIADMK, in Tamil Nadu, has also supported the CAA. Do you think it would have sung a different tune if Jayalalithaa was still alive?
AIADMK is a stooge of the BJP. I don’t agree with Jayalalithaa’s politics, but I don’t think she would have been submissive like this. The fact is that the BJP has the TN government strung by the neck. So they are willing to sing whatever song the BJP wants them to sing and that’s very depressing as a Tamilian to see.
Kerala is the first state to file a plea against CAA in the Supreme Court. Your comments?
I think what (Kerala Chief Minister) Pinarayi Vijayan has done is incredible. I’m so glad they have done it. The filing of the case is a very important federal act and it highlights the independence of the state government. It celebrates the constitutional structure of India. I do hope other state governments follow suit. The biggest problem with opposition parties is that they’ve had no imagination. I hope this is a moment they can get some imagination. Other states should file cases because it would bring a lot of political and judicial pressure. Right now, I’m very disappointed with the judiciary. The Supreme Court has failed us, whether it is Article 370, Ayodhya and now with these protests. The fact is that they are not even taking proper cognisance of the state-aided goondaism, which is disappointing.
Then, how do you see the CAA-NRC issue being resolved?
I don’t know, it’s a tough one. I don’t see the BJP taking one step back. We’ll wait and watch.
Music can be a powerful instrument of protest. Are you disappointed with your peers in the industry that they’ve been largely silent on the issue?
Now, we’ve some of the younger actors in Bollywood finally speaking out. It’s refreshing. But otherwise, you’ve very few people from the art world ever opening their mouth. I’m not surprised. We must understand that India is a feudal country. Artists have always felt that they are taking favours from somebody or the other. It may be the king, zamindar, bureaucrat or the politician. So why disturb the status quo? I don’t care if it’s the BJP or the Congress. Suppose, if I get a Padma Bhushan, if I get funding from a corporate house, get my film released without any strikes, why would I disturb the status quo? I’m not even surprised (they are not speaking out). But utterly disappointed.
Now, you’ve your latest book ‘Sebastian and Sons’ based on mridangam makers out. It’s a deeply researched book. How did the idea of writing a book on it come to you?
It’s four years of work. In my first big book ‘Southern Music’, there was a whole chapter on caste. It was going into its second or third edition. I saw the chapter on caste and I realised that I had not written about instrument-makers. There’s a huge caste imbalance and the knowledge they have is not being celebrated. I thought this should be a book. I spoke to around 32-35 mridangam makers. The book is entirely based on primary sources. Around 45 interviews over four years. It chronicles the history, sociology, innovation, knowledge of the mridangam makers and most of them belong to the Dalit Christian community.
Did that surprise you that a substantial section of the mridangam makers is from the Dalit Christian community?
No. Simply because it’s leather. Leather is such a caste divider. What made me very intrigued is that a Dalit and a Brahmin has to closely function together because of context. I was very curious about what was happening. The Dalit is the only one considered in the caste structure who can do the skinning work. The Brahmin would not do skin work, he can play a skin instrument. You see the whole problem there? I also feel we don’t celebrate these great thinking artists who make these instruments. It was a tough book to write.
When you were out researching and talking to them, is there an anecdote that sticks in your mind?
So many. I met a mridangam maker in Perumvamba in Palakkad. That was one of the toughest interviews. For the first 20 minutes, he would just be shaking his legs and answering in mono-syllables. His son had warned me that his father won’t speak much. But he said something. He said, ‘how does speaking to you ever change my life?’ That hit hard. It’s the truth. I’m writing this book, but does it change his life? No. If not anything, this book has been a learning experience for me. For an upper-caste Brahmin, to say that you don’t believe in caste is so easy. That’s what we forget. We think the act of discarding caste is an act of great bravery. Nonsense. It’s the easiest thing to do. Because your caste is so privileged it doesn’t matter. But the person under the oppression of caste can never say, ‘I don’t care about my caste’. We have to think about these things carefully.
Finally, you’re singing, speaking, writing books. How do you manage to do so much?
My head is spinning. I don’t sleep much, which is not good. Life is a blur or a haze sometimes. But I’m not complaining, I know I need a break. One of the things I do is go to the mountains. I hope I can take a break in April.
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