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Book Name: Reshaping Art
Author: TM Krishna
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Price: Rs 299
Thodur Madabusi Krishna, better known to music lovers as TM Krishna, has emerged as an eminent practitioner of the Carnatic tradition of music. He is also a rare public intellectual trying constantly to remove the age-old caste-based shackles of India’s classical music and make it more inclusive. In this slim volume containing eight short essays, Krishna examines the caste, gender and class-based segregation practised by myopic traditionalists who refuse to acknowledge the great debt our Margi music owes to the traditional music of outcastes, transgenders and women. In doing this, he offers us rare insights into the underplayed intricacies of the Indian socio-cultural matrix that old scholars from Panini to Basavanna identified as the root of all art, including literature and music. At the same time, he identifies the rigid ideas and defences raised around classical music by the Brahminical orthodoxy that long controlled classical texts, musical renditions and the composition of audiences for the concerts.
How can art and a highly stratified society converse with each other freely in those moments of musical ecstasy when the cobwebs and grotesque facets of art’s temporal life suddenly cease to matter? And, the listeners and the performers are transported together on the wings of an experience that cannot be defined in words? How does the same audience, after that moment passes, go back to living their differentiated lives? Last, but not the least, why do even aesthetically sensitive and liberally inclined music lovers nurse such a strong urge to control, structure, regulate, hold, organise and own both art and life itself? TMK lays out these rhetorical questions before the reader only to demonstrate their inadequacy as logically or aesthetically fair.
As a writer and student of north Indian classical music, TMK’s music and his writings, in particular his earlier work, Southern Music, kicked the door open a few years ago for those untrained in the intricacies of classical Carnatic music. But I also found that I constantly needed to lower my own defences shaped by old caste-class-gender conditioning that surrounded my Hindustani music taleem as well. The musical ‘new’, or even new- to-me, needed me to swallow some painful truths about the history and sociology of India’s classical art forms, including music, both north and south of the Vindhyas.
“…Upper caste entitlement is directly derived from the unjustifiable division of human function along caste lines… lower caste art forms, even if they acquire religious significance, are treated as a form of uzhaipu (labour)… their art is… only a product of labour which then cannot create knowledge… this distinction is an entirely erroneous, offensive and discriminatory value assessment of art, community, occupation and knowledge.”
After the initial shock, what still kept me riveted to Krishna’s writings was, perhaps, the fact that as a journalist writing in Hindi who is also an avid reader of literature from all over the country, I had already lowered my defences when editing or reading Indian language newspapers that cater to a different (read lower) class. That is also required by novels, autobiographies and biographies in various Indian languages by Dalits, tribals, traditional tawaifs and women practitioners of dance and music. All of them gave first-hand accounts of chains of exploitation and searing insights into the dark underbelly of our art world, where gross inequalities shaped the politics of artists’ lives from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.
It not only matters what any art form narrates, TMK has undertaken a long and arduous journey to seek attunement and acceptance by musical ‘others’, stepping beyond the traditional Brahminical Laxman Rekhas to live among Dalit musicians and other outlier groups like the humble fisher-folk, the male Theyyam performers from the lower castes in Kerala, and the transgender Jogappas on Karnataka’s northern borders whose beautiful devotional kirtanas resonate within all temples. This pilgrimage among the musically rich communities showed Krishna how these musicians and their music must now have an equally clear and sensitive theorisation available, with help from academicians.
Yes, Krishna occasionally appears discontinuous with himself. Two people who seem to share the same body. Discourse in a culturally imbalanced caste-based society like ours, he feels rightly, cannot use a single template. Every art, he says, is mobile in its very inception, so we cannot force an artist to remain as they were when we were first enchanted by their music. There is simply not enough time in their constantly evolving mind to be the Krishna or Kumar Gandharva of our memory forever. There will always be a moment during a performance when everybody and everything just fuses together, and pure sound envelops all, singer and listeners alike. Raso Vai Sah!
Some readers may ask, can music become a platform for questioning social, cultural and political views that even put our venerated classical musicians in the dock? That is ducking the real question. As Krishna explains painstakingly, the basic values of raga, tala and text remain supreme. But it is time to enlarge the conversation about each of them sufficiently to include our age and its new dimensions.
Read this book for the sheer pleasure of meeting an ever-curious, ever-innovative and unafraid mind.