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 shock, that this is not even giving the experience of a concert, there is no completeness to it, there is no starting, 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 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.
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