No country for TM Krishna: India has plenty of room for sycophants, but none for a musician with spine
An entire two-day program featuring four classical artistes was cancelled because some people had objected to the inclusion of Carnatic musician TM Krishna
It happened within minutes of waking on Thursday, 15 November 2018. By mid-morning, the sense of dread and despair had changed into an incredulous exasperation:
An entire two-day programme featuring four classical artistes at New Delhi's Nehru Park, co-organised by Spic Macay and the Airports Authority of India, was suddenly scrapped; some people had objected to the inclusion of Carnatic musician TM Krishna who was "denigrating Hinduism" by singing songs from other religions.
Ignoring the gloom building up within me, I moved ahead with my day. A little after lunch though, I’d snapped and given in to the utter dismay and absurdity of the situation. After weeks of enduring low jibes about 'urban Naxals' coupled with an irresponsible politician's open inducements to an army of individuals with hate on their minds, to flood the internet with fake news, it is time to ask ourselves if this is rock bottom. Can we start cleaning and rebuilding, or do we have lower depths to navigate?
For, if we permit this misuse of power to pass without protest, where do we stop?
For years, we have watched as filmmakers, writers, and visual artistes have been intimidated by those who don’t much care to read a book, watch a film, or walk into an art gallery anyway. Individuals with years of study, observation and scholarship can be prevented from making a contribution to our world with perfect impunity.
Classical musicians are largely perceived as a pliant lot — and with good reason. Most have played the largely ceremonial role recommended for them in society, in exchange for the means of gathering and peddling influence within the tight and small circles they occupy. Thus, every now and then, you hear of a particular senior musician as "the one to go to" when, after having amassed every kind of wealth, a fellow musician craves a national honour or two. "Go to him," they say. "He’s your man in the capital. He will get it done."
Gradually, after having held their own integrity to their art and fellow musicians in abeyance for years, they are known to call up organisers or sponsors of large, well-funded festivals asking for changes in line-ups. They know perfectly well that the ecosystem — crammed with too few opportunities and too many timorous musicians looking for a break — will look the other way.
In public, an assiduously cultivated image projects senior “legendary” classical musicians as new age spiritualists who travel the globe for concerts, but live in a time warp harking back to the unbroken traditions of a misty past. The best among them are capable of developing a frighteningly sharp 21st century mercantile side when they occasionally emerge from their divine stupors.
To this set of senior musicians, the much vaunted “mysticism” in classical music serves to obfuscate its links with antediluvian social and cultural attitudes which persist to this day. These attitudes manifest themselves in the present by the steady marginalising and wiping out of scores of musicians who either cannot or refuse to play the game. And there are plenty of wonderful musicians who withdraw from the active performance circuit to nurture their art without making tacky deals and compromises.
Then there’s the template of the carefully created persona of the charismatic “good looking” musician from the late '70s onwards. This is when classical music was repackaged in the darbars of contemporary Delhi where finery, stage presence and mythic musical abilities combined to create a powerful draw for an increasingly vocal, urban middle-class India whose direct knowledge and appreciation of classical music was in decline but who wanted to be heard and seen.
Last year, at a prominent college festival, I asked the secretary of the student council in charge of preserving and promoting classical music, why they repeated a few “big” names every other year. “Because he has such magnetic stage presence. Even our volunteers who are not into classical music stop to stare at him!” came the breathless reply. I bit back my sharp riposte, accepting that we were all beaten by the clever and long years of concerted image-building and the celebrity cult which had served to take attention away from the music. It had also cast many musicians who didn’t care to peddle themselves into these modes as less interesting somehow and therefore not deserving of corporate support.
Today, as the second and third generation of musicians emerge in the shadows of the celebrity legendary musician, they aren’t about to question or critique anything. Their role models have told them how to play the game and they have followed. Facetious talk on stage, a version of classical music that is embarrassingly lightweight when it is not distorted and aimed at a mass audience, a certain execrable showiness ensure that intelligence and good taste are not to be found most days when a classical musician takes the stage. Bad behaviour too abounds.
The scion of a powerful senior musician who occasionally works with folk musicians, is known to keep them in 'their place' in a variety of ways. An imperious wave of the hand will signal that their sound check of five minutes for a troupe of five musicians on different instruments is over. This bunch of well-dressed, politically loyal, good-looking musicians — most with family links to a senior musician — have supporters in every place and usually work with a cabal of big ticket organisers and corporate sponsors.
So nobody minds the decades-long hijacking via rampant commercialism and declining taste in the way classical music concerts are curated and presented while cynically appealing to the lowest common denominator. Never mind that this harms the music that defines us as a civilisation and a culture. Never mind that this provides no space for the growth of a wider set of musicians and never mind that young musicians are picking up kitschy self-promotion and wannabe behaviour ("Hello bro!) while also spouting the great clichés ad nauseum ("We need your blessings!") which keep the apparatus seemingly in working order. We tolerate all of this for decades. None of these musicians has a position on the world they are part of or the ability to ask questions and seek change — because, what’s more important than bagging a concert? None of this exceedingly self-centred and harmful behaviour is considered unpatriotic.
But when a musician wants to be a regular member of society, with opinions and questions like everybody else about how things are and how they can be better for everybody, and how we can all work together to achieve humane goals — that, we just can’t tolerate.
The author is co-founder and curator at the arts company First Edition Arts in Mumbai
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