TM Krishna on backlash against dissenting voices: 'Hatred being perpetuated under cover of democracy'

Thodur Madabusi Krishna — better known as TM Krishna, or simply TMK — is among the leading Carnatic music vocalists and public intellectuals of our time. The Magsaysay Awardee has been in the news recently for repudiating attempts to communalise Carnatic music — a stance that has made him, even more, the target of right wing trolls. Last month, a scheduled concert in Delhi, jointly organised by SPIC MACAY and the Airports Authority of India (AAI) was abruptly "rescheduled", citing "exigencies of work". It is believed threats led to the event being withdrawn. TMK's performance did take place — albeit at a different venue — under the protection of the AAP government in Delhi, and was well attended by supporters of classical music and freedom of expression.

Krishna looks back on the concert, and speaks of his efforts to challenge hegemonies in Carnatic music, in this interview.

Let’s begin with your eventful Delhi concert. Did you expect such an involved audience, demanding more and more? It was a discerning gathering, wasn’t it?

It was an intense and overwhelming evening, a celebration of democracy and our multiplicity as a land. The lead-up to the concert itself was deeply moving. After the mess with the AAI, the way people of Delhi responded was beautiful, offering homes, offices, lawns and street corners for the concert. The letters I received from the students of JNU, the letter of support from the teachers and students of University of Delhi, and the innumerable articles and social media posts written by Indians from across the country were stunning. That over a thousand people came together to rejoice melody and rhythm, our right to be who we are, reaffirmed our constitutional ethos and modernity.

The audience was demanding and in fact requested that I sing the now well-known 'Poromboke' song and an Arabic hymn that I sing in Carnatic style. In most classical circles, discernment is equated to knowing the details of the form. But real discernment comes from being able to stay within the music and allowing it to fill our being.

On that chilly November evening, every single person remained within.

What you performed that day, were those songs specially chosen for the occasion? For instance, I missed your renderings of Subramania Bharati even though you sang 'Poromboke'.

A lot of thought did go into the curation. The concert was not just a case of shifting venue and organiser. This was a political event, an evening when every one of us was making a strong statement on culture, dissent, faith and the idea of a plural India. Therefore, I included compositions that traversed our land, its tones, colours, prayers, hopes and questions. Subramania Bharati was on my to-sing list but 'Poromboke' took over and so I missed representing one of India’s bold, exacting voices. But he was definitely present as a fierce ally.

How have things been since the Delhi concert? Are you getting more invites, or are organisers shunning you?

Well, the past 15 days have not been easy. The very next day after Delhi, my concert in Chennai came under threat from a party called the Hindu Makkal Katchi and I was told that the secretary of BJP (Tamil Nadu) also called the organiser and said that they would hold a satyagraha that evening. RR Sabha, an auditorium in Chennai's Carnatic quarter, Mylapore, had been rented for the concert. They did very little to help the concert organiser, First Edition Arts, a Mumbai-based cultural promoter. I had to call the commissioner of police to provide security, which he did promptly, and the police were indeed splendid. At the very last moment, RR Sabha's office-bearers insisted that they would allow the concert to proceed as scheduled only if they are permitted to make a statement with me seated on stage that they are entirely opposed to my political views. I presume that they expected me to either reject the suggestion, or verbally respond on stage. I did neither. I only sang. Later, they released one minute of the speech on social media in order to please the BJP, RSS and other right-wingers. I do hope they feel satisfied.

In stark contrast, a few days later when I reached Mysuru for workshops and concerts, the organisers did everything in their power to make sure that nothing untoward happened. They paid no heed to the threats and were strong and sure. They took care of the safety of the audience and students who participated in my workshop. I must also thank the commissioner of police, Mysuru, for having provided security for the two days. The fact that hundreds of Mysurians attended the concert despite all the tension was a befitting reply to these thugs who threaten our democratic rights and place seeds of conflict in our minds. A few days later, when I was to perform in Mumbai, some very suspicious calls were received but nothing happened. So, it has been eventful to say the least.

 TM Krishna on backlash against dissenting voices: Hatred being perpetuated under cover of democracy

TM Krishna. Image via Facebook/@tmkrishna

Exactly a year ago you were caught in another controversy when you said MS Subbulakshmi had to Brahmanise herself to become more acceptable. We know there were demands for an apology, but how did the conservative Carnatic music establishment take it?

There was and is no question of apologising, because everything I have said, has been said with utmost respect. We need to understand, think of and experience MS, not mummify her as ‘perfect’. Her life and music are gateways to our own self-realisation. Those who were shouting did not listen to my talk (it is available on YouTube) and have not really read my essay on MS published by The Caravan. The establishment was very upset and many musicians, old and young, made strong statements of opposition on social media. Some within the fraternity even crossed all thresholds of decency. But I am glad that they did speak, because finally we were able to understand their minds. The enormous loss-in-translation syndrome that we suffer from because of our socio-cultural insularity was reaffirmed by the way the establishment reacted. The fact that we are unable to go beyond our own caste and patriarchal conditionalities and truly empathise with MS Subbulakshmi's struggles, courage, questions, challenges and resignations, both as a person and musician, only highlights how socially regressive we remain.

In A Southern Music you also talk of the failure of the leading lights of Carnatic music to produce beautiful performance art and institutional structure that would have given it a bigger international presence, as is the case with Hindustani classical. Does Carnatic music still have that handicap?

In spite of all the social inequalities within the Carnatic fold, the Carnatic environment has been far more welcoming to new, young talent (from within the Brahmanical fold) than Hindustani music. Before I proceed, I want to reiterate strongly that Hindustani music also suffers from caste and religious majoritarianism. But it manifests in a far more subtle manner. Added to this is the awful class elitism that the Hindustani community flaunts. The sabha system — with all its flaws — has allowed musicians to become torch bearers at a relatively younger age. And, therefore, today, Carnatic music is practiced at the very highest professional level by many more young musicians than Hindustani music. Hindustani music has allowed itself to be ruled by superstar musicians and their progeny. Along with this, musical mafia also make it harder for genuinely talented young musicians to get opportunities. The art form has also over-corporatised itself, making it show-driven. This mix is dangerous and as an outsider I feel Hindustani music is at a very precarious place. The presence of so many young, sparkling musicians in Carnatic music has changed people’s perception of the art form. We in the south have been much faster in adapting to new technologies, including the internet. This has allowed the Carnatic world to build online ecosystems that are much more active and passionate than their Hindustani counterparts. The innumerable young people learning, discussing and practising Carnatic music across the world has energised the arena. Though Carnatic music is still a smaller presence, there is no doubt that the gap in its international influence has narrowed considerably.

Have your interventions — be it the Urur-Olcott Kuppam festival, performing with Jogappas, singing the poetry of Perumal Murugan or songs of Nagore Hanifa — to make Carnatic music more diverse and flexible helped?

I would like to believe that these collaborations and adaptations have enlarged the audience-scape. On the one side, people from the south belonging to other communities both in terms of caste and religion have begun engaging seriously with the music. On the other side, many who believe in the philosophy and politics that has propelled me in this direction have entered the Carnatic domain.

No country for TM Krishna: India has plenty of room for sycophants, but none for a musician with spine

Do we have more Carnatic musicians challenging the set notions of music hierarchy and its deep relations with caste, class and gender? 

I do not see it happening right now, at least not with my generation of musicians. The power and control systems that regulate Carnatic music are ensuring this. But I know that the next generation is actively engaging with these difficult issues. I am certain that at least a few of these musicians, when they attain a level of professional and personal security, will raise questions and provoke.

Some people have argued that I should allow only my music to do the questioning and not indulge in literary or oratorical criticism. To them I want to say that unless the ugliness is articulated clearly and the social disorder is highlighted, the danger that every subversive act is absorbed/appropriated into the accepted status quo is real. And I refuse to let that happen.

In this context I would like to know, how was your decision to opt out of the Madras Music Season taken by artistes, organisers and your fans?

It has now been many years since I stopped singing. I am often asked the question whether I am ready to come back. The Season is only a visible sighting of deeper problems. I chose to stay away because I was unable to be part of something that so unabashedly flaunted all that I found disturbing. But I have not removed myself from the inner Carnatic world. I perform at sabhas and work with them on some projects. I hope that slowly they will begin to take affirmative steps (even tiny ones) to address issues of caste exclusivity, misogyny and unquestioning homogeneity that plague the sound and practice of the music. This will then naturally change the Music Season. Unless I see some signs of this shift, it will be very difficult for me to return. I apologise to all those wonderful rasikas who feel that I have betrayed them by not singing during the season.

You are among the rare artistes who speak on social, political and environmental issues. Your critics, someone like Sonal Mansingh, say artistes should confine themselves to art. Would you agree to exist in such silos?

Every word Sonal Mansingh penned was political. In fact, it was more. It was explicitly party politics. Arts and artistes are always political. The demand for art to remain apolitical is itself political. To believe that classical art forms are a pathway to moksha is political. These silos are created by people of privilege who want to keep their art forms mythical. This means words such as the real and political are a no-no. After all, how can we have the celestial wrestling with the mundane? This too is politics, isn’t it?

Does it surprise you that there are only a handful of intellectuals, public or otherwise, who speak up? Why don’t we see larger collaboration among artistes, writers, poets, activists to guard our basic constitutional values?

It does not surprise me at all. Ours is a feudal society within which caste and patriarchy operates. And hence, artistes, especially those practicing the arts that belong to so-called culturally high and intellectuals from the same group usually pander to people in power. Today, these are politicians, power brokers, corporates and bureaucrats. We will find that the music, dance and theatre that challenge socio-political-cultural power almost always emerge from the marginalised. That is the only way they can be heard and gather strength to demand transformative change. The privileged, on the other hand, have exactly the opposite objective, which is to let everything remain as it is. And if change occurs, we will ensure that it does not destabilise our cultural centrality.

Is it a good time to be an artiste, poet, writer and journalist? Or are we living in an era of apolitical intellectuals, as poet Otto Rene Castillo’s classic poem goes?

We are living in dangerous times. The facade of democracy makes it that much more dangerous because it is used as a cover to perpetuate hatred and enmity. Since we are free in one sense, it is easy to surreptitiously shut down disagreeing voices. We live in an India where artistes have to look over their shoulder and think seriously about their safety. While much attention has been given to what has happened to me, it is important that all of us think of those who do not have the social connectivity that I enjoy. I have received so much support because of who I am. And this includes my caste, gender, urbanness and upper-classiness. What about all those artistes and writers who face greater dangers but are hardly noticed by any of us? I do sincerely hope we remain as strong and supportive of writers, poets, singers, dancers and actors who live beyond the horizon, fighting against the kind of oppression we have never experienced. If we do not, this liberalism is as hierarchical as unchallenged conservatism.

Akshaya Mukul is an author and independent researcher. He tweets @Akshayamukul

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Updated Date: Dec 08, 2018 11:07:54 IST