TM Krishna presents Narayana Guru's poetry set in Carnatic music, underlining the reformer's prevailing relevance

  • Carnatic vocalist and social commentator TM Krishna will be performing the works of the 20th-century philosopher-poet-saint and social reformer from Kerala, Narayana Guru.

  • There have been a few attempts to tune some of Guru's poetry in ragas but never a concerted effort to bring his words into the Carnatic genre and its practice.

  • Guru is known to have spearheaded reform movements in Kerala against casteism, and promoted new values of spiritual freedom and social equality.

Carnatic vocalist and social commentator TM Krishna will be performing to the works of the 20th-century philosopher-poet-saint and social reformer from Kerala, Narayana Guru.

Guru was born in 1885 in the village of Chempazhanthy near Thiruvananthapuram, in the erstwhile princely state of Travancore. He belonged to a backward Ezhava family, which, along with other lower caste and untouchable communities, faced immense humiliation and oppression at the hands of higher caste communities, especially Brahmins. Guru is known to have spearheaded reform movements in Kerala against casteism, and promoted new values of spiritual freedom and social equality. It was he who propagated the non-dualistic ideology of Adi Shankaracharya with his most well-known motto: 'Oru Jathi, Oru Matham, Oru Daivam, Manushyanu' ('One caste, one religion, one god for all').

During his lifetime, Guru authored 45 original works of literature, which include Atmopadesa Śatakam (One hundred verses of self-instruction) that centres on teaching about or of the self, and Daiva Dasakam (Ten verses to God). There have been numerous translated publications of his works over the years.

 TM Krishna presents Narayana Gurus poetry set in Carnatic music, underlining the reformers prevailing relevance

Narayana Guru. Image via Facebook

For the first time, Guru's poetry will be set to Carnatic music compositions, and presented to the world in the form of a full-fledged concert.

Guru's poetry — usually written in Malayalam, Tamil and Sanskrit — has often been recognised as pathbreaking in terms of its mystic intensity, sonorous cadence, and aesthetic risk-taking. The sheer profundity and relevance of his thoughts, coupled with his dexterity in all three languages, make for a repertoire that arguably eclipses the works of other renowned writers in the languages.

Ahead of the event's launch on 1 November, TM Krishna spoke to Firstpost in an email conversation. Edited excerpts:

How did the idea for this event on Narayana Guru come about?

This idea evolved through multiple conversations between Anish Damodaran, Riyaz Komu, MC Dinakaran and me when we met at the Backwaters collective. The Backwaters Collective meets every year to discuss metaphysics in and of life, society and politics in an attempt to go beyond silos of knowledge. At the centre of this annual retreat is Shri Narayana Guru. The first time I sang a poem of Shri Narayana Guru was this year, at the Backwaters Collective in Kochi. S Gopalakrishnan, a very well known music aficionado also helped immensely in bringing the poems together for this concert.

Could you explain the entire process — from selection of his works to composing to them?

There have been a few attempts to tune some of his poetry in ragas, but never a concerted effort to bring his words into the Carnatic genre and its practice. The selection was made in such a manner that it brought in various themes and context, taking into account his life's work and the multiple languages in which he wrote — Malayalam, Sanskrit and Tamil.

While working on the project, did you find something unique in the lyrical quality of his verses, which perhaps set them apart from the works of his contemporaries?

Not all poetry can be set to music. But Narayana Guru's poetry naturally lends itself to rhythm and melody. It was very easy to set to music. Another fascinating aspect of his writing is how beautifully he melts one language into another even within one composition. Today, we have people in power wanting to claim one language as national and unifying, but Guru clearly suggests that we unify when we merge, dissolve and mesh our spoken and written words in form, intent and thoughts.

You are known for breaking conventions in the cultural space of south India, a commonality shared with Guru. Did you, in any way, feel connected to him as an artist while working on the project?

I would rather say learning. Before I joined this project, I knew very little about Narayana Guru beyond his social reform and anti-caste campaign mould. This initiative has given me much more insight into him as a seeker. He symbolises the truth that profound experience translates to active action. One cannot and does not exist without the other; if we negate either one of them, we cease being sensitive or democratic individuals.

TM Krishna and Sree Narayana Guru. Images via Facebook

TM Krishna and Narayana Guru. Images via Facebook

In the press note, you've said: "The world knows him as a social reformer, but he was one of the greatest seekers of truth, and this musical endeavour is a humble beginning." Would you like to elaborate?

This is the point. Today we have separated self-questioning, faith and inward movement from socio-political activism. These do not exist in isolated islands, they flow into each other. It is a deep internal discovery that energises the outwardly perceivable acts of defiance and contestation. We, the observers, think there is a conflict, when in actuality one is only an extension of the other. Narayana Guru symbolises the coming together of the religious, spiritual, rational, social and political.

In today's day and age, when the notions of plurality and inclusivity have become rather contentious, how relevant are Guru and his words, especially his motto: 'One caste, one religion, one god for all'?

We celebrate the eternality of his words, but I am disturbed that they are becoming more and more relevant. What does this say about us? Are we regressing or are we for once seeing ourselves for who we actually are? I also wonder if we must stop using terms such as mystic to describe individuals like Narayana Guru, he was a human being in the most profound sense of the term. Words such as mystic make him distant and place him on a pedestal, far beyond our reach. There is and was no 'one' Buddha. We are all Buddhas.

What can we expect from this event, and what is your vision for it?

This event is the first step in the direction of bringing a conversation through the poetry of Narayana Guru. For sure this concert will travel to places like Colombo, Kerala, Delhi, Chennai and other places. But we also hope to offer scholarships for people to work musically on poets, including Guru who wrote in this spirit. We are looking for young artists from across this country.

It is also very important that we get out of the Kabir-syncretic syndrome. This does no good to Kabir or our own syncretism. Unfortunately, Kabir has become comfort food, the feel-good factor. He needs to be heard in confluence with Guru and so many others from across this land. We also are hoping for partnerships with musicians from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, etc., where there were similar thinkers. Maybe such a poetic and musical discourse will make us a more reasonable society.

— The concert, titled Rooh-e-Nool, will be held on Friday, 1 November, at the Tata Theatre, NCPA, Mumbai.

Updated Date: Nov 04, 2019 09:20:32 IST