"Cultural interaction must happen with mutual respect and care. This cannot be the superficial political statement that we so often hear. We have to free all arts from the clutches of casteism, racism and sexism."
In the world of caste and creed-driven, traditional and highly Brahminical carnatic music, Thodur Madabusi Krishna or T.M. Krishna, as he is popularly known, is an exception. For his critics, he is a divisive man and to his detractors he is a renegade, arrogant stuntman and a disruptor. Highly criticised for his unorthodox, dissenting voice, Krishna is now the proud recipient of Ramon Magsaysay award for Emergent Leadership this year.
Hailing from a family of Carnatic music connoisseurs, Krishna was trained by Vidvans Seetharama Sarma, Chingelpet Ranganathan and the legendary Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. But Krishna’s voice of dissent, taking carnatic music from the sabhas to the slums, his announcement that he would not perform during the December music season, which is considered the citadel of carnatic music, and his attempts to play with the structure of carnatic music concerts in the sabhas earned him more brickbats than bouquets. Not very comfortable with awards, T.M. Krishna doesn’t seem carried away by the Magsaysay award, but feels that “it is reflection of the work that has been done until now”.
Krishna’s efforts in exploring the uncharted territories in music, travelling all the way to Sri Lanka’s northern province to rebuild the classical music traditions among the Tamils there and taking Carnatic music to the corporation schools in Chennai, have always invited him criticisms from around. But, not one to be cowed down by criticisms, Krishna continues to break barriers.
In a detailed interview with THE WEEK, Krishna elaborates on what his interests are, how he usually looks at his critics, what the award means to him and his plans for bringing nagaswara and tavil to the regular kutcheri circle. Excerpts:
Congratulations to you on winning the Magsaysay award. What do you have to say about the award?
Thank you for your wishes. I am one of those who are very uncomfortable with awards but the Magsaysay is different, because it is a celebration of people, society and the endeavours to change overt and underlying social discrimination. This is a very special moment, a time of reflection on the work that has been done until now. It also allows me to expand my thoughts on the possibilities of how else we can address these issues. Cultural and artistic discrimination are nuanced and practised at sub-conscious levels making it harder to call it out. So, we do need to think of ways of expanding the discourse to create more self-awareness.
The award is usually given to a social worker. But, this time they have chosen a musician. How do you think the award will inspire your work?
M.S. Subbulakshmi was given the Magsaysay for public service. I consider it a blessing that I am receiving it in her birth centenary year. I am also glad that I have been given it in the Emergent Leadership category because it recognises the fact that I have so much more to do. I think this award gives me a lot of strength to pursue the philosophy that has moved me. There are many partnerships that can be built with organisations and people who work in the field of art and culture. So, I take this opportunity to invite them all for a dialogue.
Do you think this award is a recognition for you more than the Carnatic music you love the most?
Yes! The citation says, “The board of trustees recognises his forceful commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions, breaking barriers of caste and class to unleash what music has to offer not just for some but for all.” This is the essence of the award. I am so glad that the trustees have recognised that art and artists can bring people together. At the same time the truth is that we all are divided and live at different levels of the social ladder. This means that cultural interaction must happen with mutual respect and care. This cannot be the superficial political statement that we so often hear. We have to free all arts from the clutches of casteism, racism and sexism—from all isms that need to be demolished.
And this is not only about taking Carnatic music to all. It is about bringing all art forms, especially those practised by marginalised and minority communities on to the celebrated proscenium stage. We must celebrate all art and dive into their aesthetic nuances. We may not like all art forms but that has nothing to do with developing an honest understanding. In the process we will grow as human beings and we can bring people and societies together. And in this conversation let us not forget that it is not just casteism that we are battling, it is also the rampant sexism that is practised in almost all art forms.
Recently, in an interview you had said that you had plans for bringing nagaswara and tavil to the regular kutcheri circle. Can you elaborate on this? How do you think this will work out?
There are organisations that hold separate nagaswara festivals. Most organisations use nagaswara as mangala isai and this concert happens when there is absolutely nobody in the audience. In some cases, one concert slot is provided as a token. This has to change. How can we make nagaswara concerts part of the normal Carnatic music narrative as it was in the past? This is the challenge which is as much an aesthetic question as it is socio-political. I do have a few ideas for this, but I do not want to say anything before I actually begin implementing my thoughts. I must state here that instrumental music in Carnatic music itself is struggling and one of the reasons is the over-emphasis on religious bhakti. This has happened over the last century. This, too, needs to be addressed.
What is your idea of art and music? Should it deliver a message? Do you think Carnatic music has isolated itself from the mainstream art and music?
Every art form has a different intention. Some directly challenge social, cultural and political status quo while some others specifically evolved to infuse a religious experience. Some other art forms work in the realm of abstracting life into a confluence of melody rhythm and text. Each of these addresses different emotional needs of the human being. Carnatic music is isolated in social terms without doubt, but we do not notice this because those who control it (people like me) have a stranglehold over the cultural and religious identity of this country. But, this does not mean that Carnatic music must compete to become as popular as film music. What I am looking for is diversity in the people who engage with the art. This is also what I hope we can achieve in all art forms not just the ones practised by the elite castes. Will it not be wonderful if paraiattam and gana is practised and enjoyed by the Brahmin community along with the dalits?
Off all the leading Carnatic musicians I have read about or seen, I feel you always stand out because you are more inclusive. Some time ago you organised the Urur Olcott Kuppam festival and you were also teaching Carnatic music in schools. How did all this begin?
I am where I am because of the experience of life that Carnatic music has gifted me. Every time I sing, the musical moment is a revelation that makes me connect with the ‘being’ where all man-made barriers and fears dissolve. It makes me wonder why we cannot live our lives with this spirit. From that comes my writing, talks, activism and music itself.
What do you have to say about the Isai Vellalars and the dalits who perform music in Tamil Nadu? How do you look at their potential? Do you think they would do the best if trained?
There are many Isai Vellalars who are extremely talented. But, the truth is that it is very difficult for them to get a footing into the mainstream Carnatic circuit. This happens not only due to the inbuilt discrimination in the musical arena (we are not even aware of this!) but also because of the fear that they feel within. Of course, they cannot express this openly. We need to address both. In the case of dalits or other caste group, this is even worse, because they have never belonged to this world. They are intimidated and do not know how to negotiate Carnatic music’s inner workings. But, let us recognise that this is not just about one artist from another caste group; this is about bringing in a larger cultural change which makes this music open to artists and audiences from across the spectrum of society. This is far more important and naturally much more difficult.
Tell me about your efforts to take Carnatic music to corporation schools. Please elaborate on the work you carried out in this front.
This project began about six months ago. Right now we are conducting music classes in 3-4 Chennai schools (used to be called corporation schools). The students are from classes 6 and 7. This project was initiated by musician Sangeetha Sivakumar and me in collaboration with Anmajyoti Trust. It also focuses on trying to evolve a learning curriculum to address the needs of children who come from backgrounds where Carnatic music is not part of their cultural upbringing.
The standard joke about T.M. Krishna is that “When will he begin his concert? With Mangalam?” My question is, do you really enjoy playing with the structure or the concert format? And why?
I will not respond to that joke because it trivialises what I do and only reveals the superficial engagement people have with Carnatic music. I have said it time and again that this is not about the order of songs. My musical practice challenges the idea of the Carnatic experience which, I believe, is trapped within a presentation format. And let me make it clear for the nth time that this format and performance practice is also a socio-political and religious tool and a control mechanism. My musical practice is linked to my activism. If people do not see that, it is honestly their problem.
The world of Carnatic music has always been dominated by the Brahmins. Being a product of the Brahmin aristocracy, you have received criticisms over the years for taking Carnatic and classical music to other communities. Do you think you were successful over the years in your efforts despite the opposition?
I have myself said that I am part of the Brahmin aristocracy and, therefore, my strength comes from the fact that I understand the internal workings of privilege and power very well. At the same time, I am not here to appropriate any rights from the Dalit or any other community. The truth is that, when those who were outside the privileged circle for so many years pointed to the religious and caste hegemony in the Carnatic world and the larger cultural universe, nobody cared. Even today we brandish upper-caste and class art forms as Indian culture, don't we?
Now the upper-caste community has had to respond to me because I am an insider. I only urge them to think beyond their fears and defences. I hope I can join hands with people from my own privileged background and other caste groups to work together in artistic conversations. Urur-Olcott Kuppam is one such coming together through which we are learning from each other and celebrating ‘our’ cultures together. This enriches me and I hope we (the upper castes) can educate ourselves about so many beautiful cultures that exist across this country. And most importantly, there just cannot be any condescension or charity in these efforts. We have to stop separating ourselves into ‘us’ and ‘them’, we have to come together and allow for the ‘our’ .
Success is not what I am looking for. I am engaging in conversations. There is no doubt that over the years people have had no choice but to take notice of the issues I have raised through singing, speaking writing and projects. I will continue to do this. I am certain that the coming generations will take this forward. This is not just about Carnatic music, it is about the culture and art and, therefore, I see this as a much larger canvas. My starting point is Carnatic music and my caste-community but the discourse is universal.
Coming from the Brahmin community, don’t you think you will have to give back something to the community which taught you everything?
That is exactly what I am doing. Don't you see that?
Your intentions to take Carnatic music to the other communities are genuine. But what is the kind of support you get from your own musicians? And how do you look at people who criticise you?
There are musicians who have joined hands with me as volunteers and some as performing musicians. All artists need not be like me and, therefore, there is no necessity for them to openly proclaim support to my causes. But, they have unconditionally supported all my efforts as artists and performed at so many events that I have been involved in. I cannot ask for anything more.
Tell me about your experience in coming out with Maargazhi Ragam and One. Would you continue to deliver more such performances?
Both were special but One is so close to my heart. It captures the essence of how I view music. I must thank director Jayendra and producer Srikanth for making this happen. I am always open to any such idea. Let us see!