T.M. Krishna’s Ocean of Song

In the evening of the tenth anniversary of 26/11, our own metonym for terror-driven victimhood, against the backdrop of the Gateway of India in Mumbai an Indian Navy band played Amazing Grace; its hymnal melody suffused the twilight with bagpipes and oboes providing the syncopated tones of remembrance for those who fell victims to a senseless attack by hate-filled confused youngsters from Pakistan. The band continued with Abide With Me; just as the police band before played those immemorial tunes of hope and redemption that have resonated in memorial services across the globe for the innocent felled on killing fields, hymns that seek to lift man from the slough of despair with hopes of reconciliation and redemption. Christian hymns of universal appeal.


These are not ‘Hindu’ melodies; their universality as balms for distressed souls, music easing animus that leads us to inflict pain on the vulnerable turn them into gentle yet potent reproaches to the petty nationalisms and organised hatreds that had led to the event ten years ago and its remembrance that evening. And what could have more ironical than the enchantment of compassion issuing forth from the branches of forces created to guard that very nationalism and its instrumentalities of the Nation-State?


The repertoire for the evening included artists from almost every community and faith, whether they are believers or not is not the issue; in an age of prejudice where names become markers like beards and the hijab of the ‘Other’, the profession of religious preferences out aloud alone does not single out one for humiliation or hostility.


Like the hymns played by the Indian Navy and police band the ensemble of artists bore testimony to an Indian republic claiming the privilege of a unity through heterogeneity, of drawing from the waters of universal influences.


And that was what T.M. Krishna also showed at his concert sponsored by the government of Delhi three days after the Airports Authority of India backed off from the heat of the social media trolls attacking Krishna for being “anti-Indian” and called off the entire show that was to feature other artists like Sonal Mansingh.


One can only hope that those trolls under whose pressure the AAI supposedly buckled were listening to the Indian Navy band and the Mumbai Police Band playing “western” melodies—melodies that have touched the whole world where oppression, genocide and man’s cruelty to man and woman and child receive the healing touch through the strains of what can only be described as sacred music.


The event at Gateway of India need not detain us any longer. Theatre, spectacle and performance intertwined with a latent nationalist breast-beating tinged with victimhood; perhaps even a struggle to remember at all that day. After all, our daily churning of endless desires for pleasure and televised spectacle-sports have dimmed those memories, even among politicians and other State actors whose job it is to keep those flames a-flickering. Journalists are the most likely to remember keenly because they hogged the limelight while the befuddled crazed terrorists were holed up inside the Taj Hotel wondering how it would all end.


The concert by Krishna however represents a moment in India’s contemporary history of greater significance; it highlights a central problematic concerning the artist and his place in society. Krishna is also a political activist in the broadest sense like many concerned Indians would be civic minded citizens: he has celebrated struggles against environmental destruction, praised the right to privacy and not shied away from discontent at the way political discourse is being conducted by the present government, with polarising dog-whistles. And that gets him the kind of flak many such artists around the globe have attracted for stepping outside what was considered their domain.


In Krishna’s case that domain is classical, Carnatic music; it is meant to be neutral, value-free and the artist as its ‘exponent’ has to sing and not a “political tune” at that. Sonal Mansingh, an artist with fifty years of cultural practice behind her took a narrow view of the “cancellation” (The Indian Express, November 16), reminding the reader that Krishna was not the only artist rendered stage-less by AAI’s decision to beg off its sponsorship of th November 17 event at Nehru Park, the implication being that far too much was being made of an “eventuality” that can affect any artist. Cryptically, but rather ominously considering her own political standing in the present ruling party that offered her a Rajya Sabha seat, she adds: “I am sure that this was not the first or the last programme of Krishna’s that has been cancelled.” Her complaint against Krishna is underlined by a political statement that Krishna stands opposed to the current dispensation as a representative of the former one. But the most substantive criticism is hurled at Krishna as a fellow artist: art and activism do not blend. And a warning: “Do not use the garb of art to promote politics.”


Four days later, in the Indian Express, Dhananjay Singh puts his shoulder to the wheel of the same argument: Krishna mixes politics and art. Singh proclaims his intention to “decode Krishna’s  ideological mooring.”


Krishna’s statements over the last few years, Singh tells us, “are entrenched within the binaries of political camps. His artistic expressions and political statements come from two different persons: Krishna the activist is a far cry from Krishna the artist. In art, he expresses beautiful expressions of harmony, in politics, he exploits a sense of prejudice against the Hindus.”


So there we have the “ideological” fix. Krishna is anti-Hindu and is part of the oppositional camp. Singh sees binaries in Krishna’s persona. A gifted artist expressing harmony and a prejudiced activist pitted against the Hindus. The sense of a split personality as an analytical tool continues. Singh finds nothing in Krishna’s art to “affront any point of view”. Hindus would love to hear songs in praise of Jesus, Allah and the like. But, Singh avers, Krishna’s claim that his singing “is a social act beyond the form of the classical and against the Hindu-dominated Indian society is deeply problematic.”


The issues raised above have a two-fold dimension: should an artist be political to the extent that he / she, in this case Krishna, despoils the “classical” by referencing its purity (in Wilde’s phrasing that Singh quotes approvingly, “useless art”) to the socio-political context in which he lives?


And second, Krishna’s politics is in fact “partisan” (also because as Mansingh complains, it is anti-Modi) and aligned to a political dispensation pitted against the present ruling party. This besmirches his activism or social concerns with an ideological prejudice against the majority community of Hindus.


We should let the artist himself address this question of the place of politics in “culture”, in this case Carnatic music. And perhaps the best place to turn to are his writings. In Reshaping Art, Krishna says:


“Social strata restrict the interrelationship between art forms. Art forms do not directly communicate with those below. Influences permeate only if they share spatial commonality. For example, Kattaikkuttu / Terukkuttu (the traditional ritual theatre of Tamil Nadu) practiced by lower and middle castes uses many Carnatic ragas. This is because they shared performance space with Devadasis in the village ritual quarter. But when Carnatic music gravitated to the city of Madras (Chennai) and the Devadasis were dethroned from their high socio-aesthetic pedestal, this osmosis ceased. And this has changed the aural movements of the ragas used in kuttu.”


Here Krishna provides an example of social stratification within the history of that art form, of Carnatic music where the “aural movements” of the ragas are influenced by the social positioning of its practitioners.


Then, a glimpse into his world view:


“Art remains largely constrained by its social sphere of operation. This means that the importance of art is largely dependent on the cultural power of the holding community. In the Indian context, though the upper castes have lost their monopoly over political India, they retain their proprietorship of cultural India.”


For Krishna, culture is not Wildean “useless art”, as a use-less activity of life; culture governs every region of our life. “There is always a predominant culture that dictates our terms of engagement”, not just with the “corpus” of that culture but with its enactment or performance as well.  There are hundreds of versions of the Ramayana, yet the Ramayana of Valimiki,  Tulsidas and Kamban hold sway among upper Brahmin castes. And, as he points out, whatever falls “within the aesthetic spectrum” become India’s heritage.


Krishna offers us a glimpse into the practice of Carnatic music as a structure of power relations based on modes of exclusion that work not just as the defining limits of that practice but also as the horizon of a national culture. Valmiki’s Ramayana or Bharat Natyam are peddled as “national”  treasures; indigenous or folk and those hundreds of variations of the epic may become junior partners in that enterprise but only at the behest of the gatekeepers of that heritage.


If the “corpus of prescriptions and habits”  that provides the “natural ambience” (to quote Roland Barthes) for artistic expression is itself a site for political articulation, what should the artist engaged in that practice do? “The creative act is not pure”, Nadine Gordimer once said. “History evidences it. Ideology demands it. Society exacts it.”


With this understanding of the cultural practice of Carnatic music and his location within it, Krishna fashions his enterprise: to sing and be held responsible. That responsibility inflects his art and becomes in the words of Gordimer his “essential gesture as a social being.”


That essential gesture was on display at his Spic Macay concert on June 2017 when he sang Gandhi’s favourite bhajan Vaishnav Jana To just hours after Amit Shah’s sneering dismissal of Gandhi as a “chatur bania.” His rendition was not use-less art meant to please our aesthetic senses; it was a subliminal yet potent attack on the evil banality of the current regime and a “hate-filled India”, a reminder to us all of Gandhi’s message of empathy and compassion so desperately needed in this unrighteous republic of ours. That rendition was a political act of empowerment.


His concert with the Jogappas, the transgender community, was another example; not a fusion between ‘high’ and ‘low’ music but a confluence, a dialogue between streams of musical traditions, Carnatic and their folk music. Krishna had built the crossroads at which a dialogue was taking place. The exoticised and excluded are engaged in a conversation on an emergent site of “hybridity.” The process may appear scandalous or revolutionary, depending on attitudes to the ‘pure’ and classical’. But it should be seen like so many other ‘experiments’ of Krishna’s as an expression of his political creed, his essential gesture. It is a responsibility that acknowledges the moral need to return the excluded to the common corpus of his music’s language.


That concert was a political act of empowerment


The other side of Krishna’s ‘political’ persona that has attracted attention is his overtly partisan nature. Both Mansingh, herself clearly aligned with the ruling party, and Dhananjay Singh find fault with him for not just embracing an ideology that is “anti-Hindu” (Singh) but for attacking Modi and the BJP in general.


At first blush there is a problem when an artist who embraces universality in his music drapes the flag of a particular political formation or at least is seen to be doing so. And again, there seems to be ground for this sense of disappointment or even rage that an artist of a classical musical ‘heritage’ should stoop to such ‘partisanship’. At best it seems unfair and at worst, hypocritical when all of us know that every political formation is tarred with the same corrupting brush. So the high-minded liberal would say.


Adding grist to this mill was the artist’s acceptance of the Indira Gandhi National Integration Award in October 2017. The party that handed out the award could hardly claim to have been washed in milk as the saying goes when it comes to divisive politics. Yet Krishna set the right tone in his acceptance speech; his epigraph said it all, a statement of his ‘essential gesture’ contextualised: “…there is no one Indian culture—there are Indian cultures—the plurality is the signifier of integration.”


But a whiff of his inclinations is also evident when he praises Manmohan Singh for apologising for the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. A month after his acceptance, I critiqued him for accepting that award:


“This discourse on national integration has been underlined and guaranteed by the political and not the cultural; by the army and not the subalterns; by the flag and an anthem, and not the songs of communities; and by borders and not diverse memories.


“The Congress as a political formation has not been able to find the golden mean, the dialectical third between a professed commitment to the diversity of communities and religions and languages and its goal of national integration. There is no third; no confluence. But there can be a resolution in which one must trump the other. And national integration wins, or, at the very least, leaves in the wake of its clumsy exercise a trail of ruined heterogeneities.”


And a reading of his speech persuaded me that:


“Soon after a bow to his art Krishna’s acceptance speech achieves an ironic and unintended inversion. The rhetorical as political becomes political as rhetorical. When he talks of national integration, the rhetorical phrasing (with all its clanging emptiness) has a political twang. When he singles out Manmohan Singh’s apology for the 1984 riots to virtually exonerate the ‘leader’ for ‘genocide’ the rhetorical is political. The recipient is recognising the award for what it is: a political act.”


A year later, the criticisms hurled at him for his ‘politics’ made me revisit that speech. Now I see it as a response, a political response to the situation in which Krishna was and continues to be in. The location from which he spoke and continues to speak the way he does is the key to his position. His stances then and now on the state of politics in the country do not reflect partisan bias for the Congress or some other opposition so much as responses to the ideology informing and particularising the current location. And no prizes for guessing what that ideology is in our times when the ugly spectre of majoritarianism is crushing or attempting to crush all the heterogeneities that have made India such a unique country of communities as Tagore thought it to be.


Akeel Bilgrami observed in his talk on Asghar Ali Engineer, that the “locational context” determines responses to its functioning and the way that these responses are viewed. Under the present circumstances when the ‘idolatrous’ worship of nationalism leading to organised hatred sets the discursive tone, any opposition to it will be viewed with disfavour at the very least, or trolled for its anti-Indianness.


And, given the same locational context, it is entirely feasible that protestations against or critiques of the rigidities inhering in minority faiths and practices will draw approbation and prove popular with the current dispensation.


Location as an ideological discursive space then demonises Krishna’s political utterances that fall within the framework of democratic dissent and are by no means extra-constitutional or ‘partisan’, ‘anti-Hindu’ and by implication, anti-Indian. Given the way the Congress President Rahul Gandhi seems to be veering toward what Sitaram Yechury terms ‘soft-Hindutva’, the maestro-public intellectual may have to re-set his targets should the locational context remain the same after May 2019 even with a soft-Hindutva dispensation beamed out of New Delhi.


In the meantime, the artist’s essential gesture will define his place in the destiny of that corpus of music to which he belongs. His ‘politics’ will be judged in light of that gesture as a social being whose artistic expression contains the vitality of a deep commitment to the universality of not just the musical genre of which he is such a creative exponent but of the country named after a river—Indus, a name the Greeks gave us. “But a river” Tagore wrote in Creative Unity “belonging to a country, is not fed by its waters alone . . .” as it flows into the ocean and the vast infinite.


That is perhaps also what Krishna feels with his ocean of song.




Ashoak Upadhyay is a Ph.d in Economics. He was formerly Associate Editor at the Hindu Business Line and is founder-editor of a web-based feature magazine, thebeacon.in.




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