TM Krishna: ‘Essence of art is to question and challenge’

TM Krishna is a vocalist in the Karnatic tradition. His musical renditions and subtle channeling of music into social activism make him a public intellectual

TM Krishna: ‘Essence of art is to question and challenge’

Ujjawal Krishnam

TM Krishna is a vocalist in the Karnatic tradition. His musical renditions and subtle channeling of music into social activism make him a public intellectual. In an exclusive interview, he speaks to Ujjawal Krishnam

You have used music as a tool for social activism. How did this all happen?

‘Activist’ is not a title in a work context. Every sensitive, engaged citizen is an activist. Becoming an activist is a form of awakening. For me, it came from realising that the true experience of music is a profound questioning of the self and its conditionalities. Music is not a tool for social activism, it is in itself socio-political and philosophical activism.

You are now being targeted by various fringe groups. What could be the reason behind this apparently planned manoeuvre?

The reasons seem obvious. My continuing discourse on caste, religion, marginalisation, privilege and divisiveness bothers many. Some see me as an inside enemy, the inside being the upper-caste Hindu world. Others believe that I am creating divisiveness when it just does not exist! Religious Hindu fanatics are propagating false conspiracy theories that I am a conversion agent. In their minds, Muslims are evil unless they declare the Hindu within themselves and I vocally resist such vulgar suggestions. And there is the hate that BJP, RSS, VHP and other such outfits spread. I do not support Narendra Modi and believe that under his watch, this country has descended socio-culturally and economically. I have also come to realise that these dangerous propaganda outfits work in multiple independent clusters and have many heads which makes disassociation so much easier for them.

What is the essence of art? Does art have the capability to heal India’s social divisions?

The essence of art is creating discomfort, questioning, challenging, dissent and reflection. It can heal social divisions only if every artistic community believes in it. If we do not, art is just cultural habituation.

How can ‘Karnatic music’ connect to the common man?

The word common is deceptive. No one is a common person, there are just people of multiple hues. And if Karnatic music has to connect with that diversity, it has to become diverse in every sense of the word, from representation to form, presentation and content. I want to reiterate that I am not speaking of huge numbers of music lovers. I hope, a day will emerge when among the 1,000 people at a concert, you will have people of multiple faiths, castes and genders. Diversity must be seen on, within and off the stage.

Your book, Reshaping Art, talks about the use of art to counter the crucial issues of caste, class and gender. What, according to you, is the driving force behind these chasms?

Societal chasms are inevitable. They come from the urge to create homogeneous clusters and patterns upon which we formulate notions of beauty, custom, ritual, the idea of right and wrong, belief and reason. But there is, within us, the other side which questions these formations and formulations. In a way, we remain in a state of flux between these two broad tendencies, depending on where we belong in the social hierarchical structure, the state of the society and the gathering energies within it which we speak, sing, dance and write about. The more we allow for contestations, the greater possibility that we will keeping moving as people.

Do you find yourself as a dissident among the conservatives?

I am not going to fall into the liberal vs the conservative trap. There exist both and everything between within every one of us. And therefore, when we flaunt ourselves as either one, we are just perpetuating a self-indulgent image. The real appears when the varied ideologies within us listen to each other.

Art can heal social divisions only if every artistic community believes in it 

The trolls say that you sing about “Jesus” and “Allah”, and you are “anti-India”.

I will not respond to name calling. I will keep singing on every God and I will also sing that there exists no god.

You have also been called “Urban Naxal” in one of those trolling tweets. What, according to you, does this term mean?

This is a dangerous term that we need to fight because it says that those who examine and resist authority or oppressive mechanisms are sly, manipulative and engaged in intellectual guerrilla warfare. This absolutely false term is similar to the nametags dictators and authoritarian regimes manufacture in order to stifle and eliminate dissent. We have to ensure that this tactic does not work in India.

Our Prime Minister also used the very term amid Assembly election campaign in Chhattisgarh to refer to ‘unknown’ threats to Indian democracy. Being ‘anti-Modi’ or ‘anti-government’ has become the same as being ‘anti-national’ these days.

Mr Modi is a master at lying, speaking the untruth and letting his silence result in stigmatisation. The BJP and the powers at the helm have tried to create an atmosphere which equates an anti-Modi or anti-BJP stance with an anti-country stance. This country does not belong to any person or any political party. It belongs to us, the people.

What is ‘nationalism’ for you?

Nationalism is complex and problematic. But to me, India is a land. And land is an all-encompassing term that includes every shade, tone and colour of beings and places. To love this land means to experience, listen and speak beyond one’s own identity, needs and self-affirming culture.

Do you feel scared or influenced by the fascist forces? These targeted attacks can disturb the peace of mind of even the calmest person.

Sometimes it does bother me, and I do pause to wonder. The hatred can muddle your head and put you under pressure. I just let the feeling come and pass.

“India is a feudal country where art is supported by powers,” you have recently observed. This also means that the art which people in power feel threatened by can be shunned. Your opinion?

Absolutely. That is exactly what we did to art forms such as Lavani. It is the high society that curates sophistication, purity, elegance, taste and acceptable culture. Of course, this too is not a constant and therefore will be amended as per the times. But all the while, more or less, the upper echelons of society will make sure that they remain in control of these ideas. This is why subversion is a necessity in art and culture.

A typical Indian parent wants her ward to pursue pure sciences or engineering. Don’t you find that India is losing out on a lot because of this? Do you think that the Indian society restricts its members from pursuing other interests?

We have created a socio-economic and cultural model that has designed such an education system catering to the job market. There is no doubt that this has diminished and destroyed a large spectrum of knowledge. For this to change, we need to make sure that every child in this country grows up in a multicultural environment. Schools today are segregated sweatshops. The upwardly mobile and upper castes send their children to private schools and those belonging to the rest of society send their children to government schools. This, in itself, creates a divided society where the direction shown by the private schools is deemed ideal. The market also places greater value on them. The government schooling system then is just trying to catch up or make itself as good as the private schools. The underbelly of all this is the feudal and casteist nature of knowledge and values. Therefore, if we do not change the very experience of school, sharing and learning, we cannot alter the market place and its understanding of utility, productivity, ability, knowledge and purpose.

Your future plans?

I don’t plan.

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