Dissent in music: The legacy lives on

TM Krishna is just carrying forward the glorious tradition of protest, much to the annoyance of right-wingers

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Kuldeep Kumar

If you are convinced about your political activism, do it openly like thousands of others. Don’t use the garb of art to promote politics.” Thus wrote famous danseuse Sonal Mansingh, appointed by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government as chairperson of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, included by Prime Minister Narendra Modi among his navratnas (nine jewels) of Swachchh Bharat Abhiyan, and nominated to the Rajya Sabha by his government. She was training her guns on Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna, who has over the years emerged as a thinker-musician who questions well-entrenched caste, gender and aesthetic hierarchies in the world of music and expresses his disagreement with the current climate of mob lynching of people who dare to dissent. He is perhaps the only musician who has focused on the issue of gender inequality in Carnatic music by devoting a chapter titled “A Man’s World” in his book, A Southern Music.

It is open to question how artistes like Sonal Mansingh, who danced on a Vishwa Hindu Parishad platform in the United States in 1993 and has benefited from her association with the powers-that-be, do not “use the garb of art to promote politics” but dissenting artistes like Krishna do? Moreover, is Krishna the first-ever artiste to question deep-rooted biases, social and artistic hierarchies and prevalent practices, and oppose power structures of all varieties? How is supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi kosher while opposing him is not?

While art music in India flourished under the patronage of temples, Sufi khanqahs and rulers’ courts, there was always an undercurrent of dissent that expressed itself in various conventional as well as unconventional ways. Saint poet-musicians of the medieval period never hid their distaste for the power of the royal court. When Mughal Emperor Akbar summoned poet-musician Kumbhandas, one of the eight distinguished disciples of Vallabhacharya, to his court in Fatehpur Sikri because he had heard a lot about him and wanted to hear him sing, the unwilling saint had to present himself in the royal court. But, instead of making an effort to please the Emperor, he chose to express his displeasure and dissent against the brute coercive power of the ruler by singing:

Santan ka Sikri san kaam
Aavat-jaat panhiya tooteen, bisari gayo hari naam
Jinko mukh dekhe dukh upjat, tinko karni pari salaam
Kumbhandas laal Girdhar bin, aur sabai bekaam

(What do the saints have to do with Sikri [royal court]? While traveling to and fro, one breaks one’s shoes and forgets to chant the God’s name. Moreover, one has to salute those whose sight is enough to make one sorrowful. Kumbhandas says that without Krishna, everything is useless.)

How many of our contemporary musicians and dancers can display such courage because one nod of Akbar’s head was enough to put Kumbhandas to death? And, was Kumbhandas using “the garb of art” to express his political dissent?

In the male-dominated and patriarchy-driven world of a Rajput royal household in 16th century Rajasthan, the way saint poet-musician Meera Bai threw a gauntlet to the established order is a story that still remains largely unexplored

In the male-dominated and patriarchy-driven world of a Rajput royal household in 16th century Rajasthan, the way saint poet-musician Meera Bai threw a gauntlet to the established order is a story that still remains largely unexplored. She attracted criticism from every quarter (in present-day lexicon, “trolled”) for leaving her husband and family and composing and singing the best love poetry one can find anywhere. Naturally, it was laced with the contemporary idiom of devotion to Krishna, the eternal lover. Her poetry became popular among all strata of society and Meera Bai Ki Malhar, the raga created by her, remains a favourite of musicians to this day. Attempts were made to kill her but failed. Hers was a multi-faceted revolt against gender inequality and the tendency to treat love as a taboo. Even now, our society prefers to kill lovers than accept them.

In the world of Hindustani music, sarangi players were looked down upon by vocalists who had pedigrees to flaunt. So, when in the late 19th century, Abdul Karim Khan and his brother decided to make a break with their family tradition of playing sarangi, they were questioning a musical hierarchy that was patently unjust. And, when Abdul Karim Khan broke with the practice of not announcing the name of the raga in a public performance, he too expressed his dissent and rebelled against the current norm of keeping the secrets of one’s art to oneself and not reveal them to those who did not belong to one’s immediate family. He also freely gave his musical knowledge to those who were not related to him at all and most of his students turned out to be Hindu Brahmins. Miffed by the same hierarchy, sarangi maestro Ram Narain decided to turn a solo artiste and stopped accompanying vocalists.

When Gauhar Jan, the first Indian musician ever recorded and one of the top artistes of her time, organised a music concert and sang to raise funds for Mahatma Gandhi and his Congress Party in 1920, was she also using her art as a “garb” to promote anti-colonial, nationalist politics? Yes, of course, she was. But, was there anything wrong in this? Or, when top Hindustani vocalists like Krishnarao Shankar Pandit, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar and Omkarnath Thakur sang at the annual sessions of the All India Congress Committee to lend their voice to the anti-British freedom struggle, were they not using their art to articulate opposition to foreign rule? Or, when young and emerging musicians like Ravi Shankar, Jyotirindra Moitra, Salil Chaudhury and Hemant Mukherjee associated themselves with the left-wing Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), were they not carrying forward the age-old tradition of dissent in
our music?

After 1947, when state patronage in a democracy was fast replacing the feudal patronage of music and All India Radio was emerging as the biggest pan-Indian patron, sitar maestro Vilayat Khan decided to boycott it. Such defiance was unimaginable at that time but he stuck to his guns. Even in his own art, he defied many long-held aesthetic notions and created his own khayal-based instrumental style, breaking away with the bol-based, dhrupad-influenced traditional style.

Kumar Gandharva did not express political dissent but there have been few rebels like him in the field of Hindustani classical music. He challenged the established aesthetic order, well-established musical structures and traditional norms of creating music. He turned bhajans into an independent musical genre and brought nirguni bhakti poetry into the repertoire of Hindustani classical music. As is well known, this poetry of Kabir and Nathpanthis was the strongest voice of dissent in its own time. Kumar Gandharva also demolished the musical hierarchy of placing folk music at a much lower ladder and made a successful attempt to bring folk and high-brow music closer while showing how the high-brow music had its roots in the folk and how there could be a two-way traffic between the two.

TM Krishna is carrying forward a glorious tradition of dissent. Such artistes have always been rare, but they have always been in our midst, showing a mirror up to the world. They deserve to be celebrated, not trolled.

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