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This Experience Of Caste Discrimination Shows How Art Too Has Been For The ‘Upper Caste’

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By Anirudh Belle:

December 2004: I was back home from boarding school for my first winter break and Chennai was humming to an extraordinary rhythm. We were two weeks into Margazhi Maasam and connoisseurs and the curious from across the world assembled to celebrate and cherish Carnatic music. The city’s pulse at this time is overwhelming and you’ve really got to see it to know it.

My elder sister, Akhila, was on her way to witness the famous Bombay Jayashree in concert and had asked me if I’d like to tag along. I had never been to an art music concert before and I didn’t think twice before hopping into the car.

‘Anna’, who drove our car — I won’t like to mention his name without his consent — had been with us even before I was born. He was, and remains, family to all of us. As soon as the car drove into the Music Academy, I got out with my sister and we waited outside for about fifteen minutes. The concert was about to begin and I had no clue why we were not entering the hall. My sister, with a rather surprised look on her face, marched up to the parking lot and insisted that Anna attends the concert with us. She was obviously wondering why he hadn’t joined us already.
We pushed our way in, managed to find some seats (Heaven knows how) and we settled down.

The artiste began her concert with an enchanting Alaapana in Raga Abhogi and softly slid into ‘Sabapathikku Veru Daivam’ — a composition by Gopalakrishna Bharathi in praise of Lord Shiva in Chidambaram.

To some, this composition may bring to mind the story of Nandanaar, the only Dalit among the 63 Shaiva saints of Tamil Nadu — the Naayanmaars — whose extraordinary devotion is said to have won him the love of Lord Shiva in Chidambaram and the reverence of 3000 Brahmins who welcomed him into the temple.

Anna belongs to what I’m ashamed to say is referred to as a ‘lower caste’ and his reluctance to enter a hall filled with Brahmins, the socially elite, was understandable. But as the opening piece came to a close, my sister was lost in the music and Anna was lost in tears. I was wedged between both of them and the spectrum from my left to right planted a powerful image in my mind — one that remains with me till date.

Those who have been following the news know that a gentleman named Mr. T. M. Krishna, along with another Indian, Mr. Bezwada Wilson, were conferred this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award. Mr. Krishna (Or TM), an accomplished Carnatic musician, was selected mainly for his efforts in promoting ‘social inclusiveness in culture’. Those who know him and his work well — myself being among those who do — are aware of his brave and unrelenting stance in questioning the implicit exclusion of the ‘lower castes’, namely the Dalits, in Carnatic music’s fold (both in the ranks of the stage and the audience).

When I read the morning papers a few days ago to learn that TM won the honour, I was delighted. I logged onto the internet to see how the broader community received the news. Congratulations abounded but, unsurprisingly, so was condemnation.

Without entering too much into strands and shouts, I would like to offer two observations which strike me as very important:

Culture and tradition have upheld themselves best in the art and heritage they have spawned since the ages. However, when ‘enthusiasts’ use these traditions to validate an identity of themselves, they are committing the greatest assault on art. An art-form survives and thrives through time because of an inherent feature — the aspects of storytelling and conversation. When an art-form is continuously in dialogue with itself, its past and the age it inhabits, it adapts to change and maintains a freshness that is eternal and ever-relevant. To look upon an art-form as a permanent fixture in one’s identity or sense of self — whether religious, political or otherwise — is to suffocate art and silence the conversations it ought to be having as a creative and living entity.

The aggressiveness, personal attacks and violence that people like TM receive from his ‘detractors’ — namely the ‘proud’ and loud among the ‘Tam-Brahms’ (I am one too, and I express myself with no disrespect) — show the sad insecurity that chains their hearts. If they disagree with his stance, why don’t they meet him in his arguments and articulate their views with dignity and reason? Everyone stands to profit from such an exercise. If anything, it promotes dialogue and upholds the dynamism of an art-form much more than jingoistic brouhahas ever can.

However, there is one statement amidst the noise that I find interesting. A person who calls himself ‘Jataayu’ wrote, in the Swarajya Magazine, that it is a folly to cry about the absence of ‘non-Brahmins’ in the Carnatic music space, citing “the likes of Veenai Dhanammal, Rajarathinam Pillai, Dhandapani Desikar, Madurai Somu, [and] K.J. Yesudas”, who are all non-Brahmin stalwarts of the art form. This is interesting because these people, on paper, may be considered non-Brahmin, but a close look at how they are perceived reveals that their personas are seamlessly in-line with can be considered a ‘Brahminical mould’ (within the Carnatic music tradition, to be specific). The devotional ardour (which is wonderful, no doubt), the diction, the demeanour, the dressing style — all of them fit seamlessly with the accepted trend in the Sabhas and seldom do they reveal the actual cultural aesthetic and sensibilities that surround the communities of these individuals. It may have been the choice of these individuals to embrace the ‘mould’ — and I respect that — but my argument is broader.

I yearn to see the day when somebody — a Dalit, Chettiar, Mudaliar, Christian, Muslim — can be ostensibly recognised and respected for ‘who they are’ — in the total sense of the term — and whose artistic offering will be received solely for what it is worth.

The veracity of arguments, like the one above, are also problematic because they are no different from those that cite, for example, successful women in business, politics, cinema, etc., to assert that gender equity is an absolute given in our society.

By no means am I offering that TM’s observations are infallible or beyond grey. There is much to be debated and discussed. One hopes that the emphasis lies on dialogue and not on personal polemics.

By attacking him and his work one may have the sorry pleasure of drowning out someone’s voice and smearing aggression. But make no mistake, in this process of suppressing conversation, we are betraying, firstly and lastly, the art form we claim to ‘love’.

This article was first shared on the author’s personal blog.

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Featured image source: Andre Schneider/Dandapani Photography
Banner image source: SPIC MACAY/ Facebook
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