Recently in a tweet, TM Krishna, one of the finest Carnatic musicians of our time, said, “Considering the vile comments and threats issued by many on social media regarding Carnatic compositions on Jesus, I announce here that I will be releasing one Carnatic song every month on Jesus or Allah,” in defiance. I was happy to learn of his resolve to respond to bigotry and communalism with music, and not just any music. Carnatic music has long remained an exclusive ecosystem of Brahmin men and the religiously conservative. I was reminded of a lecture he delivered at Ramjas early this year during the History festival, ‘Had-Anhad.’ I remember being fascinated by his blunt and candid expression of the artist that lived in his music and his frantic appeal to question instead of fawn.
When asked where the outrage against Carnatic singers who sing Christian hymns could be stemming from, Krishna said, “It has always been in sight but now we are seeing an explosion of it. To put it bluntly, since the BJP and the RSS came to power, it has given people the right to be bigoted.” He also said, “The evolution of Carnatic music has been built on upper-caste Hindu nationalism and the community is very conservative.”
During the lecture, too, Krishna spoke at length about his station of privilege as an upper-caste (Brahmin) male within the realm of Carnatic music and how cognizance of this fact became the threshold which led him to confront many uncomfortable political, social, and cultural realities of being a man, a performing artist and a Brahmin.
He seemed bothered by the performative aspect of producing art: how enthralling and seductive it was to be able to enchant an audience through music without bothering about the lyrical content, its connotations and implications. The presence of gender and caste bias and ubiquity of religious devotion as a theme has not been adequately acknowledged and critiqued. He said that it was mostly the case that the performance became the art. There are aspects of repetition, practice, and customization in performance but an epiphany or inspiration that motivates the production of art is experienced only once. As Krishna profoundly puts it, “construction has pre-programmed experience.”
There is a certain strategy, which I wonder if I can call manipulation or distortion, that goes into the performativity of all art forms whether vocal or mute, that traps the artist for the artist becomes desirable and more importantly, endowed with power. Applause energizes the ego. But once these internalised and obscure personal realities are acknowledged and questioned, a larger political and cultural reckoning of art and its artists can occur. The content and elements such as devotion and divinity of Carnatic music, compositions by masters, classicism and even the way it is sung (the format, the audiences and the settings) has been brought under scrutiny by TM Krishna.
During his lecture at Ramjas, pondering on the question of the nature of an artist, he said, “An artist is the one who is open to living in recognition of his multiple identities, questioning them and at the same time allowing the fact of their cohabitation.” He further explored this theme by talking about the multiple truths that get attached to the same piece of content when it is variously performed as a poem, a song or prose and by different entities. The content acquires new, contemporary and diverse meanings, all as real and true as the original. It never remains the same.
This is, perhaps, the romance of the oral tradition. Krishna believes that an individual becomes an artist by virtue of his spirit. His one-hour long performance is defined by how he spends the other twenty-three.
In light of TM Krishna’s tweets, his lecture, and his work as an artist, I am beginning to view him as a ‘social artist’. Cultures of protest must constantly evolve so that their vibrancy, vigour and efficiency can be upheld. Krishna is doing that and at the same time, giving Carnatic music a pulse.