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T.M. Krishna sets Ashoka’s edicts to a new tune

The Edict Project, which premieres today, focuses on the ideas of justice and equality inscribed by Emperor Ashoka centuries ago on rock faces and pillars

T.M. Krishna has taken up four edicts centred around dharma for the first phase of the project. Courtesy: the artist

T.M. Krishna has always looked at art as a means of tangible social change and inclusivity. Whether it is through his writing and music or through the annual multidisciplinary festival held away from the urban milieu in the tiny village of Urur, the Ramon Magsaysay award winner has raised his voice against fissures in society and inequality in the production and absorption of art. And now he has launched a new initiative, The Edict Project, as an extension of these ideas. All set to launch on his social media platforms today, to coincide with the day Babasaheb Ambedkar embraced Buddhism, this project revives the ideas of dharma, or justice, as inscribed in the edicts of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, who reigned between 268 BCE and 232 BCE.

“We are surrounded with a lot of fear and hatred,” says Krishna. “It is something we are all struggling with. Inequality has been normalised in our society.” He could have addressed these through contemporary voices but he felt the need to rediscover voices that have long been forgotten. “TodayDoes anyone know of the messages in Ashoka’s edicts, inscribed on rock faces and pillars?” questions Krishna. “If you read them, barring some specific ones, most are centred around ideas of justice, compassion and equality, how people of multiple faiths can live together.” A lot of them also pertain to the workings of the justice and administrative departments. Together, they lay a foundation for ethical community living.

The ideas, which were propagated centuries ago, continue to be relevant even today. “For a ruler of today, to put himself out there and commit to public life: there is a need to recapture that resonance. We need to bring it back to life and start a discourse around it,” says Krishna. “I don’t own this in any fashion. I want artists to think about it and work with it in their own style.”

While it is one thing to research and study the philosophy underlying these edicts, it is another to be able to translate them in an artistic form. While the inscriptions stretch across the Indian subcontinent, Krishna has taken up four edicts centred around dharma for the first phase of the project. Hailing from central and eastern parts of the country, these are in the Magadhi Prakrit language and the Brahmi script. To understand these better, he enlisted the help of two experts. “I am working with two incredible scholars, Shravasti Dhammika, an Australian Buddhist scholar, who spent a lot of time in Sri Lanka, and Naresh Keerthi, a Prakrit and Sanskrit scholar. We have looked at form, pronunciation and enunciation,” elaborates Krishna.

It has taken him two months to render the edicts in a musical form. However, he is not going to stop with these four edicts. Krishna is looking at it as a long-term project, with people from all walks of life joining in along the way. For instance, barely two days ago, Ashoka University has agreed to collaborate on The Edicts Project. “We will continue to create a conversation around these and look at various artistic possibilities. The next step is to work on translations so that the messages underlying these edicts can be sung in different languages,” says Krishna. “The most important thing is to make sure that these ideas of compassion and justice reach the youth.”

The Edict Project can be viewed at 6 pm on T.M. Krishna’s YouTube, Facebook and Instagram (@tmkrishnaofficial) platforms

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