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The many voices of TM Krishna

Ahead of the publication of his new book, TM Krishna speaks about the politics of singing, the classical vs modern debate, and the problem of privilege

T.M. Krishna at the Amethyst café in Chennai in October 2015.
T.M. Krishna at the Amethyst café in Chennai in October 2015. (Mint)

If you seek to be comforted by great music, T.M. Krishna is your man. Whether or not you are familiar with the vocabulary and grammar of Karnatik classical, you surrender to the melodic spell he weaves with the notes. But if you care to listen deeper, you also discern edges in his delivery, a refusal to play by the rules, and a temperamental inability to stay away from tough challenges—even trouble.

Virtuoso musicians thrive on difficulties but 45-year-old Krishna isn’t only interested in vocal acrobatics or jugglery with tempo. He opens up areas of discomfort—the long shadow of class, caste and myriad forms of inequality that spills over the hallowed portals of Indian classical music. “The experience of music is central to everything I do,” he says in a video call from his home in Chennai. “I started engaging in this manner (grappling with complicated ideas and biases) because music did something for me. For those few moments when I was performing, I felt I was a better human being.”

Krishna’s latest collection, The Spirit Of Enquiry, captures the trajectory of his journey from ace musician to one of the leading public intellectuals of our time. While the bulk of the essays first appeared as columns in various publications, there are some lectures, a trenchant riposte to himself, and a few long-form profiles, memorably of legends like M.S. Subbulakshmi and M. Balamuralikrishna. Krishna is far from hagiographic even as he explores the glorious legacies of the high and mighty—there are arch and direct references to their chequered reputations—but he is always respectful of opinions, difference. Empathy is the major key in which these essays play out.

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Krishna’s shift from the cultural-aesthetic realm to the overtly political was triggered by his personal experiences—travel, reaction to current affairs, the lived realities of people around him, all crystallised into sharp points of view. Indeed, strong opinions are the hallmark of the collection. “Art for art’s sake is a lie perpetuated by the cultural elite,” Krishna writes in one instance. “Art is and will always be political.” If he does not mince words in his criticism of fascist governments, oppressive social structures and the romanticised tyrannies of the guru-shishya parampara, he is as scathing about himself, upbraiding himself for his earlier stances, admitting mistakes, and leaving himself open to persuasion. If you don’t agree with some of his views—I wasn’t entirely convinced by his take on jallikattu, for instance—that’s fine. As he puts it himself, the right to change our minds is an inalienable human right.

We spoke about the enduring debates over classical and modern, the right way to listen to Tyagaraja and Dikshitar, and his perpetual need to inhabit an area of discomfort. Edited excerpts:

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I want to start with the title of the book. ‘The Spirit Of Enquiry’ sounds a bit like a philosophical text from the Enlightenment era—“enquiry” is such a loaded, 19th century term, in a sense. Was it a conscious choice?

Maybe I am carrying some baggage from the philosopher J. Krishnamurti in that word. I grew up in a home as well as school environment where that word may have not been used directly but its implications—in terms of thoughtfulness in the things you did, how you thought, and what you felt—were all imbibed in conversations. I believe we often trap “enquiry” into a personal journey and make it all about an individual and their inner life. But we can’t deal with our interiority without actually seeing how we engage with everything around us—what we participate in and what we don’t. It’s a bit like the word sadhana that we use in music. There, too, is a presumption of an isolated chamber.

“Enquiry”, it is believed, is about being able to take away the distractions and misfirings that come at you from everywhere to find something new. But you are that misfiring, too, and unless you are willing to grapple with it, in a very political sense, “enquiry” pretty much becomes a bubble. Hopefully, I am able to remove from the word the baggage of “soulful searching” through the diverse ways in which these pieces engage with a variety of subjects.

T.M. Krishna performing at the Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha.
T.M. Krishna performing at the Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha. (Smitha Suraj)

What was the inflection point for you to put out these enquiries into writing? When did music not feel sufficient for what you wanted to express?

I never thought of putting things down in this manner. And it’s true even now. To a large extent, my writing is musical, like my thinking. Which is why, I know, it sometimes comes out like a flow of consciousness, like my music. It all started with me asking difficult questions of myself as a musician, not in a larger sense but in a specific sense of me singing. What is going on here? Why am I doing this? That’s when I felt the necessity to start putting it all down in short paragraphs, not necessarily to publish those reflections, but just to get some clarity.

I believe writing A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story was an inflection point for me. That book played a crucial role in my engagement with the musical world, and with my own confusions and irreconcilable positions, held over many years. I never thought I would write about it all. But when I did, it brought everything together for me: social ideas, political beliefs, the notion of aesthetics, the experience of beauty.

Do you believe your musical education prepared you to question the system you were trained in?

I don’t think my musical training prepared me for it at all. My home and regular schooling did. I don’t think we understand knowledge, to a large extent, in the way we learn music or the way we are in India. What does it mean to actually work with knowledge? What does it mean to ask a question? None of this is there in the way we learn, intrinsically. The urge to question came to me from my home environment, where multiple influences flowed in, and everybody had strong opinions. It was a place alive with people visiting. My father was a great conversationalist, he read a lot, as did my mother. My school (Krishnamurti Foundation India, Chennai) encouraged us to explore as well. But B. Seetarama Sarma, my teacher for 18 years, was a conservative, old-style person. You repeated what he asked you to. You didn’t ask questions.

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Musical education through the ‘guru-shishya parampara’ is thought of as an act of faith, in both Karnatik and Hindustani traditions. Do you think that has changed in the way you now teach your pupils?

These questions should be answered by my students, not me, to be fair! The truth is, I have grown as a person. When you start teaching, you may understand certain things, but the way you behave is pretty much by imitation. Initially, I was teaching and thinking like my teacher, though, intellectually, I may have been in a different frame. My language of instruction was probably English, and it was, most likely, the only difference between me and him. Also, I was not as religious and pious a person as he was.

Luckily, I realised this at some stage and, I believe, I have changed tremendously over the years. As far as music goes, the classroom has always been a place of debate for us. We argue, we fight, we get angry. It’s also not a place where only music is discussed, and that’s lovely, for me. Other issues—society, the baggage we carry—all come into discussion. I have tried to create an environment where music is seen not just as practice of a craft that delivers a certain kind of experience, which we may find pleasurable, but as something that’s part of our knowledge system, one that needs to be always challenged and grown.

I want to draw on two things from what you said. One is the word “classical”, on which you dwell extensively in several essays. There is a common perception of the classical being better than the modern. Another school believes everything must be made “modern” for it to have contemporary relevance. Where do you stand in this spectrum?

Both words are trapped in ideological bases—you have a classical ideologue and you have a modern ideologue. It becomes a problem when they place upon an aesthetic body a calcified structure to present a narrative. The problem with the word “classical” is that it bestows upon itself many qualities that are not really exclusive to it. Similarly, there are many forms we call modern, just because there’s a drum kit or guitars playing, which I call archaic. What we are talking about here is ideas.

Modern is about being in the present and responding to it. Whether you agree with it or not is immaterial. Is it responding to today’s environment? Is it coming from the conversations of today? Is it open to discussion, freedom of thought? If there’s anything we need to value in the modern, it’s the values of being and living democratically, individually and collectively. The modern doesn’t signify a form, it’s an attitude; just as the classical doesn’t signify an aesthetic structure, it is a social classification.

The Spirit Of Enquiry—Notes Of Dissent: By T.M. Krishna, Penguin Random House India, 344 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
The Spirit Of Enquiry—Notes Of Dissent: By T.M. Krishna, Penguin Random House India, 344 pages, 599.

Another essay that interests me is the one on the figure of Rama in Tyagaraja’s songs. How does your persona of a socially alert musician intersect with the social aspect of the lyrics and the music, especially since you said you are not a religious person? How do you interpret music that is steeped in spirituality and religious fervour?

I would disagree with certain choices Tyagaraja made but that does not, in any way, remove the fact that the man was a musical genius. He was a product of a certain time and environment. We have to consider that in his language and in what he says. So, his direct religiosity, his surrender to Rama—all that comes from that whole basket of where he belonged. At the same time, let us not reduce his ideas only to that part of his identity. Yes, there are extremely Brahminical, problematic parts in his compositions, but there is also a seeking for a certain kind of freedom.

For him, the path to freedom is Rama and his rituals. You may disagree entirely with that world view. But you can’t disagree with his seeking after freedom, because that seeking is quite inspirational by itself. Then, you have the music, which is also amplifying itself as being beyond religion. He just didn’t make congregational music out of goodwill to sing and call Rama—no! He made a body of art with ragas. Why did he spend his time doing that? Because, in it, he saw liberation. I honestly believe only a complex human being can create great art—because there is a grappling there, a struggle, and it’s from those gaps that something inspirational emerges. It is not just Rama who inspired the music, it’s also the sound of “ra” and “ma” that inspired Tyagaraja, as did the rhythm. It’s multiple things, and it comes through in all his compositions, if you are willing to step back and look at them.

Now, I am not a religious person. To me, when I sing “Rama”, does it refer to Lord Rama or are they just two sounds? The sounds ra-ma can be heard in many different ways in Tyagaraja’s compositions. Do they trigger different emotive responses? Do we, then, transcend the notion of language being semantic and sonic—the interconnectivity between the sonic part of the language and the semantic part of the language? Let me give you an example. You can have the same emotion expressed in two different ways by two writers, but you cry for one, and may not cry for the other. Why? It’s often the sound of a word, or your memory of it—it could be so many things—that will have the effect.

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So how does a 21st century listener—who may not be religious and is surrounded by modern technology—enter this world, which, as a singer of Tyagaraja’s lyrics, you are conjuring up for us?

I have a problem in entering Tyagaraja’s music entirely as that of a religious figure’s because then you are not seeing all the other things that he gives us. One of the reductionist moves we have made in Karnatik music is to turn people like him into religious saints and to listen to their music as the result of their bhakti to Rama. There are different ways in which a person from beyond this small world can enter it. One is by asking themselves how much of the semantics they need to understand. Sometimes you listen to songs in languages you don’t understand but you are able to enter that space because of something the music does. The other question to ask is: Can I extrapolate from the context of Tyagaraja’s expression what touches me emotionally? The third way is to problematise him, by which you are not negating the individual but, rather, engaging with him.

As an artist, how do I do this? I try to bring other concepts, ideas and texts into the genre itself. By doing this, I am placing Tyagaraja with what we call “secular values”, to ask questions about faith along with him, not necessarily by throwing one out of the window while keeping the other, but by saying that they need to coexist and contest each other. Yes, there are compositions of his which I find uncomfortable singing today because of what he says in them about gender or caste. At the same time, you must remember that you are looking at a far more complicated individual, and cannot be anachronistic in expecting him to have the values you and I share today.

It’s difficult to do all this in the Karnatik sphere, isn’t it? Because words do have a meaning there, they have potency and context, unlike in Hindustani ‘khayal’ or ‘dhrupad’, where it really doesn’t matter what you are singing.

The problem of baggage Hindustani music carries is different from the problem of baggage that Karnatik music does. For me, as an artist, the only way to engage with it is by challenging it, whether by creating new compositions or by questioning the traditional ones. So, when Perumal Murugan and I created a song on manual scavenging, the first line of the song is the Tamil word for shit. I don’t think in either Hindustani or in Karnatik music compositions, there is a song that starts with the word. We have to robustly bring in such discourses. Only then can we rediscover Tyagaraja, with all his creases, and find our own space in that conversation. I cannot provide a universal solution. Each person will have to find that space for themselves.

T.M. Krishna in concert.
T.M. Krishna in concert. (Photograph by VV Ramesh/Courtesy TM Krishna)

Before you started talking about history, society and caste, we had a tradition of listening to classical music entirely for the aesthetic pleasure of it. And then you opened up a space of discomfort, as it were, for the audience.

That discomfort, first of all, was felt by me. I didn’t know how to reconcile everything I was trying to do at that time. I was seeking a clean solution and thinking there must be some way out of this! I kept going back to saying, but this is great music, this is ancient music... so it can’t be all wrong. There has to be something to resolve it. For me, that’s how the seeking began. It was a space of discomfort, vulnerability, a challenge to the ego. It was as personal as it was public. I now realise that there is no resolution, it is a constant state of engagement.

I was struck by one theme that underlies all the essays, which is your grappling with your sense of privilege. It’s not explicit always but you are always circling back to it, questioning yourself.

I believe privilege, with all its dimensions, shuts our perceptions, one by one. You don’t hear, see and feel certain things. This is why it’s central to my own grappling. And it is not just material privilege, it’s also the privilege of feeling privileged. I think that’s what I am struggling with more than anything else. It manifests itself many times in what we call cultural terms—it’s in our habits, the food we eat, in our understanding of what is beautiful.

You have included your own sharp response to an article you had written about “Indian Muslims”. You chastise yourself for using the term and criticise yourself on other occasions too. Is this urge to constantly question and destabilise your views ever a problem?

I don’t want ever a stabilised world view because that, for me, signifies comfort. I want the discomfort to remain. I hope I retain the quality to look at myself and say there’s something wrong. It’s very possible I will move from a position at some point. But as long as that movement is there, that instability is there, I am fine.

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That’s why your critique of liberalism is so interesting. Liberalism is also a cage, a gilded cage maybe, but a cage nonetheless.

Definitely. As far as I am concerned, the only thing we can universally hope for is an environment where everybody is able to participate equally and freely. Everything else is just a group thought. Just because a privileged person is caste conscious doesn’t mean they are liberated, that they have figured it all out. Even when we use terms like being progressive, we have to be careful about what we mean. Progressiveness is also a cage from which we are unable to look at people of a different time, and learn certain qualities from them.

In one place, you write that the right to change one’s mind is an inalienable human right. I find it interesting in today’s liberal political climate, where playing devil’s advocate and “both-sideism” are seen as the norm.

There are certain things—like a fundamental sense of humanity—that are non-negotiable. You can’t have a centrist position on rights, for example. For me, there cannot be a centrist position regarding (the entry of women into the Ayyappa temple in) Sabarimala. It’s not a question of faith; rather, it’s a question of the right of the faithful—these are values of sensitivity.

You can’t escape from taking an ethical position on life. You can’t be ready to jump on either side of the fence, should the situation call for it. That’s a purely conniving position, especially when adopted by people in power. Yet another fundamental problem of our time is that nobody wants to admit that they are wrong. But being able to accept that, especially in public, is often the first step towards moving forward.

The book releases on 31 May.

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