Interview: TM Krishna - “Guilt is a form of escapism. It is an excuse”
The activist, writer and Carnatic vocalist talks about finding a new audience, understanding Ambedkar and Narayana Guru, and his work on a exploratory new book
People often see the singer as someone whose music does the talking but you take on the role of an activist, writer and public intellectual. In addition to singing, you comment on many socio-political issues. How has this changed your relationship with your audience?I recognize that there are singers who wish to communicate with their audience only through their music. That is completely understandable. Just because I do these multiple things, it is not necessary for others to do the same. It would be quite ridiculous for me to expect that.
My relationship with my audience has certainly changed but I did not really set out to be an activist or don a public commentator hat. All this happened in an organic manner as I was learning and growing. My articulation through words has been a significant part of this journey because I read a lot, I write for myself and others, and I speak to myself and others. I do not see all these things as separate elements. Intrinsically, I am a singer and my primary way of receiving the world is through sound but writing and speaking have helped me communicate about some experiences in ways that my music has perhaps not allowed me to. That said, the music does influence the writing and the writing in turn influences the music.
Speaking of my audience, things have changed a lot at the practical level. There are people who do not listen to me anymore because they think that my politics is bunkum. They do not believe in engaging with the politics of caste or gender or violence. There are some who have told me that they have stopped coming to my concerts because I speak about things that I should not be speaking about. The whole notion that the job of the musician is to sing and make people happy is where the problem arises. If they are not pleased, the music is not good enough. The idea that music is also an art object is lost in the performance of it. Because I ask uncomfortable questions, they simply do not want to hear. I guess, in their head, they think that my music is now tainted by politics; it has become ugly and there is no devotion left in it.
On the other hand, a whole new world has opened up for me. People who have never heard Carnatic music before, who have never heard my name before, are coming to my concerts because they want to talk. Somehow, the political conversations have made the music more welcoming for this group of people. This is new to me. They are asking questions that I am not used to being asked in my ecosystem. It is a fascinating fluidity that has come about. The audience that I have now is far more diverse. The performance spaces have changed. There are people who show up not because of the music; they are curious about what I am up to.
Things have also changed in terms of what you sing. Carnatic singers usually tend to focus on traditional compositions by Thyagaraja, Shyama Shastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar. You have been singing Ashoka’s edicts and Perumal Murugan’s poems. Apart from what the audience is receiving, what is this doing to you as a performer?
All of this has been having a tremendous impact on me. In musical terms, the writing that I have been engaging with is changing the way that I look at the process of composition and the idea of what makes a Carnatic composition. It has also expanded my bandwidth of expression. 98 per cent of the primary content of Carnatic music is some variety of Brahminical bhakti. Engaging with the edicts of Ashoka, the poems of Perumal Murugan, and the vachanas of Basavanna has changed for me the emotional landscape that is found in Carnatic expression. The edicts were probably never sung before. They are messages from an emperor. Along with the politics, it is important to look at these texts structurally and aesthetically. This allows us to think about them in relation to music. There are things that might work well politically but completely collapse in the context of creating an art object. I wanted to work with the edicts for emotional and political reasons but that was not enough. As an artist, I had to ask myself whether music could be made out of the material that I had.
The other challenge that comes up in the context of so-called classical forms like Carnatic music is the language itself because there are notions of purity associated with it. Certain words are never used. Certain dialects are not supposed to be used. These things are considered impure, and therefore outside the domain of the sophisticated. Murugan and I had long and serious discussions about dialects, and I told him that he must write in the dialect that he uses while speaking with the people in the part of Tamil Nadu that he comes from.
How does one utter a word that has never been uttered before in, say, Todi Raga? This is a major aesthetic problem, and I have had to grapple with it when there was no memory of past experiences to tap into. Knowing the meaning was not enough. I had to let myself feel what was happening inside me as I was searching for a way to enunciate for the very first time. Sometimes, I am not comfortable because I am habituated to certain things. I am limited as a human being. I have to challenge myself, break the wall in front of me, and find beauty in it.
Letting go of one’s conditioning is often a painful, exacting and lonely process. In your talk called The Profound and the Profane at the Mahindra Sanatkada Lucknow Festival, you mentioned how uncomfortable you felt while singing a poem about manual scavenging written by Perumal Murugan. While challenging the deeply entrenched structures in the Carnatic establishment, how do you take care of yourself?
I don’t know if I am doing a very good job of taking care of myself but let me address a very important point that you have brought up. Before I share something with my audience, I share it with myself. I notice the discomfort that arises in them because I have struggled with it myself. I have learnt over time that I need to live in discomfort for me to be truly honest. As you pointed out, it is a lonely process. You may have the best of friends and a supportive family but what is happening inside of you can never be shared. Sometimes, this is hard.
I tell myself, “You are so goddamn privileged. There is no big deal about what you are going through.” But the fact that it is hard, and is a struggle, does not go away. We tend to be protective of our baggage because we fear that we might lose our identity with it. Saying that manual scavenging is bad and that it must not exist is easy but seeing how it is reinforced by one’s own culture and upbringing is the difficult part that most people are reluctant to do. Just singing a song about manual scavenging does not mean that I am free of my conditioning.
Does this struggle come from a sense of guilt? Does this guilt benefit the oppressed?
No, guilt is the worst thing. But let’s be honest. When people first start thinking about their privilege, the operative word is guilt. You begin with saying things like “Oh my God! I am participating in this horrible practice” or “My ancestors did this and I am also doing the same.” Guilt is a form of escapism. It is an excuse. It allows you to get away without really engaging with yourself. I am going to be blunt. Guilt is a self-serving fraud. It emanates from wanting to do prayaschit. You think that you can erase your bad feelings by doing good, something like corporate social responsibility. When you are coming from a place of guilt, the only person you are thinking about is yourself. It does not benefit the community in any way. In fact, it further belittles the people who are at the receiving end of oppression. And you get to be good in your own eyes and in the eyes of society. You become more powerful. Instead of patting your own back, you should be learning from marginalized communities.
You have been working with communities that look up to Babasaheb Ambedkar and Narayana Guru as their leaders. What have you learnt through those interactions?
I would like to talk about them separately because I think that they occupy very different spaces. Let me begin with Guru. Leftist savarnas like to see him only as an anti-caste warrior. Stripping him of his spiritual depth is a casteist position. It implies that you need to be born into a certain family with a privileged caste background in order to have a spiritual journey.
I have been learning about Guru from people for whom his words are everyday prayer. They do not feel the need to separate the spiritual from the political in Guru’s writings because he offered them a reimagination of Hinduism and also a way to converse with modern political action. I have been reading Guru myself, and I find a lot of what he says rather powerful.
Coming to Ambedkar, well, I grew up in a cosmopolitan home but Ambedkar never existed in that home. We called ourselves open and liberal but clearly there was casteism at play, and trivialization of an important mind like Ambedkar’s. What I knew about him as a child was because of my school textbook where he was mentioned as the architect of the Indian Constitution. It was only as an adult that I read Ambedkar’s words and heard the songs sung by people who follow and worship him, people for whom Ambedkar is the central force driving not only political action but also emotional action. When songs, dances, films and plays come out of that space, one encounters a different Ambedkar who is not in textbooks.
How is your exploration of Ambedkar feeding into the book that you are working on?
Yes, Ambedkar is very much a part of it, sometimes through his own words and sometimes indirectly. It is a book that examines symbols like the national flag, the national anthem and the preamble to the Constitution. It raises questions about freedom, identity and representation. It looks at fundamental rights, and addresses issues such as women’s entry into the Sabarimala temple, and the uniform civil code. Westland is publishing it. I hope that young people who are curious about India’s past and its links to the present will find it useful.
Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.