Musician TM Krishna calls his latest book The Spirit of Enquiry: Notes of Dissent, published by Penguin Random House India, a journey in itself, an incomplete journey, and when his readers leave the book, he hopes, “they begin on their own path.” “It’s not about being right, or having it all worked out in a progressive sense. I think there are things that are still left open (in the book) and things that you could call 'utterly wrong'. But I can assure the reader that it comes from a space of serious questioning and there is always room for all of us to grow,” the singer explains. The compilation also comes with a rebuttal that TMK wrote to himself, “An essay that was deeply argued and discussed when it came out and I’m glad I got an opportunity to respond to myself,” he notes. And there's yet another interesting piece titled The Uselessness of Art.
In virtual conversation with former West Bengal Governor and now the Professor of History and Politics at Ashoka University, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, as part of the Jaipur Literary Festival, the singer and activist discussed a wide range of topics, from his journey over the years as a writer and a singer, the need to question injustices, the spirit of enquiry without fear, privacy and more.
One of the most important questions asked that evening by Gopalkrishna Gandhi was on the responsibility of questioning injustices. “There is a sense of being complicit by being silent about injustice and inequalities, so you question them,” he addresses TM Krishna and asks, “Must one feel the need to question a whole range of injustices and inequalities as if one is obliged to do it?”
“Are we compelled to take positions, to say things? That is also true. Sometimes you are responding because you see that there is a need to respond to every situation (not questioning the fact that they are all injustices).” TMK begins. “At the same time,” he continues, “I would ask myself why I ask those questions? Should the injustices be asked in terms of concentric circles? Should I ask questions only about those who are closest to me and leave ones that come under the larger circle? Can you actually detach these injustices? This is the second question.”
The answer, however, is expanded to a question on the spirit of enquiry asked by a viewer towards the end of the session. “A lot of our schooling is self-censorship,” TMK says in reply. “We know what questions could be asked in class and asked only that. Isn't that self-censorship automatically? The idea of fear is a constant in our culture. What’s happening now is making this fear seem like a larger monster,” he adds.
The immediate way of dealing with this, according to TMK, is, “We need to find collectives by which we can confront this fear. The larger cultural question is why do we have inbuilt fear? The feeling of fear may be the same but sources differ according to social and cultural habituation in history. What do we do with those gradations?”
On TMK’s compilation, Gandhi notes that he has made extraordinary comments on issues pertaining to our country, on constitutional morality and political ethics of our times. “Supposing in 1918, during the Spanish rule, we got from DV Paluskar or Ustad Karim Khan or VN Bhatkhande a glimpse of the India of those days, yours is on what India is like today."
TMK makes profound observations on the topic of privacy as well. “Are we truly alive in isolation or self-absorbed in isolation?” he asks. “Being alone is different from being isolated. When you’re alone you want to be able to receive and share without clutter. We don’t want to get stuck into that clutter. And with isolation we avoid facing that clutter,” he explains. Here Gopalakrishna Gandhi recalls an incident from one of his concerts when TMK just got up and left at the end of an alapana and asks, “Can you tell me in a sentence - what does privacy mean to you?”
“Privacy to me is being able to breathe fearlessly. For me, my breath is essential because I sing. Everything about music is in the breath,” TMK answers and also addresses the concert incident. “I had actually felt that there was no need for me to say anything more that day in music. The sharing had happened and I thought it was maybe just right to leave…” he explains.
Later on, to a question on privacy vs obligation to the listener, TMK says, “In music, privacy is in the honesty and fearlessness of sharing,” and asks more questions on obligation with the audience. “I think it is connected with the truthfulness of the music, of the singer. I have no other obligation. Everything else is only constructed as a contract and I have no contract with anybody.”
With brutal honesty, that can perhaps also be seen in his essays, TMK draws a parallel between his singing and writing. “20 years ago if someone had asked me the question - “can two centres exist?” my answer would have been a very fast “there can’t be two centres.” Because I didn't see even the purpose of my singing then!” he smiles, quickly adding, “I did sing and people enjoyed and I enjoyed more than the audience I presume. But there is something more to singing than the pleasure derived. There is that nature of churning, that music at some point in time, triggers in some of us.”
According to TMK, writing has become as important as singing to him.
“I write only because of singing,” TMK elaborates. “Because it nudged me and said you need to look at yourself. In a way I write because there is music. When I sing, I am influenced not by the writing but by the intelligence that goes into it. I like to live in the churning and both these are paired for me,” he concludes.
Watch the full session here: