Setting Ashoka's messages on harmony to music: TM Krishna on 'The Edict Project'

The first of The Edict Project series was released on October 14, to coincide with the day Babasaheb Ambedkar embraced Buddhism.
TM Krishna
TM Krishna
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“What is harmony?” Over the last few years in India, a faint echo of this question must have been heard within our hearts, at least once. What is harmony indeed? Interestingly, there is an answer to it, written way back during the third century BCE.

“Listening to reflections of justice. Listening to another’s reflections on justice. Each listening to that willingly.” These lines are from Mauryan Emperor Ashoka’s edicts, his messages inscribed in Prakrit language on pillars and rock surfaces across 37 locations in his empire that covered Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nepal and modern-day Bangladesh, addressed to his people whom he considered to be his own children. While Ashoka’s edicts have been part of history textbooks and of great interest for scholars, these have been brought into focus today by the joint efforts of singer and writer TM Krishna and Ashoka University. This particular collection of four edicts are from different locations.

Ashoka’s answer to the question “What is harmony?” moved TM Krishna (TMK) to tears. “Justice is very different from law. Justice is internal consciousness. Do we listen to the marginalised speak about justice? It is an important question,” Krishna begins.

“When it says listen to the others speak about justice — who are the others? What are the identities of the others? Who created these identities? These very, very profound ideas Ashoka has etched across his kingdom,” he says and continues, “It generates thinking among us even today. It is not about going back in time. It is about re-discovering and re-understanding the context that we are in today. I had goosebumps and tears with the idea.”

The first of The Edict Project was released on October 14, to coincide with the day Babasaheb Ambedkar embraced Buddhism. While TMK admits mulling over the idea in all seriousness about eight months ago, he took it up only around May this year.

“I decided to look at them more seriously and find a way to reimagine them in an artistic sense. They are extremely inspiring in the most poetic way. They are essentially messages by the emperor but their construction is quite exquisite. Both the content and the form are beautiful,” says TMK who adds that he has a deep connection with the Buddha.

With help from Dr Naresh Keerthi, a Prakrit and Sanskrit scholar, and Shravasti Dhammika, a senior Buddhist monk, TM Krishna has worked on the project since June. Before he explains about the creative process, he clarifies that edicts, contrary to popular perceptions, are over hundred in number, each surface (rock, pillar or cave) having more than one edict. “Dhammika put the four edicts together, all of them on the idea of Dharma, and I began setting them to tune,” he says.

He points out, “This is the first time the edicts have come out in the form of music and that was why it was important for me to give it an artistic form. There’s a lot of difference in reading out a word and singing it - when you sing it, the word gets many lives. And that’s when people are most touched.”

TMK worked closely with Dr Keerthi on trying to maintain the consistency and the meaning of the edicts and to get the pronunciations right. “Reading is different from singing. Moreover, this is a 2000-year-old language,” he adds.

He goes on to explain, “There are specific tools in every art form and when you begin working on it, the framework kicks in. However, here, we were working on two forms that did not connect directly. The edicts are not poetry, but messages. They were not intended for music. Secondly, the language is not something that we are familiar with. It is closer to Sanskrit but one needs to consciously stay away from making it sound like Sanskrit, both semantically and sonically. We are also not used to certain sounds from Prakrit in music.”

“Also, there’s melodies of the raga and melody of the language. It took a lot of thought. I initially tuned the first edict in Devagandhari raga and later in Kapi,” he adds. The four edicts are set to different raga-tala combinations such as Kapi-Adi, Shubhapanthuvarali-Chatushra Jampa, Mohanam-Mishra Chapu and Desh-Khanda Chapu.

TMK will continue working on more such edicts, setting them to tune along with Ashoka University. “We hope to cover most of them, especially ones that have social and political significance. Ideally, they will be translated into many languages, to be able to take it to the younger generation,” he says.

TMK says he's been overwhelmed with people’s responses so far and adds, “The most beautiful thing about art or ideas is when they let you imagine. That is the magic of Ashoka here. It is his message and yet it makes you think and imagine.”

Watch TM Krishna performing the first set of the Edicts

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