Socio-cultural boundaries of art: TM Krishna on why artists must question their knowledge

In his book ‘Reshaping Art’, the singer explains why he is trying to move traditional art forms out of the spaces they occupied until now.
Socio-cultural boundaries of art: TM Krishna on why artists must question their knowledge
Socio-cultural boundaries of art: TM Krishna on why artists must question their knowledge
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By TM Krishna

When I was twelve, I performed for the first time in public and, within a decade, moved up the ranks, mastering Karnatik music’s techniques, vocal requirements, rhythmic complexities, devouring compositions, triumphing over ragas and sending the audience into a tizzy. By 2002, I was a star. I rarely asked any of the questions I pose today and conformed to the rulebook with pleasure. I was one of those artists who felt free in art’s invisible socio-cultural prison. I never knew I was living in one.

I speak to you now of my own seeking so that I may communicate to you the reasons I ask these questions; and so that you, the reader, may ponder over your own art experiences.

Even in the days when I was performing Karnatik music aimed at satisfying my own people, there were unusual irreconcilable moments that passed by me as I sang. It was something I could not fathom. At times, I would be in tears not because I recalled an incident or individual, or was moved by anything lyrical. The tears flowed neither in sorrow, nor in joy. They were tears of fulfilment, arising from completeness. It was as if the entire universe had collapsed and I was overwhelmed by its entirety. Everybody and everything came together, differences vanished, identities dissipated and the performance itself was not happening. I could hear every molecule in the music—I am not sure whether I should call it music or just sound. The sound enveloped all of us—the audience and the musicians.

It did not matter whether I was singing Tyagaraja or Tagore, the names were irrelevant and we, the musicians, inconsequential. It was as if everyone within that musical space was immersed, drowned, submerged in a state of wonderment. The sound was not beautiful or exquisite, the rendition may not have even been textbook perfect. But somehow, just by being intensely aware, listening to every musical breath, following the flow, remaining silent and slowing down the entire process, there was an awakening. When that happened, art came alive. In some sort of a contradiction, we find that art—a constructed, structured form—enables unshackled freedom.

I was not sure what I should make of this and often let it pass and got back in the saddle to continue doing what I did very well—please my people. There was also something intensely uncomfortable about these experiences. I knew that I was not in control; I had to just let it be and become. This was all new for a young hot-blooded ambitious male Karnatik musician. After all, I always had my audience at my fingertips, knowing exactly which buttons to press for each desired response.

It was a game, a pleasurable one and I was extremely successful. I did not configure it, I just followed the laid-out plan. Until now, every glide or supersonic flash had appeared at my beck and call. But when art took over, I had no say in the experience; I was a mute witness, in free-fall. My musical knowledge did not help, there were no structures to hold on to, nothing to clasp, no method to regain control. I had to go through the experience and emerge out of it. There were no two ways to it.

There is the temptation to use the word spiritual to define what I am describing. But I am refraining from entering that arena. I do not know what it means. I have heard people saying that they are spiritual but not religious and I am not convinced we can make that kind of a demarcation. The spillover is so subtle that the spiritual in all likelihood is entrenched in belief, faith or ideology and I do not want to fall prey to any of them. I am not criticizing those who balance these two domains but I am clear that I do not want a discussion on art experience to be hijacked by either of these understandings. All I have done is describe to the best of my abilities what I experience and that remains true.

This led me to a long journey into the archives of Karnatik music, its musicology, practice and social history. I was troubled by the thought that the music might collapse if I were to remove all its social anchors. I was seeking proof of a musical core, the actual components of the form that give life to this art—those elements that make it what it is and will remain irrespective of everything else that it may shed or acquire. I had to also be prepared for the possibility that there is no such truth. In which case, all these experiences would mean nothing.

But I did find something. Karnatik music depends only on three cardinal elements—raga, tala and the text. Art happens when the musicians and the audience remain drenched in the aesthetic charge that emerges from this tripartite correspondence. I know I have simplified what is a far more complex interplay but, in the context of this discussion, this ought to do. I speak of the art I know but every art form has an elemental self. Everything else has been organized to suit the people who assemble, perform and consume the art. In the need to satisfy community needs, aspects of music have been given slipshod treatment. So the glittering paint that covers the art not only reflects ornateness, it also hides the art’s sanctum sanctorum. If any artist is willing to shake off all those exteriors, delve into the art, rediscover its marvels and bring back to the fore its aesthetic strengths, then suddenly the art is rejuvenated and its secret vault revealed.

You could ask if this means discarding Tyagaraja or Muttusvami Dikshitar. It is not a question of disposing of the past. There is no denying that there are many aspects on which I am at loggerheads with them. Tyagaraja was an extraordinary composer, yet amidst the musical genius is his Brahminical import. He was a product of his social boundaries and we need to understand that. The problem arises from the fact that his understanding is accepted as the gospel truth by the insiders, requiring everyone to be in agreement with his thinking. The art’s protectors believe that other viewpoints do not have a space here and that their very presence is polluting. This is one of the problems even with the spiritual—it can be casteist and doctrinaire!

What I sought was contestation. Can Karnatik music become a platform for social, cultural and political views that put Tyagaraja’s thoughts in the dock? If the repertoire of Karnatik music could be expanded to bring in compositions that gave us very different ideas of living—voices from across the social spectrum—instantaneously the conversation would be enlarged. It was not just about newer voices; we also had to retrieve lost voices. The erotic compositions sung by the Devadasis and other Karnatik compositions that were not rooted in bhakti have to be brought back to centre stage and the structure of performance needs to questioned. This churning is still respectful of raga, tala and text but creates discomfort and vulnerability. The homogeneous upper-caste followers of Karnatik music may reject, disregard, criticize these attempts but they will provoke discussion. That is the first step.

There are some who wonder whether an artist has to be loud and open about art’s divisiveness. ‘Can we not just do this quietly, in the way we make art and not announce it to the world?’ Yes! It is distinctly possible, but the danger in this hide-and-seek is that the art world has an instinctive ability to snatch from undeclared counter-movements its energy of questioning. Before we know it, the silent artistic protest will be turned into a proclamation of the art’s perfectness and the artist will

have become a champion of the art’s impartiality.

I apologize for this personal foray but any social change begins with personal conflicts and I had to bring to the table my own uncertainty before we looked at the larger picture.

Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from the book 'Reshaping Art' by TM Krishna.

You can buy the book here.


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