How Carnatic singer TM Krishna is initiating dialogue about art and activism in his new book
For long, TM Krishna has been controversy’s favourite child. Whether it’s announcing that he would no longer partake in the Margazhi season to his comments on singer MS Subbulakshmi and her skin colour, the Carnatic singer has been in the limelight for what seemed to be all the wrong reasons. The 42-year old is well-known for his attempts to break Carnatic music out of its high-caste confines by ‘debrahmanising’ music. As a public intellectual, Krishna launched the Svanubhava initiative in 2008, that helped aspiring young musicians, dancers and thespians kindle an interest in the arts and dances. This platform ensured it dissolved all divisions of creed, class and caste which stood in the way of creativity and cultural conversations.
Active on the music scene for over two decades now, he has even authored a few books. After A Southern Music: A Karnatic Story in 2013 and Voices Within: Carnatic Music — Passing on an Inheritance in 2007, TM Krishna released Reshaping Art earlier this month. The book asks important questions about art and its relationship with caste, class and gender while exploring how we can harness its power to make ourselves more open and sensitive. “ It explores the role of art in society and wonders if art can change the way we live our lives,” says Krishna, “It makes us more empathetic human beings. Reshaping Art problematises art and questions its own inherent ugliness.” Krishna emphasises on the fact that this book is different from his earlier books because it directly questions art’s discriminatory character and explores ways by which artistes and their art can help realise a sense of humanity.
Krishna’s mother was a Carnatic music graduate, and his father had an ear for Carnatic classical music. His grand uncle, former finance minister and industrialist, TT Krishnamachari was one of the founding members of the Madras Music Academy. Under the Carnatic legends like Bhagavathula Seeetharama Sharma and Chingleput Ranganathan, and Semmangudi Srinivasier, Krishna received formal training in music. So, it is safe to say that Krishna was quite literally born into Southern classical music. However, he soon grew restless and questioned the very establishment that he was groomed in. His intent was to “make music available to everybody” and the only way he could do this was to encourage dialogue, even if it made one uncomfortable. We ask him about this collision of art and activism and he is of the opinion that they do not collide. “I do not believe they collide,” says Krishna. “Activism is an expression that we have given to people who proactively engage in social, environmental or political ideas. Whether you label them that way or not, every true artiste has to be an activist. If they are not, they are not artistes.”
Activism and art
It was after he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2016, that he started batting for environment and inclusivity. The following year in January, he along with popular city environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman, released Chennai Poromboke Paadal — a song about Ennore creek and how a power plant had eroded much of the creek away. This was the first Carnatic song that was sung in colloquial Tamil. Krishna subsequently became the driving force behind Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha, a joint initiative of the fishing village of Urur Olcott Kuppam and the residents of Chennai, that campaigns for the right to
In a maverick move, Krishna took to the MTC buses by performing with Jogappas, the transgender community, on the 29C bus route in Besant Nagar. Flanked by rappers and devotional musicians, Krishna and his entourage sang freedom fighter Subhrahmania Bharathi’s compositions like Om Shakti Om Shakti, to deliver something different to Chennaiites. Having earlier mentioned that art from vertical divisions in society very rarely come together, he tried to bridge that gap by having aesthetic conversations with the Jogappas and Kattaikkuttu (rural theatre form) artistes. “Art and society coming together has to be done with great care, critical thinking, aesthetic consciousness and socio-political awareness. This is the future of true artistic collaboration.”
Literature, Krishna believes, is the foundation of questioning. He states that the greatest of social and political movements have evolved from powerful, passionate and beautiful words. “Musicians have to realise the indispensability of art and its essentiality to any civilisation. This realisation will give them an understanding of why we make art.” With this epiphany, he hopes it will lead to more
serious and engaging works of art, where the maker and the receiver are captured in an enchanting
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