Thodur Madabusi Krishna, a classical singer better known by his initials TM, was on Wednesday declared the latest recipient of the prestigious Magsaysay award meant to recognise Asian individuals who have done service to society. The award cited Krishna's choice to "question the politics of art" and the fact that he "devoted himself to democratising the arts as an independent artist, writer, speaker, and activist."
Indeed, Krishna did not just question the parochial elitism of Carnatic music, which tends to be limited to middle- and upper-middle class Brahmins. He decided to actively break down those barriers, working with environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman last year to host the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha, a music and dance festival set on the beach of a village far from the fancy Chennai halls where such events are usually held.
While such a festival cannot, in two years, challenge the mainstream system of Brahmin-dominated music organisations, it can become the threat of an alternative.
The image that best expressed this came in the festival’s last few minutes. As Dasan belted out his last song, the hugely popular dance number, Vandiyile Nellu Varum, the ponytailed Nityanand Jayaraman pranced on to the stretch of sand in front of the stage, spurring a chain reaction. Adults, teenagers and children stood up, moved to the front and joined him.
They danced, many in pairs, and hugged. Among them, framed against the sea under the moonlit night, was the unmistakable profile of the classical musician TM Krishna, wearing a blue shirt and spotless white veshti, folded up so that he too could boogie.
Krishna's efforts to break down barriers has not just been limited to his music. He also happens to be an activist as well as a public intellectual, using his prominence to call for a more inclusive, pluralistic Indian society. This aspect will be familiar to readers of Krishna's column on Scroll.in, called The Thin Edge, which you can read in its entirety here.
In fact, his very first piece for Scroll featured a call for more pluralism.
You know what has been agitating the minds of millions of us, Indians – the future of our pluralism. You have stated your position in terms of sabka sath, sabka vikas. And this is quoted and cited on your behalf repeatedly as a mantra. But, Pradhan Mantriji, this is certainly not adequate. We need to hear you, our prime minister, directly and clearly and with an urgent reference to the context of the present situation, which is nothing less than a tragedy. Over the last few months we have had more than one tragedy. Can we really not see the connections between the so-called stray incidences all over the country, from the murders of Dabholkar Pansare and Kalburgi to that of Mohammad Akhlaq. Your direct voice needs to be heard now.
In another recent piece, Krishna insisted that the Indian state and its people need to work harder to understand empathy, and be tolerant of diverse visions of this nation – including those who question the very idea of India.
Politicians in Parliament and outside always proclaim that Kashmir is an integral part of India. What do they mean? That the land that lies within the squiggled political line belongs to us? What about the people, whom do they belong to, you, them, us or nobody? They are people with diverse tones and in disagreement amongst themselves, but they are all Kashmiris. We proclaim that we are a nation of diversity, then let us accept that within the voices there will be some who even question the idea of the nation. This too is a voice and we have to listen to it because democracy is a spirit not a constitutional condition.
As BR Ambedkar has slowly come in vogue, even among those whose ideological forefathers did much worse than dismiss the Dalit leader and founding father, Krishna suggested that even devout Hindus need to embrace his philosophy.
There have to be many Ambedkars and even a pious Hindu Ambedkarite is a possibility. I have to be careful here! Am I converting Ambedkar into a Hindu philosopher? Another appropriation? Certainly not, but the honesty of his enquiry, strength of conviction and tenacity to stand up against the powerful force me out of my comfort zone, bringing me face-to-face with who I am – including my faith and philosophy. I may choose to embrace Ambedkar and Rama, and allow myself solace in this contradiction!
And nationalism too has come in for criticism from Krishna's pen. He pointed out earlier in the year that we may love our land, but that is not the same as embracing the nation state.
I belong to this land because of the air, fragrance, earth, sounds, languages, music, dance, drama, rituals, cuisine, unsaid words, smiles, quirks, jokes, habits, battles, inequalities and sharing that make me who and what I am. All this exists beyond the state. This is my land, my people and my life. My “here” is not bound by the homogenising tag that makes for an Indian citizen – whether of the ordinary native, or OCI or NRI variety. My land is fluid not static, constantly self-renewing, self-defining, leaving me free to sing any song. There is no question that the state has facilitated my living, but the state itself comes from the experiences that I have described above and therefore it cannot take away who I am. The state is not a privilege gifted to us, it is built on the understanding, questioning and framing of what already exists. If the state forgets its reason for existence then it needs to be, and will be, challenged.
Not everything, for Krishna, though has been about questioning the role of the state. Last year as intolerance became the buzzword and hundreds of eminent individuals began returning their awards, he pointed out that they have plenty to answer for.
The victors in this collective degeneration have been the extreme elements and the far right. The truth is that apart from the media and those in the social sector, who have been tirelessly sounding warnings, the rest of us have been silent. So today we cannot divorce our inaction and passivity from the atmosphere that surrounds us. Did we need to wait for the death of people to speak up in an unequivocal voice? Engaging with the society cannot be a reactionary process, it has to be observational and constant. We have to remain sensitive and proactive even in the most peaceful of times.