Collaborations and jugalbandis (duet of two musical styles) bring in crowds and have always been showstoppers at art festivals. But something stares us in the face at these concerts. The collaborating art forms almost always belong to the same social league. For example, Hindustani and Karnatik, Hindustani and Western classical, Karnatik and Jazz, Rock and Karnatik/Hindustani. They are combinations that the urban upper-class world finds acceptable. These concerts socially perpetrate the fraud that taste is the prerogative of the upper echelons of society. Since these notions come from those who are socio-politically imposing, we never dare question them.
Very rarely will art from across the vertical divisions of society come together in symphony. These concerts can be gorgeous, if the congenital social inequality is not lost sight of and the artists keep each form in symmetry.
The levelled sharing of art must be both visual and aesthetic, that is in the sharing of the stage, time and artistic juxtaposing. There will be differences and these must not be ironed out. The commonalities and the contrasts must be allowed free expression. Art awakens from the unalike and similar playing hide-and-seek. These artistic swaps provide us a glimpse into the lives of people, places and beliefs. But these art conversations cannot remain urban big-stage, elite events. They must be presented in the hometowns of the collaborating socio-culturally weaker art form. The culturally enabled art forms must travel beyond their sheltered habitat. We will then understand what it means to be seen as peculiar babblers! Empathy will emanate only when deeper shared emotions are felt through the arts. When that is missing, nothing socially significant will be possible; the weaker would have been exploited for our aggrandisement and we will continue to flourish as cultural monarchs.
My own experience collaborating with the Jogappas (transgender musicians who live on the border of Karnataka and Maharashtra) has been both moving and educational. Singing is their life and Yellamma (a form of Devi worshipped by them) their “self “. This devotional music is similar to upper-caste Hindu religious music – namasankirtan. There is one theme statement followed by multiple descriptive verses. Melodically, all these verses are rendered in the same tune. There is one lead singer who is supported by a chorus. The accompanying instruments are the choudki and sutti. The choudki is a single-stringed, hollow, one-sided circular drum. The artist strums the string with his/her fingers and beats the inside of the hollow with a small piece of wood at the same time. The pitch is maintained by the sutti, a form of the ektara. As with many such singing traditions, the musicians also double up as composers and render their own compositions along with other traditional songs. Sometimes, contemporary themes are interwoven with stories, descriptions and appeals to Yellamma.
They made me confront my preconceived notions about transgender people. Aesthetically, I evolved through our conversations and musical parleys, absorbing an entirely different musician-music relationship that involves body, identity, sexuality, myth and belief. Passionate music is created amidst everyday realities of stigma and cultural ghettoisation. This made me reflect on my own relationship with art. Culturally accredited classical musicians keep secrets and hide their tradecraft like top-secret documents. But these wonderful musicians for whom music is prayer, security and livelihood share with such grace. When we are on stage together, the energy and joy of making music is so palpable and invigorating. I have learnt to just “give” music from Sidhamma, Rakhi, Sagar, Lakshman, Madhavi and Bibijaan.
But a lot can also go wrong in such cultural exchanges. The Manganiyars of Rajasthan are today renowned artists and their music has filled many a hallowed stage across the globe. Despite this worldwide fame, little has changed in their lives.
Belonging to the lower castes, many still live in abject poverty with very little political voice. Recently, a Manganiyar musician was killed because his renditions did not evoke the goddess’ spirit. Mysticism was the excuse for inter-caste murder. It does not help if the advantaged just pick up a few musicians from society’s margins and provide them concerts or collaborate with them on mega-stages. Art must lead us to forge honest and caring relationships. Through the relationship, art becomes impartial and we involve ourselves in one another’s lives. When there is no such interest, the entire effort becomes abusive. While the opportunist will preen over his discovery and benevolence, the musicians will be exploited like circus animals. Their lives and the attached stigmas remain unchanged.
Literature is an active participant in these aesthetic-social interventions. And much like the other manifestations of art, the “literary art experience” is also endangered. We can and should apply every one of the strategies discussed here to the art of writing. We have to rewrite ideas of linguistic purity, liberate writing from socially imposed formulae and rediscover its pneuma. Insiders who control writing and publishing must be unsettled and readers forced into unexpected, disconcerting experiences. We have to move towards building a more open writing and reading community. In all this, we cannot forget the urgent need for many more original marginalised voices who bring complexity, the bitterness of their reality and inter-culturalism that directly challenge literary fiefdoms.
Is any art possible when it is stuck in these entanglements and propagates so much inequality? Are we just deluding ourselves into believing in art? Art left alone does very little to change the way we live. The art experience appears and disappears like an apparition and we just go back living our differentiated lives. It is up to human beings to cherish the art experience and plead for our own illumination. When deliberate human action unmeshes art, rattles its premise, unsettles its synthetic edifice, art is attained. It becomes a person’s way of demanding and seeking freedom from his/her own narrow-mindedness. It is also, at times, a cry for revolution. We fear this radicalness and hence keep art locked up, until the day when the demand becomes so formidable that we just have to relent. This is precisely why a society where art is allowed to just be remains thoughtful.
Excerpted with permission from Reshaping Art, TM Krishna, Aleph Book Company.