Ramon Magsaysay Award winner, Carnatic singer, author and activist TM Krishna speaks about his transformation from an artist to an activist, why art can never be separated from politics and why engagement, and not distancing, in politics is important. Edited Excerpts…
I've known you since the time you were a regular Carnatic music singer. At what point did you see that what you were doing wasn't enough and something needed to change?
As a person who is in the world of singing a specific form of music, I only used to think about the kind of toolkits I needed to upgrade myself in my craft. What I didn't realize was that it was still only surface level development. Your music may be great but what does it really mean for a raga to come alive or for your music to breathe? I didn't see the necessity to probe something like that back then.
There was no single moment but things happened when I sang that I can't explain. In whatever art we do, something happens in the process of art that you are not consciously controlling. The artist loves to be in control but in spite of all our great effort, we lose that hold and you kind of watch yourself performing — those are the most stunning moments.
I still remember an incident in Mylapore when I was singing a Tyagaraja keerthana — I've never been religious enough to be taken over by it — and I just broke down on stage. Something so profoundly beautiful was going on, something so gorgeous, not just because I was singing it but because you're opening yourself up to your own emotions, in a way that doesn't usually happen. These were the triggers for me to turn around and look at the larger world. I felt there was something better about me. That was the trigger for me to start reading, see beyond techniques or just becoming a better performer.
With your now transformed worldview, do you judge other musicians who may still be practicing within Brahminical circles?
We probably do that, at times. But at the same time, I'm still part of that world. There are people who ask why I sing in sabhas in spite of my politics. I think that's a ridiculous question. Engagement with issues is needed. I want to participate and not disassociate myself from those spaces. I don't even expect colleagues who share the stage with me to be on the same page as me.
Does art need to be political? A lot of people tell you that when Tyagaraja composed his songs, he was only talking about Rama. Where's the political dimension in it?
I come from the position that everything is political. Even if you don't speak politics as a Carnatic musician, it doesn't mean what you're doing is not political. When I go for music classes, what stories are told (and not told) to me? They are political statements. They 'culture' me in a certain manner. People have been habituated in the tradition.
The entire bubble in Carnatic music is a tradition of a bubble. I'm not saying that anyone is intentionally doing anything. People are possibly carrying things on without realizing why. I grew up in that milieu and learnt music from Sitarama Sharma, a very traditional person. He used to tell us how males and females should dress in class, what's culture, what's music, etc. All this is political. I go to a sabha or temple concert and it has the same kind of people. My perception of society is based on this experience. Some of these people prefer to stay away from politics and think that they're better than the political — divine. I don't believe that art is ever non-political.
The question of why Tyagaraja composed music is complicated and goes far beyond saying that he was a religious person who loved Rama. It completely undermines him as an individual. Tyagaraja was a genius and a man of great thought. His language and text would reflect his culture, of course. Also, in those days, a larger worldview was much harder for anyone. It's completely understandable to me that he sings about Rama. But don't say there's nothing else to him but Rama who is but one facet of Tyagaraja.
What about his complex compositions? They're structured beautifully and I get goosebumps just thinking of it. You don't have to cry for Rama, you can cry just for that. Why reduce that? I am not going to argue whether Rama was the inspiration for the work. A lot of Tyagaraja's compositions were done as a musical endeavour. If you don't respect his intellectual ideas, you're disrespecting the individual.