Chennai: A very creative and daring re-interpreter of the Carnatic Music tradition, Thodur Madabusi Krishna, is a passionate advocate of making classical arts more inclusive and is a critique of its commercialization through the ‘Sabha’ system. Winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award (2016), he sees art as a vehicle of human empathy and transcendence. He has been a pioneer in experiments of taking classical Indian music to the subalterns, relating it as healer to their misery.
“The greatest danger to our democratic fabric now is cultural violence,” says Krishna, ahead of his forthcoming new book, Reshaping Art (published by Aleph India) in an expansive interview to M.R. Venkatesh of Deccan Chronicle in Chennai recently. In a brilliant epigrammatic style, his second work comes after his path-breaking book, A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story , which won encomiums even from Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen.
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: Pursuing art as a way to self-understanding or even liberation is different from performing art; the first touches the depths of subjectivity and the second is a formalized objectivity for a mass audience. Are they watertight compartments or can they mingle?
TMK: We are living in a world of subjectivity. That’s the reality. The subjectivity presumes a hierarchy, of caste, gender, social position, even aesthetic hierarchy will also be there… The important question to be asked is, in moving from the subjective to the objective, can we do it without being judgmental? That’s where art comes in. It moves you beyond your individual identity…In order to go beyond the subjective, you need to problematize the subjective, which is what art does. You are able to use empathy, the ability to go away from your identity, by being in someone else’s shoes; art allows you to transcend judgmental subjectivity into a realm of objective diversity….They are not watertight (compartments); we are all human beings and things are in a constant flux…But serious art makes you to go beyond the subjective, to empathize, to realize your limitations. The onus is on us, whether you are a musician or an audience. In fact, I say in my (new) book, they are only ‘catalysts’. When you feel without you being the centre of the world, that's objectivity.
Q: Western or Eastern, all great art, particularly music have been nurtured in a religious setting. So how do you secularize art for its wider diffusion?
TMK: Yes, the context is religious, but it does not mean the music is religious. For example, take the ‘Nama Sankeertanams’, hymns from the Gospel or the Qawwali (Sufi devotional music). There the context and content of the music is religious as the structure of the music itself is directed towards religiosity; the tones are simple, people can remember and repeat them in collective singing and so on; But Carnatic music or Jazz are not there to invoke religiosity, though they may have come from a religious context. ..The ‘Kritis’ of Thyagaraja or a Dhikshitar are art creations that transcend mere religious meanings. So let us not trap Carnatic music as religious music. They were both secular and religious. It is we who are putting them in compartments…..
To secularise art more, yes we need texts which are secular, address modern issues like the environment. We also need different dialects. Take my experiment with ‘Porombokku Paattu’. Initially, I didn't know whether it will work for Carnatic music…there is a ‘Begada’, a ‘Devagandhiri (raagas)’ in it, not identifiable to them but the language was their (common people's) dialect which made it immensely popular and most of them had not heard Carnatic tunes earlier….We also need diversity within religions and multiple religions…Even within the Hindu, we need multiple ideas of the Hindu.
Q: But dance, theatre and painting have shown greater elasticity to adapt to modern conditions?
TMK: I don’t know about dance, but theatre and other visual arts (including sculpture and cinema) have been very much part of social and political discourses in the modern era that they have been able to say, address and imbue what exists around them; as a very strong component of social and political movements, they have got subaltern! ……and corollary to this is certain art forms have been placed by society's elite as exemplifying a pure, antiquated past. It is those art forms that have remained aloof, the pristine idea of a glorious past…the elite have not allowed it to come on to the land. It occurs all over the globe, more so in India. …The so-called ‘Classical’ is a cultural fraud. My old friend Harold Powers put the seed of this idea in me, on the difference between ‘classical’ and ‘folk’. …When something goes up the social ladder, it becomes ‘classical’! It’s what the cultural elite deem as classical. ….the mainstream marginalizes art forms of the lower castes like ‘Kattai Koothu’, which is no less intense and rigorous than ‘Kathak’.
Q: This brings us to the issue of some art forms are autonomous, but some others rooted in what the ‘producers want’?
TMK: I think this is an eternal artistes’ battle, between livelihood and art. .. As an artiste, I can only say at the core you must have some integrity to the art; that's the honesty of the artiste. There are certain things at the core (of art) for which you will fight at any cost. ..It will throw economic challenges and you have to negotiate it and yet remain creative…..Grace is the belief and hope of existence.
Q: This dichotomy between art-for-art sake that is elitist and art for the masses with its Marxist connotation of a classless society. Your views.
TMK: This art-for-art sake itself is a fraudulent formulation. This exclusivist approach leads to its polar opposite in the Marxist dictionary…….The point is that this distinction itself has to collapse….This notion that what is created by the masses can never be profound and what is niche is always profound, is not only socially judgmental but also dangerous….We should be very careful. These are exactly the arguments being used against diversity, to completely divide our society. The greatest danger to our democratic fabric now is cultural violence. We are realizing it now because it is hitting us, propagated through religion, ritual, art, cultural habits and the use of mythology to say very bizarre things!
Q: How do you relate your latest work, Reshaping Art with the earlier book, A Southern Music: The Karnatic Story?
TMK: While my Southern Music was a detailed analysis speaking about artistes, the sociological and musicological aspects among others of Carnatic music, Reshaping Art is about the whole of art, whether art can transform society; and if it has a role what art needs to do to itself for that (role) to emerge. It deals with a broader spectrum of concerns, a lot of it based on my own experience, including issues of secular democracy, education, caste, gender, aesthetics, knowledge creation and the whole ultimate question of ‘Who am I’. In that sense, it takes forward the ‘Southern Music’ to a larger canvas.