Book Review: Reshaping Art by T.M. Krishna
Reshaping Art by T.M. Krishna
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2018 | ISBN 978-93-86021-97-7
The Karnatik music artist Thodur Madabusi Krishna, popularly known as T.M. Krishna (TMK), has been in the news for reasons other than his singing prowess. He has stridently sought to present himself as not a singer, but as a person, monumentally empathetic and better than other individuals because he wears his sensitivity on his sleeve. TMK has penned a small book titled “Reshaping Art”, in which he opines how Art can be harnessed to “make ourselves and our communities open and sensitive”. The Art that Krishna seeks to reshape is Karnatik music, the very art that gave him a modicum of fame. The book starts of with an effort at defining the essence of Art and its usage in society. As one reads on, it is apparent that the book is more a garbled stream of thoughts on issues rather than a cogent argument.
TMK proclaims “Let me make it very clear, every art form is opaque and sullied by human social organization” (pg. 41) and he then proceeds to describe Karnatik music as only a socio-cultural structure. He writes “In the case of Karnatik music, the upper-caste Hindu identity, religious bhakti, the performance structure, Tyagaraja’s version of ragas, the central focus on religious kirtanas, upper-caste linguistic dialect, the need to evoke textual bhava (emotion), formats of improvisation and masculinity are all accepted norms for someone to be accepted as aa traditional, respectful, committed Karnatik musician. Within these orders, the artist is free to roam uninterrupted.” (pg. 42). Later in Chapter 5, Reshaping Art, he wryly observes that “There is a real fear that the dismantling of socio-cultural entrapments can lead to art losing its existential aesthetic markers. This is a necessary risk that an artist needs to take. If the art does not have anything on its own that is not dictated by its contextual bearings, it needs to crumble” (p 54). The implication is that Karnatik Music is only a socio-cultural structure and if Karnatik Music does not have anything intrinsic that is not socio-cultural then it needs to crumble.
The very music that enabled TMK to gain recognition, is now presented as an evil that needs to be civilized. Since TMK acknowledges that every art form is “sullied by human organization” he does not acknowledge that his actions of wanting to restructure Karnatik music are also merely an effort to impose his own sociological imagination over a supposedly oppressive other. In present times, we have religious groups, wanting to promote their theology, who have devised techniques like “inculturation” or “contextual theology” to assimilate and dismantle the values and practices of the target community from within. TMK is very willing to dismantle Karnatik Music and enable its “digestion” by world dominant exclusivist ideologies.
TMK practices selective silence even as he pours scorn on Karnatik music. TMK points out that Sadir i.e. devadasi dancing, was repackaged as Bharatanatyam he then opines that “Sadir became a dirty word, while Bharatanatyam was raised to an exalted status. “(pg.24). The mendacity of TMK is when he does not acknowledge that Sadir was criticized, abused and demonized by the Dravidianist ideologues who wanted Sadir destroyed. This blindness to facts and casual abuse of “brahminical” art is reflection of the sociological venom that TMK has allowed himself to be consumed by. In Europe, Jewish people had been subjected to constant demonization by the dominant Christian ideologies. Similarly, TMK has the utmost contempt and hate for Brahmins who listen and practice Karnatik music and the fact that Karnatik music has a significant focus on bhakti.
Denial of Agency
In a chapter titled “Art and Identity”, TMK discusses a musical genre called “Gana” that the Scheduled Caste community in Chennai practices. This type of music is believed to be part of death rituals. TMK mentions an incident where a prominent singer Gana Viji responds to a question on the kind of ragas in Gana music from a Karnatik music audience by stating “We sing in very many tunes and on many subjects. But, I did not sing those songs will not suit you people”. TMK does not recognize that Gana Viji is establishing his own agency and views on what this specific audience likes or prefers, but TMK jumps to the conclusion that Viji limited what his audience heard “because of their upper-casteness and sense of morality that comes with it”. This is the kind of artificial group hate that TMK conjures up, when there may be none. In the whole book, TMK presents himself as an enlightened and empathetic being sitting at a higher pedestal passing judgement on the lesser beings in his surroundings. He pompously advises all “Dalits, tribals and all socio-cultural minorities” to proclaim” This is our art and it is as rich, vibrant as what you upper-castes cherish” (pg71). It does not occur to TMK that the Gana-music practitioners are already proud of their art and do not need recognition from “upper castes” and such condescending attitude is wrong.
Even as he wants Karnatik Music to not have bhakti, he laments that “Gana has also been snatched up by cinema where it has been bastardized into item numbers” (pg. 35). TMK’s ego makes him blind to the fact that he wants to take Karnatik Music and “bastardize” into a contemporary political and social context ‘item numbers’ that he prefers. The standard of Bhakti spans a lot longer time, larger audience and evokes personal emotions common to all people from diverse backgrounds. A Thyagaraja kriti or a Purandara-dasa kriti is of value to all sections of society who value Rama and the music gives them enormous inner joy. To those who do not value Rama, a Thyagaraja kriti is ‘yet another music’. TMK has no problem turning Karnatik music into yet another ‘sociological item number’ of his liking.
Putting Thyagaraja in the Dock
TMK wants to change the structure of Karnatik music concerts, remove bhakti and for this reason he sociologizes and trivializes Tyagaraja. TMK writes “Can Karnatik music become a platform for social, cultural and political views that put Tyagaraja’s thoughts in the dock? “(pg. 51). Because, Thyagaraja was a Rama-bhakta, it elicits TMK’s derision for Thyagaraja and TMK spouts his Eurocentric sociological declaration that “Tyagaraja was an extraordinary composer, yet amidst the musical genius is his Brahmanical import” (pg.50). TMK cannot hide his contempt that there is a Tyagaraja Aradhana festival where there is a “sizeable Karnatik-interested Brahmin population” (pg. 41) and that it is a sign of “how claustrophobic an art form can make itself” (pg.41). TMK probably knows that a certain Bengaluru Nagarathnamma, who belonged to the Devadasi tradition, was the person who got the murthy of Thyagaraja installed at Tiruvaiyaru and started the Thyagaraja Aradhana Tradition! Indeed, TMK is an honorable man and does not let facts stand in the way of his opinions. There is of course, no point in countering TMK’s assertions with facts like listing non-brahmin Karnatik musicians from diverse backgrounds. Maybe if, Bengaluru Nagarathnamma was alive, she could have responded to TMK’s prejudiced and bigoted assertions on what Thyagaraja Aradhana is about.
Bully as the Savior
In a chapter titled “Art and Society”, TMK writes “Kings, empires and rogue militia have almost always been selective with their targets. They target specific communities and their culture. Delete culture and identity crumbles, leading to a loss of self-respect and dignity – exactly what the bully wants. Religious sectarianism is a convenient cover story for what is often vindictive and specific ethnic cleansing” (pg. 21). Of course, TMK has then proceeded to collaborate with highly exclusivist and globally-dominant organisations to target Karnatik music because it is seen as a sign of Hindu Bhakti. TMK is conveniently covering up the fact that he is the bully who is targeting Karnatik Music, which is a small minority musical tradition on the world music stage.
Neo-Orientalist Quest for fame
The book reflects how deeply TMK has internalized anti-brahmin hatred and is now the ‘Neo-Orientalist’ who has Karnatik music in his cross-hair and propagates a highly prejudiced characterization of Karnatik music as being just claustrophobic caste and bhakti. The scholar Rajiv Malhotra has identified the Neo-Orientalism that plagues India studies, the prejudiced application of Eurocentric sociology on Indian traditions. Rajiv Malhotra has exposed how a Neo-orientalist professor, Sheldon Pollock has demonized of Sanskrit. in a similar way, TMK wants to demonize Karnatik music.
TMK acknowledges “Through my arguments, I have managed to reduce art to mere social Machiavellianism. I am beginning to wonder why I am a musician. I have implied that every aspect of art is compromised, and every artist is a nobody” (pg. 43). If, every artist is a nobody, then TMK badly wants to be somebody famous. As TMK perceives correctly, he is now no longer just a musician.
TMK’s sociological devaluation of Karnatik Music and demonization of the Brahmin community has given him media space and gained him the Magsaysay Award (named after a cold-war era right wing Philippine president who militarily crushed an agrarian rights group called the Huk. The award is funded by elite foundations with their own ideology).
TMK has rocketed his career from being a Karnatik musician, into being a social activist on the global stage and presents himself as a “public intellectual”. But, it appears that he may not be satisfied with just that, his goal is to modify Karnatik Music in his own taste and gain personal fame. This maniacal streak for fame in humans was observed by the great Kannada poet D.V.Gundappa in his poetry as ‘mannaNeya daahave ellakum teekshNatama’ – the thirst for fame is the most extreme.
“Reshaping Art” is less about Art and more about eurocentric sociological demonization of Karnatik music. This demonization of the Karnatik tradition is an essential stepping stone in TMK’s quest for fame and standing as a public intellectual.
Featured Image: Amazon/ TOI