TM Krishna says the government must come up schemes to provide socio-economic security for artistes. He has been selected for the Kerala government’s Swathi Puraskaram for 2020
Calling for a socio-economic scheme on the lines of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) for artistes, vocalist TM Krishna says that the Central Government and every State Government must consider the kind of economic security that they can provide for artistes in the country, many of whom are marginalised. “We need a legislation which, like the NREGA, promises 100 days of work for artistes.”
Over a phone call, the leading musician, author and activist, who has been selected for the Swathi Puraskaram of the Kerala State Government, talks about the different roles he has been playing to make Carnatic music inclusive and accessible to all. In a free-wheeling conversation, Krishna explains why he takes up issues that he feels should be discussed and engaged with and what is it that motivates him.
“During the last eight or nine months, we have been working though our trusts Sumanasa Foundation, supporting artistes across the country. We have shared ₹1 crore with over 3,000 artistes in 24 States, especially among those who remain on the margins. In reality, most artistes are poor. Many of them are doing part-time NREGA work, some work as labourers on agricultural lands or run small stores etc. We have to look at providing them some kind of security,” he says.
Edited excerpts from the interview.
On receiving the Swathi Puraskaram
I thank the Kerala Government for giving me the award. It is truly an honour considering the artistes who have received the award before me.
Many of the kritis of Swathi Thirunal were notated by the late Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, your guru. What are our thoughts on that?
Swathi Thirunal came to the public’s attention and the concert stage primarily because of my guru Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. We tend to forget that. This is a moment to remember Semmangudi’s contribution in popularising the compositions of Swathi Thirunal.
This award becomes extra special because the Kerala Government has chosen Pala Ramachandran sir for the same award for the year 2018. He is one of the senior disciples of Semmangudi while I am one of the junior-most. There is something serendipitous about the fact that we are going to be receiving the award on the same stage.
One important feature of the Swathi’s compositions is the eclectic nature of his works in terms of language and in terms of style. In contemporary India, it is an important idea to hold on to: that India is a country where we embrace so many different aesthetics, styles and all these have to come together in harmony if there is to be a beautiful India. There is that wonderful lesson from Swathi Thirunal.
You have composed and sung the verses of Sree Narayana Guru and brought those verses to the concert stage….
It has been a journey for me, a journey of learning about Guru. Initially, I only knew him as ‘a social reformer who had fought against the caste system’. But there is so much more to him. He merged the political, social and seeking for the self, as all part of one journey in a manner that no one else did in the 19th and 20th Century.
I know people will think of Gandhi when I say this, but Guru did something more profound. He was able to challenge every social, political barrier that limited a human being from finding the self or god and never held on to any social structure in the name of tradition. He was an innovator who gave faith centrality and built a socio-religious culture that engaged robustly with the political as much as it did with the personal. This has no parallels in recent history.
He saw that everybody seeks something profound, something beautiful within. You can call it Allah, Rama, Jesus or even call it ‘godlessness’. He realised that to be able to do that you have to be utterly political and unapologetically against all social evils including caste discrimination. To be able to sing his compositions and bring them on to the concert stage, personally for me, it is a blessing.
You have won bouquets and brickbats for your writing, speeches and even the music you choose to sing. Does that perturb you?
My music is part of my politics and my politics is part of my music. I am not separating the two and I will not separate the two. Music is political and the political is music for me. Therefore, having detractors or critics is something that comes with the territory. I don’t worry about it. It is irritating at times and senseless when it comes from shallow engagement with what is said or sung. Nevertheless, it is normal in today’s world and with social media amplifying everything, I think one comes to terms with this normal. I don’t worry so much about it because I am very clear about my seeking. And I am also always willing to learn. I am going to make mistakes and I am going to learn. But I have complete trust in what I am seeking…
What are you seeking?
If it can be answered in one line, it can’t be a seeking, can it? Then it becomes a statement for the media. What I am seeking is reflected in all the work that I do. And it is there for everybody to see, agree, disagree, judge.
You were one of the few to speak up on behalf of those who broke the silence during the MeToo movement. Yet, the majority is silent…
The music world is not a separate world. It is part of what India is. How many in India are discussing caste, gender or MeToo? Even those who are discussing MeToo are only thinking of it within a privileged framework. Who is discussing the sexual abuse that happens every day to Dalits? So, what you are seeing is only emblematic of what we are as a country. How can we expect something different from the Carnatic music fraternity ?
AlI I can say is, we have to keep pushing for dialogue, we have to keep the pressure on and engage both overtly and otherwise. Since transformations don’t happen overnight there is a lot of work that needs to be done slowly, steadily and consistently. But one thing I am positive about is the fact that these conversations are now in the public domain. There is no running away from them. That in itself is a step forward.
But I don’t think we should be surprised that musicians are not publicly coming forward and proactively working towards change, we should not be surprised that musicians are sharing stages with many of those accused of sexual harassment and we should not be surprised that many organisations are not batting an eyelid before inviting such people. But we will keep talking, and change will come.
All through the lockdown you were giving and organising concerts in cyberspace. What has been your experience of the digital space?
I believe that human beings are a society of people. I don’t think the digital is going to replace the physical. I have learnt that the digital offers a different kind of space. If I was going to sing a concert at an indoor auditorium, the road, in a bus, at a temple or church… every space provides a different sensibility, different ideas and opportunities for making music. The digital space offers certain things that is unique of its character. That needs to be explored and this has a role to play in changing the nature of the music or in expanding the possibilities in the music. That is what I have learnt from using the digital space.