Popularly known as “TMK”, Thodur Madabusi Krishna is a widely admired Carnatic vocalist known for his blunt views on issues ranging from politics to social subjects. The 41-year-old was conferred the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award last year for his commitment as an artist and his advocacy of art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions, breaking down barriers of caste and class.
A student of the Krishnamurti Foundation’s The School in Chennai, Krishna was influenced by Jiddu Krishnmurti’s philosophy of ‘pathlessness’ and honed his mastery of Carnatic music under the tutelage of Seetharama Sarma, Chingleput Ranganathan and the legendary Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.
TMK has co-authored “Voices Within: Carnatic Music – Passing on an Inheritance,” a book dedicated to the greats of Carnatic music. His later book, “A Southern Music,” is a first-of-its-kind work on the Carnatic tradition and was awarded the Tata Literature award for the best debut non-fiction book in 2014. In an interview to SRI KRISHNA, he spoke on various contemporary issues. Excerpts:
Q: You are a strong critic of the existing political system and your articles too reflect it. You sound a bit cynical. Why this stand?
A: I definitely feel that there is a certain downward turn to the way we are looking at the social and political discourse in this country, especially over the last two or three years. I think why I am upset about it is because I think there is a clear direction of keeping people and ideas polarised and creating binaries out of ideas. I feel that there is a movement towards pushing people to violence ~ it need not be physical violence but violence towards ideation. That is where it all begins. I fear that we are pushing people and communities to ideational violence which leads to physical violence.
There are enough examples and I don’t need to elaborate on this. It is all over the country. Depending on what thought process you hold or opinion you have, you are called all kinds of names today. I don’t remember anything so sharp ten or fifteen years ago. For everything you are considered non-patriotic. This is hyper-nationalism which is also embedded in a certain religiosity and religious identity.
To me it is very bothersome and I do believe that this is not the direction that we should take as a society. It is not about political parties but about the discourse that this country needs to take. I feel that the present political set-up is not doing anything to nurture a more open environment where you are not sharpening knives. Today everyone is sharpening a knife and that is indeed worrisome.
Q: There is a view that there is growing intolerance in the country. What role do you feel the artistes’ community can play to restore tolerance?
A: The truth of the matter is in India artistes have been most docile. Let us take that as a fact. We (artistes) have never participated in the political system and I don’t mean political parties but the idea of politics. We have been very careful and even subservient to every political dispensation and the reasons are obvious, I don’t have to elaborate. I think that is a sad thing in the country that artistes don’t realise that their engagement in the political is very important to create diverse ideas, even creative spirit in the political process. We do not do it. I think the artistic community should participate in the political discourse, especially as we live in a time when certain thoughts are considered wrong and you have people of power, specially ministers, who come out and say that we will not allow that which is anti-national. Who is defining the identity of what is national and what is anti-national? All these are being bulldozed, I believe, on large parts of this country. And the sad thing is we are all feeding it and making it more aggressive. The best way to challenge anything is not necessarily to talk about it but to use an artistic form to express views. I believe there is a huge role for artistes.
Q: It seems that views described as Rightist are not only prevalent in India but also spreading all over the world in a political sense. Your take on this.
A: It is indeed a global phenomenon whether it is in India, the United States of America or many parts of Europe. I think we are seeing the rise of dominance-based politics and society. Different forms of oppression and pressure are being put on people who don’t subscribe to that. This is a global phenomenon and globally we have to watch for it because all these forces will join hands. Here again it is important for liberal society to engage with conservative ideas on a level playing field. It is not about bulldozing or violence but liberal society should engage conservatives in an intellectual and emotional conversation for only then we shall not fall into a trap of political maneuverings. That is also important. We cannot sit on a high horse and be liberal for that is also dangerous. We have to see that every opinion exists and we have to engage with it and also negotiate with it. We have to find various spaces of commonalities for only then can we challenge such oppressive thoughts.
Q: What kind of role do you see the media play?
A: The media too has a huge responsibility. I mean there is a certain section of the media which is doing what it should do. It is asking questions. But, there is a lot of media that is basically pandering to what is being sold as political ideas or social ideas or national ideas. I think that the media wants to create a certain hyperbole, almost like they want a blockbuster film of every news item, irrespective of human lives or human thoughts or ideas. The media is not playing its role and it needs to introspect.
It is not about editorial stance of a newspaper. That is not what I am discussing. I think the way you engage with controversies, with differences, with shall we say clashes or disagreements. You cannot engage with it with the prime objective of making it sensational. I think the Indian media is now very much in the flow of creating sensation. The media should realise that in the long run every sensation you create affects actual human lives, ways of living and not just that moment of TRP ratings for more shares on Facebook or more tweets. There has to be far more introspection.
Q: How do you view the events that took place on the Marina in Chennai at the time of the Jallikattu agitation? Do you feel that this is a start of a people’s movement in the state?
A: I am going to disagree with you on this. I must say that people thought that Jallikattu was a way of bringing them together. It is a good thing people came together but I am a bit sceptical as it brought people together for the wrong reasons. It was also a kind of jingoistic nationalism.
But did we come together when there was constitutional disorder in the state a few weeks ago? We did not. Let us be honest. We all tweeted and wrote on Facebook but beyond that did anybody come together? No. Did we create a situation where the Governor had to think differently what to do? No. The fact is that we are not coming together for democratic processes. We are coming together again for identity politics. How is it going to help in any kind of community building? I think we should have come together when this mess with Sasikala, Pannerseelvam, Palanisamy and Stalin was going on. The community should have come together and demanded a far better way of going about things. We did not, which is why it makes me wonder whether there was any meaning at all in the coming together on Jallikattu. What did we get after seven days of standing at the Marina other than getting Jallikattu. What nobody talks about is that it killed human beings. About ten people lost their lives. Nobody seems to be bothered that human beings lost their lives. Other than that, what have we achieved in terms of democratic process? I don’t think we have achieved much. I would be happy if I am proved wrong.