In Reshaping Art, just released, Krishna further probes artistic barriers and hierarchies. He compares the safe spaces in which privileged artists perform with the obscurity of art from oppressed communities, often a caste obligation or an object of curiosity. Exchanges have been limited and do nothing to alter the ownership structure of culture, he writes. For that art to be heard and truly shared, we must all be taught how to listen, through documentation and supporting institutions originating from the communities themselves. The book is articulate and bold and, like most of his writing, reliably liberal. In a pre-launch interview with Latha Anantharaman, he discusses how he came to these ideas.
You write that you were a star by 2002, and then began to look for something more in your art. Where did you begin to turn in a different direction?
It is difficult to find those markers and say when what happened. The first thing that changed was that I became more aware of how I was singing. What it means to share art became a serious question to me. What am I sharing? What am I offering as a musician? What is the need for it? What is the texture of that need? Who needs it? Why do they need it? Are there some who need it who are not getting it? It was not sociological or political but very much an aesthetic move. It came from a musical perspective. My window to life is music. I’m a singer.
You write about art, infrastructure, literature, secularism, power and poverty. Did you get to the point where you could no longer compartmentalise these issues?
I have never been able to compartmentalise. For me, one thing unfolds into another. There is politics in music, aesthetics in politics.
At the Kuppam Vizha [cultural festival held in the Urur Olcott fishing village], where you are sharing art, or when engaging with artists of various art forms, how do you keep from being the most visible and vocal musician by virtue of your celebrity?
That is the biggest struggle. You’re constantly conscious. It’s a huge challenge. I do not have an answer to this. We take as much care as possible to keep it as even as possible, to try to knock off that privilege. I take two steps forward to engage with the other artists, then two steps back—it’s a bit of a dance. But that’s not a reason not to do anything. We all need to go through our own process of introspection. I’m going to accept this criticism, watch for it. Yes, [my] privilege gets in the way. Still, something beautiful also happens.
You write that the “fake socio-cultural representation” of our cultural fests “must be annihilated”. Do you feel such festivals do not progress to actual parity or progress too slowly?
Sanitised cultural festivals lead to no new conversation. Fundamentally, unless you politicise the issue, the conversation will never go forward. When you hold such programmes, you’ve already decided that everything is fine. When you politicise, you say there is a problem. How are we going to curate it differently? The proof of that [tokenism] lies in the way we treat the artists. They are paid differently. They are treated differently.
You write that “a society where art is allowed to just be remains thoughtful”. What do you mean by thoughtful?
By thoughtful I mean sensitive, awake to everything that is happening, aware... Our senses are acutely alert while singing, attentive to every atom of sound. I don’t like to say I get lost in the music. I am awake in the music. If you detach yourself from everything, that is not art. You need to be completely connected, in a selfless state. Art creates an environment for that non-selfish state.
Can this being awake lead to another golden age of Carnatic music?
Well, what do you mean by a golden age? What was the golden age? For some of us it was the Forties. For those artists it was some previous time. The context has changed. What we treat as knowledge and what we treat as information is different. We can’t go back in time. We have to recognise the advantages to breaking the bubble and engaging in inter-cultural, inter-community conversations. The days I have a concert are the peaceful ones. My days are otherwise crazily packed because I have my hands in a lot of things. I’ve never been a slog at practising. Never been that everyday type. Many years ago, I used to practise eight hours a day. Still, I find time to do it. Even in the car on the way to the airport, in my head I’m singing.
How do you practise your art? What is your day like?
RESHAPING ART by T.M. Krishna ALEPH BOOK COMPANY `300; 128 pages