Between The Lines

photo PTI

                                                                                                       Photo courtesy: PTI

Ashoak Upadhyay  



n October 31 this year TM Krishna eminent Karnatik vocalist was awarded the 30th Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration “for his services in promoting and preserving national integration in the country”. So Motilal Vora, member secretary of the advisory committee of the Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration of AICC, had announced in a statement two weeks earlier.

Instituted in 1985, the centenary year of the Congress party, the award according to a press release this July is meant for the promotion of understanding and fellowship amongst religious groups, ethnic communities, cultures, languages and traditions of India and to strengthen through thought and action, the nation’s sense of solidarity.

Unease sets in at this stage itself. It is not a guilt-ridden capitalist, robber-baron who is seeking his place in Heaven or posterity (whichever is quicker) by acts for societal good who is expressing these lofty and empty sentiments; it is a dominant political formation, a party that evolved an official discourse for the nation after Independence, a discourse that was and is grounded in the nation-state and national integration, each a synonym for the other.

This discourse on national integration has been underlined and guaranteed by the political and not the cultural; by the army and not the subalterns; by the flag and an anthem, and not the songs of communities; and by borders and not diverse memories.

The Congress as a political formation has not been able to find the golden mean, the dialectical third between a professed commitment to the diversity of communities and religions and languages and its goal of national integration. There is no third; no confluence. But there can be a resolution in which one must trump the other. And national integration wins, or, at the very least, leaves in the wake of its clumsy exercise a trail of ruined heterogeneities.

So National Integration can and will be seen as a resolve to draw demarcations of modern national identity in the shifting sands of inherited heterodoxies, folk lore, local faiths and religions, of heterogeneities shaping and re-shaping languages; an attempt by a nation-state (regardless of the political formation’s professed ideologies) to flatten the disparate and multiple into a systematized conformity.

National integration as an objective or even a desire is defined by its limits and those limits are sorely tested by the very diversity of the nation’s communities, religions, its languages, by the eclecticism of its musical traditions. And when the sounds of protest against the limits get louder the State can do little else than call in the flag bearers of national integration, of conformity to one language, one religion — not the artists or musicians, but the army and the other instruments of state power.

And if ‘respect for and promotion of’ religious and ethnic communities and cultures, languages and traditions’ can be found in this country, if the Other is received with ‘hospitality,’ to use Ashish Nandy’s eloquent phrase it is despite the existence of the state apparatus that protects, in the ultimate instance, national integration. It is in the cracks, in the fissures of the national integration project that heterodoxy survives, that India, named after a river, resonates.

For a political formation like the Congress (and all other political parties) sired by the idea of a nation-state inherited from an imperial power, national integration makes sense as an abiding objective, if only to ensure its own existence as state power. No political formation will ever deny the goal of national integration and its limits. By the same token, no party will ever put its money where its mouth is — on the essence of plurality, the respect for and the promotion of diverse cultures, languages and communities that shaped the geographical landmass we call India.

So its very charter makes the Indira Gandhi National Integration Award a political stratagem and the acceptance of it an expression of bad faith. For no artist or scientist awardee could do justice to both sentiments (cast iron nationalism and boundless heterogeneity) swirling uneasily below the platform they climb to claim their award. And the organisers of the awards know that, precisely because they are a political formation grounded in the art of the expedient and the notion that to promise is to deliver.

And yet one might think this is a hermeneutic devaluation of a noble act of recognition. If so, then another question springs to mind: should the name of the award matter? That it is instituted in the memory of Indira Gandhi? To an extent, yes; to the extent that as Prime Minister she forced an integration or at least tried to, by the curtailment of democratic dissent. Little did she know that she had provided a template for dictators-in-the-making. It can be done — if not in one fell swoop then through stages, through a form of what Pratap Bhanu Mehta recently called technocratic authoritarianism.

But why fuss about it? We have left it behind. It was a short-lived dictatorship; it scarcely affected the lives of the people in quite the way that the State’s sustained lack of concern for the marginalized has led to their spiraling deprivation. And in any case, the Emergency resurrected the careers of so many whose surly disciples now appear increasingly tempted to use autocratic Mrs. Gandhi’s playbook.

How does a name matter? The Nobel Prizes, the Ramon Magsaysay Awards carry the names of worthies with blood on their hands; Alfred Nobel (1838-1896) invented dynamite based on his own patents (he had 355 of them) formed the first international holding corporation making dynamite in 14 countries and left his wealth for the Nobel prizes– -Nobel Peace Prize if you please– “for the greatest benefit to mankind.”

Ramon Magsaysay in the late 1940s brutally suppressed the popular communist-led Huk movement that had fought Japanese occupation of the Philippines. US armed forces helped Magsaysay put it down with military might. Small wonder that Ramon Magsaysay, who died in a plane crash was awarded immortality by the Rockefellers Brothers Fund that in 1957 instituted the eponymous award for the Filipino leader who had ‘saved’ his country from communism. If Alfred Nobel’s legacy presaged an era of hot wars, the Ramon Magsaysay award was a product of the Cold War.

What of it? Man is born in original sin; his legacies can shrug off their murky origins and buy themselves a patina of respectability with time and the lapse of collective memory. The sheen of the awardees rubs off on the institutions bestowing the award; the afterglow lingers. The Magsaysay award for a leading journalist known for his communist sympathies lends a redemptive air to the memory of the representative of the Cold War in that part of Asia; the Nobel Peace Prize for Nelson Mandela benisons the inventor of dynamite.

Award panels and selectors also bring to the choice their own political predilections; an age of contending discourses, some hegemonic, others inchoate struggling for selfhood resonate with a babel of voices that selectors can hear and reflect upon. The choice can sometimes be whimsical; as some may think the Nobel Prize for literature to Bob Dylan was; an arrow shot across the Atlantic at a swaggering America by an amused Stockholm.



t the heart of the contradiction evident in the terms of the award is the dichotomy between the political and the ethical. If national integration is a political stratagem, then respect for, promotion and understanding, indeed one should add, acceptance of diverse religions, languages, communitiesand cultures are ethical journeys. Political strategies have a telos of a finite end, often in a carceral existence; the ethical can only be described in terms of an Infinite Contestation, states of becoming more than an established being.

In the early passages of his speech, Krishna asserts his enterprise as it were, his musical art as “the essential gesture of his being” to quote Nadine Gordimer who used that phrase from Roland Barthes for her own understanding of the writer’s ‘enterprise’. The essential gesture is his commitment to his art and the empathy he draws from it.

Karnatik music, Krishna says is: “A gift of experience, a gift of empathy, a gift to sense life beyond my limitations.” Does that sense help define his social commitments? “The creative act” Nadine Gordimer says, “is not pure. History evidences it. Ideology demands it. Society exacts it. The writer loses Eden, writes to be read, and comes to realise he is answerable.”

So is an artist such as Krishna. His music is heard, and he is answerable, held responsible; by his history, his art’s histories and the cultures that produced it, its demands that urge him to sense life beyond his “limitations.” His art and its histories involve his self in that infinite search for the ethical moment of becoming, of transcending limitations of the self.

These states of becoming are possible because the artist’s subjectivity recognizes, accepts and internalizes the self’s porous boundaries, thus enabling encounters with diverse cultures and subjectivities.

Krishna’s music helps him transcend his self (‘limitations’). His essential gesture then is an ethical one. That ethical (and not the political as in national integration) produces his experiments in confluences—his concerts with the Jogappas, his engagement with Chennai’s endangered Ennore Creek (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=82jFyeV5AHM), and lately his endorsement of the Supreme Court ruling on privacy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-Ua6VHCfl8art).

And if his concern for the Ennore Creek and Privacy ruling were expressed through music videos his ethical search reached new heights with his Spic Macay concert in New Delhi where he sang Vaishanvo Jan To hours after Amit Shah had insultingly called Gandhi a chatur bania. In this one act he had raised the political to the level of the ethical.



oon after a bow to his art Krishna’s acceptance speech achieves an ironic and unintended inversion. The rhetorical as political becomes political as rhetorical. When he talks of national integration, the rhetorical phrasing (with all its clanging emptiness) has a political twang. When he singles out Manmohan Singh’s apology for the 1984 riots to virtually exonerate the “leader” for “genocide” the rhetorical is political. The recipient is recognizing the award for what it is: a political act.

The courtesies of reciprocity are on display. In this sense the award represents–in particular for TM Krishna given his stature as a transformative artist–a Faustian bargain. His rhetoric is a political endorsement.

Nowhere is it written that he needs to mention, leave alone praise, the powers that have recognized his achievements in the field of “national integration.” But the authors of that discourse on national integration with its blubbery rhetoric about respect for, promotion of…yawn!…would expect a modicum of respect! They did keep the nation secular! Integrated! Unlike you know who!!

Krishna’s political is not a discourse from the pulpit of his art; it was when he sang soon after Amit Shah’s sneer at Gandhi. It was then an ethical-political moment, when his artistic subjectivity met with the spirit of Gandhi to create a moment of swaraj and satyagraha.

 On October 31 the moment came across as political legitimation. In that speech he left the high pulpit of his art for the soapbox of partisan politics.

Perhaps his record so far in reclaiming for art the high seat of Dissensus, of Infinite Contestation against hegemonic tendencies wherever they may come from will not be tempered by political expediency, by the temptations of finding a friend in the enemy of one’s enemy.


Nadine Gordimer: The Essential Gesture: Writers and Responsibility.
The Tannerlectures on Human Values. October 12 1984

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