TM Krishna is no cloistered musician happy to rest on his laurels and fame as a Karnatik music exponent. He is a public intellectual who engages with issues in a way that most classical musicians would shy away from. His interventions, be they in the realm of the environment (see Ennore Creek in Suggested Reads), right to privacy and gender equality have been expressed through his music. What could have been more eloquent a testimony to where his heart lies than his Spic Macay concert on June 2017 when he sang Gandhi’s favourite bhajan Vaishnav Jana To just hours after Amit Shah’s sneering dismissal of Gandhi as a “”chatur bania? His rendition was a subliminal yet potent attack on the evil banality of the current regime and a “hate-filled India”, a reminder to us all of Gandhi’s message of empathy and compassion so desperately needed in this unrighteous republic of ours.

In his book “Reshaping Art” from which an extract follows, TM Krishna carries his interventions to another level of discourse through a text that seems to encapsulate in words what he has attempted through his musical journeys; to locate or perhaps to build the crossroads at which high and low art meet; to recognize diverse streams of musical traditions specifically within Karnatik music that, through confluences have produced newer and richer art forms only to be pushed back by social stratification.

Krishna does not spew arid sociological didacticisms. He delves into the interiority of his musical traditions to show us the flaw in the ointment of high art: its hierarchies. “We treat the non-upper caste art forms the same way that the West exoticized Indian dances in the early twentieth century.” 

Exoticizing is a way of excluding and rendering virtually impossible an osmotic evolution of culture itself that is centered on dialogue and conversation—it is the dialogic imagination and its extension to and mediation of multiple streams of culture and art forms that not only renews but creates. Both renewal and creation are problematic and outcomes may be ambiguous but they are vital to the life of a people nd its representations.

As a musician and public intellectual, Krishna presents to us the dialogic in its most potentiating form and in the only way it ought to be done—through his art. In his concert with the Jogappas Krishna imbues the performance with agency for conversations; the exoticized and excluded are engaged. At first glance it seems scandalous or revolutionary or both depending on which rung of the social hierarchy you are perched. As Krishna reminds us in the extract Karnatik music is considered “high art” and when it borrows from “low art” there is  “hidden snobbery.”

But the scandalous/revolutionary is really a journey down the long corridor of tradition, to the time when castes “shared performance space” with Devadasis and before Karnatik music had moved to the city. A revolutionary act is also a return to roots and perhaps this is the message of Krishna’s meditations in “Reshaping Art” and his concerts with The Jogappas

–The Beacon


T. M. Krishna



ocial strata restrict the interrelationship between art forms. Art forms do not directly communicate with those below. Influences permeate only if they share spatial commonality. For example, Kattaikkuttu/Terukkuttu (the traditional ritual theatre of Tamil Nadu) practiced by lower and middle castes uses many Karnatik ragas. This is because they shared performance space with Devadasis in the village ritual quarter. But when Karnatik music gravitated to the city of Madras (Chennai) and the Devadasis were dethroned from their high socio-aesthetic pedestal, this osmosis ceased. And this has changed the aural movements of the ragas used in kuttu.

High art has also obviously borrowed heavily from social music, but these sharings do not allow for social relationships. The caste limitations in practice and appreciation of each of these art forms remain intact and watertight. A Brahmin will rarely become a Kattaikkuttu artist and a lower-caste artist cannot aspire to climb the Karnatik stage. There will be resistance in both communities if these anomalies happen. This is an unequal relationship. Karnatik music is high art whereas Kattaikkuttu is local low art. The people on the high seat see the aesthetic trickle downward as a form of unintentional charity, tinged with pity. Anything that goes the other way is perceived as coarse, unrefined material that needs to be clarified and purified. Therefore, when those in high art speak of how their music or dance has always given and received freely, we should reject this fraudulent egalitarianism and recognize the unfairness in this exchange. When they speak about borrowing from ‘folk’, we must apprehend the hidden snobbery.

When sharing occurs between people belonging to a similar social spectrum, artists crossover with ease and practice is shared freely with esteem. In the later part of the nineteenth century, Karnatik musicians doubled up as harikatha performers (a musical performance where mythological, religious and spiritual stories are narrated). Both art forms being practiced by Brahmins made these aesthetic crossovers smooth and each art form received the other with ease and respect. In fact, I will go a step further and say that the caste commonality blinded these artists to the fact that this exchange brought in their wake, some negative aesthetic consequences. The need for cultural caste consolidation among the Brahmins lacked  critical thought about aesthetic content and context and led to a degradation in musical values.

Art remains largely constrained by its social sphere of operation. This means that the importance of art is largely dependent on the cultural power of the holding community. In the Indian context, though the upper castes have lost their monopoly over political India, they retain their proprietorship of cultural India. I am going to rest on this thought just for a moment.

Culture encompasses and governs every region of our social life. Food, clothing, rituals, beliefs, attitudes, morals, right and wrong…from birth to death, culture choreographs every atom of our lives. There is always a predominant culture that dictates our terms of engagement. All those who belong to this group or live in proximity to it are ideal cultural symbols. It is beholden on the rest to imitate this model, else they would be maligned or discarded. As A. K. Ramanujan showed us, every Ramayana is a different tale with the same characters, each representative of the people who told the story, their distinctiveness, worldview, observations and challenges. Yet we cannot deny that it is Valmiki, Tulsidas and Kamban who rule the Ramayana roost. The reason is obvious; these are the versions acceptable to upper-caste Hindus. In fact, even these versions are not left as they are. The control group cleanses and sanctifies them to suit their current sensibilities. And the idea of the ‘present’ will keep shifting!

This means that all art that falls within their aesthetic spectrum represents India’s heritage. We are witness to this pomp every time the Government of India puts on a show. These festivals are dominated by classical music, Bharatanatyam, Kathak, etc. Even among the upper echelons there are gradations: Bharatanatyam is preferred to Odissi and Hindustani music wins over Karnatik music. The ‘others’ are brought in to provide an unusual spectacle. We treat the non-upper-caste art forms in the same way that the West exoticised Indian dances in the early twentieth century.

Tamil cinema presents an interesting counterpoint. It has done more to dissolve caste, sectarian and religious identities than any other art form. It is indeed a mystery as to why this occurred. Though it evolved from Tamil theatre and, in its early days, was entirely controlled by the upper castes, it has, over the years, become an equalizing pitch. I am not ignoring the misogynistic nature of the industry or the ugliness of the obsession with ‘light skin’. Yet it must be said that caste, religion and class have been smudged to a very large extent in this nouveau art form.

It is possible that the newness of cinema as a medium allowed the makers to script its own social history, untied from tradition. But this seems too simplistic an explanation.

Extracted from Reshaping Art by T. M. Krishna with permission from Aleph Book Company. 
TM Krishna and Jogappas courtesy TM Krishna and Solidarity Foundation.
Related topics:
-- T.M. Krishna speech on receiving National Integration Award
-- Response to speech

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