Enabling the Right to Discard: The Evolving Language of Music

Karnatik music needs to strip itself off its sociocultural baggage in order to become an expression relevant for our times

TM Krishna at the ILF Samanvay, India Habitat Center. 2015. Photo: Monica Dawar

LILA: Thank you for agreeing to be a part of our quarter on ‘Language’. Normally, language is appreciated as a tool for meaningful communication. We understand that your attempt has been to liberate music from the bonds of lexical semantics as well as the limitations of its original context. How do you understand and explain the term ‘communication’ vis-a-vis your philosophy and practice of music?

TM Krishna: Language is the primary way we understand ourselves and the world around. Knowledge creation is closely connected with the languages. Therefore Language is not merely a tool of communication it is knowledge itself. Image, sound, feeling, thought, touch, sense, reflection are all language dependent. Those moments of experience sans any dependency on language as the mediator are rare. And even when they do occur, very quickly, within a split second, the need for comprehension forces us into the language frame. If we were to let language just be a sonic body, what does it offer us in experience? This becomes so much harder when we know the language. But when this occurs, something quite profound emerges. Somehow we allow ourselves to internalise and understand in a non-semantic way. In other words, knowledge is created using the sonic-meaning language rather than its linguistic form. Such an experience makes us re-examine knowledge and our relationship with it. I would even go to the extent of saying that knowledge that is non-articulated in linguistic terms is far more transformative than all that we create in language.  

LILA: As a musician you elevate your listener with the sheer power of music. But you also seem to be making deliberate choices of ‘texts’ which provide a specific context or meaning. Why do you do this? Does the ‘meaning’ of the text mean anything to you ‚Äď as in the Perumal Murugan poem, or the Jesus and Allah songs that you sing? What is your way of ‘making’ music?

TMK: This was a learning. I kept speaking, writing and singing with the intention of stripping the musical experience of linguistic dependency. But very soon I realised that it was extremely hard for people to enter this space since language is overwhelming. Therefore it was important that I use the expanse, sophistry of language and meaning itself to question the relationship between meaning and experience. If we could experience the profound through meanings, dialects and themes that are diverse, conflicting, unconnected and distant then there is just that possibility that the experiencer wonders about meaning and transcendence. The fluidity and abstractness of meaning itself needs to be tapped into if we want to move beyond linguistic understanding. 

LILA: You practice Karnatic music, which is generally understood as having an idiom that is not accessible to the untrained. You are also a public intellectual and an activist deeply involved in various struggles for social causes. One observes that your audiences are more eclectic than ever before. How do you analyse your own reception? Is your ‘language’ as a musician radically different from that of your contemporaries?¬†

TMK: I will not compare myself with others but I can say this ‚Äď My own continuing struggle with culture, identity, art and form has influenced the sound of my music. If there is any difference in the music that I offer today, it is because it has been drenched with my doubts and questions. The clarity that exists comes from my willingness to be vulnerable and within that vulnerability lies all that I still do not understand. May be it is this space that touches people from diverse cultures.

LILA: You use your art to reshape ideas and sensitise communities. You mix contexts and the order of things, in order to liberate music and ideas. You take your music to unexpected venues and collaborate in surprising ways to reveal the democratic core of art. Has your work in this direction helped expand¬†the audience base for Karnatic music to include those without any background in music? Is appreciation of such a form possible without any formal training or at least consistent listening? One finds that there is broader reception for Western classical music compared to Indian classical forms ‚Äď why is it so?

TMK: I would like to believe that there is greater elasticity to the karnatik audience now, after my attempts, but I do not want to be presumptuous. I can definitely say that a wider section of society is willing to engage with the karnatik form. Attention has been brought to the music as an aesthetic and social being and that has increased the curiosity in its sound. Other than those within the karnatik universe, many have come into the music with less fear than before. The fact that we have been able to bring forth a liberal discourse within a traditional upper-caste form has intrigued many and allowed others to enter its environment with greater confidence. In this the internet too has played an important role. Collaborations have also allowed for mutual learning and contestations because we have tried our best to keep them real. 

I am convinced that appreciation has nothing to do with formal learning, but consistent listening is needed. For that to happen, we have to strip karnatik music of all its socio-cultural baggage. If not remove, we must at least expand its socio-cultural-political identity and sound. This will make the music far more relevant. Karnatik music cannot be perched on a minaret, it has to walk the gullies and by-lanes. This would mean creating new formats of musical discourse and bringing in people and spaces that are diverse into its fold. But it will also mean that it may be rejected. I am more convinced than ever that we classical musicians have to be rejected to understand ourselves better. Something that we rarely do.

I am not sure if one can say that Western classical music has a broader reception without taking into consideration the fact that it has a greater presence across the globe. This is a result of the global domination of the Western powers. But if we were to look at the percentage of people who listen to western classical music in relation to total western population and do the same with Indian classical music, I do not think there would be much of a difference. We must also take into account that in many Asian, South American, Middle Eastern and African societies local, rural, urban non-classical, non-mainstream musical forms are flourishing and that reduces the need for the classical.

LILA: Continuing the above, how would you articulate the distinction between an ordinary individual’s experiences of, say, listening to a melodious film song sung by a popular playback singer and a varnam rendered by a maestro?¬†

TMK: If the individual is more acquainted to film music then the response to the varnam will be based on the habituated film sound. For a karnatik listener the film song experience is flooded with her/his karnatik understanding. In both these possibilities social identity, cultural environment and the politics of their lives are influencers. Judgement and preconceived notions play an indelible role in what is felt and internalised even if the listener does not realise that it is happening. We also have to keep in mind that the aesthetic intention of a film song is entirely different from that of a Varnam. Unfortunately we simplistically compare musical or dance genres  without a deeper enquiry into the intentionality that drives their aesthetic construct. Hence such comparisons lead only to further stratification of culture.

LILA: If the reception of a ‘classical’ form can be made universal, can it be taught/learnt universally, as well?¬†What is the location of musical talent here?¬†

TMK: I am not so concerned about making the so-called classical universal. I feel that the right and access to the music must be universal. And I will once again reiterate that the right to discard must be given to all. It can be taught anywhere to anyone. And there are many who have been doing this quietly. Musical talent exists everywhere but social hierarchy has made it near impossible for many to even dream of the possibility of being a classical musician. We have to find ways to create bridges, become catalysts and create environments that allow the nurturing of talents from across society. I do not care about numbers but diversity in artistic participation is essential if an art form must evolve. How can we make sure that a talented Dalit girl is given every support and opportunity to become a musician, all the while retaining her cultural identity. And if that happens, she will bring into the karnatik sound an entirely new perspective. This is a very complex, seemingly improbable thought but a necessary dream.

LILA: Music is taught as a common subject in many schools. What is your view on giving such ‘lessons’? Does this kind of teaching help a child’s development in any way? Do you have any suggestions/interventions here?

TMK: I think this is welcome, but I want to point at aesthetic hierarchy. Why is it that when we speak of music in schools we always seem to speak of the classical or its nearest cousins? Why do we not insist that subaltern art forms also must be taught in schools and I mean all schools, especially those where those privileged by caste and class attend. Why is classical a classroom learning but the non-classical an outdoor activity?

LILA: How do you understand the term ‘intelligence’ with regard to music, and how do you deal with different levels of¬†musical¬†intelligence¬†as a practitioner, teacher and thinker of music?¬†

TMK: Intelligence is abstract, amorphous osmosis. That part that I seem to understand is what I have been taught to compute in order to place myself in the pecking order. Musical intelligence is a result of many unknown and known quantities. It presents its different facets at different stages of learning. We have to always be open to recognising intelligences as they appear at different times. The intelligence that we experience is the one that we most often ignore. The dichotomy between the intellectual and emotional is entirely fallacious. That which moves us is intellectual and that which stirs our mind is emotionally saturated. One without the other is a state of lacking. 

LILA: What in your view is the specific transformative role that music can play in society? Is this role different from that of the other arts ‚Äď how? As the world of music is highly diversified, if you would envisage a music-for-transformation movement in¬†contemporary¬†India, how would you describe its vision and direction?¬†

TMK: Music cannot be bundled in one basket and hence it is very difficult to provide a general vision or direction. Every art form has a different emotional, social and political role in society. But essentially it is important for each musical form to be aware of its own ugliness and grapple with human nature with honesty. A society that is enriched by aware artists will be sensitive, democratic and egalitarian. 

LILA: Technology today has bridged the physical distances between collaborators in the field of music. How would you reflect on the future of Karnatic music vis-a-vis technology?

TMK: Technology has a very important role to play both is access and dissemination¬†of the music. The internet paves the way for anyone with a mobile device to listen and learn about karnatik music’s nuances through online portals. Similarly remote learning is already a reality. But I want to stress that unless changes happen at the societal level all these opportunities¬†will be used only by those who are already within the fold. Take for example the All India Radio that has broadcast karnatik concerts for decades. Did this change the demography¬†of the karnatik performer or audience? No. Simply because the cultural and social divides¬†are so sharp that only those who belong to a certain group were even aware of those broadcasts. Access is not just about putting it out there for free, it is about being welcoming and inviting people to share in its beauty. It also means that there needs to be thought put into internal social and aesthetic issues that limit the music. Therefore the caste based cultural control over this art form has to broken, only then will the rest of society feel that this is also their music. If not technology¬†may only further divide musical forms, cultures and people.¬†

LILA: Today, if we are to evolve an intercultural musical theory founded on time, sound and silence, what should be its ideological/philosophical direction? 

TMK: Its direction has to be from within its own identities. Interculturalism may emerge when we are willing to recognise the incompleteness within our own sounds. This will help us receive the ‚Äėother‚Äô free from judgement. The sound that emerges from this experiential interaction is its philosophical direction. And this is not a singularity.¬†

LILA interacted with TM Krishna in December 2015 as part of its Kaapi LILA programme ‚Äď a regular gathering of like-minded friends, over coffee, where we discuss a work in progress presented by its visualiser/s. Watch the conversation here:

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