Pinned down by identity

“All the world’s a stage,” said Shakespeare. Sankara said something similar when he spoke about mayaand reality, as did Plato when he sought the “ideal”. They were discussing ‘that which is’ according to their own light. But they have prodded us to explore the abiding spirit that permeates their ideation; to realise that there is more to us than the ‘act’ we put up and be aware — brutally aware, as J. Krishnamurti may have said — of the dichotomy in this relationship. What we are, as persons, is beyond the label that we own or the designation that we wear.

But just look at what we have done even to these thinkers; we have made them ‘role models’. Plato’s abstract ideal of himself has been trapped in his marble bust! Shakespeare, Plato and Sankara have been mummified into the role that we have wrapped them in and all the various things that they said have been made to fit into their function in society as we see it.

We have so many different titles to describe ourselves, starting with our personal favourites: mother, father, wife, husband, brother and sister. These are followed by the ones the larger world gives us — businessman, politician, musician, activist, thinker, writer, mentor, critic, guru, blogger, columnist.

The visiting card is probably the best reflection of our professional tags. In fact, when a person gives us his/her card, we don’t really look at the name; our eyes search for the designation. What role does he/she play? How important is he/she? And, ‘what can he/she do for me?’  In fact, if he/she is the vice-chairman of a multinational conglomerate, we know what to say and, more importantly, what not to say! And, let us be clear, he/she too knows that the card is all about that ‘one description’. Depending on the designation on my card, the weighing scale tips the balance of our relationship.

We are, in fact, not persons but the roles we are playing. We have to be a certain way if we want to stay true to the role. There can, of course, be many different types of people within each role, yet if we were to look closely we will notice that they are all only different shades of the same colour.

I belong to the world of the performing arts. Mark the word ‘performing’! It has already told you the reason for my existence in society. I am here to deliver an evening of pleasure. Then when I tell you I am a Carnatic musician, you have further narrowed down the kind of pleasure demanded of me. In fact Carnatic music itself has been pinned down to the Carnatic musician-performer identity. Therefore, in a very convoluted way, the music too has become ‘a role’. Everything — from my interest, training, skill, practice — has been made captive to that one word ‘performer’.

This is true not only of music but also of every other field. Every designation that is given to us is a role that we have to enact. The better we are at playing the role; the more successful we will be. The moment we do not conform to the role as fabricated by our social context, we are failures since we have not delivered the goods.

If we sincerely ask ourselves why we do something, the answer will be a scorching revelation. And if we face what has been revealed, the world will open up. At a personal level, every moment of our living becomes an engagement with ‘what is’ and not ‘what it is preordained to be’. In the process, we could well come alive and shed the mannequin’s garb. The politician need not be a certain way because he has donned that attire nor the lawyer nor doctor. And, may I add, the priest or mullah. What they do will become more relevant than who they are. Can a historian explore history as a person and not a historian? Can a person delve into life without play-acting or performing the duty that is demanded of him? How will this change understanding?

A conversation with a so-called simple weaver or manual labourer reveals a greater insight into this conflict than we ever imagined. He may have not resolved this issue but, in his self-definition, there will be a level of awareness that we, the privileged, fail even to recognise.

The question that begs to be asked is can we rediscover the real in ourselves so that functionality gives way to living?

Originally written for The Hindu

Two Voices, One Resonance: How Jinnah and Radhakrishnan Help Us Close Divides

Rediscovering history can be stunning.  As, for instance,  when we stumble upon words spoken by historical figures. They can compel us to revisit our present.

I recently came across two beautiful speeches by Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. These were two very different individuals. Jinnah a Karachi-born Gujarati liberal, barrister, an active participant and architect of the freedom struggle – and partition of India. In Radhakrishnan we had a quintessential thinker, scholar, philosopher,advaitin who was shaping the modern discourse on 20th century Hinduism.

This address by Radhakrishnan to the Constituent Assembly of India was delivered on December 11, 1946 and Jinnah’s to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan exactly eight months later, on August 11, 1947. The Dominion of Pakistan and the Union of India were ‘works in progress’ at the time, the deliberations on their respective constitutions had already commenced or were just about to. It is in this backdrop that they spoke.

The opening of both their speeches are very similar, celebratory yet to me a little dissonant in the context of their time. Jinnah says,

This mighty sub-continent with all kinds of inhabitants has been brought under a plan which is titanic, unknown, unparalleled. And what is very important with regards to it is that we have achieved it peacefully and by means of an evolution of the greatest possible character”.

And Radhakrishnan says the following

This Constituent Assembly has met here to frame the constitution, to effect the withdrawal of British control, political, economic and military and to establish a free independent India. If successful, this transfer of authority will be the biggest and the least bloody of all transfers in human history”.

Spoken against the backdrop of the Hindu-Muslim genocide of 1946-47, these statements do appear wishful. I kept looking for references to the riots but found no direct mention. The bloodshed of 1946 in Calcutta, Bihar and Noakhali were a recent memory for Radhakrishnan and the massacre and suicides in Rawalpindi in early 1947 must have been active in Jinnah’s mind. The omission may well have been conscious. Both of them speak of creating a new, non-discriminatory society, without any socio-religious divisions, placing the state ahead of personal faith. But it is evident that both of them are acutely aware of the past.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Photo Division, GOI.

The two individuals were flawed like everyone else, and there are parts of their respective speeches that are problematic. Yet when we hear Radhakrishnan say

India is a symphony where there are, as in an orchestra, different instruments, each with its particular sonority, each with its special sound, all combining to interpret one particular score. It is this kind of combination that this country has stood for”

something stirs deep within us. As when Jinnah, foreseeing a future Pakistan, says

“… you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense, because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as citizens of the State.”

A universality binds us to their thoughts.

Radhakrishnan’s ‘symphony’ metaphor obviously resonates with the musician in me. How exquisite! One score that is complete only when every instrument with its distinct character shares aural space, weaving melodies, harmonies, textures, tones and accents with the others. Once brought together, no one knows which instrumentalist played which part of the score, in fact, we shouldn’t be able to deconstruct the experience. The piece exists only together, as parts it is music-less.

Radhakrishnan yearns for such an Indian society, a seamless blend of historicities, philosophies and faiths. And this is where in my imagining, Jinnah glides in and completes the thought. He seems to be saying, ‘It is not enough if we, the observers don’t know who has played what role in the symphony, the musicians themselves shouldn’t care, their own identity has to be subsumed in the music.’ The oboe player is ‘the music’ even when she silently watches the score and listens to the violinists. Every individual should see herself or himself as part of the other and, collectively, the nation. Was this, unknown to himself, an advaitin in Jinnah?

Warning against self-enslavement

Elsewhere in that speech, Radhakrishnan speaks of the psychological evils that India suffers,

“…from loss of human dignity, the slavery of the mind, the stunting of sensibility and the shame of subjection’. He says ‘these are common to all: Hindus or Muslims, princes or peasants… The chains may be made of gold but they are still chains that fetter us. Even the princes will have to realise that they are slaves in this country’.

Equality in general is addressed in the sense of opportunity, access and benefits where the underlying reality is inequality, but now comes an interesting inversion of the idea. Radhakrishnan points to another ‘equality’ – the equality of psychological slavery among all Indians. He uses this argument effectively to demolish socio-political hierarchies. Though he comes from the point of view that colonisation is an underlying condition of oppression for everyone including the princes, he helps us see how the assumption of unbridled political power, wealth or spiritual control are specimens of our own many self-enslavements.

He goes on to say “To murder yourself, to betray yourself, to barter away your spiritual wealth for a mess of pottage, to try to preserve your body at the expense of your spirit – that is the greatest sin.” Having spoken impressionistically, as a true philosopher, Radhakrishnan does not further substantiate this point. What is this spiritual wealth or the spirit that needs to be protected? Is this some abstract Upanishadic idea or is it an observation of reality? Once again, Jinnah comes to the rescue, brutally denouncing the curses and evils of his times; corruption, bribery, black marketeering, nepotism and – yes, jobbery! All actions that lead to immediate benefit when our spirit or should I say our spiritual wealth is sacrificed.

Mohammed Ali Jinnah, at the 1946 session of the Muslim League

Jinnah believes that partition was the best way forward but accepts that not every one in Hindustan and Pakistan agrees with him. At one place, utterly sure of himself he says “I am sure future history will record its verdict in favour of it.” But very soon a great doubt – one could say a very Nehruvian doubt – creeps in:

 “Maybe that view is correct; maybe it is not; that remains to be seen.”

This uncertainty in his voice is real. A country is being born, torn out of a larger land, that many feel ought to have remained united, and so…can we be sure that we were right ? I will not judge the course he took, but the trepidation and self-doubt in his discourse are truly moving. From the other side of the Radcliffe Line we hear a clear message. Radhakrishnan elegantly condemns the idea that the people of “this one country” can ever think that they belong to different nationalites. The use of the word nationalities in this context does seem to suggest a subtle attack at Jinnah’s successful two-nation theory.

In the following passages we hear very different voices from them. Says Jinnah:

“If you will work in co-operation, forgetting the past, burying the hatchet, you are bound to succeed. If you change your past and work together in a spirit that everyone of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his colour, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges, and obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make”.

Here there is an acknowledgment of the hatred and violence that tore through communities, but Jinnah wants bygones to be bygones. He is unwilling to dwell on the past and dirty himself in its pot holes. He wants people to forgive, forget and move ahead to create a future. Radhakrishnan will of course have nothing of this:

“Softness, gentleness – that is the greatest weapon which will wear out the highest kind of opposition. We have not been true to It. We have betrayed and done wrong to millions of our own fellow beings. It is now time for us to make atonement for all our past guilt. It is not a question of justice or charity, it is atonement – that is how I would put it.”

Radhakrishnan’s atonement is Gandhiesque, a self-purification, cleansing where the future course of action must be aprayaschita of the past. But even with this obvious difference in their modes, if were to read these lines of Radhakrishnan followed by Jinnah, not a word would seem jarring.

Imagination unfettered

Reading these together was not an exercise to bring Jinnah and Radhakrishnan nearer each other, in fact they cannot be. But their words, separate yet connected, do one thing together – they seek to close divides in the human condition. After a point of time it did not matter to me whether I was reading Jinnah or Radhakrishnan.

Truth be told, people of both nations began with very similar hopes. They were battling the very same demons and were as tense about what might happen, yet with equal courage they moved ahead. Neither country was a mistake, since the people of both nations charted a future with honest hopes and aspirations. In spite of an immediate past that was ugly and brutal, neither Jinnah nor Radhakrishnan utter one word laced with anger or hate. Could I interchange the speeches between them? In style and in the specifics, with difficulty, but conceptually, with ease.

When I look at my country today, irrespective of whether I am Pakistani or Indian, truthlessness and insincerity stare me in the face. These speeches are not about the greatness of the individuals, they are a glimpse into the socio-political conciousness of a certain collective. In spite of all their inadequacies and imperfections they were able to, at least for a few fleeting minutes, fix their minds on a nation built on sharing, mutual respect and freedom.

As I said at the start, the most stunning aspect of rediscovering history is when we allow ourselves to stumble upon those rare moments in peoples’ lives, when words – ‘their’ words – reveal an imagination unfettered by attitudes, lined with introspection drawn from the past and spiked with a fear of the future.

If we can forget the realities of the speakers’ actions before and after these moments, not to brush them aside but to un-cloud our minds while receiving their words, we may be able to see our present with greater clarity.

Every time we read history we look for the consequence – for “why and what happened next” – and then every word is coloured by our predisposition. But if we can press the pause button for just a moment, the words of these individuals glow in a new light, allowing us to draw out of them that one quality that we seem to have surrendered to parochialism – a vision of our collective wellbeing that beckons our future in selflessness. 

Originally written for The Wire

TM Krishna on why he won’t wing in December Sabha

My decision to withdraw from the Chennai music season (the December sabha) was neither sudden nor was it triggered by any specific occurrence. Over the last four or five years I have been thinking about the season. What does it mean to me? What are we contributing through it to music? And where is it heading?

I grew up listening to concerts in the music season and my own evolution in the world of Carnatic music has been through the processes of this festival and therefore it would be dishonest on my part if I don’t acknowledge that I have benefited from it, artistically and professionally. Yet I feel that the music season today has reached a point where music has almost disappeared from it. Perhaps I should say music has fled from it, because of the noise that pervades it; noise that comes from within the music and beyond.

For over two decades we have heard it said loudly that the music season has become unwieldy with too many competing organisations and that concerts show a lamentable bipolarity: sparsely populated auditoriums for some and unmanageable crowds for the handful superstars. But this is only a symptom of something else that has been happening and now has reached a critical point. I don’t think anyone is surprised if crowds throng only the popular and famous but if somewhere the whole music world is becoming subservient to the idea of the “popular” then this is a serious artistic problem. This is what the season has become. In this din, many wonderful musicians are not just ignored, they, in fact, get to be discarded. I feel that any art world must have a sense of the rich diversity within its ecosystem where the famous are the “face” but the other artists are recognised and respected as important contributors to the aesthetic diversity of the art form. Today the other musicians do not really matter. This bothers me since I too am responsible for this situation.

For the young musicians with dreams, things have only gotten worse and murkier. There is money being spent in the name of donations for concert opportunities, middlemen operating at many levels and the power of the dollar becoming more and more visible. I have the greatest admiration for those young musicians today who have made a mark in spite of all this. But there are many others who are still left behind only because they cannot play this game. I don’t think things were as bad in the early 90’s.

It has to be accepted that the music season has become more or less a non-resident Indian (NRI)-driven festival and hence, young learners from there, egged on by their parents, appear as “fly by night players” every year during the season. A decade ago they were a small part of the season but today, among the junior slots, they are a mainstream reality. Musicians who have a foot here and in the US also play their part in creating opportunities for their NRI students during the season so that the quid pro quo is in play. Today money is paid, reviews are planted in newspapers and all this is “par for the course”. All this happens behind closed doors, so I have no proof! Due to this even the few truly committed Carnatic musicians from North America who are making their name in Carnatic music have had to struggle to make people realise that they are here for the long haul. Again I have nothing but respect for them.

Beyond the little world of art that Carnatic music occupies, what have we, the participants of this mega festival, done for the music? How much effort during the season have we made to bring diverse listeners into the art, take this art to other sections of society? Only individual artists have taken a few initiatives in bits and pieces. We really don’t care about the rest of society and don’t see that this music must be democratised. I stand by my view that the world of Carnatic music is socially stifling and narrow with all of us unable to see that this art must be made accessible to the larger society and welcoming of it.

Some of us who are thought to be the powerful stars are unable to put our differences aside and come together for anything beyond ourselves. We have rarely even raised the issue of the payments given to our friends and colleagues on the violin, mrudanga, kanjira or ghatam.

In the “frenzy of the season” now aided and abetted by technology I find it very hard to give myself to the music. I am unable to find the quiet that I need to try and sing and this is my inability.

Considering all this I feel it is best that I don’t participate in the music season. Over the last five years I did try creating an alternative space within the season framework by offering free concerts but feel that the overall atmosphere is so commodified that listening has more or less vanished.

The Carnatic music in Chennai has become more about the season than about music and this is dangerous for the art. What we see happening in the season is only a symptom of a deeper lack of introspection on the art, its form, access and its integrity. There are of course exceptional individuals who despite the music season continue to make honest efforts as organisers, musicians and connoisseurs.

I am not saying that everything in the past was hunky-dory, but I do feel that the Madras music season has reached anaesthetic tipping point. May be it was always this way and I just did not see it. But now that I do, I cannot remain a participant.

Originally written for Dailyo

Above the mundane?

Over the last week, we have read innumerable stories on the Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle (APSC) vs. IIT-Madras battle. Was it a ban or de-recognition? Was it ‘merely’ a show-cause notice? Were the students ‘involved’ in the episode just indulging in demagogic propaganda, disturbing the peace of the campus?

To these ‘campus questions’ are added larger ones: Is being opposed to the policies of the government or for that matter the prime minister an act that demands ‘remedial’ action? Was the HRD ministry correct in requesting comments on an anonymous complaint? Is not a letter from the ministry asking for ‘comments’ a veiled threat?

In between all this, political parties have constructed their own narratives to the happenings, with open letters of support from some, condemnation from others. Among these, the most bizarre is the appropriation of Ambedkar by one Hindu front that had demanded the banning of the APSC! A caste-based break-up of the professors, assistant professors et al employed at IIT-M is doing the rounds. There is also the online bullet-point superficial debate on Ambedkar and Periyar.

In the course of all the finger pointing, one idea has been peering out of the discourse. “IITs are places for study, not venues for socio-political discussions and agitations.” With the corollary: “These groups corrupt the minds of students and distract them from their primary goal — science.” “Have these students gone to IIT to study or indulge in politics?” some asked.

We do not hear this admonition when strikes or protests take place at what used to be called ‘Arts’ colleges and are now known as Institutes for the Humanities. But when it comes to science, there is a strong feeling that “This cannot be allowed in places of scientific learning.” At a very basic level, we Indians see pure science and its allied subjects as far more serious, even sacred, compared to the social sciences. This belief arises from our notion of the intellect framed by math and science.

The study of science is seen as being above ‘mundane’ social issues, leave aside conflicts. Science is not meant to engage in the whimsicalities of humanity. An individual immersed in science is seen as being detached from the politics of life. The science student or the scientist cannot be found indulging in political activity, since it brings him down to the level of a fickle irrational human being. Emotional squabbles are left to ‘ordinary’ people. Would-be engineers and scientists are to experience life through honest scientific enquiry.

In this is implied the notion that ‘the rest’ is inherently flawed while science is a pure search, almost bordering a spiritual quest. Hence science and religion can be seen in fact as natural partners. They may differ in their view of the world but there is very little contradiction in how people feel about engaging with them. The argument is that both require a deep, intense, almost selfless surrender to something else; call it Rama or a complex equation. Therefore, unlike the way economists, sociologists or historians view life through the eyes of human fallibility; scientists and bhaktas see life as being beyond the manipulations of man. Sociologically we have placed science and religion on a kind of altar beyond which there is only the sky! The sanctified priest and the science professor are semi-divine.

And oddly enough, I find here a resonance in the universe of our classical music. We feel superior; music after all is the fastest and simplest way to moksha! We inhabit nada’ and once we are in music we are beyond caste or gender politics. We are in contact with that intangible divine, elevating people, nourishing their souls. Even if uncomfortable facts stare us in our face, we wave them aside. We, in the Carnatic world, go one step further. We not only claim that our music is bhakti laden; we constantly prove that ours is one of the most ‘scientific’ of systems. We believe both the rational and the spiritual reside in us.

But only the blindfolded would believe that science, religion and classical music are above or outside the real world. Every human being has to battle the emotionality of being an individual and part of a collective. If we do not allow for that we will continue to be dominated by artificial social orders that ask adherents of Ambedkar and Periyar to ‘fall in line’.

Originally written for The Hindu