There’s a distinct caste-elitism in Carnatic sabha culture in Chennai

Renowned Carnatic music vocalist TM Krishna created a stir recently when he announced his withdrawal from the prestigious December sabha season in Chennai. He is known not just for his music and celebrated lineage but also his outspoken nature. In an exclusive interview with DNA, Krishna talks about his decision, his thoughts on the sabha culture and whether he’s really a rebel.

You have withdrawn from the December sabha season in Chennai. Why?
The music season is representative of what I see as a lack of serious engagement with Carnatic music as art. Carnatic music like other art forms is an aesthetic, social and political construct and we have to constantly engage with various aspects of its form. This calls for an in-depth investment into the art by all those involved in it. By ‘those involved’ I mean, the musician, musicologist, audience and the organiser. This investment, this putting of oneself into its totality, is missing in the music season. The emphasis, or even the obsession, is about entertaining and being entertained. Instead of being a season of exploring and experiencing music, it has become a season of exulting in performances. The season, to me, has turned into a month of frenzied performance activity. Many will disagree, but I would urge them to go beyond their own habituations to revisit the art

Are you against the sabha culture today?
The sabhas have contributed immensely to Carnatic music. It would be wrong and unjust for me to criticise these organisations without recognising that they have nurtured the art. But let us look at the scene in its fullness. In the world of Hindustani music, which has become largely an upper-economic-elite engagement, corporatism and babu-dom hover over it. Those great musicians sometimes look like semi-corporate entities. But Carnatic music caters to people at various economic strata. Here too corporates are involved in supporting art but they do not crush the music in their palms. The credit for this goes the fact that we have sabhas. Sabhas, not only in Chennai, but so many smaller ones in the outskirts of Chennai and in numerous cities and towns around South India have given Carnatic music a wide reach and core stability in the shape of a steady audience base. Carnatic musicians are very flexible with their concert charges and perform at so many of these sabhas because we recognise that even if there are only hundred people in that small village, they are there as a given in the art’s ecosystem. The credit for this goes to the sabha culture. The sabhas are foundational but they are not flawless. As much as Carnatic music is not economically elitist, there is a distinct caste-elitism in the Carnatic sabha culture. Sabhas are in essence upper-caste private clubs. Sabhas are closely-held private precincts, not the public spaces they are meant to be. We need to speak to people outside the circle to sensitise ourselves to the upper-caste intimidation that the sabhas exude. Those from the other sections of society who move up financially soon become part of the same culture because they also see this as cultural empowerment. This is very similar to becoming a member in a social club started by the British for the whites that later became the stronghold of upper castes. The major sabhas in Chennai have over the years become more about ticket sales and about ‘who’s in and who’s out’. Many wonderful musicians who fall into the non-popular category are treated like non-entities and opportunities come to them like a roulette game. Unlike the past, most Chennai sabha secretaries do not attend concerts over the year looking for talent. There is a greater presence of middlemen who are exploiting the situation in the name of promoting talent. The power of NRI money in cornering junior concert slots is evident and the moneyed in India are also following suit.

Do you think there has been a radical change in the music scene in Chennai?
There are many issues but I will address a few here.
Change, radical change? I think there has been more status quo than change. There is a serious need for an aesthetic rediscovery of Carnatic music. In my mind Carnatic music today has sold itself to the packaging and presentation methodologies of a successful concert, the art of pleasing people! All this resides within a conditioned atmosphere that musicians and audiences feed out of. This has to be challenged. Carnatic music has, let us face it, stagnated aesthetically. We have many new ragas and compositions today but the music itself is stagnant. The aesthetic narrative of the art is stunted. Every musician needs to go back to the art itself, the music, the sound and live in that. Some may ask: ‘But aren’t we doing that?’ But when I very honestly asked myself that question I realised that we are not. What I was doing was still trapped in the context of performance rather than the art itself. Every raga, composition and tala has to drive the movement of the music and not be worried about how it can make a successful concert. Only when the concert becomes an incidental happening are we truly artists.
Instrumental Carnatic music, in general, is seriously unwell and nobody seems to care. The nagaswara is an ignored instrument; it had an individual expression of Carnatic music, which is today almost gone. Here too we are blind to a subtlety. The over obsession with religiosity, ritualism and the lyrical meaning of the compositions has been one of the reasons for a lack of an independent instrumental narrative. Everybody including the instrumentalist is unfortunately seeking to express religious meaning through re-creating in their instrument something of the effect of the words. And we know that the vocalist will naturally win that battle! The import of language in music has to be separated from linguistic meaning. Personal religious belief needs to be detached from Carnatic music.

On the social front, we think that we are very inclusive and that the Carnatic music world never discriminated against gender and caste, that the blame squarely lies with external factors such as the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu. Whenever I have raised the issue of caste it is the same old arguments that are thrown back, which includes the listing of the number of non-Brahmin artists who have been part of this world in the 20th century. While we hide behind these listings, we miss the truth of the discriminations they faced and we all know so many incidents. We brush aside the obvious brahminisation they had to undergo for acceptance. We don’t see that the majority of these names are only of those who emerged in the early 20th century, which means that for the last 40 years we have hardly any musician for other communities. There have been a few, and even in their cases, we need to look at how this acceptability happened. It is only from these investigations that we will realise that at the core of it Carnatic music is very upper-caste. This is not a purely Chennai phenomenon. It is seen in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and also in the music nurturing Brahmin population across the world. Internationally, we see another battle of inclusion and acceptability being played out between the high-brow Brahmin organisers and the only other community that supports Carnatic music: Sri Lankan Tamils. Kerala, to some extent, is different and that has got to do with its social structure. Anyone outside Carnatic music recognises that there is lack of nuance and sensitivity in the Carnatic community about how caste and gender operate in society. The fact that India has so many successful women and has in fact had a woman President and a woman Prime Minister does not mean we are a society that treats women equally. Leave alone the violence against women, even the most liberal men are subconsciously, and sometimes unconsciously, discriminatory. So when we talk about discrimination we have to look a little deeper as to how these notions operate. We in Carnatic music shift positions based on the compulsions of the context but always safeguard the core Brahminical identity of that music. The music should not be stuffed into one socio-aesthetic address.

I think there is a need to revisit the way we have practiced this art, articulated its form and also begin ways of reaching it to a larger population. Here I must add that this will only happen if we can be honest and introspect about ourselves and accept that we have held it back from the larger world beyond its patrons.

Are you planning to set up your own ‘season’ so to say?
I am not, but the Urur Olcott Kuppam festival, which I was involved in last year, will also happen this winter in January. This was a festival of music, dance and drama that took place in a fisherman’s village in Chennai. We hope that through this initiative many art forms cutting across class and caste divides will get together and begin artistic and socio-cultural conversations.

People say you are a rebel. Comment.
If that label helps others place me in a box and then place all my thoughts and actions into that rebellious mode, then let them do it. I am just who I am and all that I say or write comes from the experience of music. It is for others, if they want to, to understand my intent and what I mean.

What does music mean to you?
Music and specifically Carnatic music has given me a gift and that is a window to experiencing life beyond myself.

Originally written for DNA

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