Chennai must look beyond the flood relief spectacle

The Chennai flood has left a watermark. It speaks of the heights the swollen waters had reached. And, ironically, the depths it is now touching, as well. Without fail, almost on an everyday basis, we see photographs of Chennai’s leading industrialists and businessmen including those wanting to be regarded as ‘leading’ posing with ‘Amma’ handing over cheques of 1 crore and above towards the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. Within a week we have turned a tragedy into a political, financial and branding exercise.

Knowing very well the openness of India’s political leaders to flattery and, equally, their vengefulness, business houses have very little choice but to use this moment to earn brownie points and – let us not forget – benefits. Donations such as these earn tax rebates. How many of the donors are going to say ‘This is our contribution and we are not going to claim a tax rebate on it’? These donations are, therefore, not entirely about the ‘dharma of giving’. Nor are they entirely about pleasing the political power centre. No one seems to find the use of donations as tax breaks, in these times of need, to be poor in taste and worse in ethics. As one hand offers the cheque the other quietly accepts the rebate, one that these large companies can for sure forgo. But nevertheless the drama plays out unquestioned. World over we have built tax regimes that use tax breaks as ‘bribes’ to encourage contributions to larger social causes. Then there is the publicity generated from this show of generosity for both the corporate and the Chief Minister. This is a corporate-political coup, one in which the real happenings are forgotten and savvy philanthropy holds sway. There is always the counter argument that publicity is a much necessary component to ‘giving’ since it in turn inspires others to do the same. There is some truth in this, but so often giving ‘in the spotlight’ turns into ‘basking in the limelight’.
We, the people look at the amounts on these cheques with our mouths wide open and our respect for our city-based businessmen and women soars, reassured that the corporate world has responded to this crisis. But there is more. And it is more than sad. All this wonderment, dullens our minds to a very important truth. If we examine the origins of the ‘unprecedented flood’, we will see almost at once that it was not just what the skies were doing but what was happening on the earth. One major contributor to all that led to the collapse of our ‘urban settlement’ we call Chennaipattinam, was the thoughtless and limitless growth of industries, private and public the pollutants they have discharged into our land and water. For how long and with what abandon have the giants giving their giant cheques been a factor in the devastation caused by Chennai’s inability to receive and hold water in its tanks, ponds, water-bodies and wetlands?

There seems to be one unwritten agreement among business houses. They are all part of corporate associations such as CII or FICCI, which are basically ‘unions’ they use as lobbying platforms. Companies will never come out and hold a compatriot-member accountable unless the law of the land convicts him or his actions affects their own interests. Their silence allows for the exploitation of people and environments. These cheques therefore mean nothing unless the industries individually and through a collective voice look beyond their own business interests and say ‘Our development methodology has been at fault; we must all take a new look at it.’ What is needed more than cheques, is corrective action. No amount of outreach activities can replace honest empathetic living.

And what about us, the ‘ordinary’ citizens of Chennai, where do we go from here? We have all done our bit, haven’t we? We packed food, sourced much needed relief material, even rescued people. Now that it is done and we feel wonderful about ourselves, is it only time now to do what status quoists famously advise – to ‘ move on’? And in any case what does ‘moving on’ really mean? Are we going to casually leave behind the hurt, bruising, suffering, loss of livelihood and health that we were witness to? Time will heal and memories will fade we are told. But I don’t want these horrible memories to dissolve. Once that happens we slide back into being ruthless selfish consumers. We use people around us and build utilitarian relationships where everyone is a mere enabling tool to satiate our needs. But what I want and how I go about getting it impacts people and lands that I may never know exist. It is not only land sharks that are to blame for the destruction of our Eri’s and marshlands. For many of us these spaces did not matter. Those living in ivory towers believed that the disappearance of natural bodies will not affect them, after all money can buy anything. We the empowered are constantly putting pressure on living spaces within the city forcing prices to rise, consequently leading to the uncontrolled expansion of the city. The slum of course is an eyesore, one that should be erased the way we stamp out an anthill. The legal and the illegal are used by the powerful for their own ends, the poor always being on the side of illegality. The politician only takes advantage of who we are, a society of corrupt self-serving power brokers.

As a ‘person of Chennai’ I need to, at the critical juncture, change my mind-map of the city. It can no longer be limited to my geo-stationary position and functionality. Space is unbounded; we have carved out varied shapes, pushing people into matrices, social, financial and political hierarchy being the determinants. This manipulation needs to be addressed if we want to avert another rain-related or cyclone-driven crisis. Chennai to me must hereafter mean every narrow road, kuppam, housing board settlement and fishing village that dots its coast. The fruit seller I pass everyday en route my fifteenth floor air-conditioned cabin must become more than just another face on the street. A construction of a flyover must not only be about transport convenience and job creation. It must also be seen as a more-than-likely cause for environmental degradation, waterbody-strangulation, forced migration and unemployment. After seeing heaps of waste on our streets will I realize that my waste does not just go away? It is only removed from my sight and dumped in places where people who ‘don’t matter’ live. They suffer the consequences of my avariciousness, forcing them to scavenge through my rubbish for just one square meal. And let us please see this as clearly as we see ‘that’ garbage heap: the lack of awareness about indiscriminate consumption and waste disposal is not a problem of the uneducated mass; it is the educated rich class. It is that which needs to take so much more blame. We have created an aspirational living model that is inherently abusive. Culturally too we have to rediscover our identity. Culture moulds the way we think, feel, experience and respond and therefore a fundamental shift is essential. The Gana songs inspired by Kunangudi Mastan Sahib sung by a Dalit daily-wage worker living on the banks of the Cooum river and a Tyagaraja kirtana rendered by a Mylapore Brahmin Carnatic musician must live equitably within all of us.

I have heard many proudly proclaim that Chennai is back on its feet. But which Chennai are we talking about? The one that exists between Alwarpet and Besant Nagar or the one that exists in the irrelevant by-lanes of Vyasarpadi, Manali, Mudichur and Nesapakkam? Things are normal for whom? There are scores of people still battling the financial and emotional trauma of the floods. Heading back to work is not a choice, it is the unfortunate compulsion of their reality. Normalcy is only a convenient expression used by the privileged to justify their insensitivity. We are a long way from any semblance of it.
The drowning of Chennai was a watershed moment, not just for the inhabitants of its landscape. It revealed the undeniable inter-connectedness of all our lives. The Chennai disaster was man-made, some even call it mass-murder by sterile, synthetic people. It is an environmental, political and social issue but at its very core it is about human nature. The sooner we begin living with this awareness, the greater chance of transformation. Cosmetic solutions will congeal the wound, not heal the lacerations within. And when on another December night, the gash reopens we may have a heavier price, by far, to pay.

Originally written for Indian Express

The Aamir Khan controversy is a classic example of what is happening in this country

Almost a month ago, the violent discourse and the insensitivity debates disturbed and astonished Carnatic classical musician Thodur Madabusi Krishna to the affect that he decided to hole himself up in his cottage, away from his residence in Chennai and the world of ragas and talas, to ponder over the situation. “I was following the news. The conversations I heard around me, unfortunately the same kind, were so black and white, the whole idea of right and wrong and justifying violence and saying that it was reactionary became quite difficult to deal with,” said Krishna, in conversation with The Indian Express, just before he addressed the session “Creativity and Censorship” at the Indian Languages Festival, Samanvay.

The result of the two days in the hide out was an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which he wrote after returning to Chennai. “This is not the time for platitudes, Pradhan Mantriji, but for a ringing condemnation from you, a kind of condemnation which will leave no one in doubt that the Indian State is not going to tolerate anyone being killed for his views, his faith, his food,” Krishna had written on October 10.

Condemning the violence through this letter seemed to be the only outlet Krishna had. “When you are in the government, you have the power to say things and make an impact. And the PM of India knows he does — he does it every day; he does it in London, he does it in Hamburg, at Madison Square. If you don’t use that, and if you have people of the rank of ministers propagating this notion of unrest, and well, they continue to do so, then it’s not a good situation to be in. The Aamir Khan controversy is a classic example of what’s happening in this country. I’m glad he said what he said,” said Krishna. He is relieved that artistes and the intelligentsia of the nation have reacted to the violence — be it in Dadri or killings of writers MM Kalburgi, Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare.

“Finally, at least some artistes are coming out of this bubble. Ironically, in this country, artistes have become synthetic, insensitive people. They believe that the beauty of their craft is in sensitivity. It’s not. The beauty of what you write or what you sing comes from beyond how it’s created. Which is why art is losing that quality. I am glad that even if it was reactionary, artistes are reacting to something,” said Krishna, who hopes that this will also lead to more inclusiveness.

It’s notable that Krishna had withdrawn himself from the iconic December Music Season earlier this year, raising concerns about the inherent caste system of the music season. He believes that the current situation in the country, like a lot of our music, stems from this idea of exclusivity. “Political conversations and social conversations change. Who does this art belong to changes. There cannot be this condescension. That’s scary. Oh, I am so benevolent, I am allowing you to sing this art form, which is also the political condition right now. It can’t work like that,” said Krishna, who added that any art form thrives when diverse people from diverse backgrounds practise it. “All this is about enriching and not offering something. There is an internal dialogue when I am singing. At the same time, I want those to listen who usually don’t. The art form will be enriched by their response. The moment we understand this pluralism, as musicians, as a nation, things will be better,” said Krishna.

Originally for Indian Express

The people returning their awards have as many questions to answer as the government

Over the last few months, Arun Jaitley, Amit Shah, General VK Singh and others who share their thinking have launched a counteroffensive. They rebuff the claim of writers, artists, academics and scientists returning their awards that intolerance is growing in India. Everything is hunky-dory with the nation, they claim. Tolerance is India’s signature and never has it been as pronounced as it is now. Had so-called liberals not been muddying the waters, India’s spirit of tolerance would not have been questioned today.

This proclamation of Indian tolerance is meant to showcase Hindu magnanimity, which, it is asserted, envelops the “sisterly” traditions of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. It is the Muslims and Christians who are intolerant – they refuse to accept their Hindu-ness or find the Idea of Hindu problematic – and of course the liberals.

There is no doubt that the returning of national honours by eminent personalities has rattled the Hindutva establishment. Around the nation, Hindutva’s sway has been checked, and people are rebutting majoritarianism. But the real credit for initiating this must go to the students of the Film and Television Institute of India who pressed their demand for the removal of the new institute chairman for months, even after the media lost interest in their agitation.

The events of today are not new unique, of course. In the past too we have protested regimentation, bullying, arrogance and bigotry in this country, like when Nayantara Sahgal sharply criticised the draconian Emergency regime, or when people spoke up after the Babri Masjid demolition, the 1984 Delhi riots and the 2002 Gujarat riots. The People’s Union for Civil Liberties founded by Jayaprakash Narayan, PEN International and NGOs too numerous to name have raised the red flag at different times with courage and conviction. This is what happens, and should happen, in a society with multiple voices. Memory is short and the debates and protests from the pre-internet era are often lost in the pages of old newspapers. Khushwant Singh, we must recall with pride, had driven to the residence of President Giani Zail Singh to return his Padma Bhushan after the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. I am certain there are many such stories, but my ability to recall more instances is limited by the fact that I am not a historian.

The protests today are not about a political party or an individual, even if he is the prime minister of India. They transcend the transients such as governments and leaders of the state. It is about the deeper repercussions that divisiveness can have on how we feel, think and live.

Powerful political act

The word “award” is from the Old French eswarder, which means, interestingly, to ward, to guard. So, to award is really to protect, to conserve. It is not so much to decorate, praise or confer as it is to safeguard. This etymological understanding changes our perspective towards what are egocentric decorations.

Rarely are awards born out of respect for any work or serious engagement. This is worse in the case of awards given out by the government or institutions under the government’s wings. Whether to return an award is, no doubt, a personal decision. But to claim that one is not returning an award because it has been given by objective peers or by the nation itself is a falsification of truths. Please do not return your awards, if you wish, but don’t claim that it was a pure offering from the awarders.

Those who have given back their awards also have something to think about. The returning of awards is, indeed, a powerful political act. But what does it say about the politics of receiving them? Unlike the Padma coronations, the Sahitya Akademi, Sangeet Natak Akademi or National Film awards may be one step removed from the actual ministries. But they too are manipulated spaces. And here I am not only talking about political leanings – that is just one aspect.

The much deeper issue is the way these akademis and ministries use awards to gain a hold over academic, scientific and artistic communities. Without doubt, many members of these collectives have, and continue to, pamper people in control of these bodies. Everyone knows this, including those who have received the recognitions without indulging in vulgar lobbying. When these clean recipients accept their awards, are they not unwittingly being party to practices that undermine the value of their work. And beyond themselves, have they not reduced the value of academic, scientific or artistic integrity and independence? Have awards not been given to the same intolerant people that the returnees today oppose on principled grounds? Getting an award is a moment of great pride, but we fail to recognise that this pride blinds us to the larger malaise afflicting these recognitions. Intolerance begins right there.

A reactive movement

After a very long time, people from varied fields, regions, speaking different languages, with opposing religious beliefs and belonging to different castes have come together. We need to recognise the preciousness of this moment and hold on to it. We cannot remain separate entities, fragmented and divided by the differentiating aspects mentioned above. Writers cannot react only when other writers are attacked. Our socio-political view must go beyond our own perceptions and functionality to the larger spirit of human co-existence. I have not seen the same national condemnation from us, the self-proclaimed liberal group, of the ridiculous sedition charges against the Tamizh folk singer Koven and the way he was arrested.

There is another issue that has remained with me over this month and that is the fact that this whole movement has been reactive. A friend said to me, “But it is only now that we have reached this critical juncture.” Yes, it is true that the present situation needed a response, but we also need to introspect on the last decade and more. A lot of little things, with significant inflection points in between, have driven our nation here. And this is not just about the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Sangh Parivar – it is as much about the Congress and the many regional players. These political parties have systematically polarised the society, while the fragmented left parties have lost themselves in ideological fantasies and ignored their own violence.

The victors in this collective degeneration have been the extreme elements and the far right. The truth is that apart from the media and those in the social sector, who have been tirelessly sounding warnings, the rest of us have been silent. So today we cannot divorce our inaction and passivity from the atmosphere that surrounds us. Did we need to wait for the death of people to speak up in an unequivocal voice? Engaging with the society cannot be a reactionary process, it has to be observational and constant. We have to remain sensitive and proactive even in the most peaceful of times.

The inner self

I have an additional but equally vital appeal to make: This is not a fight of those who are called and who regard themselves as intellectuals.

The use of that word by the media, government and even some academicians for those who have sought governmental introspection has troubled me. Even if it has not been accepted by the protesters, it has most certainly not been disowned. We, the anti-intolerants, have placed ourselves on a pedestal, taking into our hands the right of thought and, in the process, appropriated the very act of intellection from the larger society. What makes us intellectual? Being creative individuals, historians, academics and writers? This is absurd and more seriously classist.

Every citizen of this country who engages with the social and political environment is an intellectual. We are all flawed, fragile, conditioned and manipulated human beings bound to make the gravest errors in life. In my mind, there is no difference in intellection between Irfan Habib or Ashis Nandy and a faceless farmer in West Bengal or a factory worker in Tirupur. All of them live and respond to life based on their journey, which makes them thinking people. This is not about right and wrong or good and bad, it is about mind and body. There is of course one significant difference between us and the rest: we are privileged, empowered. We are people with access. But if this is reinterpreted as being intellectual, it is indeed violence.

We forget that we are like everyone else. Yes, voices are being raised for everyone not just for intellectuals, but that cannot come from a position of patronage. It has to come from self-realisation. I am not saying that this is happening purposely, but it is indeed being heard that way. Which means there is a problem in thought and articulation. And let us not forget that by allowing this label of intellectual we are providing the accusers another weapon to make our voices marginal or irrelevant.

Those of us who are participating in this protest must engage with utmost sincerity with the outer as well as with our inner. It is in this honesty that we will find strength and a way forward.

Originally written for Scroll.in

Modiji, you need to speak your mind on the future of pluralism

Honourable Narendra Modi-ji

As I penned this piece, I heard of your words at a rally in Bihar, instead of deterring me from writing to you, it has only further strengthened my resolve that this needs to be said.

Over the last week or more we have witnessed what can only be described as the molestation of a human tragedy, the perpetrators of this crime being politicians coloured green, saffron and the various shades of every other colour, all no less sullied. As individuals, partymen, members of the ruling class and the opposition benches they have vulgarised the very soul of compassion and empathy. This is for certain not a new phenomenon and only another sign of who we are, or may be we have always been this way!

But with all due respect, Pradhan Mantri-ji what has astonished me is not just your silence, but the spoken and written words with which we citizens have been abused, ridiculed and trivialised for asking for the elected leader of this country to respond. This is not a request from a political outfit, but from people, just normal people belonging to the various parts that make up the sum that is India. Is this really such an unfair request? Don’t we have the right to ask, if not demand that you speak your mind? Why are we being made to feel like offenders only because we want you to say something direct and substantial on something that is for certain of socio-cultural importance? With all due respect, I have the right to not vote for you, yet to want from you, as Prime Minister, a response.

The future of pluralism

You know what has been agitating the minds of millions of us, Indians – the future of our pluralism. You have stated your position in terms of sabka sath, sabka vikas. And this is quoted and cited on your behalf repeatedly as a mantra. But, Pradhan Mantriji, this is certainly not adequate. We need to hear you, our prime minister, directly and clearly and with an urgent reference to the context of the present situation, which is nothing less than a tragedy. Over the last few months we have had more than one tragedy. Can we really not see the connections between the so-called stray incidences all over the country, from the murders of Dabholkar Pansare and Kalburgi to that of Mohammad Akhlaq. Your direct voice needs to be heard now, unless you do not consider this an event of significance. And now, the ambiguity of what you said yesterday [Thursday, October 8] only makes me send you this appeal for your truthful intervention. This is not the time for platitudes, Pradhan Mantriji, but for a ringing condemnation from you, a kind of condemnation which will leave no one in doubt that the Indian state is not going to tolerate anyone being killed for his views, his faith, his food.

Was the Dadri tragedy not the result of the overt and aggressive imposition of a beef ban by certain state governments with leaders from numerous parties further exploiting the situation? Sir, are you not disturbed – infuriated would be more appropriate – by the cost we are and will continue to pay for this mindlessness ? Hearing Hindu hardliners bring about counter examples of Hindus being targets of violent crimes is tiresome. The fact that those are as condemnable and must be stopped cannot be used to make Dadri a small or stray incident. And to accuse the media of over-playing this is downright despicable.

Today many in this country and elsewhere see you as an American presidential style Prime Minister and you too seem to wear that notion with great style. That being so, you must respond like the American President does whenever there is any violence that is connected to race, ethnicity, religion or directly a result of American laws and policy, irrespective of where it took place, who were the targets and number of people affected. The citizens may not agree with him, but at least they hear his thoughts. From you we hear only generalities. The president of India is a symbol and his words guide us in spirit. You Sir, the prime minister are the reality dealing with actual action, reaction, reconciliation, betterment and strength.

Muddled minds

You have said so many times that your government is one of difference and a conscious effort of your government has been to erase everything that you see as the evils of the Congress past. Then unlike them, speak, appeal, be forceful and clear those muddled minds. Please don’t play to the electoral gallery. You seem to be doing exactly that.

And Mr Prime Minister, unlike your immediate predecessor you are not a mute spectator, you love to address and impress. We have heard you from Lal Qila, Madison Square Garden, Dubai and Silicon Valley, at the home of Google and Facebook. We have seen you being moved by the memory of the hardships faced by your mother. Words, strong and emotional words come to you easily. So why do we need to shout and scream for a few sentences about a man who was lynched for allegedly consuming beef?

Even after the lynching your senior minister and members of your party are on record making the most inhuman statements. Today the culture minister says you spoke to him. But Modi-ji this is not a private matter between the two of you! This is a matter of and for Indians and we need to hear you condemn your minister. You are fearless and free with your assault on opposition parties; can we please witness the same eloquence when it comes to your ministers and party members?

The RSS and affiliates of the Sangh Parivar are constantly alienating people. Modi-ji, you are both the prime minister and the colossus that controls the BJP, therefore you are responsible for both establishments. Not only them, but also for the vulgarities spouted by members of the Sangh Parivar. You are a self-proclaimed proud Swayamsevak and it is clear that the Parivar is indeed a family. Therefore you cannot choose when to celebrate your Sangh identity and when to distance yourself from it. This is double speak.

Extreme actions

Your party spokesmen in their own inimitable style have been saying that it is your right to decide whether to speak, where to do so and in what form. They are absolutely correct, but if you don’t feel you need to say something that will shut all these extreme actions that drain the happiness out of people, even a non-believer will seek divine intervention.

This is not about secularism; this is about us being a humane, real and sensitive, a non-accusatory nation. You use social media widely, something you happily flaunted in the presence of Mr. Mark Zuckerberg and hence I am certain you have seen all the vitriolic comments that are swarming Indian cyber space. Don’t you think you need to confront it directly?

Finally Sir, you have said that Hindus and Muslims must decide what they want to fight, each other or poverty. To me this is nothing but another empty slogan because poverty is inextricably connected to religion, caste and class. Unless we face up to these challenges with greater honesty and courage, not just our poverty but our backwardness will remain indeed incurable.

Originally written for Scroll.in

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

Revisiting the bond

There is no doubt in my mind that our government is nudging this country towards becoming a Hindu-nation in spirit. Even if we ignore the crass, high-decibel noise emanating from the fringe players, there are enough concrete moves by the government itself that make this intention clear; be it the appointments to national research, educational and cultural bodies, the mega celebration of Yoga as a national symbol or the absurd creation of a post of Joint Secretary of Sanskrit in the Ministry of External Affairs. One can argue that Yoga and Sanskrit are composite cultural markers and not religious ideations; something all will accept. But we must be blind to not recognise that the discourse, enforcement and jingoism that is being generated around these ‘ancient symbols of Indian-ness’ are definitely about Hindu India, not India.

From the sound of it, it seems that the next casualty of co-option will be Raksha Bandhan. The Prime Minister has already made an opening move with the call to provide ‘our sisters’ social security benefits before Raksha Bandhan on August 29. I can hear voices proclaiming that Raksha Bandhan is a non-religious event reminding one that the Rajput queens had offered rakhis to Mughal Emperors and that Raksha Bandhan is secular and embraced by all. I am not going to argue the secular credentials of this festival, though I know that it is being used to celebrate Hindu secularism as a counter to the Christian Valentine’s Day! Ironically some mullahs may even join hands with their Hindu counterparts in this assertion. But let me move on.

For many, the rakhi is a symbol of love that brings men and women together, bridging religious/caste fault lines. It is in fact seen as a socially sanctioned non-sexual framework for men and women to bond. But we have to recognise that there are serious sexist issues involved in its construction or, shall we say, stringing. A rakhi denotes a woman asking for protection from a man. Symbolically, the ‘sister’ concedes that she cannot survive in this male-dominated jungle unless she has a ‘brother’ on her side. She celebrates the might and power of the man in society, asking him to take her under his wing and ensure that no harm comes to her. Built into the rakhi is a trap. All right, if ‘trap’ is too strong, let me say ‘catch’ — that the woman is seen only in relation to a man and the notion that she is dependent and subservient to him. The subliminal message is that she is the ‘weaker sex’; that her empowerment comes with the man’s support and approval.

A Rajput queen sending a rakhi to the Mughal badshah was a symbol of surrender, accepting the ‘Big Brother’ and imploring him to protect and not destroy her state. Raksha Bandhan is a festival of bonding but most certainly not the bonding of equals. This may sound harsh but isn’t the ‘love’ that is said to be the bedrock of this celebration wholly unequal?

This, of course, is a very Indian thing! We tend to refer to women only as ‘mothers’, ‘sisters’, ‘daughters’ or ‘wives’. On the face of it, it may sound respectful but we have to realise that these identities allow us to control women. Socially and publicly, sexuality is seen as something to be ashamed of. Therefore, the woman has to be stripped of her sexual-ness if we are to respect her. Therefore she has to be a sister, mother, daughter or wife. The man provides security — often another word for confining — as a brother, son or husband. The independent woman — who is not a sister, mother or wife — is consequently portrayed as untrustworthy, arrogant and promiscuous. The word often employed is ‘loose’. Men will even argue that the lecher in them appears only because women break the mother/sister/wife formulation. The man, of course, operates differently; his manliness is a symbol of power, strength and respect. He has to be strong; after all, he is the protector!

We have to place Raksha Bandhan in this larger context to realise that it is not just a simple function of tying a love band, applying a tilak on your brother’s forehead, offering him sweets and accepting his gifts. The rakhi is not a band of love; it is a knot of subordination.

Many reading this piece may find my assessment of Raksha Bandhan harsh; some may call it perverted and accuse me of disfiguring a beautiful event into a feminist diatribe. But I urge ‘you’ — and when I say ‘you’ I mean men and women — to keep aside your personal experiences and nostalgia when revisiting this tyohar.

Originally written for The Hindu

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