Interview: T.M. Krishna

T.M. Krishna: ‘To bring Asoka back in public discourse was important’

Print edition : November 20, 2020

T.M. Krishna: “My politics is my music, which is why I started working on these edicts.” Photo: Vivek Bendre

Interview with T.M. Krishna, singer, writer and activist.

T.M. KRISHNA, the noted Carnatic vocalist, writer and activist, has put to music four edicts of the Mauryan emperor Asoka. The dhamma edicts, which focus on the theme of equality and justice, have been rendered in the original Magadhi Prakrit, showing that certain values are timeless. Giving a touch of immediacy to “The Edict Project”, which was launched in collaboration with Asoka University, Krishna chose October 14, the day Dr B.R. Ambedkar embraced Buddhism, which is said to have been the state religion during the time of Asoka, to premier his edict song.

The novelty and uniqueness of the project is that no musician has ever thought of singing them or putting them to music. Said Krishna: “It is probably not just the first time that the edicts have been sung, it is probably the first time they have come out of the written form. I do not think people have even heard them.”

Also read: T.M. Krishna pays tribute to Asoka

The edicts were not poems that could lend themselves to music, he said. They had no rhythm. Yet he did not feel dissuaded from giving them a musical form. So determined was he that he studied the four edicts with the help of a Prakrit language expert and a Buddhist monk, and was ready. “We edited them to create a consistency as they had to be sung together,” he told Frontline in an interview.

Excerpts:

What drew you to Asoka's edicts? One cannot think of music when one sees the edicts?

The truth is, like anybody else, I had not read Asoka’s edicts carefully. I had read about them in school, the usual lessons of Kalinga and the [Asoka’s] transformation after that. About a year ago, Gopal Gandhi [former Governor of West Bengal] in a conversation suggested to me that I read them again. I agreed. About eight months ago I started looking them up again. When I read them, it was quite emotional. I was moved by their message.

What did you read to understand the meaning of the edicts?

Well, there are translations of these edicts. There are multiple translations. I read translations, not commentaries. What came through was the sheer beauty and profundity of the individual. What really touched me was that Asoka was a normal human being. Yes, he was a king, but he was no god, not floating in the air. He was a real person grappling with real issues. There was something really tangible, something every human being could connect to. This was not a bhashan from some politician or somebody claiming to be a god. Somebody you cannot question.

Then I discovered something else. Often in life we do not draw together deeply philosophical or personal journeys of enlightenment with administration. I found that rare connection in Asoka. Like Dr Ambedkar, the personal seeking with the socio-political reality was there. It was extremely beautiful to find him talking about justice, equality, or when he talked about how different religions should treat each other.

Were you also drawn to the edicts because of the climate of increasing intolerance in India?

Absolutely. We live in times of hate. We live in times when politicians increase these divisions, these polarities. If you look at the politics of the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party], the Central government, it is about increasing this disparity, this anger. Whether it is about Kashmir, the CAA [Citizenship Amendment Act]... it goes on. In this environment of hate, I thought it was very important to seek these kind [Asoka’s edicts] of thoughts again. My way of expression is music. That is what I am. My politics is my music, which is why I started working on these edicts.

Did you rope in experts to understand the edicts considering that most of them are in Prakrit or in various shades of Prakrit?

I was fortunate to have this Buddhist monk Sravasti Dhamika. She is an Australian Buddhist monk. And a Prakrit scholar, Dr Naresh Kirti. I worked with them on four edicts of dhamma.

Are these the edicts discovered in Allahabad?

No, they are from different locations. The edicts are found at 37 locations across the subcontinent, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and India. There are 14 edicts, which are repeated at a few places. Others are not repeated. Some are local in nature, others are about administration. If you look at the edicts, we find that they were written in Prakrit but spoken in different dialects of Prakrit. So many different dialects.

Also read: The imagined past

There is cultural relativity in these scripts. For instance, the script used in Peshawar was different from the one prevalent in Magadha.

Sure. Absolutely. It proved that we had a king who was sensitive to local language, local culture, local dialects. Therefore the edicts are in different variations. We edited them to create a consistency as they had to be sung together.

Did you learn Prakrit in order to sing the edicts?

I do not know Prakrit. I was dependent on Naresh Kirti. I worked with him for two months, getting different words right. A language spoken is very different from a language sung. In every language like Hindi, Bengali, Sanskrit, there is precedence. We have heard it. But it was not there for Prakrit. It was written and spoken about 2,200 years ago. Let's remember, it is probably not just the first time that the edicts have been sung, it is probably the first time they have come out of the written form. I do not think people have even heard them.

So how did you find music for Prakrit? I am sure it would have been totally different from traditions of Hindustani or Carnatic music.

I learnt to first say them. When you hear a khayal in Hindustani, it is different because it is a language in practice. Here is a language not heard. It was a fascinating experience for me to try and get the rhythm of the language. Only after I had this, I thought of singing. I kept repeating the words, then I sang them.

It must have been difficult as the edicts do not have a rhythm.

Absolutely. Honestly speaking the edicts are not made for music. They were messages from a king, they were not poems. A poem has a certain rhythmic cadence into which I tap into. What do I tap into here? I tuned it by following the sound of the language. I am still learning. As I go on with this project, I will learn more.

How have your fellow artistes reacted to the challenge you took up?

They have all been positive. The response has been wonderful even among musicians.

Also read: T.M. Krishna on rediscovering Asoka through his edicts

I am sure nobody else would have had the guts to sing the edicts.

(Laughs) It is also a part of the politics I am deeply involved in. We live in times of exclusion. The right-wing politics is about uniformity, trying to demolish everything else. It is opposed to pluralism. In this time, Asoka represents everything. He represents India. We forget he is so closely knit together with the fabric of India. From a flag to a symbol, he is so central to India. Therefore, to bring him back in public discourse was important.

The fact that you talk of bringing Asoka back is a sad comment on our polity.

Correct. I completely agree with you. Our history books do not tell us enough about Asoka, too.

But for these edicts we would have not known about the greatness of Asoka.

Absolutely. He would have been just another monarch. I believe the edicts should be taught in schools, they should be translated into every language. School children should be reciting the edict on equality among religions. Like we learn multiplication tables, we should have learnt five edicts of Asoka, their beautiful social and political message. They carry the emperor's vision of a humane society, something we need badly.

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