Interview: T.M. Krishna

T.M. Krishna: Reshaping the contours of Carnatic music

Print edition : April 29, 2016

T.M. Krishna. Photo: Manoj Paramahamsa/The movie "One"

Parai drummers perform at the Urur Olcott Kuppam Margazhi festival in Chennai. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh

A section of the audience at the Urur Olcott Kuppam Margazhi festival in Chennai. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh

P. Unnikrishnan at a cultural event at a school in Chennai, a file picture. Photo: S.S. Kumar

Performing at sunrise on a rock in the middle of a lake in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu. "[P]ossibly the crispness in the air, the sun coming out, all of this created an environment which enabled me to let go.... It was a very emotional experience for me." Photo: By Special Arrangement

The audience at a sabha in Chennai absorbed in a performance during the December music season. A file picture. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Interview with the Carnatic music exponent T.M. Krishna.

IN the extremely rigid, tradition-bound, hierarchy-driven and class-conscious world of Carnatic classical music, the vocalist Thodur Madabusi Krishna, popularly T.M. Krishna, is a misfit: for many a summer now, he has no longer been restricted to the “art and culture” section of the media. While the musical genius of T.M. Krishna is never in question—the rave reviews he is getting now as he is touring the United States is the latest attestation to this fact—in recent times making news outside of the stage seems to have become second nature to him. Taking the music from the controlled climes of the “sabhas” to the sweltering heat of the slums, Krishna has attempted many experiments that, at once, redefine him and his music. His ability to engage his audience—through both shock and surprise—is extraordinary. He plays around with the concert format, provokes his audience and challenges them to move beyond the comfort of the format handed down for generations, and insists that a concert for him is not about merely moving around the pieces.

But the biggest shock to his fans and followers was when he announced that he would not sing in the Citadel of Carnatic Music, the Chennai December music season. In a Facebook posting, he said: “I would like to inform all of you that henceforth (beginning December 2015), I will not be singing in Chennai’s December Music Season.”

“Right from when I was five or six the ‘season’ has been part of my musical universe and I have learnt so much from musicians, musicologists, scholars and rasikas…. Unfortunately, at the place I am today I am unable to reconcile my musical journey with that of the December season. My growth in the field of music has been largely due to the sabhas of Chennai, and, over the years, they have been most accommodative and graceful in accepting my varied requests,” he said. He thanked all of them “for everything”.

Krishna, who was trained by Vidvans Seetharama Sarma, Chingleput Ranganathan and the legendary Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer in his formative years, devoted his time to explore the uncharted territories in music, such as collaborating with the jogappas in Karnataka (See Frontline, March 20, 2016) and embarking on a hazardous journey to Sri Lanka’s Northern Province to reach out to and help the Tamil-majority region rebuild its classical music traditions. His fellow traveller in this endeavour, the Carnatic vocalist and playback singer P. Unnikrishnan, had to apologise for having travelled to Jaffna, after a group of Tamil nationalists targeted him for “supporting the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime”. Krishna, however, refused to be cowed down by the threats.

Krishna is also a sought-after speaker and does not hesitate to take on the high and mighty. In October 2015, Krishna wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking him to break his silence on the future of pluralism in India. “Can we really not see the connections between the so-called stray incidents all over the country, from the murders of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi to that of Mohammad Akhlaq. Your direct voice needs to be heard now, unless you do not consider this an event of significance,” he wrote in The Hindu. He has co-authored Voices Within: Carnatic Music—Passing on an Inheritance, a book dedicated to the greats of Carnatic music. In 2013, he unveiled A Southern Music, published by HarperCollins, a work on the Carnatic tradition.

Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

What is your idea of art? Should it deliver a message? For you art is also a means of engaging with social and political issues. From this standpoint, how effective is the Carnatic music realm, which has increasingly isolated itself from the mainstream?

I have a difficulty with this umbrella term “art”. Every art form has a reason for its existence. Western popular music has very centrally included a sociocultural and even political message for direct political and social change, to question ideas of love and freedom or to oppose oppression of any kind, and so on. The Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. and music are inseparable. You find this “energy” embedded both in the lyrical content and in the presentation of the music. Take film music everywhere. It exists because the medium of cinema exists. Its aesthetic and intentionality are directed towards the storytelling process. Each art form addresses different emotional needs of the human being and of society as they exist at the time. However, receptivity is another matter. And your own receptivity depends on how clean or clogged your “receptors” are of your conditioning.

I distance myself from the term classical, since it is a sociopolitical term, meaning nothing in aesthetic terms; I prefer the term art music. Art music is not there to send out a political message. I am not sitting on the stage to tell you all to reject the caste system, or talk about reservation. So, there is no direct political or social message. Nonetheless, what a form such as art music can do and does do is very interesting. The whole idea is to abstract life experiences from the literal. When you abstract, the experience is removed from the actual event. And in that abstraction a profound transformation can take place, both in the presenter and in the listener and, in fact, in what is being presented as well.

In Carnatic music, you have three elements at work— raga, tala and text. They are used to abstract various life experiences beyond an actual event, beyond even nostalgia. So, there is a huge bandwidth of reasons why art exists, and experiences that art gives and why it moves, changes, transforms, each differently perhaps, but essentially. And so, very curiously, it is also a reality that every art form creates its own political ambience and influences and converses and, indeed, lives within a political arena.

At one level, the experience of Carnatic music is not literal, political or social. But the basket within which it exists is definitely social and political. So, it will be a lie for me to escape into this abstraction and claim that we are beyond the sociopolitical [realities around us].

I work at two levels. The way I have addressed music is [in terms of] abstraction. But if you don’t recognise the sociopolitical [contexts], your abstraction, or the idea of the sublime, is not going to exist. Unless you address both, a conversation is not possible. I do think that the sociopolitics of every art form is different as the experience of every art form is different.

When I started asking these questions, I knew there would be a blowback from the community. For some time, there was a huge gap between what I was saying and what people were making of it. But I also learnt from that. I have realised in the last five years or so that people need not agree with me as long as there is engagement with the questions. But these questions are being discussed [now], which is a great way forward. People outside the field, I knew, would understand the points with greater ease than people within the community, which is looking at these questions in its own way, both the musical aesthetic questions and the sociopolitical questions. I am happy about that. But some four years ago, no one in the so-called Carnatic community was willing to have a conversation about it. Everybody was being reactive, but not being attentive. They would react and I would react to the reaction. And it went on like that.

But now, I think that I have better understood the nuances of discussion and that there is a point in negotiation. I am not as pessimistic now as I was four years ago. The younger generation is at least looking at these things. But I do agree with you that despite all this movement, the Carnatic music world is still very in-grown, very in-bound, and therefore isolated. Sometimes it is shocking how isolated we are. It is unbelievable how complete and contented we feel within this microcosm. There’s no reason to step out.

Do you think you can make Carnatic music inclusive? I am referring to your organising the Urur Olcott Kuppam festival and teaching Carnatic music in corporation schools. Is there a structured plan or is this you doing your little bit for your peace of mind?

Many of these initiatives began from a single thought, they were not part of a structured plan. I had been talking and writing about these issues for two-three years, but it soon became clear to me that as one who practices the art I cannot just philosophise.

In the case of the Urur Olcott Kuppam project, one December I was thinking to myself, “Suppose there is a December art festival in a kuppam [slum] what will happen?” Once an idea comes to your head, you know how it is, right? It becomes an animal with its own life and starts growing inside your head.

I didn’t know whom to speak to. I am as elitist and upper middle class as you can get and I do not know kuppam environments. That is when one thing led to another and to [Chennai-based environmental activist] Nityanand’s attempt.

Now, can it make a difference? Carnatic music can connect with a larger audience. And not by competing with any other art form. There are two angles: the people and the process. There are [the] people, an overwhelming number, who are not part of this world, and the process, also overwhelming, is one of self-realisation, a humbling process too of the classical music world’s realisation of itself. I feel that the music itself, if it interacts with a larger diverse cultural group, will only benefit from being shared, being internalised by those unfamiliar with it. This is not about making it easier for people to understand music. That very attitude is condescending, implying that “others” are not capable of having your so-called intellectual or aesthetic abilities.

In this initiative, the musician is put in an environment which is not his or her traditional habitation, where he/she may not be naturally “at home”. We are used to seeing the same faces in the audience and how we love that! I know, for instance, when exactly “my” audience will applaud. But here, you are in front of an audience which will probably not clap, an audience whose appreciation gradient I just do not know, and which does not think what you are singing is great or melodious. So it becomes a fascinating interaction, a discovery actually.

The Urur Kuppam festival is not trying to convert anybody to Carnatic music. It is only trying to give it spaces outside its elitist quadrangles. Everyone, we need hardly to say it, has a right to access it. But does everyone have the chance to access it? And I must say that access here is not just physical, it is intellectual, it is psychological.

Elite art forms are never exposed to an environment where they can be rejected. That is their safeguard, but also their escape route from the reality of a larger world. Art forms are not on a level playing field, socially or artistically. Every community has its own art forms and these art forms are also trapped in their small, community environments. So, there are two or three things that you are constantly aware of. One, you are not gifting Carnatic music to anyone with the presumption that they are culturally deprived. All we are saying is that this [Carnatic music] too is a reality, try it out, savour it. But we have to be conscious of the danger of certain missteps. People beyond the Carnatic world do realise the social imbalance that Carnatic music brings with it, and their perception is moulded by the fact that the performances are held at “private sabha spaces”. This can lead to a view that appreciating this music will confer a [higher] social status. This is dangerously delusional and we have to guard against inadvertently fostering such a false notion.

Therefore, we are also trying to say that parai [ attam] deserves as much respect as Carnatic music. That koothu deserves as much respect. These are sophisticated aesthetic forms. So we try and create a balance placing both on the same stage. When a person looks at a koothu performance, and then, the next second, hears Vijay Siva singing, two art forms belonging to different social strata are levelled in perception. We are influencing perception. So the artist from the classical world realises that he or she is no different from the “ parai vidwan”. The parai artist realises, or should realise, that their art is as classical as the so-called classical.

There’s an element of the personal too in this, a philosophical inquiry that goes on. Even as Urur is happening, I am getting on stage for my next concert. There’s a conversation that happens between these different aspects of my life, seeing what happens to me aesthetically and professionally and personally. But that is not the overriding intention of this whole exercise. The overriding attempt is to initiate conversations.

In corporation schools

The corporation school was an extension of that. It is fair to ask how many people from other communities I am teaching personally. The truth is that I am not. Where can we begin? So Sangeetha Sivakumar and I decided to start this initiative. Four young singers are involved in this initiative that we are guiding with the support of the Aanmajothi Trust.

But there is a problem in teaching Carnatic music in corporation schools. The fact is that the classroom environment gives respectability to an art form. If you say, I am going to teach in a classroom, it means that what I am bringing is important, even more important. Therefore, it would have been ideal for Carnatic music to have a classroom, and for parai attam also to have a classroom. Otherwise, there is an imbalance, isn’t there? These are things we have to think about and address.

There have been sporadic efforts by you and musicians like N. Ravikiran to “teach Carnatic music” in government/municipal body-run schools. Considering the rigour and longevity needed for classical arts training, what do these attempts seek to serve? Does it really translate to democratising the art form?

There are different levels of operation. One is this one-hour event, half-a-day event. It does not go beyond that. That’s why this endeavour is different. We have taken just four schools, and per school 20 children who are in Class VI. That gives us about four years [before the students complete schooling]. Even now, teachers can see three or four students who really have talent. But all 20 will have an exposure to the basic idea of Carnatic music. So they need not be singers, they can also be listeners. They can also be involved in the world of Carnatic music in many other ways. But for those who are talented, I think if you create a process it can continue beyond the four years.

It is not about teaching them for five years and then telling them that they have passed. How can the parents be brought into this engagement? How can the school itself be part of this engagement? It is too early for us since it is only about three months ago that we started. But I do think this is different because the endeavour is to create the possibility that we can have musicians from different communities.

Now, the question is, what are you going to do with the students who are talented? What systems are you going to put in place? Can you take them in for advanced training? What will mainstream Carnatic music do? How much acceptability will these talented students get? These are larger questions.

I know musicians will teach. No musician will say no. So that is the next stage. In three years’ time, if I find, say, four children who are really talented, then we need to be prepared to take it forward from there. No parent [of a talented child] will say, “Let my child explore art. I don’t need anything.” So, we need to create an economic environment and a social conversation so that people can come together and take them to the next stage. The next challenge is, how do you place them in the sabha structure? These are all things that need to be built into this conversation, if this endeavour is to achieve democracy in terms of diversity of performers. A lot of things need to come together. Just because we take classes in four schools for four years, are we really changing something? Things can change if we are willing to go the extra mile.

How do you make people interested in classical music when they want to, very clearly, listen to film music? For instance, Unnikrishnan is very popular wherever he goes because he is a playback singer. With Bombay Jayashree, too, it is the same.

First of all, the mindset should change. You are not competing with film music. The moment you begin competing with film music, you are going to fail. The fact that Unni [Krishnan] or [Bombay] Jayashree is famous because of film music is an advantage to Carnatic music, which Hindustani music does not have. Tell me, how many Hindustani musicians can draw, shall we say, the cinema crowd? Even 200 of them? Unni can do it, Jayashree can do it, Nitya [Nityasree Mahadevan] can do it. When these three sing Carnatic music, they sing solid Carnatic music. There are no compromises in that. When you get people to listen to Unni [in a Carnatic setting] only because he is a playback singer, I think that is an entry point for them. They see Unni as someone they can immediately connect with. So, when Unnikrishnan comes to Urur Olcott Kuppam, the people there already have a connection. When Unni talks [to them] about the art form and says this is Carnatic music, then their perception of Carnatic music can change.

But we have to remember that we are not counting numbers. A.R. Rahman is A.R. Rahman. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer is Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. That does not make any one of them less than the other. Just because fewer number of people know Semmangudi that does not make him any less a musician. And it does not make Rahman a greater musician just because more people know him.

‘Rock’ music

You have explored cinema as a medium to take Carnatic music to a larger audience, via “Maargazhi Raagam” and “One”. Is it because the director Jayendra Panchapakesan, who is also your friend, pushed you into it, or was this another of your experiments? I also believe that you sang sitting on a rock in the middle of a lake in Coonoor, on an especially cold morning…

Someone asked me, “How is it that you always land up doing these kinds of things?” The truth is that they land on my lap. Maargazhi Raagam was completely Jayendra’s idea. The same with One. Jayendra had come to a concert of mine, and [the producer] Srikanth [Chandrasekharan] had come to another concert of mine, and both of them had a chat. There was something they experienced in the concert that drove them to the possibility of just letting the artist speak. Then Jayendra shot me an email saying that he wanted to hear me in a forest, in the mountains. I said, “Yeah, when?” Within 15 days, he sent me a shooting schedule. I was open to it. In some way, that is also the philosophy with which I sing. So there was a connect between all of us.

Was it easy singing on a very cold morning seated on a rock?

Honestly, I had no clue what I would be going through. They had sent me some photographs. We landed in Coonoor and the evening before the shoot, at around 9 p.m. K.J. [Singh, who handled the audiography] informed me that we would have to leave at 3 a.m. because we had to shoot at sunrise. I reached the spot at 3:40 a.m., and he showed me a lake and told me I had to sit on top of a rock in the lake. I was taken aback. Three guys held a ladder horizontally, and I walked across it and sat on the rock. It was hilarious.

I thought it would be difficult to sing. Actually, it was not. It was possibly the crispness in the air, the sun coming out, all of this created an environment which enabled me to let go. Great credit to the team of 40 people who remained invisible, giving me the space to experience nature. It was a very emotional experience for me.

Question of structure

You clearly enjoy playing with the concert format, but your audiences have got used to the format. Even if you began a concert with a tillana or a tani avartanam, or sang standalone aalapanas, or had your violin accompanist play a different raga to the one you have just sung, no one really seems to mind because each of those renderings is so beautiful. Having made the point that a great artiste can do what he wants, is it not time to give your audience some comfort? After one has heard a superlative Kambhoji from you and is happily anticipating one of the great Kambhoji kritis in your repertoire or that of your guru, do you know how wretched it is to be served with tanam in Dhanyasi? I am not putting down one or the other. Or, is it your point that a Brahmin audience needs to be tortured?

To explore this question, it is necessary to say why I am doing what I am doing. Is it just about shifting A to B, B to C, C to D, D back to A? If it was as dumb a thing as that, honestly, I won’t waste my time. Instead of singing one at number one, you sing it at number four. What is the big deal? Nothing. The standard joke about me is, “When will T.M. Krishna begin his concert with mangalam [the last piece in a concert]?” That is a poor joke. I did not wake up one morning and say I don’t like this structure, that from now on I will sing only four pieces in a concert. No. This is not about the order of songs. People have reduced this to the order of songs. It is about the content and experience at every moment in the concert.

This is part of my musical journey. As I dug deeper into the music, its form and its idea of structure and presentation, many questions emerged. What is this thing that connects one form to another? I sing an aalapana and the violinist presents an aalapana. That is a very superficial connectivity. What is it that binds me and the violinist while exploring the aalapana? How do we flow into a kirtana? Is it a habituated thing or is there something deeper? When I say kirtana is “a” form, what do I mean? What is its aesthetic reality? How do sahitya, raga, laya and tala work together to create the art object? Where dwells the musician in this? How do I respect the compositional form? When I say sometimes that a song is a tiny composition, that it is a filler between two serious pieces, is its functionality only its positional point to provide relief between two serious items? “Just run that by. I want to relax for five minutes.” There are many questions like this.

So, when I started exploring form, composition, structure and their undeniable connection with experience, I felt that though we believe that the varnam is connected to the mangalam, giving us a unified aesthetic kutcheri experience, actually the varnam has nothing to do with the mangalam. What we fool ourselves to be an aesthetic unity is actually a presentation-related structural conditioning, far divorced from the music itself. Many questions emerged. Can the music live beyond the presentational conditioning?

If I sing a Kambhoji aalapana, how can I dwell and live in the Kambhoji aalapana to the point that the aalapana completes itself? You don’t need a kirtana to substantiate it. It doesn’t happen every day. But when it happens, what do I do? You said that after hearing a brilliant Kambhoji, it is tortuous to hear a Dhanyasi. I will ask you a counter-question: You have heard a complete, brilliant Kambhoji. Why do you want to hear anything more?

I am in that frame of mind.

Exactly. The reason you want that is because you are used to hearing a Kambhoji kirtana. My point is that you recognise what happened was precious, that what you got out of it was a complete experience, irrespective of whether it was me or it was someone else who sang. Can you shed that baggage of needing something when this “art object” was on its own so precious and then move over to another preciousness? That’s all I am asking. So, when I say I want to explore the varnam, it is not about varnam being in position No. 1, but about what I have done or can do with a varnam. Can we give it a centrality in the way we treat it, that it is as important as a kirtana or a tillana? And there’s another aspect. The aesthetic prospect that a tillana provides is so different from what a kirtana provides. So how can I explore both? Now does that bring discomfort? Sure it does.

Discomfort is an understatement.

I was also uncomfortable at the beginning because I am also habituated. Discomfort comes from various sources. Like you said, it could come from an expectation and also because our appreciation is moulded by that. But I am challenging that. I am challenging that for myself and I am challenging it for you. Because that needs challenging. Because if you don’t challenge that, we are missing the wood for the trees; the music for the concert. Because the concert is a comfortable zone. It has got to the point where we musicians play you [the audience] like a puppet. I don’t feel proud saying this, I am very disappointed that Carnatic music has come to this precipice. Now that it has got to that point, this is something that needs to be explored. I am demanding something very intense from the audience since the art form demands it.

Why are you shocking the audience so often? Have you ever had a structured conversation with the audience?

I have many times spoken in the concert and tried to explain myself. But it is a long process. It will take a decade, maybe. But again, in this, I will give you the other counter: Initially when I started doing this, there was this angry young man thing within me. [My wife] Sangeetha [who is also a musician] tells me: “You see it very clearly. But [you must] realise that everybody else does not see it so clearly.” Therefore, there was a disconnect of perceptions. But I think, over the years, there has been some change. People who were extremely critical of me four years ago are now sending me some of the nicest emails. They may not share my perceptions, but they recognise that something is being said here and that there’s some value to the experience. If you are willing to undergo the experience, you will find that the discomfort is irrelevant.

Not a service provider

In many of your kutcheris, you have said that you are not singing for the audience. That you are on the stage for the music. One criticism that I have come across is that you are trying to be cute on stage. Do you ever intend putting an end to this?

[Laughs.] Recently, a friend told me, “Don’t talk. Just sing. Anyway, what you are singing says it. Why do you want to say it?” That is fair criticism.

But that’s always a tough call. At one level, you are asking me to just sing. At another level, you are saying that perhaps I need to say a few words about what I am trying to do. It is a tough one. Some days I say it because I just want to say it. I don’t process it in my head. I just feel it has to be said.

When a beautiful thing is happening, everybody will applaud. I am like, “Can you guys keep quiet? Don’t kill it.” I’ve said it.

On the criticism that I really don’t care about the audience. I have said this many times, and I don’t regret it. I am not saying this out of disrespect. I am not a service provider. I am saying that I am not here to provide you a good evening where you can go back home, have two whiskeys and then sleep. No. This art form is not that. I am not saying that other art forms are any lesser, though. I also watch Shah Rukh Khan films, I also go to Carnatic music concerts.

The interaction for all of us is with the music that is being received. Our focus is the experience of the music that is happening. Be vulnerable for those two to three hours, give yourself up to the music. That is all we need to do. I don’t care if there are two people sitting in front of me, or if there are 1,000 people. But I respect the human being. I also have respect for the ability to giving yourself up to share that experience. Just because you bought a ticket, you have not bought a service from me. Sorry.

Critical insider

The world of Carnatic music has increasingly become Brahminised. This has not happened today. When the focus shifted from ragam to sahityam, the access shifted from having an ear for music, which any person of any caste or gender or economic status can have, to having literacy in Sanskrit and Telugu and later Tamil. Access to schooling was restricted to the upper castes those days. This process was reinforced with development, leading to the migration of the educated [upper caste] villager to the towns, where he replaced the temple precincts and the maidans with the sabha. The temple and the maidan were public spaces, the sabha was always a private place created by the upper-caste migrant. You, T.M. Krishna, are a product of the Brahmin aristocracy and have benefited vastly from those connections. Should you not, therefore, acknowledge where your roots lie while seeking to make your audience more open and inclusive?

I think I have. If I haven’t, I am sorry. I don’t think I have ever negated the fact that I belong to the Alwarpet-Mylapore aristocracy of Madras. I am not going to run away from it. But I am also not going to be non-critical of it. This is an accusation I hear from the middle class, my community, “You are kicking the ladder. You benefited from it.” This is like saying that I can’t be critical of the person who voted for me. This is ridiculous. Of course, I benefited from them and I am in a position to ask these questions only because this whole community kind of rallied around me. But let’s also be honest, I had some talent.

The point I am making is that an insider should be reflective. I am not the first person raising these questions. The problem is that the people who have raised these questions have always been on the outside. Nobody cared about them. Now I am being told that as an insider I should not raise these uncomfortable questions. So, basically, everyone demands status quo. How convenient.

Fifteen years ago, I didn’t care about these questions. I never thought about these things. The interviews I had given in 1997 or thereabouts are as elitist and as problematic for me now. As I have grown I have reflected and asked questions about myself. All these emanate from what the music has given me.

This is not about removing the sacred thread and throwing it away. That act does not take away from me what I am. But I have to always look within. I am a Brahmin, privileged, upper class and English-speaking. My elitism has not gone away anywhere. It exists still in me. I am not cleansed of all this. But I should be aware that it exists in me. But if you don’t reflect on who you are, then there is no point of this existence.

There is, of course, the larger question of what shapes an artiste and where the limits of artistic freedoms lie. This is very important in today’s context of shrinking space for dissent. There is also the danger of being labelled anti-national. For an artiste, is it important to remain acceptable to all sections of society, lest he or she becomes a target?

The world of classical artists in India does not care a damn about politics. This is not really true in the West. If you look at the history of Western classical music you find that classical musicians have taken strong political positions. But in this country, generally, classical musicians have remained subservient to political structures. The fact is that artistes are always after national awards and therefore, depending on which government is in power, they flow with the tide. That has been the unfortunate truth.

The writers here have not been like that. That’s where the functionality of the art influences the artist. I’m digressing a bit. See, theatre and writing deal with sociopolitical issues directly. Musicians of the so-called classical schools do not deal with sociopolitics. They believe they are dealing with “that which is beyond”—the divine. For the classical world in India, that is Hindustani and Carnatic, sab naad ki baath hai…. Sab oopervaley ki baath hai. They belong to a different stratosphere.

What does this basically mean? You are saying you are above all these gross jatiwadi discussions. So, the moment you place yourselves there, you believe, or you create an aura that by discussing these things, you are making yourself banal. This is also a kind of elitism. Spiritual elitism.

You do not want to address the actual real-life problems. But now, it is taking a different twist. Because of the rise of the ugly Hindu-Indian homogenisation and the fact that classical musicians are always religiously connected, in the name of being proactive politically, we are fanning in the classical world a covert upsurge of the Hindutva coefficient, which remained dormant for long. This has to be watched.

I am not going to make a binary of the religious and the secular. It’s all grey because belief systems are nuanced. Now you have classical musicians talking openly about dharma. They are not being political. See, dharma is very easy to talk about because we musicians exploit the words and life stories of Tyagaraja, Dikshitar, Shyama Sastri, Purandara Dasa and others to maintain a religious and spiritual aura about our art.

So, we are using a political situation to reinforce [the point] that we are still beyond situational reality. We do not want to dirty our feet or recognise the darkness within. I am not saying everyone must become social or political activists. I think we all should start walking barefoot on the road.Art is about what is around us. If we do not feel what is around us, what are we creating? This is not about being communist or secular. This is about being a human being.