Interview: T.M. Krishna

‘It began in Gujarat’

Print edition : April 12, 2019

T.M. Krishna. Photo: K. Pichumani

Interview with the Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna.

When the Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna sang at the Garden of Five Senses in south Delhi on November 17, 2018, it was not merely a performance that music lovers came to enjoy; he was also making a statement. As Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal pointed out before the concert: “You all have come today. Enjoy the music, but you coming here today is a big statement that this country belongs to all—Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists. It belongs to Tamilians, Malayalis, Gujaratis, Marathis, Haryanvis and Punjabis.”

Krishna’s concert for that weekend for the Airports Authority of India (AAI) and the Society for the Promotion of Indian Classical Music And Culture Amongst Youth (SPIC MACAY) in New Delhi was cancelled by the organisers after right-wing trolls targeted him. Krishna demonstrated that he would not take it lying down. Here, he talks about the Delhi show and the attack on cultural spaces. Excerpts from the interview.

Who ordered the cancellation of the show? Were you given a reason?

The concert was scheduled for November 17 [2018], and it was part of a series that SPIC MACAY had organised. It was sponsored by the AAI, which pulled the plug on it at the last minute. The Indian Express had got wind of it, and I got a call from the paper asking me for a response and I said that I was willing to come and sing anywhere in Delhi on the same day. As a response to this, many people from Delhi offered their offices, their homes, street corners… it was quite an overwhelming response. By midday the next day, I got a call from Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia’s office that the Delhi government would like to host a concert on the very same day. I think what they did was quite beautiful. There was no word from the AAI or from anyone [in the government]. After the SPIC MACAY event was publicised, the trolling of the AAI started, and the organisers told me initially that the AAI was not going to back off. They said: “Don’t worry, go ahead, we will provide extra security.” Everything changed dramatically in an hour one evening [in which they cancelled the concert]. No reason has been given until today. All they said was that they had urgent work. This was purely an excuse because the AAI was not involved in organising it. All the organisation was by SPIC MACAY.

How do you see cultural icons being forced into silence, even artists such as Amol Palekar?

Amol was publicly reprimanded. It was a very ugly incident.

Do you see all these incidents feeding into each other to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation?

India is not new to censorship or curtailing the rights of artists and creative persons; there have been umpteen examples in the past. But the fact is that there is an accentuation of this phenomenon. I think it also comes from what is happening in society today, from the level of hatred, anger and free-for-all [violence] that is being encouraged…. We have to say this bluntly. This is being encouraged by Mr Modi’s government and all its tentacles. This has changed the whole nature [of society]. Social media, which has become widely popular in India in the past decade, has become such an effective tool to scare people. Also, bureaucrats are always on tenterhooks about it. They are like “we don’t want trouble”.

There are two things. You are either being attacked for what you express or you are an organiser or something with this government, you choose the safe way out saying, “I don’t want trouble.” This is a kind of fear. In the government, bureaucrats and people in power are being watched to see if there is any criticism of the government or Mr Modi. As an artist, too, you may choose to play it safe. The greatest way to perpetrate fear is to call for a state of self-censorship. And that is effectively being done.

How did we get to this state of living in fear for what we express? Is it because of Modi or was there an acceptance of this already in large sections of society?

It is not Mr Modi who has caused this. Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party [BJP] have used it. There is a fundamental problem in our society. There has always been a feudal mindset within which gender discrimination, caste discrimination and all such things operate. Unless you come from a marginalised section that needs to shout and scream and fight to make itself heard, you are not interested in any sort of engagement.

Nobody else wants to engage as political beings. The moment this happens, there are two things that people do: either they come to a point of saying [in Tamil] “enakku edhukkuda indha vambu?” [Why should I get into trouble?], or they subscribe to jingoistic ideas of nationalism. Their sense of becoming political beings is a narcissistic, jingoistic one, which then becomes a violent tool. The BJP has taken brilliant advantage of this.

Does this whole project begin in Gujarat? Is this the Gujarat model that is being implemented across India?

Definitely. I think you have a very valid point. I think this tenor definitely began in Gujarat. This tenor and this whole discourse was successfully demonstrated and executed in Gujarat. Even before social media, they convinced the world that Gujarat was this great developed place. The amazing power [of publicity] has made it possible for people to even forget that 2002 [Gujarat pogrom] happened. To erase that and to actually replace it with this model of economic development means that you are not only erasing the event, you are trying to erase the existence of a community.

How does the “us and them” theory that is used to spread hate work in the field of culture? Who is “them”?

The fact is that we are all primarily cultural people. All our identities, including gender, are designed by the idea of culture—by habit, by ritual and by what we do—and a performing art or any form of art is only a creative manifestation of that. Depending on the hierarchy of your existence, where your art form is located, you are representing something. If you represent what the Hindutva brigade believes is the idea of Hindu, then you are a tool of propaganda and you succumb completely to it. If you question it, you are a betrayer. Then you become the other automatically. In fact, you are worse than the other at some level.

At this stage of a deep divide in society, what is the way forward? Is a communication process better or should there be some kind of a healing? How can you communicate with someone that hatred is against humanity? Is that even possible?

Very tough question. At this point of time, where we are today, I don’t know if people even recognise that what they are doing is spreading hatred because they seem to recognise this as Indian-ness. As re-establishing some glory. The problem is, how do you make a person realise that this is hatred? I am not sure if it is possible at this stage unless the whole scenario in some way shifts a bit.

Is it possible to do this at least in the narrow and defined spaces of art and culture so that people understand that Hindu and Hindutva are not the same thing? That hate will only destroy?

I think that is possible through creative engagement. That I agree. It is possible to some extent by bringing artists together, by bringing different conversations together. Let me put it this way: it is possible to at least engage in that conversation, whether or not it achieves any kind of healing.

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