Reviewed by Vidya Acharya
Title: Reshaping Art
Author: T.M. Krishna
Publisher: Aleph Book Company
Pages: 128 (Hardcover)
T.M. Krishna is a popular performing Karnatik musician – a vocalist and a musical maverick. An icon of our times, he is known for his socialistic turn of mind, which he wears on his sleeve and has, on several instances, stormed the Brahmanical Bastille of traditional classical Karnatik music.
Reshaping Art is a sociological study on the evolution and appropriation of various forms of art – particularly music in India and how it has been withheld by its blue-blooded masters from those less privileged due to economic and social circumstance. TMK has, through his own projects, sought to reverse this deprivation. He has based his work and writings on the optimism that certain communities can be uplifted by the simple act of their inclusion in enriching opportunities in Art, such as in Karnatik music, a field that has been held almost exclusively by a coterie of upper caste musicians of the Chennai region. He assumes that the best and most efficacious first step would be to invite such seekers of Art into concerts that are accessible and will eventually permeate society.
The premise to the discussion is that music and art are nascent to the human existence. As higher-level beings, we are meant to emote and express in refined, often tangible forms; it is vital to some of us, but not to all. A slim volume of 107 pages, Reshaping Art is a thought provoking study of the author’s efforts and philosophy, mainly towards Karnatik music.
Although the entire gamut of Art forms is included in TMK’s discussion, the book is a sophisticated treatise specifically on how and why he believes Karnatik music must be democratised in the region of its practice and immense popularity, and is an enriching read for followers of classical and contemporary music in India. It will prompt the reader to ponder on his/her own potential in participating in social upliftment as a catalyst, or, alternately, as an active absorber of the music.
Music and art is a deliberate expression of the human intellect; therefore, it is also to be shared universally by the collective consciousness of humankind. Once created and given form, Art is most certainly a separate entity from its creator. It is abroad, cosmic, and can be gleaned and absorbed by its seeker. We perceive it emotionally when we encounter it, even though we are physically detached from it, outside from its realm. The narrative of the book is a testimony to the author’s belief that no single community or clique can profess to be the sole custodian of art forms or the manifestations of the forms of Art although it may ostensibly be bequeathed upon them, by birth or acquisition.
In the latter half of the book, the author dwells elaborately on the concept of why all Art forms are created in the spirit of sharing, hence being elevated to an existence beyond its current form. Purists of course will be concerned with the loss of defined identities of developed Art forms that are not organic and therefore perhaps difficult to acquire.
TMK artfully leverages his own erudition and prestige in Karnatik music to fashion a change in our generation, to create a democracy called Art. In the early chapters, the author describes Art as mystical, as an essence of Life, not a copy of Life. It distils within us the sublime and the real. A painting or a stage play may captivate us; it may draw us within in complete empathy. The audience emotes with the objects although they perceive themselves as ‘outside’ and separate from the presentation; they ‘achieve selflessness’ in the presence of Art.
TMK delves into several theories surrounding the evolution of Art. Worldwide, our experience with Art is limited and restricted by our socio-cultural context. In the past and present, Art has been fostered and patronized by the prosperous and the powerful. As a result, sometimes artistes found themselves unduly beholden. In a parallel conundrum, artistes of great virtuosity and repute have been celebrated in influential corridors by connoisseurs of the art form. However, history bears witness to the power of Art itself, a result of an outburst from oppressed artistes of humble origins. Such waves of social upheavals often mark great pillars in our intellectual evolution. Literary and folk artistes often have spearheaded such revolutionary social changes. Some of India’s art and music are evidence that artistic radiance liberates us from the drudgery of mundane traditional human activities. Walls adorned with Madhubani art, kolam, other regional art forms, folk music and dances, all embody the connect between Life and Art.
Highbrow casteism in Art is a reality. It assumes a superior air and creates discrimination between the economic and intellectual haves versus have-nots. Art is not yet as universal as it can and should be. It closes the doors on the basis of religion, colour, gender and the ‘hierarchical ladder’ of caste.
TMK espouses the framework expounded by Dr B.R. Ambedkar. He introduces culture and art as another equalizing dimension, extending equal opportunity to Dalits in all spheres of sociocultural citizenry. The pursuit and achievement of certain Art has until now been guarded by higher caste Hindus as their prerogative and privilege. TMK strives to upturn such exclusivity. He discusses the worldwide pervasiveness of closed cultural opportunity on religious and racial lines. It is perhaps entrenched in our collective psyche. We as a society are able to perceive the marginalization of minorities in the socio-economic sphere and the resultant cultural deprivations but are reluctant or sluggish to effectively address the matter.
Reshaping Art cites several examples of different Indian communities as per their identity in the cultural ethos of the nation itself; it discusses at length the homogenization of these identities, weaving the disparate cultural threads into a single tapestry. Globally, many forms of Art fade into obscurity or are revived in erratic waves. Intermittently, the spotlight shifts the focus onto celebrating cultural diversities. TMK presents a case study about the Devadasis, a community of women who were former preservers of music and artistic dance but later found themselves stigmatized and in a diminished status while their art was wrested from them. He discusses an era where most women artistes were relegated to a secondary role in the arts. Subsequently there has been an emergence of women centric story telling in contemporary stage art forms. We see a detailed research into how the classical Indian Art forms, especially music, migrate into highbrow circles, as is evident in Chennai. Even mythological poetic renditions of the Ramayana have been filtered to portray what the upper castes considered a favourable representation of the pantheon of Hindu deities.
He presents the spectrum of art avenues wherein an implicit dominance of the ‘upper and middle caste’ is perceptible. There is apparently a negligible representation of Dalit issues or artistes. Music itself is all-pervasive and engulfs many aspects of Life – from the profound to the unapologetically ‘profane’. This is found in the lyrics and rhythms of Gana music of the Dalits in slums of Chennai. Sometimes tribal art forms are given a different hue, a commercialized avatar which completely misrepresents the original visceral emotion, the intent of their composers. In other instances, the art form is scornfully rejected as being indicative of a lower caste, such as the Paraiattam dance form.
For the high caste Brahmin, the tutelage of Karnatik music is almost an assumed birthright, as undeniable and natural as breath. The regimen of dress and manner attached to this sub-culture created a cocoon of exclusivity and often shut out all other religions and castes. Even the presiding deities revered in the lyrics and adorning classroom precincts belong to higher levels of divine hierarchy. TMK presents his views on how the proceedings/ symbolism adopted by musicians on a Karnatik music concert dais create an aura of privilege and superiority over the audience.
He maps his own meteoric rise and success as a Karnatik vocalist in the upper echelons of classical concert circuits in Chennai and overseas and traces his refinement and awakening towards a greater musical freedom beyond traditional constructs.
A great part of the book analyses TMK’s involvement and discontent with the restricting experience of Art in its traditionality. He develops a philosophy of how music can be enriched with its wider practice, and how it may collapse when existing pillars cease to be in place. Throughout the book, he proposes that Art should be unfettered, released from its elitist confines and pretences. It should be propagated to inspire and transform people and audiences. He is an avid proponent for the revival of non-religious forms of Karnatik music, which are in danger of being lost due to the narrow Brahmanical sensibilities of appropriateness for puritanical audiences.
He is of the opinion that Art, like the natural elements and pristine environs, is common asset – Poromboku – and must be freely accessible to all who strive for and seek it. This concept must be discussed by readers in socialist terms as to what extent refined Art , as also the elements of Nature, can be shared to benefit many, yet be protected to keep intact the purity and perpetuity of that asset.
Poromboku – the sharing of the benevolent gifts of art and nature is indeed a very noble intent if there can be a safeguard for the intrinsic identity of the composed forms such as in classical music and the fine arts. That form deserves to remain sheltered from degradation or erosion and to correspondingly keep the undiluted and unique nuances and complexity of the specific arts.
The book discusses the famous Urur Olcott Kuppam project – TMK’s initiative to bring secularism and inclusiveness into the corridors of Karnatik music – at length. It was a radical idea to bring concerts out of closed venues and out into unconventional, open, rustic locales. In the context of amalgamation of Art forms, such as genres of music, audiences have to realize that what TMK proposes in the introduction of collaborative, inclusive music will probably cause the transition into a new creation. The transformation of styles and experimentation with alternative venues is certainly a creation of a new and separate generation of the Art and its presenters. The project and initiatives surrounding it of course had vehement critics and detractors. TMK’s reactions and relevant arguments invite readers of this book to sit up and actively wield their music as a means for democratic and collective escalation of societies.
Blurring identity and divisive lines, actively popularizing Art and its meaning, TMK seeks to rock the boat of all forms of Art which has been out of reach for certain sections of society in India. In dwelling on the potency of Art to elevate humankind through application in pedagogy, social conscience, economic progress, intellectual development, political ethics and enriched learning at all levels, TMK aspires to be the champion and crusader of the cause of Art for all.
Readers and musicians obviously realize that the learning of music is a sense that cannot, certainly should not, be extended as charity towards incidental receivers. It is either inherited via the ambience, or it is sought out and earned with great perseverance. Much effort and devotion go into even a gifted vocalist’s renditions – the blessing of an enchanting voice can only be a medium to bring fruition to the classical music forms, parallels for other genres of Art as well.
Rehaping Art is highly recommended for readers who also hold an interest in the power of music and the arts as a socially enriching device in the contemporary scenario where artificially created cultural lanes separate potential enthusiasts.
TMK has not discussed some realities in the book, which might play a dynamic role in the inclusion/exclusion of marginalised communities in the Arts. In a life that operates on a hierarchy of needs, do all persons have the economic means to achieve basic human well-being? Only such a community and its members can realise social pride and thereafter the aspiration to be able to reach for the next level of cultural emancipation and recognition in the fine Arts.
We can also speculate on whether such communities already feel a sense of propriety, pride and belonging to their own indigenous Art forms. Such an Art form is always evolving within communities across generations; we see its manifestations in different regions of the country and the world. Activists such as TMK obviously can be a great catalyst for such hidden melodies and sculptures. These forms of Art will thrive if showcased, celebrated and respected by a spectrum of audiences. This would be the extension of TMK’s philosophy of drawing out the Arts from their usual confines – of sharing them.
Lastly, readers of this book might consider some of TMK’s efforts and projects in absolute grass root terms. Do the under privileged communities of his concern actually have access to the classes, exhibits, performances of the Art so as to inspire talented seekers who would then attempt to acquire its learning for themselves? This is probably the sharpest role that TMK plays on the entire stage. He campaigns to keep open the gates to the learning and realisations of Art. Through the book, he advocates to release the gentle waters of exquisite and refined art forms and let them flow to all who wish to be engulfed in the bounty.
Vidya Acharya lives in Bangalore with her family. After a Masters degree and brief career in business and information systems, she has chosen to immerse once again in her heart’s true interests, music and literary pursuits. She plays the violin and believes in lifelong learning.