At the centre of a heating debate on aspects integral to Carnatic music, is noted singer T M Krishna. Ideas propelled in the controversy pose a potential threat to the rich tradition.
The Margazhi music season is here. One cannot help but feel uneasy given the recent controversy that gripped the Carnatic music community. The controversy has given rise to some very important questions, which, until now, have lurked in the shadows, largely unaddressed. Earlier this year, a few well-known musicians from the Carnatic traditions faced accusations of being party to cultural appropriation of the art by Evangelicals. More recently, several prominent artistes in the music and entertainment industry were accused of sexual impropriety as part of the #metoo movement. In light of these circumstances, it is vital that the community as a whole comes together to understand agendas and confront these issues, for, it is of utmost importance that we acclimatise ourselves to current socio-political rumblings and learn from our failings going forward.
The Carnatic music scene is no stranger to controversy. Some of the ideas expressed by artistes in the recent times play a role in how they establish themselves on the circuit. In recent times, noted artistes, such as renowned vocalist T M Krishna, have begun to talk of casteism, or “Brahmanism”. It is also Krishna’s belief that the Carnatic music classroom is “a caste-specific cultural space”, where “girls almost always had to be dressed in salwar-kameez or what we call pavadai-davani” and “the pottu (bindi) is an absolute must”. He laments the fact that the picture of Mariamman, whom he refers to as a “non upper-caste goddess”, would never be found hanging on the wall of a Carnatic musician’s home. All these, says Krishna, inevitably lead us to the conclusion that “Karnatic music is, in their minds, Hindu — Brahmin — music”.
A great difficulty I have with this sort of logic, if it can be called as such, is the mind-numbing arbitrariness of the connection drawn between elements of Indian and Hindu culture with Brahmanism (lets ignore the frivolity of that term for now). I find it exceedingly perplexing to see how one concludes — from pictures of some gods being displayed in a music teacher’s house to wearing Indian clothing — that “Brahmanism has closed the doors of Carnatic music to the rest of society”. Moreover, the predominant place of an ishta devta and its significance in a person’s life is completely disregarded, quite callously. It seems almost as if the approach in writing this was to work backwards from a predetermined conclusion (that Carnatic music has power structures and is plagued by Brahmanism, and hence needs to be destroyed at the very core). This would explain the multitude of logical leaps taken and arbitrary connections drawn between the trivialities of what some music students wear, and the very damning accusation, that there is a conscious exclusion of a large portion of society from the field. Visit any Western classical concert hall and you will find the musicians clad in black formals and the audience members almost all over the age of 65. I guess I’m supposed to conclude that Western classical music is subject to the hegemony of tuxedo-wearers and senior citizens. To me, it seems that literature such as this is written with the sole intent of arriving at a presupposed conclusion, whatever the means and it shows.
Now, let us look at Krishna’s accusations and address whether or not the accusation that he makes is true. To summarise, the allegation is that discussions about Carnatic music often revolve around “deities, rituals, Brahmin festivals, tantric practices and the sainthood of the great vaggeyakaras (composers)”, and that “listening to a Carnatic concert is […] a complete Brahmin brainwashing package”. This is, of course, a loaded assertion, and I believe the best way to do it justice is to recontextualise it. If we were to take a look at most forms of music — from hip hop and classical jazz to qawwali, all of them are rooted in some form of culture because music, art and culture are inseparable. Cultural circumstances are what shape art. Most expressions of human creativity are in response to their surroundings, so to vilify the entire Carnatic community for keeping culture and music close is pure silliness. There is an undeniable connection that exists between art and culture that allows both to flourish.
What Krishna seems to want is to disrupt the norm of Carnatic music and make it a “platform for social, cultural and political views”. While I think bringing the discussion of social issues into the musical discourse is important, it is equally, if not more, pertinent to prevent that discussion from taking over the discourse entirely. Take Krishna’s gripe — that a disproportionately less number of non-Brahmins take up Carnatic music, and that more ought to. He attributes it to the fact that certain “subliminal social barriers exist”. This, like many of his previous arguments, seems more apophenic than anything else. Could the answer to this issue merely be that the majority of musically-inclined people in Tamil Nadu simply don’t find the aesthetics of Carnatic music appealing? Ironically, by suggesting that more “non-Brahmin” music lovers would be turning to Carnatic music if it weren’t for the Brahmins, we are assuming that the culture of Carnatic music is so elevated, that somehow, everyone desires to be a part of it but cannot. It is almost as if Krishna’s outcries are a subconscious admission that he sees Carnatic music and other things often associated with “Brahmin culture” as superior when compared to their cultural counterparts. Here’s a novel idea: maybe others don’t see Carnatic music the same way Carnatic musicians and rasikas do. Every musical form, be it Carnatic, folk or Hindustani, appeals to those who identify with it and who revel in the experience that particular type of music brings. So, to say Carnatic music has been upheld by Brahmins solely for Brahmins, is ludicrous.
The current ideological turmoil in Western academia serves as a unique case study in giving perspective on the issues that the Carnatic music community is facing. In the West, especially in university campuses, there has been much debate on what many see as years of neo-Marxist and postmodernist indoctrination, especially in the humanities. Hearing Krishna’s liberal use of terms like “socio-cultural dogma”, “hierarchies”, “Brahmin privilege”, “patriarchy” and “male power structures”, I cannot help but be reminded of postmodernist theory. Propounded by French thinkers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, postmodernism preaches that knowledge, including scientific reasoning and societal norm, are means of creating hierarchies to exercise social control and objectification.
The problem with this ideology, according to intellectuals like Dr Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto and a best-selling author, is that the postmodernist views are based solely on group identity. The individual has no place in such a landscape. The fundamental narrative is that the only dynamic that exists in society is a perpetual fight for rights in a battle of the oppressor versus the oppressed. Dr Peterson believes that this combative attitude is dangerous for a society, for social hierarchies are inevitable; when different individuals with different skill sets pursue a certain ‘value’ in society, a natural pecking order ensues. An enlightened society learns to manage these hierarchies to ensure they don’t become tyrannical as opposed to destroying these hierarchies altogether.
Dr Peterson also stresses the fact that a society ought not to be built on equality of outcome, but rather, on equality of conditions if it is to be successful without turning violent or ‘tribal’ as he calls it. Equality of conditions is where barriers to entry are eliminated or minimised and everyone is provided equal opportunity to the extent, which is realistically possible. What an individual chooses to do thereafter is completely based upon his or her capacity. As the famed nineteenth century philosopher Alexander Tocqueville put it in his magnum opus, Democracy in America, “I readily discovered the prodigious influence which this primary fact (equality of conditions) exercises on the whole course of society [..] it creates opinions, engenders sentiments, suggests the ordinary practices of life, and modifies whatever it does not produce.”
When Krishna protests the fact that Carnatic music is practised by only people of a certain cultural background, he is arguing for equality of outcome as opposed to equality of conditions. There is a very important difference between the two. Equality of outcome involves manipulating the outcome of any process and distributing its results among people, based not on individual capability, but on some other arbitrary parameter based on group identity. The problem with this idea, according to Dr Peterson, is this artificial imposition of what a handful of people believe to be equitable and just destroys competence of any society, and makes it susceptible to violence – nothing exemplifies this better than the gory effect of Marxism on the Soviet Union.
Dr Peterson agrees that equality of conditions and the gradation that it creates is the optimal outcome of any social process. At the same time, he believes that the said hierarchy should be managed because if left unchecked, it can tip the balance and give rise to tyranny. That’s where phenomena like the #metoo movement play a critical role – to make sure that top of the hierarchy doesn’t get too reckless and abuse power. While conservatism’s proclivity is towards creating value within an existing ecosystem, the liberal mindset is to be a watchdog against the abuse of power. There, thus, is a delicate symbiosis that exists between the two modes of thought.
It is important to recognise that a balance is necessary and not to get carried away. For example, in an interview with firstpost.com, Krishna describes the guru-shishya parampara as a “convenient platform for abuse of various forms”. Here, it is important to recognise that the problem lies with a few people, not with the culture or in this case the entire guru-shishya parampara. To brand an ancient tradition of knowledge transfer that has proved itself over time in preserving the integrity of knowledge systems, as the sole cause of sexual harassment, is bizarre.
I think Krishna’s criminalisation of what he sees as the prevalent culture, that is so integral to Carnatic music culture, poses the very same dangers that he laments. By denigrating traditional dress codes and pictures of deities on walls as ‘Brahmanical tyranny’, Krishna is introducing dangerous ideas that have the potential to greatly damage the legacy of Carnatic music. There seems to be an underlying urge to create interpretations of hierarchy, group identity and power structures for the simple reason, that it fits a desired narrative, where there was, previously, no room for it. This is a prime example of the sort of confirmation bias that characterises these sorts of arguments — they are grounded, solely, on preconceived notions. It is, thus, very important that the rasikas make informed judgements when it comes to these matters. The very future of a tradition is on the line.