It was Mylapore and TAG centre at that. Ground zero of classical Carnatic fans, steeped in tradition and upper class sensibilities in arts. And there was a poet who had to face severe protests for his fictional portrayal of a traditional at the Ardhanareeswara temple in Tiruchengode in his novel Madorubagam (one part woman). He had to sign an unconditional apology in front of the police and withdraw all copies of the novel. He had, in fact, announced on his Facebook page in January 2015 that he was giving up writing and proclaimed, “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone.” Some people were of the opinion that the controversy was not so much the content but the fact that he had married a Dalit woman.
The Madras High Court dismissed the litigations that had been filed against Madorubagam, saying there was no binding force or obligation in the previous state intervention that forced him to apologise and withdraw the books. The court further directed the state to provide appropriate protection when artistic or literary people come under attack, and to form an expert body to help guide the police and local administration to develop sensitivity to the issues involved. Perumal Murugan returned to his literary career with a robust collection of poetry.
Here he was, hosted by the Prakriti Foundation at its annual “Poetry with Prakriti” festival with a new collection of poems in the form of keertanas and they were all being sung in the Carnatic classical format by one of the most celebrated young musicians, TM Krishna. Krishna, fresh from a controversy after his talk on “Culture and Community”, had outraged the classical Carnatic music community. He sang in a most delightful Carnatic form, content that had nothing to do with the Gods. Krishna had requested Perumal Murugan to write keertanas with local dialect of Kongu region where he hails from and to topics like the palm tree, water, fire etc. There was one love song to finish with.
What a combination. An ostracised poet and a musician so outspoken that he has not left untouched any topic of public concern to give his opinions on. Such audacity in someone so young!
Krishna shocks his world of Carnatic music using the very story that the community has constructed. He poses to it an immensely daunting challenge compelling it to question itself. He had debuted as a classical vocalist at the age of 12 at the Madras Music Academy, the Mecca of music. As he grew, his concerts drew large crowds and his confidence grew. He began to question himself and his milieu, getting right wingers into a flutter. He stayed away from the hallowed December music season of Madras, going to concerts instead of singing. He began to build bridges, first with a book on senior musicians he co-wrote with Bombay Jayashree, and then the Svanubhava experience for college and school students of classical and folk arts again started with Bombay Jayashree, but continued solo with his own students and volunteers. Then came the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha that showcased classical arts in fishing village on the beach and then, he began collaborations with the transgender Jogappas of Karnataka, now with Perumal Murugan.
The classical music world began to spew venom on him when the Deccan Chronicle gave a sensational heading to the report on his talk “Community and Culture” at the launch of the Telugu translation.
He speaks without moderating or masking reality in any way. He locates himself firmly within the community and confronts and stirs it like an outsider. He offers his own interpretation of socio-cultural equations with larger communities and the upper-class dominated classical music. Pushing this into sharp focus has already infuriated his community and then comes this talk which analyses the Goddess of Carnatic music MS Subbulakshmi. He believes her voice had a rich spontaneity to it pre-marriage and after it was curated with Sanskritised Bhakthi songs, it lost that spontaneity and her singing became tinged with a pain. This made Subbulakshmi extraordinary in her singing and he goes on to say, “No one can stir our hearts with music like MS Subbulkashmi can.”
Krishna gave his talk distinctive shades of meaning, features and qualities of his own but then, they are political and seen by many as being super-realistic and hence disliked by those who live by their music alone. They see him as a manipulator for bigger chunk of media attention while several see no reason he should seek that. Being outraged and being sensitive is of course now our national pastime and why would the conservative classical music world not be outraged by a fellow musician who has completely freed himself of routine, conventional repertoire, conventional programming yet draws such huge crowds?
TM Krishna’s music aesthetic, completely wired into building impossible bridges with deep empathy, can perhaps be the project to get his listeners to have an experience of Jagrutasamadhi.