The most socially and politically disconnected cinema is Bollywood.
When THODUR MADABUSI KRISHNA was a kid, he was one who was not hesitant of singing in front of any audience when asked to perform by his parents or teacher, for he probably knew that both his understanding of music and the quality of his voice were good. The kid was right. And now T.M. Krishna, aka TMK, as the world of music — Carnatic music — knows, that child has matured as an angry young public intellectual who knows what is good for society and is doing whatever he may. I wanted to have a conversation with TMK since the last couple of months but he, an activist-singer, is doing so many things all the time, and is a very busy man. Though he was ready for a telephonic conversation, talking on the phone lacks the human warmth which is a must for any open conversation for me. So we both did wait for the right opportunity, which arrived when he visited Delhi to give a lecture. The weather god was also welcoming him, cooling the long spell of 40-45 degrees that the city was facing since the last two weeks to better weather as he would’ve landed in the capital. This made it possible for us to sit in the open space of the India International Centre with the sound of the fountain water as the background music. I wanted to have this conversation in his Chennai home and was surprised when TMK said that he has just shifted to a new house. Here’s the conversation TMK had with BHARAT S. TIWARI:
Yes. I have shifted away from the city, closer to the sea. It’s a beautiful old house with a small garden. Even when you are not a part of the city noise, you remain attached to it. The psychological sense of constant activities, movement gets ingrained in you. I like getting detached. Somehow when you physically move away from a city, you psychologically feel detached from it. You feel as if you have more space. The collectiveness of us as humanity becomes clearer, for a while. Moving away from the city makes you feel: “arre yaar you can breathe”. We don’t breathe — one of the most important things that we should do — we take the air. It is a must for the artiste in me to have the blank slate-like mind. I’ll run to the mountains to get it, and now, thanks to the new arrangements of my daughter’s school and some privileges, I can live in this new home. some minutes walk to the sea. It is good to not live in a gated community anymore, though there’s one close to my house. It is good to live with different types of people.
Where were you born?
Chennai. I correct — I was born in Madras. I am a complete Madras-bred person and now they call me (laughs) “Chennai-vasi”. Moving from Madras to Chennai was hard initially but now — it’s been 15-20 years — it’s fine. Metaphorically, Madras and Chennai have different meanings. Madras to me is not a place, it is an imagery of the time where I am a young adult getting drunk at 1 o’clock at East-Coast Road wanting another beer.
What about Madras and your music? Any connection?
In the musical world, Madras has imageries of concerts, of the great stalwarts I heard, of the D.K. Pattammal concert that I heard sitting on the stairs of the Music Academy’s balcony, and came out crying though I don’t know why — I was 14, listening to young musicians, having debates on ragas with my colleagues. Going from one “sabha” to another we would challenge each other to perform a certain raga for 10 minutes. So when you change the name of a city you must know that it is not just the name, it is memories.
When people change the name they are trying to erase memories. You can’t take away the Madras from Chennai, I transformed here. But I am as much a Chennai person as I am a Madras person. This is how we should keep our memory — not taking out anything — one learns from the other and unlearns from the other.
Unlearning is a hard conscious effort. If I want to sing a certain song differently that I have been singing in a certain style for ten years, it is almost impossible, and to be able to do it, I’ll have to unlearn it first.
Are we getting trained to learn unlearning?
Unlearning is not forgetting, it is realising. But the idea of loading more things on you is to forget. To push it so down that you are not engaging with it. And we love to push those things down that we are not able to engage with, be it about ourselves or about information. We keep loading over it to the point that we think that it doesn’t exist.
To unlearn something you have to first accept the existence of it. It needs to get picked up, understood, grappled with and dealt with. Once you have done it, you unlearn. Because we don’t want it to happen, we are not teaching it.
Are we getting loaded with information that is useless, not needed?
Our senses are being bombarded and the trigger points are not arbitrary. Our thoughts are being suppressed, erased — a confused state of mind. Then there will come a time when understanding is lost. If you contradict me, I want to change you using the dozens of available techniques to rubbish your opinion. Standing on this heap of lies, your truth is altered.
If I oppress you with enough violent and skewed realities that then becomes the the truth and your support system — deciding what you hold on to - accept or reject. When you are in the margins and vulnerable, by bombarding you — with “you have to remain there”, “you are after all a minority”, “you owe it to us” — I can suppress your courage, the ability to fight and to question, inculcating fear in you. I can create an abusive environment, making you nervous to say anything that is not politically correct. With your memories and experiences removed and consciousness gone, you become a robot.
Earliest memory of music?
As a child, I would sit with a stick as my tanpura while my mother was practicing music. I had gone for my admission in the fourth grade in “The School — KFI” and one of the teachers asked me, “Can you sing?”. I was never scared of singing. You ask me to sing and I will. When my singing was over they all looked shocked. I sang a “Tillana”!
And the first performance?
The Music Academy in Madras had just begun the “Spirit of Youth Music and Dance Series” to promote Carnatic music among the youth. The president of the academy asked my teacher if Krishna can sing. I was 12, never scared of the stage, practiced for months and the performance, raga Kamboji, was loved by the audience and got good reviews.
During the four weeks of the December Carnatic music season of Madras, my mother would give me money for the auto and tell me to go. I would listen to all the free performances, from morning until five in the evening, from one sabha to others, growing up in them, calling it “sabha-hopping”. I was getting trained organically. All this gave me time to nurture my craft. The sabha-hopping made me become friends with others who were into it — though they were senior to me. During the late 1980s and early 1990s there were not many youngsters singing Carnatic. Sitting pillion on a bike, discussing music. The community was getting built: Ours was the first generation. In the mid 1980s, it was not possible for young artists to get a chance to perform on stage: You had to be an old “Buddha” to sing Carnatic. So in 1985, we had the “Youth Association for Classical Music (YACM)” of which I was one of the earlier members. This revolution, the activism of YACM would only allow under-30s to perform on their stage. We started getting attention from organisers, and this started a youth revolution in Carnatic music. Today, there are far more people singing Carnatic music — four generations of them after me — than North Indian music. All the current superstars of Carnatic music, who incidentally are in their 40s to 50s, at some time were part of YACM’s grooming. This activism is yet, unfortunately, missing in Hindustani music, which is trapped within families, powerful people and mafias of a different sort.
Music is universal and democratic?
In its ideal, yes — but in reality, it is neither universal nor democratic. But in its seeking, it should be that, for all kinds of music and all kinds of art. For me: the profundity of experiencing art is an experience of democracy. It is experiencing sharing; experiencing freedom; experiencing sensitivity; empathy; and I believe those are the core elements of what democracy seeks. Just like democracy, art doesn’t exist in terms of the ideal, it exists among human beings. It is always a battle: You have to fight constantly for democracy and you have to fight constantly for art.
What is Bollywood?
What do you mean “what is Bollywood?”
That’s the question!
Among Indian cinema all over the country, today, the most socially and politically disconnected art is Bollywood. Other cinemas are far more connected, responsive and introspective about the realities of politics and society. Bollywood is a bubble that just does not engage and probably doesn’t want to engage with the realities of life — especially in this country. I don’t know because of that — if I should call it art. I think art that does not engage — in whatever subtle way — to the politics of your existence, to the socio-cultural aspects of your existence is not art. It was not always like this, but now, it has become worse.
Bollywood might not have anyone closer to a Girish Karnad but there are voices like Anurag Kashyap, for example?
These are outliers. If you see Tamil cinema, young people across the cast’s spectrum — making movies, giving multiple voices. These are rich in politics and social questions. Even a light, fun movie is layered. Marathi cinema also has it. We need this also in Bollywood cinema, which is feeding to a certain elitism, not willing to even reflect on the realities of life. Even the so-called feel good critical movies have vanished. Is it art at all? I doubt it.
To believe that the common person will not engage with it is lie. Tamil cinema is proof of it. I recently watched Super Deluxe, a thriller plot — not a social movie — but it has every layering in it from the nuances of culture to the cast, beautifully crafted by the director Thiagarajan Kumararaja. You watch Merku Thodarchi Malai — that is the Western Ghats. Anyone who wants to understand caste politics must watch Pariyerum Perumal. You — please watch it — it is on “Amazon Prime”. It is a fantastic movie. Fantastic! The movie is an understanding of the nuances of caste oppression from the dalit community’s point of view. These are some of the movies that are “doing well” at the box-office, asking difficult questions, changing the whole language of cinema.
Doing their duty?
Yes. They are doing what cinema should do. To counter what we are seeing around, there is a need for regionalism in this country.
Can a creative artist doing the translation of such movies make a difference?
Yes. What we call dubbing will not do it unless it is able to capture the feelings of the dialogues.
How can the Hindi speaking belt watch Tamil movies that in your view are relevant, fantastic?
Bollywood has destroyed every other form of cinema across the North-Northwestern belt of India, except Marathi cinema which has maintained its independence and seriousness. We will have to find ways of nurturing regional languages. Not just with theatre but with the whole idea of “making cinema”. The only way is: We have to see who is engaging in the making of cinema. And bring in diversity among the people who are making it and acting in it. Please note that in Tamil cinema, the whole idea of the “good looking” actor has been completely subverted. This is a very important aspect as it has challenged beauty, physicality. I think regional discourses are freer if they are provided with the wherewithal. In bollywood, Anurag Kashyap is a good example of a counter movement within but other than him, as you said, we have to think hard and yet we are unable to find a name.
Can we ask these Tamil moviemakers to do it for the North?
Highly possible. People like Anurag Kashyap can do it — he engages a lot with Tamil Cinema. Art can do some really interesting things but we need a reawakening — we have to find ways of pushing these dialogues, without directly making it party politics in any fashion. It is cultural questioning.
Will you share these ideas with the moviemakers you engage with?
Yes. I think we need help.
What is politics?
Politics is my existence. There is nothing in my existence which is not political.
And what is your politics?
To constantly question my existence.
Do you pray?
What do you mean by pray?
Puja karte ho aap?
I used to when I was much younger. But I like going to the temple, the dargah and the church. In my house, we don’t have a puja ghar, what we have is a little tray in which we have: a stone, a cross, a pair of deer, a Shaligram, an Islamic prayer, a Buddha and a wooden printing block. I don’t pray there but I offer flowers and it is an important place!