Book House The Lead

T. M. Krishna: ‘On art, artistes, and how exploration of art is as much about the artistes’

T. M. Krishna: 'On art, artistes, and how exploration of art is as much about the artistes'
T. M. Krishna (Picture from YouTube)
T. M. Krishna: 'On art, artistes, and how exploration of art is as much about the artistes'
  • The book “The Spirit of Enquiry: Notes of Dissent” by acclaimed Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna reflects the critical and cultural engagement of one of our finest thinkers, public intellectuals and practitioners of art.

  • His work is spread across the whole spectrum of music and culture, politics and the social sphere; he is at once philosophical, aesthetic and sociopolitical, and asks important questions about how art is made, performed and disseminated.

  • T.M. Krishna’s key writings have been put together in this extraordinary collection, and the book is thematically divided into five key sections: art and artistes; the nation state; the theatre of secularism; savage inequalities; and in memoriam.

  • Read an excerpt from the book below.

Editor’s Note: The following excerpt is from T. M. Krishna’s introduction to the first section of the book, ‘Art and Artistes’.

Art is a commonplace expression. We use it every other day and come in contact with so many things that are art-like. But when asked one simple question, ‘what is art?’, we pause and often stutter a bit. Embarrassed that we are unable to explain something that we know, we quickly regain our composure and try elucidating its inner workings with metaphors and anecdotes. The word generates an explosion of images, sounds and movements in our mind— those unforgettable scenes from iconic movies, the tunes and beats that remained an earworm for days on end, a dancer’s expressive eyes and that painting that made our mind still . . . Yet, all these descriptions only hover around the idea of art; they do not capture its soul.

Exploring art is as much about the artistes. Painters, musicians, dancers and actors are interlinked with the way we identify, relate to and understand art. The artiste is so inextricably interlocked in our relationship with art that every action or inaction from him/her in real life affects the way we perceive the art. The ecstasy that the artiste gifts us makes us place the artiste—the source, the catalyst of the experience—on an exalted pedestal. This means we also expect the individual to remain in that awe-inspiring, virtuous, unattainable mountaintop. But, being human beings, artistes shatter that illusion and display their baser instincts.

All arts and artistes are not equal. In India, one can correlate every art form with specific caste groups. Consequently, the spaces that an art form occupies, its patrons, the artistes, its socio-aesthetic identity, the intellectual gravitas attributed to its practice and respect demanded by it are all predetermined. Each one of these groups holds it close to their chest, acutely conscious of ownership. But the ability to hold on depends on their sociocultural significance. As we walk down the stairway of caste hierarchy, culture and its artistic manifestations become increasingly inconsequential. That which is right at the bottom is discarded and those who practise it live in ignominy and distance themselves from their own identity. But a few do fight back and counter-attack with assertion.

Using this inhuman social design, the privileged and the ultra-privileged construct notions of the ‘rustic’ folk and ‘classy’ classical. They build false intellectual narratives that, on the face of it, seem so convincing. They preserve and present these storylines so beautifully that everyone believes it is the gospel truth; even those who do not belong to that universe. But, if we keep our eyes wide open and dig a little deeper, these theories collapse like a house of cards.

Then there is that hoary, celebrated, cautionary and dreaded word: ‘tradition’. In India everything is tradition. Everyone follows some tradition that originated somewhere and at some point of time—even if the specific time is unknown. So, it is a mythical belief system. A practitioner of art must learn to stay within the ropes that this carried-forward tradition dictates, yet somehow cross it. Most importantly, she must convince the cultural gatekeepers that the transgression, when it occurs, is either to bring back a past that has been long forgotten or to draw from the ‘outside’ only to strengthen the perfect inside. Investigate tradition further and you may realize that what people want to hold on to can be discarded while what is discarded without a second thought is usually priceless.

Questioning and reflection are not our strong suit. We ask questions, but they are from old question papers; the same queries rehashed and presented with a twist for novelty’s sake. But what about the unspoken questions that may challenge our own identity and the art’s impact, or the lack of it, on larger society? Art is production; a conscious, deliberate act of giving emotions intent, form and structure. Hence the medium and the nature of each influences the experience of art. Human beings innovate, replace the old with the new and provide possibilities that alter the production and consumption of art. Technology has been a perpetual and veritable partner of art-making. Working in tandem with art, artistes and other enablers, it has changed the texture of art and been a source for new art. But has all this also meant that, at times, the fulcrum within each art form has been sacrificed? Or is this also part of evolution?

Evolution is used to indicate growth and progression, but isn’t it also a commentary on ‘that which was before’? While observing evolution, we do not consider the possible disconnect between the nature of ‘that which was’ and ‘that which is’. After choosing to ignore this anomaly, we pass judgement on the past and the present. These comparisons also happen between art forms and artistes who belong to disparate universes of art and exist for independent reasons. Can the tone and musicality that imbues lavani (a genre of dance and music from Maharashtra) be compared to a raga rendition by a khayal (a genre of Hindustani music) singer? Is the latter a progression of the former?

All these feelings of being superior and inferior are a result of the power equations that weigh on each one of us. Within an art form and between cultures, control mechanisms, enforcement by the stronger and the marginalization of the weaker are constants. Yet, collective voices emerge and ask questions of these inequalities, not just sociopolitically, but also in colour, sound, movement and design. Sometimes they sneak their way into the mainstream, nudging those in control, but more often than not, they are pushed back, while the mighty gleefully appropriate their art. Is there, then, any justice in the making and experience of art? Every time I drown in the fragrance of a movie or the tonality of a singer, there are inequalities and injustices functioning behind the scenes, unquestioned. As artistes, cognoscenti and impresarios, should we demand justice and an ethical environment and structure that frames art and culture? Can the pleasure we derive come from fairness?

But many believe that the artiste’s job is to sing, dance, act, draw and sculpt for the enjoyment of others and provide society respite from the ‘real’ world. Being political may be acceptable for an artiste who makes ‘political campaign art’, but others have no business sullying our wonderful experience! We do not care about what happens between artistes, art forms and communities. If I belong to a community that derives pleasure from a culture basket, give me that experience to reiterate my story. Do not deviate and force me to confront realities; that is not your job!

I am a musician and I receive the world as sound; more specifically, the created idea we refer to as music. Music is my drawing board; I learn from all that a raga offers or denies me and the interstices between beats. The coming together of all these elements to result in a possible unified experience fascinates me. It is, to me, the aesthetics of life; a design for harmony. And I extrapolate these understandings to the larger scape.

But one question remains.

Do the contrasts in a rhythmic cadence, the balance in a ballet dancer’s leap and the visual depth in a mural provide us an alternative way of understanding life?

The essays in this section engage with the abstractness of art and the realities in its existence.

T. M. Krishna: 'On art, artistes, and how exploration of art is as much about the artistes'

Excerpted with permission from The Spirit of Enquiry: Notes of Dissent, T.M. Krishna, Penguin Allen Lane. Read more about the book here and buy it here.


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T. M. Krishna: 'On art, artistes, and how exploration of art is as much about the artistes'