Art, Social Justice & the Constitution: A Conversation with TM Krishna
15 August 2021 Talking Constitution
Commemorating India’s 75th Independence Day, Jayna Kothari, Executive Director, CLPR spoke to Carnatic singer and social activist, T.M. Krishna. In this video, he talked about his journey as a Constitution Defender and what the Constitution of India means to him. Mr. Krishna spoke about his work addressing caste and feudal hierarchies in the Carnatic music industry, and the use of art as a medium to bring about social transformation.
Jayna Kothari (JK): Hello, I am Jayna Kothari from the Center for Law and Policy Research (CLPR). CLPR is dedicated to making the Constitution work for everyone through the law, policy research, and strategic litigation. Today, I’m really excited to have with us TM Krishna for a conversation on our Constitution. Welcome!
TM Krishna (TMK): Thank you very much for having me. Thank you so much.
JK: Thank you for joining us. Let me introduce him before we start. TM Krishna is a well-known Carnatic vocalist, a writer, speaker, and activist. In 2016, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for emergent leadership for bringing and I quote “social inclusiveness in culture” and for his commitment as an artist and advocate to arts, power to heal India’s deep social divisions, breaking barriers of caste and class to unleash what music has to offer, not for some but for all.
His recent book ‘Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers’ published in 2020 speaks about the history of Mrdangam makers in South India and other parts of the country. Krishna uses both his art to address issues of inequality around many themes, around caste, around trans and LGBTQI rights, and also public education.
TMK: Thank you so much. Thanks. Thank you so much.
JK: So let’s start very briefly on some questions, just some freewheeling questions around the constitution since we are commemorating the 75th Independence day. Your family was very involved in the Constitution-making process; your grand-uncle T.T. Krishnamachari was a prominent member of the Constituent Assembly. He was a member of the Drafting Committee and played therefore very instrumental role in the making of our Constitution. One of his speeches, he speaks about how social practices, unjust social practices should be tackled through legislative reform and public mobilization.
Did he influence you in any way or do you think you had an early introduction to social justice issues or Constitutional rights, perhaps because of your family engagement?
TMK: Neither actually, that’s the truth. T.T. Krishanamachari passed away I think a year before I was born. I was born in ’76 and I think he passed away in ’75 or ’76. In fact, ironically actually, I am named Krishna after him by the way because my grandmother wanted to name the grandson after her younger brother who was T.T. Krishnamachari. So I really didn’t know much about his work in the Constituent Assembly or you know or what he said etc. So, I think it was much later when I started reading the debates and the discussions and of course, the books, that I realized the role he played. Not necessarily that I agree with the many things that he said. I agree partially with some things and some things I don’t. Actually, I think my consciousness of the Constitution did not come early in life. Like many people in this country, it was that little civics book which has four pages, which is all I read about the Constitution which had: Fundamental Rights. What are the fundamental rights? Come on, name it. One, two, three, four, five. And the Preamble, you know the words and you know the highlighted words. You don’t even know what’s after the highlighted words. That’s the truth. Everybody knows equality but they don’t know what’s coming after that.
JK: Or the other highlighted words for that matter, you know.
TMK: Yeah, that’s true, that’s true, right? So, that’s exactly how my learning of the Constitution was. No different from many people in this country. I think my journey toward the Constitution came from my exploration in self-awareness of myself; of who I am, what is my situation in society, my biases, the way I perceive myself and that’s what is around me, the music that I sing. I think that led to this because I think it’s important that we realize that there’s an interplay of personal or collective transformation with a structural form that allows for that personal or collective transformation.
You need both to happen, which is why I think what TTK said there is very important because public mobilization in other words is a public transformation or individual-collective transformation. But that needs to happen in a playground that allows for it to happen. Similarly, you just cannot have a structure without anybody, without the work going within that structure for changing. So, the courts are not going to find the solutions for you. So, I think I came to this much later in my life. I came to learning about the maker much later in my life. So, it’s something that came from I think my own search and discomfort with what I was and probably what I am also in some ways and I think that’s how I came to the Constitution.
JK: No, thank you. That’s really honest and open and that kind of brings me to the next question. As you say that you kind of searched inward. Perhaps, you could say about you know, your book ‘Sebastian & Sons.’ I read it and I really enjoyed it and so you know, in your book you speak very directly about caste inequality which is really so rare for classical artists to speak about because in India we see that the classical arts, whether they are music or dance, are so seeped, you know in caste and feudal hierarchies. So, it’s uncommon for classical artists to speak about it and so what made you address that? Was it an inner kind of search or what else?
TMK: You know, my first recognition of caste within first my own occupation or my own sphere of influence in practice happened maybe when I wrote southern music in 2013. So, the journey began sometime in 2000, 2002, 2003 maybe, I am not sure, but you know that journey itself was about realizing the complexity of caste. I mean caste and sound, you know something [inaudible], we’re gonna think of caste and sound. There’s caste in what you think is a good piece of music, you know, there is caste in what you think looks beautiful, what color is your home, what kind of decoration do you want in your hall. There’s caste everywhere, you know, and it’s important to realize this isn’t, you know, some people think that you know if there’s caste anywhere, isn’t there anything that binds us? Isn’t there anything? I mean I think it is the ethics of living there by [inaudible] and everything else can be different.
So, we have to be careful and at the same time, this notion of preference needs to be very deeply investigated because even preference is not a level playing field; preference itself is a hierarchy. There are preferences and there are preferences. We know which are more important and we know which preference then becomes an aspiration. So it’s, this is a very complicated, ugly kind of scenario.
Having said all this, the fact is that I forgot the makers of the instrument when I wrote the southern music and I wrote an entire chapter on caste in Carnatic, an entire chapter, and I spoke nothing of them. There was not a word in it about the Mrdangam makers who predominantly are from Dalit communities. It didn’t even strike me and that’s the thing about it right, there are always blind spots with privilege, all kinds of privilege, right. There’s always something that you do not see. I realized it when I was looking at the book again for the second edition. I looked at the chapter and it just popped up and I said ‘my goodness!’ and that’s when I said ‘okay this is something you need to think about’.
Through a period of time, I thought this is a book that needs to be written about Mrdangam makers. Why? Because this is a very unusual situation. It is important to understand that the Mrdangam, unlike many instruments, you can just go to the shop and buy a violin and after which your relationship with the violin maker is minimal, I mean, it is there but it is minimal. You can change and tune it yourself but an instrument like the Mrdangam requires servicing regularly, which means there’s a place of interaction, which means there’s a relationship, which means there is a give and take and there is a bit of a complicated situation. The Mrdangam player is most likely Brahmin and the Mrdangam maker is most likely Dalit and now this is not just a transactional relationship, its not like going to the shop and buying lollipops. You have to sit with the person, you have to work with the person. The maker should understand your aesthetic palate, and your sound palate, you have to understand the making. Now in between all this, lies the instrument called the Mrdangam. Now, why is it even more complicated? The Mrdangam is made with cow skin, buffalo skin, and goat skin. Now, that’s something a Brahmin does not want to associate with but then you have to associate. So, it’s such a messy mess space socially, but yet there is this relationship, and it’s a very complicated relationship.
I just felt this was something I needed to explore and I worked on it for about four years, a lot of fieldwork, and all those anthropological work. A person who is not trained in history or anthropology or anything for that matter. It was interesting for me because I was actually acting like, I’m just asking questions and learning. And the book came entirely from that but it’s also the book itself is complicated. Why should an upper-caste guy with every privilege in the world write that book? You could ask me that question. I don’t have a correct answer. Is that itself a problem? Yes, it is a problem. But my hope is. . .
JK: I’m sure you’ve received that response.
TMK: Yes, I did and I don’t think that’s something that you should defend because that’s the truth. It’s absolutely the truth. But let’s look at other truths. Now the truths are that nobody even notices among the Dalit community, about this little population of few families that are making the Mrdangam, that’s one truth. The other truth is, can this book be a catalyst, be an amplifier of sorts, for the conversation, then to remove me or I remove myself from the conversation? That is also a possibility that I’m not willing to, say, is entirely wrong. I think it’s something that, being an enabler is something, an ally is something you can do. I think that’s what the book has done to a large extent. There are a lot of conversations between the maker and the player now. It’s allowed makers to speak in a voice that they did not speak before, hopefully, and hopefully, they will write their own book and say TM Krishna is all wrong and that’s fine, that’s absolutely fine.
This was, you know, a very important journey for me because I was entering so many different cultures, I was understanding so many different things, different knowledge spaces. Another thing where discrimination operates is the idea of knowledge, you know the whole epistemology of knowledge is riddled with discrimination; every level of it, it has many hierarchies. Why wouldn’t I ever call the knowledge of the maker knowledge? Whereas the Mrdangam player is always knowledgeable. He is brimming with knowledge right? So, you know that’s why I wrote this book and I think that if you’re addressing somebody who said you have no bibliography in this field. I said I don’t have any bibliography because the only people I learned from are the makers, simple. That’s the bibliography of the book. The book is my interview. The knowledge comes only from them, simple as that.
JK: No, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and it made me think about the issue of art in India. I learned dance, so I’ve been kind of quite exposed to classical dance and a question that comes up is that, should artists, the way you have done, take up some of these messy issues through their art or through their position as artists? We see a lot of artists like you engaging with social issues. Do you think this should be something that artists should use their position to do to address or engage with the Constitution? I mean let’s broaden that up as well.
TMK: Absolutely, I mean I just don’t think it’s just art. What is just Art? I mean that’s a question that I’ll ask. What is this just Art? I mean art is made in society. Art is made to share among people. So, you’re communicating, you’re sharing in something, so what is just art? My fundamental point is art’s sake is reality. Their art for art’s sake has to be connected with reality. So even not speaking about reality is a political point.
So, yes, I do believe artists need to engage. I may not agree with the politics of what they engage in. Now that’s possible, right? We may have huge differences of opinion, on somebody’s view on politics or society as mine but I think his engagement is essential because [inaudible] and the bigger problem is when somebody says they’re not engaging, what they basically mean is they want all the oppressive systems that are there in the world to remain as they are and they remain in the bubble. . . is what they’re saying. So, that’s completely an exception. You know the Constitution itself I think needs to be seen very differently. It has nothing to do with the courts. Let’s just throw the courts out. They’re the biggest problem in understanding the Constitution. Lawyers and Judges are the biggest impediments to understanding the Constitution.
JK: Yeah, I’ve heard that.
TMK: No, I mean that. I mean that’s why I am saying that. I don’t mean, I completely understand, you know I’m not talking about the application of the Constitution, of the necessity of judgments, etc, I’m not. You know, but I’m just saying that it’s culture isn’t it? The Constitution is actually culture. It’s actually, it’s about different ways, a certain cultural expression of living. Parts of it with an agreement, with disagreement, we can argue with, we can change it. It’s also a developing idea of culture. So, I see the Constitution as a cultural idea, as an idea of culture, and which is why it is as its [inaudible], why it is going to transform, which is why it’s going to be progressive in some ways. So, I think if you look at it as something that we inhabit or we need to inhabit, to be even more clear, then I think it becomes something that is, that we all share. And you know, like I said Judges and Lawyers are the problems, I’m not talking about the profession and all that but I’m saying the headiness that comes with that idea, that it is somehow locked up in this grand cupboard with, you know, special locks and special keys.
JK: All the Judges and the Lawyers are the gatekeepers of the Constitution you know and that no one else can deal with it.
TMK: Exactly, you know, and therefore I think that needs to go. There needs to be a cultural transformation, you know those words, I mean just look at the words in the Constitution. Let’s forget about every other part. I mean let’s just take Part I to Part IV. If a citizen just looks at the first part. Just look at those words. They should move you; they move you if you read them. You should get goosebumps. . . I get goosebumps. I mean like wow, it’s ethics, it’s philosophy, it’s humanity, it’s complicated, it’s disturbing maybe, if you don’t agree with it but that’s okay, isn’t it? You have to own that, you have to debate it within yourself, and that has to be a family conversation. That’s what the Constitution is. It’s such a precious gift. . . that we need to grapple with every day and celebrate it and you know only then it really moves and you know if you look at the positive movements that have happened, over the years that you’ve fought for it; it shouldn’t have taken so many years. Why did it take so many years? Because there’s a disconnection between society and what’s written in the book.
JK: We have to revive this connection. How do we make it relevant to young people today? How do they, how can we, how do you think they can relate to it and see and get these goosebumps the way you’re talking about?
TMK: You know, I mean I really think the CAA protests were a great movement without any doubt. I think there were Anti-CAA state protestants that were an important movement for the ideation because the Constitution was on the streets. That was great to see, that people read the Preamble on street corners, people read it and you know people don’t even know that the Preamble is there in so many languages. You know, I started singing the Preamble in different languages. I sing it now in Malayalam, I sing it in Kannada. You know it’s in Urdu, it’s in Hindi, it’s in Sanskrit, it’s in Marathi, it is you know it’s there, everything, we just need to. . . know.
In some states, it’s great that it got on the streets. I also think what are the important ways that the Constitution can come alive. I think it needs to be. . . unburdened of . . . the piety it’s associated with. I think young people need to speak about it like they speak about anything else. I mean, which is why I think art will play such an important role in it. Whether it’s visual, whether it’s sound, whether it’s cartoons, it could be anything, it could be absolutely anything.
It’s important that these ideas are not seen to be something you know that’s out there . . . you know you can’t make the Constitution a deity in a temple. The Constitution must be outside the outermost corners of the temple. That’s where it should be, which means it should speak the franca ligua of everybody, which means it should speak for and speak with everybody. So, I mean we have to do that. I think songs have a role to play, I think theatre has a role to play . . . and I think you don’t need to know . . . and what do you want people to know. Listen and think about that you know. Do we want them to know every directive principle, every Fundamental Right, or you know do they need to know the relationship of what Federalism in India is? What do we want them to know, right? That is an important question because we can get stuck in the nitty-gritty of the Constitution.
JK: If we want them to just engage with it and be able to engage with it, you know.
TMK: The Constitution is actually a book of relationships . . . that’s all it is, isn’t it? It just tells us about different kinds of relationships and what’s the most ethical way of having different relationships. Now, it’s not complicated, and if you can just make it a book of relationships, of wonderful relationships, agreeable and [inaudible] relationships. Then we are going to the soul of what it is because I think that’s what we try to create; an environment where relationships have equality, there’s freedom, there is sharing, there is-
JK: Fraternity, I mean that is one of the founding principles.
TMK: Yes very important, fraternity and so I think that’s the sole, like we can definitely pass on within every one of those Articles and clauses.
JK: Yeah no, very, very beautifully said and I know it’s come out in some of your answers but I’d like to kind of ask you that . . . again. What does the Constitution mean to you?
TMK: Well, I mean you know. . . it’s something that’s grown on me, very honestly. Something that’s really [inaudible] me as I look at it again and again you know. Interestingly I’ve been working on a book that’s about five symbols of India, one of them is the Preamble.
JK: Oh okay.
TMK: So, I have for over the last six months been reading much more than I did before, I think . . . and you know its truly very very, you know really read it and read it with the intentions of what it is. Like I said, you may disagree, but that’s not where I want to go. I mean isn’t it so marvelous that people came together with a dream and hope of creating a society that could be good, very simply, that could be good? And they may have had different ways of defining the goodness and I think that’s something that’s really really hit me hard; that it is just the intention behind that Constitution that we have. The intention is definitely something that we need to treasure and if you as a person you’re religious, if you look at everything, you believe in certain things.
It is about creating some structure that provides goodness and it’s ultimately that you and I who are there working with it or doing it or not . . .that’s where the answer is and Ambedkar said something very similar actually and so I think it’s the possibility of goodness and increasing the probability of goodness is what really I think touches me quite incredibly every time I go through little phrasings and little words that you better placed in certain ways, that are said in certain ways, not just for legal reasons but actually for very, very ethical reasons and they’re very well thought out. I mean people debated words and formations not just for loopholes and legality, but they were actually arguing ideas, arguing ethics, arguing morality, arguing so many things right. So, I mean I just wish that people will spend, maybe, one day when they have time just google the word Constitution, Constitutional Assembly debates, it’s all online now, you don’t need anybody’s help. Just listen, just read those conversations and I think that gives us hope.
JK: Yeah no, absolutely, and one of the efforts of CLPR has been to kind of deepen access to the constitution and initiate some of these conversations and we have actually a website called constitutionofindia.net where we’ve made the debates easily accessible and so you know if we have to build this engagement in addition to art and music and all that you spoke about. The protests ignited that, and the preamble was read you know all of that, but how else do you think we could create more awareness or kind of engagement with the Constitution? Would you have other, I mean I know that all of us in our civic class just got the bare basics you know but. . . what are other suggestions that you may have?
TMK: I think Arts are the way. They have to be used at every level. I think the important thing is multilingual. We are not an English country or English-speaking country, right? We need these things to happen in Kannada, in Marathi, in Bengali, in Assamese, in [inaudible] language. When we were young, what was the song we may hum, those [inaudible] hum? We still sing it. I mean we may forget a hundred things we learned after that. We should have songs that are just about the ideas in the Constitution that are taught in schools. I don’t care if the child didn’t understand a word of what she/he is singing at that point in time. But they just have to become, you know . . . I think as much as we activists criticize ‘habit’ as being an oppressive tool, there is also a positive habit that we can create.
JK: That they learn it and then it kind of stays with them right, yeah.
TMK: Habit can work both ways so, I think we need to create a habit of something and I think the Constitution, the ideas of the Constitution might have it. It could be rhymes, it could be songs, and it could be, not just the National Anthem because National Anthem singing has also become a drill which we all have to do right.
So I’m saying these are the songs that people sing in schools, will learn in the class, just leave it with them. . . those words will remain, those ideas will make and I think we have to do this with people when people are young, they’re really young, even before they understand one word of what they’re saying. That’s the best time to learn the most beautiful things because you will keep seeking and as your apprentice becomes more capable of steering through all the information, those words start coming alive and then you start understanding it more and more.
It goes with you and I think that’s when the human being also grows in a manner that does not happen when it’s thrust onto you, you know, or forced. . . that you have to do something. So I think we need songs in villages, I think we need hubs in every town where children in the evening come and you know because you know we use the word secularism. Most people don’t know what that word means, I mean it’s such an esoteric term you know, it can be so many things that you know, it depends on which country you are in. So, it can be interpreted in so many ways. Now I can go you know intellectually debate secularism as it is understood in the Constitution blah blah blah blah blah but no, I want somebody to feel secularism as a habit. What can I do? So, when we say that the Constitution needs to reach people, it does not mean that the texts need to reach people. It means its spirit-
JK: And the values and the ideas behind it, yeah.
TMK: Exactly! So I think that’s what we are discussing. So if we need to make sure that that’s communicated. . . in children, we make sure that it becomes a habit, a reflects that this [inaudible] of a person of different faith cannot become the reflect so that has become the reflect that should vary, the reflex should be embraced and that’s constitutional, isn’t it? I don’t care if that person doesn’t know it’s constitutional but the person is behaving in a manner that is Constitutional. So, you know that is what I think we can do and we all have a role in doing that you know, it could be poetry, it could be anything. But I think we need to go to villages, we need to go to the district headquarters. That’s where things need to happen.
JK: No fabulous and I hope after this we find a way to start a project on making some music around the Constitution. I think you’ve already started. Have a few concerts around it.
TMK: I’ll just sing the first line of the Preamble. I’m going to sing it, I mean the one I’ve sung a lot is in Malayalam. So I’m going to sing the first two lines in Malayalam.
JK: Thank you so much, that was beautiful and I just want to say thank you for being a Constitution defender.
TMK: Thank you very much, thank you very much. Such a pleasure, thanks.