Art & Culture

How I discovered Karnatik music is caged by caste

TM Krishna
TM KrishnaApr 16, 2018 | 14:27

How I discovered Karnatik music is caged by caste

The less skin you reveal, the more divine your music

Social and cultural markers are drafted into every art form’s internal structure. In every aspect of art, from learning to performing, they are passed on from generation to generation. Control systems are not external pressures; they are devised into the art and, through stories, images, presentations and performances, internalised by everyone who belongs.

Let me speak from personal experience. I am a Brahmin and therefore a lot of what I received in music class, at Karnatik concerts and in conversations was only an extension of what I believed to be “normal” culture. It was only in retrospect that I identified these as methods of indoctrination. Those who propagate these beliefs are not conniving or manipulating; they are just convinced that this is how it should be.


A Karnatik music class is not a place for musical exchange alone. It is a cultural space, a caste-specific cultural space. From the way students are expected to dress to the pictures that decorate the walls, the environment informs you of what is the norm. Girls almost always had to be dressed in salwar-kameez or what we call pavadai-davani (half-saree) in south India. There was no question of any other attire as far as girls were concerned but teenage boys could, of course, get away with jeans or even shorts. I also know of some (rare) teachers who insist that boys, too, have to be dressed in dhotis. The pottu (bindi) is an absolute must. If not worn, the girl may be handed one by a friend or the music class would be converted to an “our culture” class. This is exactly how Hindu boys and girls are expected to dress when they enter temples. Now, all this has very little to do with music but is bundled in as a show of respect for the music. Karnatik music is, in their minds, Hindu — Brahmin — music! The classroom walls will not only have pictures of the great composers, but important Hindu deities too keep watch over us. I have never seen Hindu gods or goddesses such as Mariamman (a non-upper caste goddess) find a place in a Karnatik music classroom.


TM Krishna (Courtesy: TM Krishna's Facebook page)

As we learn compositions, the teachers explain the meaning of the lyrics. Since most of Karnatik music is Hindu in content, we are also learning mythology. But it does not stop there. The composers are deified (avatar purushas), and folktales about their magical deeds shared. At the end of a few years, we are convinced that they were superhumans who composed through divine benediction. Absolutely everything about them is perfect, morally correct and spiritually elevated. Missteps, if any, were only tests conducted by the divine overseer. A lesson for all of us!

Our teachers are of course only passing on what was handed down to them; nevertheless the impact is immense. Karnatik music becomes a symbol of chastity and purity. There is no room for the baser emotions of passion or sexual desire. Interestingly when we are taught padams or javalis (compositions that are erotic in content), the teacher would not bother to share their meanings! I wonder why.

This does not stop with the class. Attend a music concert and the stage, the homogeneity of the upper-caste audience, the nature of conversations, the introductions by the impresarios and the appearance of the musicians will make you feel like you are attending a Brahmin congregation. Whenever Karnatik musicians speak about their art, they invariably invoke deities and present themselves as priests or Vedic scholars. A few musicians have gone to the extent of distributing vibhuti to their fellow artists on stage. Musicians will, more often than not, speak of the composer’s bhakti and the infallibility of these great souls.


A closer peek at the dais and up on the platform will reveal the entire pantheon of Hindu gods. I do not mean to criticise faith but the undeniable conflation of religion, caste and art comes to light when we pay attention to these habits. It is not just about praying to the gods for a successful concert. This merger on a concert stage makes everyone conflate art and faith, making art entirely dependent on belief.

We refuse to accept the music as just art. In fact, saying such a thing is blasphemous and hence musicians have to create the impression of being moral, pious creatures even if they are not. Or, maybe, like all of us, they compartmentalise their various selves. Even today, women musicians feel the need to de-sexualise themselves and radiate piousness. This is taken as a sign of their seriousness towards the art form. The less skin you reveal, the more divine your music. All this is bulldozed upon them in the name of appropriateness.

The presentation of a Karnatik concert is a representation of Brahminical culture. The modern structure of performance came into being in the early twentieth century and was propagated by vocalist Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. Reasons attributed to this restructuring include reduced concert length, shift of concerts to urban proscenium stages and introduction of microphones. But, beyond these external needs, the structure was deeply influenced by the religious and moral values of the upper-caste Brahmin.

Reshaping Art, by TM Krishna;  Aleph Book Company; Rs 299

It is not just the performance; discussions and lectures on Karnatik music also hover, more often than not, around deities, rituals, Brahmin festivals, tantric practices and the sainthood of the great vaggeyakaras (composers). Listening to a Karnatik concert is not mere exposure to the music; it is a complete Brahmin brainwashing package. The Tyagaraja aradhana — an annual festival that pays homage to the eighteenth-century composer, Tyagaraja, held in Thiruvaiyaru, and now in every remote town across the globe that has a sizeable Karnatik-interested Brahmin population — is a classic example of how claustrophobic an art form can make itself.

A note of caution to my Hindustani and other “classical” counterparts in case they begin patting themselves on the back about the openness of their art form. Let me make it clear, every art form is opaque and sullied by human social organisation. Just dig a little deeper into yourself, and you will find a similar mess. I cannot elaborate on every art form’s inner working here; it is up to people engaged in each to search with earnestness.

I have described Karnatik music’s environs, but every art form has its own cages. At every stage of learning, observing and performing, artists, organisers and the audience participate in the ritual of restating their common social identity. The learning, practice and experience of art become a ritual. Rituals are crucial tools of control and habituation. Communities create rituals to enforce order, discipline, obedience and unshakeable recall value. When art becomes a ritual, it ceases to be a creative spirit.

With art becoming an agent for social organisation, the artist is nothing but a pawn. We imagine the artist as a free spirit, soaring up in the skies, unfettered by societal pressures. This is not the case. The artist is trained and configured to act and perform in a certain way. The trick played on us is an artificial feeling of freedom and exploration. No artist will admit that his or her art is just a socio-cultural delivery apparatus. Within the contours of their art, they still experience liberation and hence do not recognise the puppetry. This comes from the way art allows conditioned questioning. The foundational beliefs are axioms that are beyond reproach; everything else can be challenged and changed. To make sure this remains so, the environment of the art drills the “no-fly zones” into the minds of all stakeholders.

In the case of Karnatik music, the upper-caste Hindu identity, religious bhakti, the performance structure, Tyagaraja’s version of ragas, the central focus on religious kirtanas, upper-caste linguistic dialect, the need to evoke textual bhava (emotion), formats of improvisation and masculinity are all accepted norms for someone to be accepted as a traditional, respectful, committed Karnatik musician. Within these orders, the artist is free to roam uninterrupted. Any artist with a well-honed skill set can dazzle within this arena. There is immense creativity involved, but it is still anchored in non-aesthetic conditions. All these cannot-be-challenged qualities of Karnatik music that I have described are not aesthetic essentials. They are in place in order to maintain socio-cultural status quo.

At this point I feel helpless, lost. Through my arguments, I have managed to reduce art to mere social Machiavellianism. I am beginning to wonder why I am a musician. I have implied that every aspect of art is compromised and the artist is a nobody. I am uncertain if there is any art left in this world or, even worse, if there ever was any. Art may be just habitual entertainment. Maybe art was and is just a convincing charade duping us into believing in something uplifting. The mystique of colour, shape, sound and movement allowed this farce to attain permanence. With foundations in the unreal, maybe art is just that — unreal, untrue, just a charming and attractive package that rocks critical thinking into eternal slumber.

When I was twelve, I performed for the first time in public and, within a decade, moved up the ranks, mastering Karnatik music’s techniques, vocal requirements, rhythmic complexities, devouring compositions, triumphing over ragas and sending the audience into a tizzy. By 2002, I was a star. I rarely asked any of the questions I pose today and conformed to the rulebook with pleasure. I was one of those artists who felt free in art’s invisible socio-cultural prison. I never knew I was living in one.

I speak to you now of my own seeking so that I may communicate to you the reasons I ask these questions; and so that you, the reader, may ponder over your own art experiences.

Even in the days when I was performing Karnatik music aimed at satisfying my own people, there were unusual irreconcilable moments that passed by me as I sang. It was something I could not fathom. At times, I would be in tears not because I recalled an incident or individual, or was moved by anything lyrical. The tears flowed neither in sorrow, nor in joy. They were tears of fulfilment, arising from completeness. It was as if the entire universe had collapsed and I was overwhelmed by its entirety. Everybody and everything came together, differences vanished, identities dissipated and the performance itself was not happening. I could hear every molecule in the music — I am not sure whether I should call it music or just sound. The sound enveloped all of us — the audience and the musicians.

It did not matter whether I was singing Tyagaraja or Tagore, the names were irrelevant and we, the musicians, inconsequential. It was as if everyone within that musical space was immersed, drowned, submerged in a state of wonderment. The sound was not beautiful or exquisite, the rendition may not have even been textbook-perfect. But somehow, just by being intensely aware, listening to every musical breath, following the flow, remaining silent and slowing down the entire process, there was an awakening. When that happened, art came alive. In some sort of a contradiction, we find that art — a constructed, structured form — enables unshackled freedom.

I was not sure what I should make of this and often let it pass and got back in the saddle to continue doing what I did very well—please my people. There was also something intensely uncomfortable about these experiences. I knew that I was not in control; I had to just let it be and become. This was all new for a young hot-blooded ambitious male Karnatik musician. After all, I always had my audience at my fingertips, knowing exactly which buttons to press for each desired response. It was a game, a pleasurable one and I was extremely successful. I did not configure it, I just followed the laid-out plan. Until now, every glide or supersonic flash had appeared at my beck and call.

But when art took over, I had no say in the experience; I was a mute witness, in free-fall. My musical knowledge did not help, there were no structures to hold on to, nothing to clasp, no method to regain control. I had to go through the experience and emerge out of it. There were no two ways to it.

There is the temptation to use the word spiritual to define what I am describing. But I am refraining from entering that arena. I do not know what it means. I have heard people saying that they are spiritual but not religious and I am not convinced we can make that kind of a demarcation. The spillover is so subtle that the spiritual in all likelihood is entrenched in belief, faith or ideology and I do not want to fall prey to any of them. I am not criticising those who balance these two domains, but I am clear that I do not want a discussion on art experience to be hijacked by either of these understandings. All I have done is describe to the best of my abilities what I experience and that remains true.

There is a philosophical problem in the spiritual–art collation. The spiritual often implies a negation of the real. Everyday life is downgraded and our normal expressions of sadness, jealousy, fear and anger belittled. Questions regarding the real and illusory surface and, soon enough, the spiritualist is elevated. That is an extremely dangerous path since it places the art experience by default, on a pedestal. The experience is quite the opposite; there is nothing unearthly about it. If anything, it is more grounded in reality than anything we normally experience. Reality is usually “as I see it”. Art proposes a view that is not stuck in this prism. Subjectiveness vanishes and we receive with unlimitedness in non-judgmental caress. There is something entirely tender engulfing us. The sound, in some fascinating way, frees the mind from memory-driven recognition.

In this context, I would like to bring back a word that I've referred to earlier: empathy. It is derived from the Greek empatheia, meaning “in pathos”; in other words, having a sense of merger with another’s suffering. To feel empathy, therefore, is not just to feel an appreciation of another’s condition but to actually become one with it, especially the condition of suffering. This is only possible if we forget or discard our own emotional self. When in empathy I do not emotionally exist, yet I feel. Art experience is empathetic; it allows us to feel but not as ourselves. What are we one with? I would just say that we feel a unity with all that engulfs us. Life? It may be another person’s impression of life (the art object) but when we receive as the artist herself does, it is a non-personal impression.

The cynic may just find all this fanciful. He/she would say that the mind is playing tricks, further confusing us into believing in these powers of art. I will respond with just a few thoughts. Nothing I have said here is groundbreaking. Most of you have come in contact with this enchantment. As you read my descriptions, it possibly replayed in your minds a film, a dance recital, a song, a percussion ensemble, a play or just a lullaby that your neighbour sang to her child every night. Yet it disappears, vaporises in seconds and we remember it only when it arrives again on our doorstep. There is no way to explain, find logic or rationalise it and that makes all this harder to accept.

For a long time, I was uncomfortable with this art experience because it made me vulnerable. To be in a vulnerable state can be frightening. Vulnerability is intimacy that has nothing to hide. Art doesn’t request you; it pushes you into this state. I use vulnerability in positivity, not in its exploitative avatar. When vulnerable, open and defenceless, our sensory system allows life to enter our body in a way that we would never permit when in control. We are so desperate to guard, regulate and defend who we are that we never really experience life. We experience only what we have already decreed, entirely preconceived. But when art breaks down these walls, life just flows and every moment is fresh, new and renewing.

These art experiences happened all by themselves and I believed—and those I confided in also told me—that they cannot be willed. I would still try and, at times, in desperation even fake it. But I soon realized that though I cannot demand its presence, I can prepare myself to be open to its arrival. This meant creating a mind space that was empty, free and uninterrupted.

This inquiry cannot stop here. All these abstract thoughts have to be connected to what we are and what we do. Otherwise they are, as the critics would say, just emotional ruminations.

Why was the music not enabling many more such experiences? We were enjoying the music and heading home happy but nothing more was happening through the art. As I began probing my engagement with the art, I realized that everything that was built around the art—the scaffolding, paraphernalia, social constructions—were barricades. As a Karnatik singer I had to role-play, act as an interlocutor between my community and its moral, religious and cultural moorings. Every time I rendered kirtanas, expounded ragas or cracked arithmetic patterns, I was holding up my community flag and waving it with gusto. The entire environment participated in this celebration. There is no doubt that the music was beautiful but that it was constricted is also true.

This led me to a long journey into the archives of Karnatik music, its musicology, practice and social history. I was troubled by the thought that the music might collapse if I were to remove all its social anchors. I was seeking proof of a musical core, the actual components of the form that give life to this art—those elements that make it what it is and will remain irrespective of everything else that it may shed or acquire. I had to also be prepared for the possibility that there is no such truth. In which case, all these experiences would mean nothing.

But I did find something. Karnatik music depends only on three cardinal elements—raga, tala and the text. Art happens when the musicians and the audience remain drenched in the aesthetic charge that emerges from this tripartite correspondence. I know I have simplified what is a far more complex interplay but, in the context of this discussion, this ought to do. I speak of the art I know but every art form has an elemental self. Everything else has been organized to suit the people who assemble, perform and consume the art. In the need to satisfy community needs, aspects of music have been given slipshod treatment. So the glittering paint that covers the art not only reflects ornateness, it also hides the art’s sanctum sanctorum. If any artist is willing to shake off all those exteriors, delve into the art, rediscover its marvels and bring back to the fore its aesthetic strengths, then suddenly the art is rejuvenated and its secret vault revealed.

You could ask if this means discarding Tyagaraja or Muttusvami Dikshitar. It is not a question of disposing of the past. There is no denying that there are many aspects on which I am at loggerheads with them. Tyagaraja was an extraordinary composer, yet amidst the musical genius is his Brahminical import. He was a product of his social boundaries and we need to understand that. The problem arises from the fact that his understanding is accepted as the gospel truth by the insiders, requiring everyone to be in agreement with his thinking. The art’s protectors believe that other viewpoints do not have a space here and that their very presence is polluting. This is one of the problems even with the spiritual—it can be casteist and doctrinaire!

What I sought was contestation. Can Karnatik music become a platform for social, cultural and political views that put Tyagaraja’s thoughts in the dock? If the repertoire of Karnatik music could be expanded to bring in compositions that gave us very different ideas of living—voices from across the social spectrum—instantaneously the conversation would be enlarged. It was not just about newer voices; we also had to retrieve lost voices. The erotic compositions sung by the Devadasis and other Karnatik compositions that were not rooted in bhakti have to be brought back to centre stage and the structure of performance needs to questioned. This churning is still respectful of raga, tala and text but creates discomfort and vulnerability. The homogeneous upper-caste followers of Karnatik music may reject, disregard, criticize these attempts but they will provoke discussion. That is the first step.

There are some who wonder whether an artist has to be loud and open about art’s divisiveness. ‘Can we not just do this quietly, in the way we make art and not announce it to the world?’ Yes! It is distinctly possible, but the danger in this hide-and-seek is that the art world has an instinctive ability to snatch from undeclared counter-movements its energy of questioning. Before we know it, the silent artistic protest will be turned into a proclamation of the art’s perfectness and the artist will have become a champion of the art’s impartiality.

I apologise for this personal foray but any social change begins with personal conflicts and I had to bring to the table my own uncertainty before we looked at the larger picture.

(Excerpted with permissions of Aleph Book Company from Reshaping Art by TM Krishna.)

Last updated: April 17, 2018 | 13:31
Please log in
I agree with DailyO's privacy policy