TM Krishna is not merely a musician; but also a thought-provoking author and activist. Recognized with prestigious awards, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Isai Perarignar Award from Tamil Isai Sangam, the Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration, and the Swathi Sangeetha Puraskaram Award, the highest honour for musicians instituted by the Kerala State Government, his commitment as an artist advocates the power of art to heal India’s deep social divisions.

Krishna shares how music is connected with politics and offers profound insights into initiatives like the Chennai Poromboke Paadal and the Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha. These artistic endeavours, once confined to the stage, have now become dynamic catalysts for social change. With unwavering focus, Krishna addresses the glaring disparities among performers, audiences, and instrument-makers from diverse communities, passionately advocating for inclusivity on the grand stage of life.

But our conversation doesn’t stop there. He discusses his provocative book, “Sebastian & Sons,” a literary work that not only stirred controversy but also ignited vital discussions. Discover the motives that fueled the creation of this eye-opening narrative as he peels back the layers of classical music, revealing hidden stories and challenging age-old norms. Together, we journey through the impact of technology and urbanization on traditional arts, delving into the intricate balance between heritage preservation and the embrace of progress.

Here’s T M Krishna with us for an insightful conversation

How do you perceive the intricate relationship between societal shifts, technology, and the evolution of traditional art forms? Can you elaborate on your perspective regarding the adaptability of these art forms in the face of changing environments and cultural dynamics?
In contemplating the impact of technology and urbanization on our traditional art forms, I think we need l to dig deeper into the intricate layers of our culture and heritage. Art, in all its forms, is intricately woven into the fabric of our society, drawing inspiration from our environment, habits, traditions, culture and people. Change is an undeniable aspect of life; it shapes not only our lifestyles but also the very essence of art. When I reflect on the cultural shifts in urban areas, I’m compelled to consider how these changes influence our art forms, including clothing styles. The cityscape demands fashionable attire, contrasting sharply with the traditional ‘Lungi’is worn in villages just a few decades ago. However, providing a simple yes or no answer to the impact of these changes proves challenging. Change is inevitable, and its nuances are complex.

Consider the poignant example of fishermen, once serenading the sea while rowing their boats. With the advent of motorboats, their songs faded into silence, drowned out by the mechanical hum. Is it right or wrong? The answer, I believe, lies with the fishermen themselves, the very souls intertwined with the sea.

Art forms often find themselves ensnared within the confines of caste systems, limiting their growth. Yet, can we allow these art forms to wither away, or should we reshape them as instruments of rebellion? I advocate for the latter, transforming these forms into tools of protest. Take the ‘Parai’ art form, once overlooked and now a powerful voice of dissent. It’s the people, the circumstances, the era, and the politics that mould the landscape of art. As I ponder these intricate connections, I find myself questioning not just the changes but also our roles as custodians of these evolving traditions.

What inspired you to write the book “Sebastian & Sons,” considering the controversy it stirred after its publication?
Controversies are not new to my life, but I perceive them differently. I view them as opportunities to stand with those oppressed by societal norms. While voicing against injustice is their responsibility, supporting them falls on us. “Sebastian & Sons” embodies this political conviction. The genesis of this book traces back to my earlier work, “A Southern Music: The Karnatic Story,” where I delved into the intricacies of Carnatic music, including its caste-related nuances. However, during a review of its second edition, I noticed a gap. I had addressed issues on the stage but had overlooked the challenges faced by mridangam makers, a community dominated by caste biases. This realization sparked the idea to write about them, 4 years of research involving more than mridangam makers from diverse communities and states. The book not only sheds light on their craft but also explores their lives, challenges, relationships, and contributions to this classical art form. The intricate bond between mridangam makers, mainly from the Dalit community, and the artists are primarily Brahmins, adds depth to the narrative. From sourcing materials to crafting the instrument, their relationship goes beyond social norms. “Sebastian & Sons” captures this complexity, offering a profound understanding of the music the mridangam creates. This exploration, rooted in their shared histories, traditions, and struggles, reveals the untold stories of resilience and artistry in the face of societal prejudice.

The performers, the audience, and the instrument makers often belong to distinct communities. What actionable steps can individuals take to promote inclusivity and ensure equal access to stages for talent from all communities?
In every profession, the community with the most influence tends to dominate. However, history has shown that through protest and resistance, these dynamics can shift. Tamil Nadu, for instance, has a lot of government music colleges and schools where a significant number of students come from non-Brahmin communities. Surprisingly, many of them do not find their way onto the stage after their education. This raises crucial questions about opportunities and upskilling. The gap between educational institutions and the concert environment needs to be bridged. Cultural and societal transformations are gradual and generational, requiring collective efforts. All stages must become inclusive, fostering an environment where change becomes not just a possibility, but a reality. We should actively contribute to this transformative process.

How have initiatives like Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha, and Pa Ranjith’s Casteless Collective influenced social change, challenging established norms through art?
Everything is politics, music is politics. In my approach to art and music, I aim to address a specific audience, with those entrenched in caste dominance, considering my own limitations. Through my art, I advocate for change. Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha was conceived with the belief that all art forms and stages are equal. Various performances, from classical events to Parai Attam, oppari, and therukoothu, were showcased at the event. Pa Ranjith, through his artistic endeavours, emphasizes the equality of all individuals on stage. These platforms become spaces where people infuse their political ideologies into their art forms, recognising the diverse artistic expressions everyone possesses. I firmly believe that everything, from music to clothing choices and the audience I perform for, is inherently political. Progressive thinking should permeate every form of art, establishing a foundation for meaningful change.