Where History Limits, There Art Liberates.

An account of T.M. Krishna’s concert at Rangashakara as a part of the “Equal – Voices for a Common Humanity” festival on Septermber 15, 2019

We all have an obsession about the past. But can history be a reliable source, considering it is usually written by the victor? Also, history has become a chronology of dates and events, completely evaporated of the juices that make a growing (or degenerating) civilization. History has also suffered the massacres of men in power to convolute it and present half, quarter and increasingly decimal truths to justify their political motives at different junctures of the timeline.

Running parallel to the history keepers are the artists. Be it sculptures, dancers, musicians, play writers, poets, movie producers etc. they transmit the sentiments and the essence of their subject. Little attention is given to maintain the basic mathematical notion of having the left-hand side of the equation to be in balance to the right-hand side of the equation. That is history’s job to manage (rather justify) equilibrium between cause and effect. Arts is there to preserve the mood. Afterall, moods are what lead to primal behavior.

When words are set in a verse it becomes a poem. When a poem is set in notes, it becomes a song. When the body leaps to the emotions of the song, it becomes a dance. When colors capture these movements, they become a portrait. But what words, poems, song, dance and portrait? Is it meant to only exemplify what is already exemplified? No. Arts is more accepting, even for the very marginalized, allowing them a non-prejudiced canvas to paint their story. Art allows for these lesser known stories to travel time and tell the future generations about their existence too, while history may not have chronicled them or worse conveniently torn away their pages!

Ranga Shankara theatre in Bangalore is one of the finest spaces that the country has. Envisioned and set up by Arundathi Nag the theatre has the fingerprints of the late Shankar Nag and the late Girish Karnad,  among many other positive social catalysts in the arts space. In their inaugural festival called “Equal – Voices for a Common Humanity” they set themselves to bring forth these lesser known stories to the limelight. Run across 3 days, the curation of content was so diverse that I don’t think anyone who would have seen all the events could have slept unshaken for the next many days. Having caught only 3 of them, I have remained restless over the last one week, which is manifesting itself into this blog, which originally was supposed to be a just a post on social media.

The event that drew me to this festival was yet another performance of T.M. Krishna. Having attended a few of his events in the recent past and knowing the theme of the event, knowing it to be a solo performance and knowing his passion to speak, I thought I was prepared enough to keep my emotions under check. But if art does not move you, then its not an art meant for you. Right?

Entering the hall, one was welcomed by the amber lit stage with a single Tanpura. Could I brace myself anymore? With the audience swelling into the hall, for the second time in a Krishna’s concert I saw audience seated on the stage. When the clamor settled down, Arundathi Nag inducted a large majority of audience on the philosophy of the festival and on Krishna’s natural fit in it. She made the customary request for the mobiles to be switched off, but Krishna wanted the Ranga Shankara insignia to be maintained where that announcement is made in the ever so reverberating voice of the ever-lovable Girish Karnad.

Krishna welcoming us, sets the tone for the evening. A topic so dear to him, about bringing forth the voices of the marginalized. He admits that he did not want to speak much, but he has so much to say and when he found collective open minds, he was gonna make use of the opportunity. This was going to be a musical conversation, and he was going to be his natural fluid self and be all over the place.

Fear, he says is the primary force within us. And unlike it is commonly believed, fear does not captive the mind, but the heart; as he recently mentioned in one of his lectures.  An extension of that lecture he started of the evening with a song titled “Yarukkaghilum Bhayamaa”. The song is about a woman saying that she is not afraid of the gossips about her relationship with the man in place of a great power. To this, Krishna adds the context of sexual freedom and how it’s nobody’s business on what one’s sexual orientation and preferences are and dedicated his first song of the night to the LGBTQ community.

There on, he went on to sing what seemed a traditional Sanskrit composition. Only after a few lines Krishna interjected to tell us to pay attention to the words more carefully and not get trapped in the template of Sanskrit, with a knowing smile. And very soon, you hear the phrase of “Yesu” i.e. Christ. Continuing the musical tapestry, he wove an Arabic hymn that had the Mediterranean nuances infused with the Carnatic charm. These 2 pieces were a part of his repeated affirmation that Carnatic music is accommodative of not just Rama and Krishna but also Allaha and Christ and any other manifestation that may anchor one’s consciousness or pose a question to one’s consciousness.

From here on he got the saline voices of the sea. A fishermen song written by a friend of his, which draws the parallels of the life and sea. Having to hear the popular phrase associated with these songs “yelelo ailasa” set in a Carnatic template was again a first to many including me. He goes onto explain how fishermen songs have been an artform in the coastal cultures. With songs to lift their spirits and distract them from the physical pain of rowing, today these songs are fading away, as motor boats replace manual boats. He quickly clarifies that he is not against the motor boats, but the need to devise a way to preserve a very important artform.

He gives us a peek into 2 of his most remarkable collaborations of diversifying Carnatic music and making it more plural. The first being from his collaboration with the “Koothu” art form. Admitting on how he was moved out of his comfort zone and it was a journey of some distance before he could truly appreciate the rustic aesthetics of this art form. He chose to present to us a composition, where Duryodhana’s ego is broken into shambles. On how in his pursuit to save his life, he even hid himself amidst the pile of dead bodies. For me, it was a déjà vu moment, as my first ever live concert of Krishna was the “Carnatic Koothu” that I saw in Ranga Shankara itself, earlier this year.

The second piece from one of his collaborations, is the song that he learnt from his Jogappa Guru. The Jogappas who are a transgender community have arts in their life to keep them rooted from the harsh winds of societal prejudices and judgements. Knowing that if he is singing a Purandara Dasa composition in Kannada in a South Bangalore venue, he would have audiences correcting his diction, he clarified that this is how he learnt from his Guru and this is how he is going to present it.

Then somewhere in between, love again makes its appearance. With the very famous Meera song of “Pag Ghungroo Bandh Meera Nachi”.

He then contrasted 2 perspectives on how one enshrines to God – with the current contemporary poet and writer Perumal Murungan’s composition in Tamil about how his ambiguities of his faith in his deity arise in moments of conflict versus the social reformer poet Basavanna’s composition in Kannada who has no ambiguities that the lord is his ever-encompassing universe. One had to have a trained ear to catch the switch in the perspectives, so seamless his rendition was.

I cant remember any other songs he might have sung here. But he kept asking if he could sing 2 more to Arundati, and the crowd affirmed him even before she could say anything. What was supposed to be a 1-hour concert was well into its 2nd hour of the night past 11:30 p.m. now. Can’t remember what his last song was, but it was acknowledged with a standing ovation and a thundering applause. But only for the audience sitting back into the seats and not moving out and requesting for some more.

The Bengali song “Amar Janmabhumi” which was the first encore had echoes of what Krishna’s stance has been on the prevalent political situation of the country. He opened his conversation that night about his disturbed state of mind with all the happenings and one could feel it in the emphasis of the notes here. In his second encore, where he again yielded into submission of a greedy audience was “Allah Tero Naam”. This truly was the culmination of emotions for both Krishna and the audience. Somewhere after he sang the lines:

“o saare jag ke rakhwaale;

nirbal ko bal denewaale;

balwaano ko – de de gyaan;

sabko sanmati de bhagwaan”

he paused to compose himself. It took a few seconds for him to gain back his track, and there were many wiping the tears, as I myself was left choking. Hearing these lines, there was a sense of urgency in the prayer to be answered!

I have great regards to history. Its place in society is unquestionable. But the authentic voices around it are few, and the ones with credibility in the subject are constantly asked to prove their scholarship. With media houses with misplaced purposes documenting the history today, the only hope for a real picture to be showcased lies in the hands of the artists, today more than ever. The picture may not be appealing to you. But at least you have seen, been made aware of its existence.

The night of September 15, 2019 at Ranga Shankara was one such canvas that painted a picture. How one perceived it can be debatable, but more importantly the picture was presented.

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