Carnatic music singer T M Krishna recently made headlines for a concert in Delhi that had to be aborted after right-wing groups forced central government sponsors to withdraw. Though it did take place subsequently with Kejriwal government’s support, Krishna became a toast of the liberal circuit, reigniting the intolerance debate which has panned the Narendra Modi government since 2014. The argument was that art occupies a space in society autonomous of politics, and that an artist’s freedom to explore should not be constrained by the limiting demands of political constituency. And thus, by succumbing to the trolls the sponsors – public sector Airports Authority of India – had allowed the grey world of politics to malign the purity of art.
Krishna has now written an essay in the latest issue of Outlook magazine presenting his case. While admitting that art has always been associated with political patronage, he singles out the present day political class for being brazenly in cahoots with the hatemongers. The fact that trolls could influence people in political power should worry each one us, he argues, concluding that this is a coordinated measure of artistic control aimed at instilling fear and censorship. Given his own admission of mainstream art’s relationship with political patronage, let us examine how Krishna sees the relationship himself.
He is dismayed at the disquiet in some quarters about the very idea of an artist having political views. He believes that “art for art’s sake is a lie perpetuated by the cultural elite (the same who attended his concert?)”, and makes a vehement statement that “art is, and will always be, political.” Going further he makes a claim that “…the most divine experience too is a political comment.” One is left wondering if he would extend this argument to include religion also as a political experience, thus open to being integral to politics. Krishna believes in the essay that the autonomy of art leads to the othering of those beyond the privy circle.
Having been accused of deviating from the purity of Carnatic music by critics, Krishna hits back by calling purity “a fraudulent notion” paraded by those who seek control, a fallacy perpetuated by privileges. Coming from a privileged Tamil Brahmin background – he is the grandnephew of post-independence Congress leader and India’s then Finance Minister TT Krishnamachari – Krishna has lived a parallel life of social, political, and environmental activism, for which he has received prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award among others. It is perhaps the activist and rebel in him that underscores the iconoclasm in the essay.
But here is my argument. In putting the locus of arts firmly in politics, is he not inverting the logic of cheerleaders of the intolerance debate that politics should be kept out of arts. And if politics is integral to art, then why should he want to be shielded from being drawn into an intense political debate? Why should he fear attacks that politics entail? If all politics are about constituencies, what is wrong about a political dispensation heeding to its constituents? If the Modi government withdrew the sponsorship responding to its constituents, Kejriwal did the same by listening to his. Krishna seems to grudge the former while approving the latter, clearly playing his own politics. He wants the full shield of the constitutional freedom of expression to play politics with his art, while denying the same to others (whom he calls trolls) and the government. This has been the case since the coming to power of Narendra Modi in 2014. The essentially left-liberal ecosystem reacts with the same grudge and grumble every time a challenge comes from the counter-narrative. Intolerance anyone?
(Abhishek Kapoor is Republic TV's Executive Editor)