Artisans, be invisible, we need only your art

Artisans, be invisible, we need only your art

We can even condemn them. But we have no right to banish them. Or, destroy them.

Julius Caesar statue. (File Photo)

When Julius Caesar burnt down the great library of Alexandria, he was rightly accused of destroying “the thoughts of men.” The written word was considered sacred in ancient Egypt. And, so it is today. When an author pens his thoughts, we may or may not agree with them. As readers, we may criticise them. We can even condemn them. But we have no right to banish them. Or, destroy them. That would be sacrilege. When Kalakshetra banished a book from its premises, that was a travesty of its founder’s dream of building a temple of arts to create “a space for thought.”

The latest scandal, where the launch of a book by singer and writer TM Krishna was unceremoniously called off, showed scant respect for art by that great “temple of arts.”  The first such shameful incident occurred in the capital city of Delhi when his music concert, co-sponsored by Spic Macay, another art institution, was abruptly cancelled, creating a domino effect of several other cancellations by prestigious sabhas, including one in Washington, DC. All these incidents point to a mixing up of an artist’s creativity with his political views.

For music lovers, Krishna’s music has nothing to do with his writing, speaking or activism. Even though he may have used that to promote environmental awareness like the Poromboke Paadal, his art cannot be confused with his other pursuits. When he sings, it is pure, undiluted music which moves him as much as it does his listeners. Who cares whether he is Right, Left or Centre when he is exploring a soul-searing alapana in Mukhari? It’s the same with any artist. MS Subbulakshmi could transport her listeners to another level of existence when she sang. Listening to her, did her mesmerised rasikas wonder where she came from or what was her parentage? An artist stands tall on the strength of her art. Nothing else matters. 

The Nobel Prize is a case in point. Hemingway won it for the sheer beauty of his unparalleled prose.

The prize honoured Hemingway the writer, and not Hemingway the man. When I am reading Salman Rushdie, should I marvel at his vocabulary or wonder why he left Padma Lakshmi? In India, things get hopelessly mixed up because of our inability to separate artistic achievements from other interests. Kalakshetra may not have been thinking of the author’s political views when it agreed to launch his book on its premises. In fact, Kalakshetra was not thinking at all. Being affiliated to the Centre, it should have anticipated the events that followed. When it rescinded its invitation, it gave a lame excuse of fearing that the book would create “political, cultural and social disharmony.” The hallowed institution has opened a can of worms by this declaration as many of its famed dance-dramas could stir similar discord. The politics of caste and morality are abundantly present there.

The book that has raised hackles even before its launch is actually a salutation to the invisible artisans who make the mridangam. According to its author, their marginalised community has to deal with the most revolting aspect of their art – the slaughterhouse, where cows are gruesomely killed. The skin of the dead animal must be cleaned, cured and secured firmly around the skeleton of a wooden drum to fashion it into a source of melody and rhythm.

 “Sogasugaa mrdanga thaalamu…” sang Thyagaraja while extolling the virtues of this instrument created out of blood and gore. Ironically, it is the very soul of Carnatic music. It is commendable that one of the finest exponents of such music should salute a community that has to walk invisible after creating this marvel. Even the best players of this magical drum have ignored its makers or simply pretended that they did not exist.

It is beyond comprehension why a book that traces the history of the mridangam and its makers should trigger panic. The author’s blunt exposure of the hypocrisy and caste discrimination that pervade the world of Carnatic music may have touched a raw nerve. Yet, an institution that claims to be autonomous should have respected its commitment to an artist and his work. Why did Kalakshetra renege on its word? The reason is not far to seek. TM Krishna is vocal in areas other than music. And that does not please. The real tragedy is the reluctance of spineless art establishments to stand up for artists. They would rather please their bosses in order to preserve their own survival.  They have slighted art works time and again by preferring to be stooges of successive governments in power.

TM Krishna’s simple question whether Kalakshetra will next banish the mridangam itself from its dance classes calls for some introspection. 

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