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“The Social Texture of an Artist” – reflections on the 2017 SAI Mahindra Lecture

By Rajna Swaminathan, PhD candidate, Department of Music, Harvard University

In his Mahindra Lecture earlier this month, vocalist T.M. Krishna presented his philosophy on the possibilities for art to break through social habits and boundaries. Drawing on his experience as a person from a privileged background and rising to fame in the Carnatic music scene, Krishna illustrated the ways in which music led him from the personal to the public and political, advocating a spirit of questioning that is uncommon to most classical art forms. Focusing on aesthetics as a site of precipitation for the social, Krishna led those of us who identify as artists to ask: Are we really being creative? Or do we take creativity for granted, conditioning our minds along certain paths, and being very comfortable through all of it?

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(L-R) Homi Bhabha, Rajna Swaminathan, TM Krishna, Vijay Iyer

Krishna recounted his excursions into placing the privileged middle class of Chennai (the central locus of the Karnatik music scene) in dialogue with marginalized art forms, communities, and issues: the Jogappas (a community of transgender performers from Karnataka), Urur Olcott Kuppam (a fishing village in Besant Nagar, Chennai), and the environmental crisis surrounding Ennore Creek. He pointed to the mutual vulnerability that ensued in such encounters, as well as the general state of receptivity that artists must strive for, cutting through comfortable social tendencies.

After his talk, Krishna presented an unusual (and recently composed) Carnatic song in the vernacular Chennai dialect of Tamil — “Poromboke” (a derogatory word that was originally used to refer geographically to the ‘commons’ that became categorized as ‘unprofitable’ land under colonial powers), for which I accompanied on mrudangam. While singing, Krishna took breaks to explain certain words and intentions that were artfully worked into the song. During the ensuing conversation with Professors Homi Bhabha and Vijay Iyer, both honed in on the various textures of vulnerability at play in the cross-community encounters that Krishna had described. Krishna responded by outlining the gradual nature and tenuous micropolitics of having such polarized communities interact. According to him, having the privilege to start such conversations was only the first step, and subsequent encounters allowed for vulnerabilities and privileges to be exchanged in subversive ways.

The conversation ended by pointing toward the role of the “insider-outsider,” and being in a position to secure institutional support, subvert the power structures at play, and catalyze new kinds of dialogue that included marginalized voices. Professor Iyer connected this to a story related to him by jazz legend Muhal Richard Abrams: while traveling in Europe, a circuit that many jazz musicians depended on despite their difference being on display for consumption by predominantly white audiences, there was an unexpected empathy that took hold through the music. Something rung a bell somewhere, for both audience and performers, cutting through the social circumstances. Embracing a shared humanity through sensitively curated interventions, forming unlikely bonds through the collective experience of beauty, and always keeping a receptive mind and creatively questioning one’s context — these were the lessons and the persisting questions that will continue to resonate for everyone who was present.

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