TMK finds the melody in Narayana Guru’s message of equality | Mumbai news - Hindustan Times
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TMK finds the melody in Narayana Guru’s message of equality

ByEkta Mohta
Mar 11, 2023 12:41 AM IST

Chennai-based, 47-year-old Thodur Madabusi Krishna is articulate on every subject, in song and in speech. And, our interview on Zoom does not diminish his professorial oration, complete with big hand gestures and head scratches

TM Krishna is as comfortable on a soapbox as he’s on the stage. The Carnatic vocalist, author, activist, and Ramon Magsaysay awardee, is known as much for his concert performances as for his engagements with “inconvenient truths”. In the world of Indian classical music, he stands alone. He has sung alongside Tamil rappers and performed side-by-side with the Jogappas (a community of transgender musicians). He has turned the poetry of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan into compositions, and for his concert at the NCPA on Saturday, he is singing the verses of Narayana Guru, the 19th-century social reformer. Musically and intellectually, he has moved beyond the confines of the Carnatic world, about whom he acknowledges, “we classical types are uppity people”.

TMK finds the melody in Narayana Guru’s message of equality
TMK finds the melody in Narayana Guru’s message of equality

Chennai-based, 47-year-old Thodur Madabusi Krishna is articulate on every subject, in song and in speech. And, our interview on Zoom does not diminish his professorial oration, complete with big hand gestures and head scratches. “Constitutionally, we have created a framework where caste can have no space. What we have been unable to do is to bring about a cultural change within society that forefronts the need for a non-discriminative societal framework. If caste has to go, there has to be an entire rethinking of culture, of ritual, of practice, of habits.”

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A prominent figure to attempt that in the late 1800s was Narayana Guru in the kingdom of Travancore, present-day Kerala, who campaigned for temple entry and educational inclusion. As it often happens with historical figures, Krishna knew of him in bullet points. “For me, Guru was probably three lines in a textbook. I knew he was an anti-caste warrior in the early 20th century. I knew his slogan: ‘one caste, one religion, one god for man.’ And, I knew he came from a marginalised community.” He truly encountered the ideas of Guru through discussions with the Backwaters Collective, an academic community. “Guru was not only challenging the societal mores of caste, he was challenging the ritualistic, religious, philosophical modes, which is an even more sensitive space, and he was not discarding it. He was saying, ‘I will reimagine it. I will create another way of internal realisation, which is casteless.’”

Guru’s verses travelled the length and breadth of Indian thought. “His poetry was deeply religious, directly religious, but then, some were based on Advait (non-dualism) while others were pluralistic or secular, and yet others were quite social in themes. Traversing this has been quite fascinating for me,” says Krishna, who has set a few of Guru’s writings to music. During the performance, Krishna begins with a brief introduction in English, and then launches into the pieces in Malayalam, Sanskrit, and Tamil. “Even a person who doesn’t understand Guru’s words, upon hearing ‘Samastha Prapancham’, feels the ‘Samastha Prapancham’. There’s a certain aesthetic explosion in the way the syllables are formed, which is musical.”

Sound check

In 1916, Guru had composed the ‘Darsana Mala’ in Sanskrit, which Krishna has converted into a ‘shabdam’, with ‘jathis’ and text, and a beginning in the raga Kambhoji. The verses he has chosen talk about the evil manifestations of ‘avidya’ (ignorance). “If Guru were here today, his would be such an important voice to have. The great failure of the liberals of this country is their inability to embrace faith,” he says. “We’ve been condescending and insensitive. It is possible to be critical of the way your religion participates in society, and yet, be respectful of the people who find peace and hope when they stand in front of a deity.”

At the same time, he also acknowledges, “If Guru were here today, he would have been aggressively trolled. He may not have been there on social media but his every poem, his statements, would have been taken out of context. Two words would have been picked up and put in a tweet somewhere.” Krishna himself is quite active on Twitter but social media, he knows, is creating silos in the national discourse. “A thread of tweets is not a serious discussion. Calling someone out is not the only way to [engage]. What Guru did was he smudged the silos. He said that you can’t have any ethical external action if you are not transforming emotionally within. He was able to bring the two together in a beautiful manner.”

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Pull quote

“If Guru were here today, he would be such an important voice to have. The great failure of the liberals of this country is their inability to embrace faith”- TM Krishna, musician, writer, activist

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