Reshaping Art review: The art world as a free space

A classical singer’s plea to throw off shackles of caste, class and hierarchies in culture

April 07, 2018 09:42 pm | Updated 10:10 pm IST

T.M. Krishna

T.M. Krishna

“Art should be allowed to do what it does best — transform and inspire, not regulate and control,” says T.M. Krishna, well-known Carnatic singer. His new book , Reshaping Art , is almost a plea for the delinking of Carnatic and other so-called high art forms from the stranglehold of social hierarchies and value systems that hold political prejudices and covert ideologies.

While the author does not closely examine how and why these systems came into being in detail — which certainly does not fall within the scope of his book — he does endeavour to persuade the reader to probe into the current scenario of the performing art space, its practices and the manner in which it is usually dispensed. There is even a chapter dedicated to the schooling practices of south Indian music that usually tries to perpetuate its already cloistered status and maintain the religious status quo associated with the same.

Reshaping Art; T.M. Krishna, Aleph, ₹399.

Reshaping Art; T.M. Krishna, Aleph, ₹399.


The upper-caste entitlement of certain classical art forms is directly derived from the unjustifiable division of human function along caste lines, he argues. While high art usually is equated with the generating of jnanam or knowledge, low-caste art forms, on the other hand, even if they acquire religious significance, are treated as mere forms of uzhaippu (labour).

As a practising musician, Krishna, who hails from a patriarchal Brahminical order, appears to recognise the strangulations of his chosen vocation and almost in a state of frenzy proclaims: “Listening to a Karnatik concert is not mere exposure to the music; it is a complete Brahmin brainwashing package,” he says, adding, “the presentation of a Karnatik concert is a representation of Brahminical culture. The modern structure of performance came into being in the early twentieth century and was propagated by vocalist Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. Reasons attributed to this restructuring include reduced concert length, shift of concerts to urban proscenium stages and introduction of microphones. But, beyond these external needs, the structure was deeply influenced by the religious and moral values of the upper-caste Brahmin.”

A way of thinking that Jacques Derrida had drawn attention to in another context.

Social responsibility

A lot of insightful observations permeate the slender book, comprising eight chapters, delightfully titled, ‘The Essence of Art’, ‘Art and Society’, ‘The Caging of Art’, ‘Caste in Music’, ‘Reshaping Art’, ‘Art and Identity’, ‘Art in the Classroom’, and ‘The Spirit of Art’.

With a tremendous sense of honesty, the author writes at the end: “All through my life in art, I have drawn from recognizing my own inadequacies and struggled with culture, people, politics, identity, ownership, sharing, control, religion and space. I am certain that there is much in me and the outside that I do not know. But something within me impels me to continue trying, keep searching and trudging along this path without end.”

It is a sort of personal assay into the intricacies of art and its social responsibilities. In the light of what he has understood as an insider, Krishna observes that art is not an “accident,” neither is it a mistake. It is deliberate, conscious, and a willed human endeavour.

Writing on art can usually take two broad directions: either zooming in on art objects or artistic creations per se or their process, or delving into the theory of artistic creations and their philosophical aesthetics.

There is a large body of thought and analysis in each of these divisions by western as well as eastern thinkers. These need not be excluded as too demanding and academic stuff inaccessible to the common man and woman, and shelved in the dark corners of any library.

Intimate link

There is indeed a general belief that writing on art is clouded in abstract and abstruse conceptualisations and too remote for the general public. But aesthetics is intimately linked with our life, only that we may not be too aware of its presence.

When singers like Krishna analyse the social situation of their art, a process of amalgamation takes place: art is brought down from a pedestal. We read in his book : “In Tamil, there is a word ‘poromboku’, which refers to the commons — that which is shared by every citizen. This includes lakes, rivers, grazing lands, marshlands, mangroves, shorelines and beaches. These are places that must be protected and preserved by the collective community and the arts can play a tremendous role in making this happen... We have to retrieve ‘poromboku’ culturally and reclaim the people’s rights to the commons.”

This is the insight that the singer has brought to bear on theoretical aesthetics, the clarion call to reintegrate the cultural spaces which have been segregated to the detriment of a unified aesthetic theory. Krishna’s essay is an open invitation for the inquiring eye and ear, desiring to find a common ground for integrating cultural action in music and art. Probably this is extended into praxis by Krishna’s seeking those physical outer spaces as arenas for his performances.

Reshaping Art ; T.M. Krishna, Aleph, ₹399.

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