An equal music, a beautiful society

No aspect of life in India from the exalted heavens of the classical arts to the most mundane pits of bodily waste can escape the totalitarian structure of caste.

Updated - December 24, 2016 01:44 am IST

Published - December 24, 2016 12:10 am IST

Illustration: Keshav

Illustration: Keshav

A recent event in Delhi brought together two Indian winners of the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay Award, Bezwada Wilson and T.M. Krishna, in a wide-ranging conversation about freedom of expression, nationalism and inequality, issues of pressing concern. Both were outspoken against a growing majoritarianism, and passionate about building an egalitarian and just society through their respective fields. Wilson, 50, national convener of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, is a campaigner against manual scavenging; and Krishna, 40, is a prominent exponent of Carnatic music and a public intellectual.

The two men share a commitment to free speech and equal citizenship, to addressing entrenched forms of exclusion, discrimination and violence based on caste, to democratic rights and the Indian Constitution. They come from absolutely unrelated areas of engagement, and from personal backgrounds that are far apart, but what is remarkable is how they converge in their social activism as well as their shared ability to communicate clearly and forcefully with large audiences. The Magsaysay Award jury was astute indeed in recognising the laudable public spiritedness of both Wilson and Krishna, and their common concern with the problem of caste.

The annihilation of caste

Manual scavenging — including the removal, carrying and disposal by hand of human excrement, and the physical cleaning of latrines, sewers and septic tanks, a task invariably assigned to Dalits (including men, women and children) — has been targeted for eradication since Gandhi came back to India a hundred years ago. It was the Mahatma who began to insist, in the face of tremendous resistance, that all his family members and associates, regardless of caste, class and gender, clean toilets themselves. An Act of Parliament in 1993 officially banned the employment of manual scavengers and the construction of dry latrines. And yet it continues today, perpetuating the most extreme forms of indignity and oppression, causing disease and death, reducing life expectancy, and making the occupation of thousands of Indian citizens a living hell.

Wilson has been campaigning to put an end to this abominable practice for close to thirty years. The turning point for him was around 1990-91, the birth centenary of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), that brought the life and work of the great Dalit leader back into the mainstream of national consciousness and forced the government of the day to implement the Mandal Commission Report, expanding the scope of affirmative action against caste-based social inequality. How can India proceed with its ambitious economic and political agendas for growth, change and prosperity, Wilson asks, when such an archaic form of caste discrimination, a kind of slavery and a form of torture, continues to exist and to ruin countless Dalit lives?

Krishna comes at caste from the direction of the arts, particularly Carnatic music, for almost a century now the preserve of elite urban Brahmin men — whether as composers, singers, musicians, accompanists or listeners — in Chennai and other artistic capitals of southern India. He has been arguing that what is now considered Carnatic classical music and what is now called Bharatanatyam classical dance were both originally the provenance of women, especially temple dancers and courtesans, and of non-Brahmin “holding communities” like the Isai Vellalars. These groups were sidelined and their art forms taken over by socially dominant Brahmin practitioners and patrons, who cleansed the music and dance of their vernacular, erotic, demotic and popular character, and reinvented them as classical, religious, refined and urbane. The temple courtyard and the noisy village square gave way to the kutcheri and the sophisticated concert hall as performance spaces, which closed their doors to ordinary people.

In 2015 Krishna announced his decision to stop performing in the December concert season — in the Tamil month of Margazhi — of Chennai, even though he has been the star of this vaunted annual cultural event from a young age. He now organises a new winter-time music festival in the small fishing village of Urur-Olcott Kuppam in Chennai, teaches music and performs free concerts at corporation schools, trains girls and women in Carnatic vocal and instrumental music, and extends the ambit of his pedagogic outreach to tribal, rural and marginalised communities. He has also expanded the repertoire of music that he himself sings, including modern Hindustani and Bengali forms. Most recently he has made joint appearances with the Jogappas, a transgender community of devotional folk performers, associated with the goddess Yellamma, from northern Karnataka and contiguous parts of the Deccan (Andhra and Maharashtra), unimaginable in the hallowed halls of classical music for the Carnatic orthodoxy.

Self-purification and self-respect

Krishna and Wilson — together, as a pair — remind one of the late D.R. Nagaraj’s insightful formulation of “self-purification” and “self-respect” as the two modalities of a moral resistance to caste, especially untouchability, flowing from Gandhi and Ambedkar, respectively. According to Nagaraj, the caste Hindu and especially the Brahmin self must purify or purge itself of its impulse to exclude or hurt the untouchable, while the Dalit self must assert its intrinsic worth and inalienable dignity even in the face of relentless discrimination.

Krishna, constantly aware of and critical about his own birth, training, conditioning and privilege, has been advocating strenuously that Carnatic music “de-Brahminise” itself, undertake some “social re-engineering” as an act of self-purification to render itself less unequal and more inclusive. The arts are after all a microcosm of society, reflecting and even amplifying its inequalities. Wilson meanwhile states unequivocally that if the Constitution guarantees the self-respect of Dalits, then an abhorrent demeaning practice like manual scavenging simply cannot be allowed to persist in today’s India.

But what is more striking than this obvious dialectic of self-purification and self-respect, which can be traced back to Gandhian and Ambedkarite stances on caste, is how both Krishna and Wilson in their own ways struggle to actualise what Ambedkar called “social endosmosis”. This is the natural flow and exchange of ideas, values, practices, knowledge and energies between and across groups that Ambedkar lamented could not occur in the rigidly stratified and segregated Hindu social order. The traditional caste system controls social reproduction through strict endogamy, and places nearly insurmountable taboos on cohabitation, commensality and other forms of conviviality and commerce between different castes.

Ambedkar and ‘social endosmosis’

Untouchability may have been outlawed through Article 17 of the Indian Constitution, but that is only the most extreme way to keep human beings and fellow citizens apart. In fact, Indians of different castes even today seldom eat together, live together, inter-marry or in other ways participate in each other’s life-worlds across the invisible yet impenetrable barriers of caste. As Krishna has shown, in a manner that is all the more effective for being so blunt, we can’t even sing together, an indicator of how little we hear the speech, the pain, the yearnings, the silences of others.

No aspect of life in India from the exalted heavens of the classical arts to the most mundane pits of bodily waste can escape the totalitarian structure of caste: this was Ambedkar’s rage against varnaashramadharma, the total society. From music to excreta, everything is segregated, violating the basic principle of equal citizenship. Having Krishna and Wilson come together on a common platform exemplifies what Nagaraj characterised as the necessity for modern Indians to address, simultaneously, “the beauty and the horror” of caste. “My journey began from the question of beauty,” Krishna said. “What is beauty?” For a moment this seems like a strange way to begin thinking about the cultural politics of Carnatic music, or indeed any other art form, but it turns out to be an enormously productive line of inquiry. As Wilson points out, an equal society is the most beautiful thing that human beings could make.

Why can’t scientists, planners and bureaucrats come up with a way to end forever the scourge of manual scavenging, Wilson demands, not just a moral and political alternative but a technological and policy solution? Krishna’s path has been more challenging to interpret as a radical move in the politics of aesthetics. In systematically educating himself and us about the actual historical origins and forgotten trajectories of Carnatic music; in abandoning the highest prosceniums for unexplored spaces and unexpected audiences; in opening himself to the sounds and rhythms of every kind of community populating the hum and hubbub of India; in learning to listen and unlearning how he was taught to sing, he has indisputably transformed himself as an artiste.

Articulate to a fault, Krishna reflects, writes, lectures and teaches continuously about what he is doing. But even if he were not to talk about it explicitly, any sensitive listener can hear in Krishna’s voice as it continues to evolve, over the past couple of years especially, a note of compassion, empathy and sweetness that deepens immeasurably the musical experience for singer and audience alike. This is not just amazing virtuosity, which he has had from the very beginning. It is, rather, the sound of virtue itself, the profoundly moving melody of an ethical music. Is there only suffering for the Dalit condemned to manual scavenging, Wilson was asked. “The fight for justice is itself the greatest happiness,” he answered.

Ananya Vajpeyi is a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

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