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Carl Schmitt, renowned for his wide ranging critique of liberalism, once famously said,” All true politics is based on the distinction between a friend and an enemy.” Explicating his concept of the ‘political’, Schmitt further argues that it is not possible to analyse a thing from a non-political or a post-political prism. He uses the friend-enemy binary to underline this argument that  certain dissociations between groups might cease to exist but the political remains and finds a new lease of life in other sets of distinctions. By keeping in mind this importance of the political in every walk of life, society and culture become the immediate sites in our quotidian affairs where this phenomenon must be realised. T.M.Krishna’s new book Reshaping Art argues to develop and nurture a critical space to understand how art evolves, what constitutes it and  its interface with our heterogeneous society.

Music, and for that matter Art, is political. The transcendental experience that art gives comes with its strings attached. The ‘soliloquy of creative meditation’ is not merely the result of sonorous composition alone, but an exercise that transports the personal into unchartered territories albeit with staying true to the innate, psychologically embedded notions of class, caste & gender. Zoom out from the micro personal to the macro society and the dominant power structure is self-evident. The catharsis of the detachment from the tactile needs to be cautioned by the nature of the transaction that the performer and the audience partake. As the writer says, there is something more to art than it merely generating feelings of it being ’emotional, rare and beautiful’. By laying out the immediate grounding of the abstract context, he makes a case to anticipate multiple forms of art without confining it to culture alone. If culture is the adaptive ability of human beings in relation to their surroundings and how we react to nature in general, art certainly stems from this development. However, it becomes much more complex, especially in what the author has to say in terms of how art is produced, performed and disseminated in society. The everyday tangibility of cultural moorings falls short in understanding the hegemonic zeal that has largely influenced the making of art.

Caste, as a significant facet of culture, has been the underlying political of art formation in India. As the author rightly says, knowledge has long been a preserve of upper caste communities while what lower caste do is merely ‘labour’. The omnipresent existence of caste, with the language of hierarchy and oppression, has very much been permeated in what constitutes art. It need not always be juxtaposed with religion as it has it has own hydra headed presence. In a brutally honest confession, Krishna talks of how caste thrives in his self and like many other questions he poses in the book, is still grappling with the right way to tackle it. At the same time, for him art is ‘culture’s most creative apparition’. The word apparition captures well the transient yet fundamental moment of ecstasy and mysticism combined. In an otherwise  largely sombre picture that he paints throughout, this brief encounter with the inner demon of casteism holds promise into turning the  socially and politically loaded form of culture into some kind of liberation to begin with. Almost akin to a ‘veil of ignorance’,  to borrow the concept of John Rawls, that even if for a brief moment has the opportunity to realise this mental space which is without the preconceived, premeditated inhibitions seen in actual reality. Krishna however does realise the abstractness and the borderline utopianism in his thought and does acknowledge the need to find new ways of making it more accessible. To his credit, he does show that in subsequent chapters while talking about Art and its relationship with identity and society in both conceptual and practical ways. The latter gets the most intriguing treatment while highlighting the power dynamics of music classrooms.

The deeply hierarchical nature of art formation has led to the rise of what he calls ‘High art and low art’. Bharatnatyam-Sadir, Kathakali-Kalaikuttu and other ‘low’ arts like Theyyam, Pariattam, Gaana etcetera are manifestations of the casteist and gendered treatments received by art forms of various communities. The toxic scaffolding that keeps this worldview intact is at the very basic level a Brahmanical romanticism with aestheticism, whose prominent bulwarks are purity and antiquity. For lower castes can never be born with creative faculties of their own. Constant drudgery for this condemned group of people gets labelled as reason enough to cast them and their art as unworthy of being part of any creative architecture. One of the primary reasons that the author rightly suggests for this is its relation with high art devotion. Along with appreciating music in the devotional paradigm, a respect for religious texts is paramount. In this process, music gets mythologised. Any trace of art beyond its pale is tantamount to having a degraded conscience. It is at this level that Brahminical hegemony must be located and systematically addressed. The biggest baggage of this  devotion inspired music is how the moral worldview of this hegemony gets later served as ‘universal ethics’. This further gets exacerbated by how music is forced to get attuned to corporate demands, to satiate the tastes and desires of the socially advantaged. Creativity in this way is disciplined only to navigate the path a certain privileged confinement.

Even if Krishna alludes to the dangers of reducing this discourse to Social Machiavellism, of art possibly being perpetually compromised on each and every footing, there are still a couple of issues which need further deliberation. One of the limitations of the book is the lack of addressing how Brahminism, beyond being perpetuated by the upper castes, is getting internalised by the non upper castes, starting from the very act of being an audience to such events. On the other side of the spectrum, an equally tricky terrain is how does one appreciate quality art emanating from upper caste artists without losing hold of the possible vice like grip of Brahminism that governs their worldview? Another problem, with keeping the above quandaries in the backdrop, is why would the privileged middle class be interested in ceding the space of appreciation to the endeavour of retrieving lost forms of marginalised art? What is the incentive at the level of the self to break the shackles?; for them, what must be their first genuine encounter with caste rigidities in art? Or is it only possible when the incentive is coming from external factors and not from the self? He does emphasise the role of vulnerability in art and how it forms the core of any art form which allows it to become more receptive to alien forms of knowledge. At the same time, the above questions and the sundry set of questions which he himself provides need careful deliberation. For this, he suggests we make ample use of what he intriguingly terms ‘aural silence’; a pause that art brings with itself for not only ‘experiencing’ but also ‘learning’.

Barring a few repetitions and minor inconsistencies, Krishna manages to talk truth to power in a book as small as hundred pages. At a time when apart from him there is practically nobody in the popular and academic realm who has thrown himself in this complex world of art with a critical bent of mind, his voice continues to sound refreshing. Above all, as he says, ‘Art belongs to the poromboku’, the commons – the arch nemesis of the pompous, condescending virtuosity of high art.

Surajkumar Thube recently completed his post graduation in Political Science from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

One Comment

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    Review of an important book dealing with crucial subject