It was a hot and humid afternoon when the well-known Carnatic musician and public intellectual, T.M. Krishna, delivered the second Neelabh Mishra memorial lecture in Delhi. I’ve never had an ear for classical music, but the title of his lecture – and Krishna’s tradition of dissent – nudged me to go and listen what an astute scholar like him had to say.
His lecture was titled ‘Between the Note and the Word’ and by the end of it, I was convinced that each one of us is made up of notes and words – some more notes than words, others more words than notes, but extremely few like Krishna himself, with equal number of words and notes.
His notes besieged us, his words freed us.
Krishna began his lecture with the notion of ‘sur‘ and ‘besur’, in tune and not in tune. He believed that the phonic space in which the note operates is never perfect. Thus, no attempt should be made to purify the note, more so when we fail to understand the context of the creator of that note. He exemplified this notion by singing notes borrowed from lower-caste communities, the Dalits of Tamil Nadu. He felt that these notes appeared to be besur (to the elite) but cautioned that any attempt to purify them would actually amount to encroaching the aesthetic space of that community.
He said that the job of a singer was not to make these imperfections better but to communicate the culture which they signify. In an era when most things around us are made to appear perfect – a perfect race, a perfect nation, a perfect leader – Krishna’s words sounded like those of God pleading his perfect disciples to look for imperfections of his creation.
Another important part of his lecture, which again is highly relevant to the times we live in, was his appeal against homogenisation. He said that to homogenise sound was a form of cultural elitism and destruction of the culture itself. Nothing could be truer than that. Homogenisation breeds ugliness. It typifies the end of the pluralistic space in which an artist or even a common citizen operates. It breeds contempt.
But equally interestingly, Krishna also challenged the idea of beauty. He felt that in a broader sense, the idea of beauty is discriminatory. How do you decide to speak to a stranger on the street, he asked? This decision is based on what that stranger is wearing, how he looks, etc. These notions of the external beauty make us judgmental. The imperfect notes are thus a means of becoming non-judgmental.
What better advise could have fallen on our ears in times in which our own cultural identity is becoming menacingly dominant? We are at the cusp of history where we have smudged the idea of beauty with identity. Even while reading Plato one realises that many of his quotations could be multiplied from almost all his dialogues to show how deeply the usefulness of beauty is rooted in the minds of people.
In Symposium, Xenophon says that if beautiful eyes are those that see the best, then his own eyes are more beautiful than those of Critobulus because they project further out of his head and have therefore a wider field of vision.
Krishna’s idea of beauty is thus more of emancipation and not merely identity renunciation.
He then took us on a journey of ragas. He traced the historical context of why some ragas are sung in a manner which is entirely different from how they were sung barely a hundred years ago. He emphasised the works Tyagaraja, one of the greatest composers of Carnatic music in this context, and compared how his compositions gained popularity over those by Muthuswamy Dikshitar. Krishna revealed that how ragas are sung shows how they have been handled through generations.
In a way, ragas are the markers of a generation. Ragas have a history of who handled them and who didn’t.
The broad point which Krishna made by this analogy was the identification of the historical context of discrimination. It made me think that ragas were pretty much like people. The way people behave also reveals how they have been handled through the course of history. No wonder, the arrogance of a higher-caste and the elitism of the so-called blue blood is not very different from the behaviour of ragas.
He spoke of the McGurk effect, a weird phenomenon about which I didn’t know till that day. McGurk phenomena is characterised by a sensory illusion.
When the visual mouth movement and the audio we hear match, there is no confusion in the brain. But if you change the visual mouth movement (which indicates another sound) and yet retain the older sound, the brain gets confused and you start hearing the sound that the visual points to, even though in reality, the audio has not changed.
In a nutshell, the illusion doesn’t let us hear the truth. Nothing could have been more relevant to the times of untruth in which we live. Krishna’s lecture in the post-truth India of today made me feel that each one of us have been struck by the McGurk effect. We are hearing the untruth as truth. The illusion of some faces is confusing us.
The evening culminated with Krishna saying that a perfect note is a fraud. Note is in the word and the word is in the note, he said, and asked us to not accept authority from either of them. It is the space between the note and the word where democracy flourishes, he concluded.
I wondered how true Krishna’s words are. There has been a constant stifling of space for dissent, for love and for democracy. This space is now filled with arrogance, hubris and perfection. Let’s hope that we can keep the note imperfect for some more time.
Shah Alam Khan is professor, orthopaedics at AIIMS, New Delhi and author of the book Announcing the Monster. Views are personal.