JLF book launch: TM Krishna on dissent, fear as a constant in our culture

T M Krishna tells Gopalkrishna Gandhi during a virtual launch of his new book why he feels compelled to question injustice of every kind and how our inbuilt fear seems like a larger monster now

TM Krishna said that the essays in the book released by JLF on June 8 comes from a space of serious questioning

Classical musician TM Krishna’s new book, The Spirit of Enquiry: Notes on Dissent, which is a compilation of his writings, and includes a rebuttal to one of his own articles, has been virtually launched by the Jaipur Literary Festival’s First Edition series on Tuesday (June 8).

Before the musician-author engaged in a conversation with retired diplomat and former West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, TMK shared that his essays in the book does not have to do with “being right or having worked it all out”. But the thoughts and ideas embedded in his essays are still left open and he wanted readers to know that they come from a “space of serious questioning”. He also described this book as “a journey in itself, an incomplete journey”, and when his readers leave the book, he hoped, they would walk their own path.

The compilation also features a rebuttal that TMK wrote to himself. It was an essay that was deeply argued and discussed when it came out and he said, “I’m glad I got an opportunity to respond to myself”.

Gopalkrishna, who is currently the Professor of History and Politics at Ashoka University, went on to discuss a wide range of topics with TMK, questioning him about his journey over the years as a writer and a singer, his need to question every kind of injustice, the spirit of enquiry without fear, privacy and more. Gandhi also said he was a deep fan of TMK’s writings and praised the book for being all about “feeling”, about what it means to feel and what it means to share from the depths of privacy.


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One of the key questions Gandhi posed to Krishna was on his need to question injustices. Observing that TMK seemed to feel he’s being complicit if he remains silent against injustices and inequalities, Gandhi asked him why he felt the need to question a whole range of injustices “as if one is obliged to do it?”

To which the irrepressible and outspoken TMK said that it was true that one feels compelled to take positions but sometimes you respond because “you see there is a need to respond to every situation”. Also, should the injustices be asked in terms of concentric circles? asked TMK. Should he be asking questions only about those who are closest to him and leave the ones that come under a larger circle and detach himself from those questions?

When he was questioned about the spirit of enquiry by a participant in the virtual session, he replied that when we were in school we would self-censor ourselves in class and only ask questions that could be asked. “A lot of our schooling is self-censorship,” asserted TMK, who had done his schooling in KFI, Chennai. “Isn’t that self-censorship automatically? The idea of fear is a constant in our culture. What’s happening now is making this fear seem like a larger monster,” he added, News Minute reported.

According to TMK, the way out of this fear is to find collectives by which we can confront this fear.  But, the larger cultural question that has to be asked is: why do we have inbuilt fear?

On the topic of privacy, TMK asked if we can be truly alive in isolation or self-absorbed in isolation. “Being alone is different from being isolated. When you’re alone you want to be able to receive and share without clutter. We don’t want to get stuck into that clutter. And with isolation we avoid facing that clutter,” he explained. Gandhi recalled an incident at this point when TMK had just got up and left at the end of an alapana in his concert and asked, “Can you tell me in a sentence – what does privacy mean to you?”

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“Privacy to me is being able to breathe fearlessly. For me, my breath is essential because I sing. Everything about music is in the breath,” TMK answered and also addressed the concert incident. “I had actually felt that there was no need for me to say anything more that day in music. The sharing had happened and I thought it was maybe just right to leave…” he defended himself.

When Gandhi asked him if his writing and singing can exist as two focal centres for him, he replied that if twenty years ago someone had asked him the question, he would have answered rapidly that “there can’t be two centres.” That was “because I didn’t see even the purpose of my singing then!”

“I did sing and people enjoyed and I enjoyed more than the audience I presume. But there is something more to singing than the pleasure derived. There is that nature of churning, that music at some point in time, triggers in some of us,” shared TMK.

According to TMK, writing has become as important as singing to him. He wrote only because of his singing, because music nudged him to remind him to look at himself. “In a way I write because there is music. When I sing, I am influenced not by the writing but by the intelligence that goes into it. I like to live in the churning and both these are paired for me,” he pointed out.

On TMK’s compilation, Gandhi noted that he has made extraordinary comments in the political section of the book on issues pertaining to our country, to the constitutional morality and political ethics of our times, and also globally on Israel and Palestine.

The erudite Gandhi said that if in 1918 during the Spanish Flu, personalities such as DV Paluskar or Ustad Karim Khan or VN Bhatkhande wrote essays giving a glimpse of the India of those days that would be a fantastic compilation. TMK is doing something similar for today’s India. He also praised him for describing the late music legend MS Subbulakshmi as an “unsolved mystery”.

Penguin Random House, who has published his book has called TMK’s collection “a reflection of the critical and cultural engagement of one of our finest thinkers, public intellectuals and practitioners of art”. While Pratap Bhanu Mehta has said in the foreword: One who has the courage to think, stand up for principles and decency and who has empowered us to resist authoritarianism, communalism and social inequality.