Tuesday, November 20, 2018

T.M. Krishna's Lungi, Yuja Wang's Short Dress, Rajaratnam Pillai's Shirt and Kutcheri Costumes: Music, Politics and Dress

On October 6th I attended a concert by T.M. Krishna that became quite notorious, not for the non-traditional repertoire of songs, but for the dress he wore. T.M.K had worn a lungi (a colorful sarong like garment from hip to ankle) and colorful Tommy Bahama style shirt. From Gandhi's loincloth to Ambedkar's suit and Krishna's lungi, dress has been a marker of rebellion and assertion. Dress has a special connotation in classical music. What has the choice of dress meant for various people? 'Dress', the Bard tells us, 'maketh a man'.

T.M.K, who has raised the ire of many a carnatic music aficionado thanks to his political activism and criticism of casteism within the music fraternity had touched a raw nerve when he said he would sing a song on Allah or Christ every month in response to another controversy, now really upped the ante and his haters swarmed with a barrage of venom in response to a photo I posted. The reactions, while predictable, were also alarming because of their obscenity.

Picture Credit - Aravindan Kannaiyan
Music, as cultural marker, is integral to the identity of a society and a people and is, more than even politics, a fertile ground for sartorial rebellion.

Yuja Wang and Cameron Carpenter and Dress Codes Shredded

Western classical music is reputedly stodgy and musicians wear the infamous black and black. Unlike Carnatic music the choice of black and black is to ensure that the audience is not distracted from the music. The formal dress code probably has its origins in 15th or 16th century when classical music was performed in the homes of the nobility with liveried servants.

The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, a storied institution, according a New York Times article is debating on allowing women performers to wear pants instead of long skirts as required by code. Symphony orchestras in US and elsewhere are grappling with how to appeal to a broader audience without offending long time patrons who expect a solemnity. Baltimore Symphony Orchestra now allows women to wear pants, albeit dark in color. Women performers choosing to wear pants for sake of convenience is second to those make a choice of dress to reflect their conception of music as art.

in 1958 legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein made his orchestra wear Nehru-jackets, so called after a style of jacket worn by Jawaharlal Nehru. The move was panned and Bernstein shelved the idea calling it, "Bernstein's folly". The Nehru-jacket has reappeared recently thanks to conductor Christoph Eschenbach who sports it instead of the traditional jacket with tails.

Christoph Eschenbach in Nehru Jacket (Picture credit Eschenbach-Christoph-14.jpg
Julliard trained and Grammy nominated organist Cameron Carpenter, a column explains, is an atheist who wants to free the organ as an instrument for music outside of the Church. Carpenter wears tank tops and cuban heeled shoes and 'bedazzles himself with Swarovski crystals'. "He'll play a Wagner overture on the same bill as a Japanese film score and takes liberties by canonized by composers like Bach for dramatic effect enraging purists".

Cameron Carpenter (From the Verge article)

Beijing born Yuja Wang, considered a prodigy pianist, created shockwaves in 2011 when she strode onto a performance wearing a scandalously short dress and high heels. Wang's dresses have remained short and sometimes, for added effect, were backless too. An Economist profile of Wang quoted a reviewer who said her "short dress and spiky heels" emphasize her petite stature and draw a contrast to the force she creates with music. Another reviewer went to the extent of saying when Wang wore traditional dresses her performance was less inspired. Wang herself attributes her creativity to her daring dress choices and said, "every dress can give some certain meaning to the music". Wang asserted that "tradition is not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire".

Wang defends her choice of style emphatically, "if the music is beautiful and sensual, why not dress to fit? It's about power and persuasion. Perhaps it's a little sadomasochistic of me. But if I am going to get naked with my music, I may as well be comfortable while I'm at it".

                                            (Yuja Wang performing Tchaikovsky in a barely there dress)

While Wang's and Cameron's dresses have drawn their share of criticism they're, largely, celebrated in the Western classical music world and there's even an understanding of what motivates them. Unfortunately for T.M. Krishna he's a carnatic musician.

Rukmini Devi, Bala Saraswati and Rajaratnam Pillai and the 'Kutcheri' Costume

The choice of dress and what it signified played a very significant role in Carnatic music and especially Bharathanatyam. Nagaswaram artists came from the lower caste and performed bare chested and standing. Rajaratnam Pillai raised a banner of revolt and performed on stage, seated, wearing a shirt and sometimes even pants. It is not without reason there's so much ire at Krishna's costume choices.

Kaamya Sharma, post doctoral fellow in the Department of Humanities at IIT, in a well researched titled, "How to dress a national elite: The case of the Kalakshetra Sari" elaborates on how Rukmini Devi Arundale, not content with appropriating and bowdlerizing Sadir as Bharathanatyam, insisted on creating new meanings of heritage and nationalism with her emphasis on sari.

Rukmini Devi 'felt that Devadasis "used saris with lots of false lustre and tinsel"'. Devi's biographer Leela Samson says Devi studied "scriptures and temple sculpture" to make "changes in costume". Sharma asserts that Devi's inauguration of a Weavers' Service Centre in Adyar cemented the relationship "between sartorial and artistic revival". Even the sari names were to be 'traditional'. It is this cementing that the Brahmin community, that's critical of Krishna, feels is threatened.

Bala Saraswati who was often at loggerheads with Rukmini Devi's recreation of Sadir steadfastly refused to adapt to the new styles that Devi was assiduously promoting. Bala, till the last, performed as she always does in her usual sarees.

Let's be clear that to the carnatic musicians of today, especially women, the attire for a concert to perform or even attending is more a costume. It is common to find men and women performers who go about their daily lives in normal attire without religious marks on forehead choose to wear their costumes and religious markers when going on stage. Saree and jewelry shopping by women artistes is de-rigeur now informs an article.

Picture Credit: The News Minute. 'Silk and Sabhas' (see references)

Is Krishna politicizing art?

To a western musician or artist politicizing art is what connects art to the immediate and at the same time, because it is art, transcends to something beyond the immediate. Beethoven's 9th symphony, the most political work of art in western classical, was performed by the students at Tiananmen and in a celebratory performance held to commemorate the fall of Berlin wall. No one can write about Civil Rights movement in USA without talking about Jazz and Nina Simone. Artists have also been politically active. Cellist Mstislav Rostropovich went to Moscow during the 1993 constitutional crises and at great personal peril stood in support of Boris Yeltsin and performed, during a crackdown by the government, at the Red Square.

To be fair to Indians and Carnatic Musicians they were extremely political too. Only the ignorant or prejudiced will oppose Krishna by accusing him of politicizing art. Carnatic Music and Bharathanatyam were reinvented in the 1930s as the country was gripped with nationalistic fervor. The reinvention were instrumental in subsuming a nationalist narrative and in promoting a mythical connection to manufactured histories of yore conveniently glossing over what was deemed dishonorable or ugly.

The Congress movement and the Brahmin led resurgence of arts, that was conveniently labeled 'classical', yoked themselves to each other in a symbiotic relationship. Music was used for propaganda. The Music Academy itself was born out of funds raised alongside a Congress conference in Chennai. Bala Saraswati's biographer Douglas Knight Jr. notes, "artists at the Exhibition were expected to promote the Indian National Congress's political message". Carnatic Music and Bharathanatyam utilized nationalist politics and rode the political horse into becoming entrenched as India's classical arts.

The divorce of politics happened in due course and only restricted to what the art was. Carnatic Music and Bharathanatyam were steadily made into arts with only devotion as its high calling. In this one cannot blame the Brahmins alone. Even Rajaratnam Pillai and Bala held similar views. While the art was wrapped in devotion the cultural centers and the domination of the cultural scene was made entirely possible by utilizing government and political patronage.

Krishna did not bring politics anew to the field but his brand of politics is new and what that has made him do with his art is new and THAT is what is irking his detractors. In this background the controversy about his dress can be interpreted more fully.

T.M. Krishna's lungi and his repertoire

In September a controversy about Carnatic music singers performing Christian gospel songs created a furor and Krishna's name was dragged into the controversy by a singer who was targeted by fundamentalist thugs. Krishna then rose up to the occasion and declared he'd sing a song on Allah or Christ every month. The carnatic music aficionados, mostly Brahmins already nurturing a special hatred for Krishna's brand of activism, pilloried him on social media calling for boycotts and, as usual, ostracism, an ancient but effective weapon. Some had asked if Krishna would wear a lungi when he sings Muslim songs.

Picture Credit - Aravindan Kannaiyan

On October 6th Krishna performed in a school at Plainsboro, a sleepy upper middle class town that has large proportion of Indians, in New Jersey where he appeared on stage in a lungi and a floral shirt. He strode onto the stage as respectful as ever and gestured a traditional 'namaskaram' to the audience and sat down and his performance was as brilliant as ever. There was no difference whatsoever in how he conducted himself onstage during and after the performance. The difference, though, was in the repertoire.

His choices included a song by Tamil sufi lyricist Kunangudi Masthan Sahib and a poem on owl by noted contemporary writer Perumal Murugan. While carnatic musicians have performed Tamil poems on stage they were mostly from Bhakti literature or by Bharathiar. Please note that as far as I know Krishna has not explained his decision to sport a lungi and during his performance he let his repertoire speak for itself without adding any commentary.

Krishna's detractors gleefully asked if he would perform next in a loincloth or maybe even naked. Note, Krishna's lungi, a different version of the usual dhoti is exactly similar in form and function albeit colorful. There is little difference between the two but lungi is often associated with labor class and Muslims. Even amongst Hindus who wear lungi on a daily basis it is mostly considered a leisure wear whereas a dhoti is for auspicious occasions. Hence, the lungi is, in popular perception, one that does not behoove a stage let alone a stage for classical music.

Though the lungi does not expose any anatomy it remains a prohibited dress in many Tamil Nadu temples. Churches in Rome have a dress code that women should not bare shoulders or sport dresses shorter than the knees. Women and men not in conformance of the dress code can get a wrap around kept at the churches during a visit. Ironically there are Hindu temples where men can enter only bare chested and women have to wear the liberally exposing saree, not even the very modest and very Indian churidhar.

Male saints and those revered as saints in India have worn barely there clothing, like Ramana Maharishi, or have been photographed with robes that one wonders what they were doing. It is not nudity or skin exposure that troubled Krishna's detractors. So the question of whether he'd perform half naked is not asked out of any habitual preference for modesty but to mock those who are thought of as mostly wearing lungi and more importantly for portraying Krishna as belonging to a demographics different from the predominant performers of the art.

A popular photograph shows violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman and his fellow musicians performing bare chested, as required by custom, in front of Kanchi pontiff Chandrasekharendra. So why the umbrage about Krishna's choice of dress?

Picture Credit https://vandeguruparamparaam.wordpress.com/2017/04/22/lalgudi-jayaraman-was-in-the-seventh-heaven/

Krishna has been at loggerheads with Brahmins on the question of lack of diversity amongst Carnatic music performers and he has raised many an inconvenient question of what Carnatic music has been reduced to. Carnatic music is a vehemently protected religious identity to many, not all, Brahmins. It is their very identity or so it has become. The virulent and poisonous anti-brahmanism that permeates Tamil Nadu politics has politically marginalized the Brahmin and leaving few cultural spaces that they can claim as their and, in my opinion, possibly this has led to the zealotry around Carnatic music and viewing it as intrinsic to their religious identity.

Many, particularly those who disliked Krishna's attire, have asked why write about it or said "well I'm only interested in his music". Learning about how Yuja Wang's and Cameron Carpenter's sartorial choices shape their conception of music helped me better understand why Krishna's rebellion regarding attire cannot and should not be separated from discussing his music. Krishna's performance that evening can be fully appreciated not merely by knowing the raaga or being able to tap fingers in rhythmic consonance on one's lap but by understanding the poems and the dress. I'd extend it to say those who focus on raga and ignore the rest understand less than someone, like me, who gets the latter part knows little or nothing of the raaga or technicalities.

Is Krishna a divider? 

Krishna is playing divisive politics and is indulging in blaming one community is the chorus of many who have dislike or oppose him and his causes. Any reformist can be cast as being divisive. I'm a student of history and the life of Gandhi continues to fascinate me. In several arguments over Krishna I kept returning to the life of Gandhi.

When I speak of Gandhi's life and draw analogies many would roll their eyes and even consider it a sacrilege but here's my answer. A life teaches us many things and to not take lessons from the life of a person and apply it elsewhere is an injustice to history and to the life that we study. When I call an act Gandhian it does NOT mean that the act or person is shaking the pillars of an empire or indulging in an act that would change the course of history rather it shows a glimpse of a certain character. That is all.

Gandhi himself, in his own days, was called everything that Krishna is being pelted with today. Kanchi pontiff who met Gandhi during his tour to eradicate untouchability pleaded with Gandhi not to destroy Hinduism. In his day many of what Gandhi did were seen as stunts. Quit India Movement was actually a failure.

Another charge against Krishna, with some fairness, is that he chooses to opine on everything including some topics where his judgments are questionable. Why do we expect Krishna to be an all knowing oracle? On any given day Gandhi used to spout, literally, quite a lot of stupidities. Gandhi's fads on nature cure etc were laughably ridiculous. His ideas on economics ranged from the pragmatic to the utopian and plainly idiotic.

To cite Gandhi, again, it took him decades of being an activist and leader to crystallize his opinions and even then until his death Gandhi was uttering ideas that were, frankly, capable making one's head spin. Remember the Brahmacharya experiments continued till barely 2 years his assassination. Krishna's activism is barely few years old. One of his articles about Muslims was as condescending towards Muslims as Gandhi could be, at times, towards Dalits. In fact even the naming of Dalits as Harijans is now aggressively rejected by Dalits as extremely condescending and insulting. So let's not rush to the barricades every time Krishna utters something that maybe ill thought out or poorly worded.

This expectation of Krishna to be an all knowing oracle is only an attempt to silence his voice. Speak on Krishna. You're entitled to your mistakes, such as wearing a jacket with Che Guvera's pictures on it. Take heed though, mistakes cannot pile on and activism can easily be derided as antics and providing fodder for that will undermine your causes.

Will Krishna's activism create enduring change?

Again, to return to the example of Gandhi, many who lived in his ashram cleaned toilets of all residents, including those of Dalits, but once they left the ashram many lapsed to their usual caste restrictions. Whether it is Gandhi or E.V.R society has a filter for rejecting what is inconvenient to them. So also with Krishna. A lady seated next to me loved Krishna's music and completely ignored his politics. She was, like most Carnatic music lovers, only interested in the raga and other technicalities of Krishna's performance but, as far as I noticed, little interested in the Tamil poetry or any other lyrics, like that of Kunangudi Masthan's song. I'm sure there were several in the audience who appreciated the poetry but still would not support the politics of Krishna.

So, dear detractors, please rest easy and take a deep breath. T.M.Krishna may end up a mere blip in the history of Carnatic music and that would be unfortunate but you may find it worthy of celebration.

That said there are some fair criticisms of Krishna and some hope that in due course they'd see real changes starting with his own troupe. Krishna, as far as I know, is yet to groom any good musician amongst the so called lower castes on whose behalf he has raised a banner of revolt. I say this with great respect to his current accompanists, one of whom, the violinist, who brilliantly set to music the poems I admired so much.

Another fair criticism is what is Krishna doing concretely, beyond op-eds? I've to mention an effort that Ravikiran (his current controversy is immaterial to the point I'm making) made by going to government schools and conducting music classes, not performances. Sadly the effort was later scuttled for reasons beyond my knowledge. On this score I'd implore Krishna to learn more about Gandhi. It is not without reason Einstein eulogized Gandhi with those memorable words that future generations will scarce believe that a being such as Gandhi lived in flesh and blood. Gandhi was not a utopian and not a mere finger-wagging activist. He was rooted in reality and was all about solving problems. Maybe Krishna, if he has not already done, pick up Ramachandra Guha's decently written two volume biography of Gandhi. Better still, pick up Judith Brown's 'Gandhi's Rise to Power' and learn how Gandhi shaped solutions.

So what would happen if Krishna continues in this trajectory? He may end up being remembered for raising questions and being a gadfly. And that's ok too. Such limited achievements, too, have their place in history. Did Gandhi solve untouchability? Not at all, not in the least. He was, however, an important catalyst in the progress India made on that score.

I'll also add that my enthusiasm for what Krishna does may suffer from my lack of familiarity in a deeper sense with Carnatic music performances. I may be unaware of other attempts on similar lines, regarding the repertoire etc, that may not be grabbing headlines like Krishna does. But I'll say this, I'm yet to read or hear anything by others on the lines of what Krishna has written or spoken regarding the frostiness of orthodoxy in Carnatic music. His naysayers mostly try to sweep the ills under the carpet or totally whitewash history as they did when Krishna raked up a controversy on how M.S. Brahminized herself to be accepted.

Art in a climate of intolerance

Let us not fool ourselves about the magnitude of intolerance that is now coursing through the body politic of India. In an era without Facebook and led by Gandhi an M.S.Subbulakshi could sing of Allah and Christ and get away with it. Though no one kindly recalls her for that. She's more remembered, as Krishna and I'd point out, for creating and maintaining the aura of Brahminized music. The barrage of criticism and vehemence against Krishna is appalling.

The New Jersey performance was organized by Carnatic Music Association of North America (CMANA). CMANA received so many threats and of such nature that they sought police protection for the event. The police department told the organizers not to waste money seeking formal protection since a police precinct was within minutes of the venue. Ponder that for a moment. Bloody Tamils had to resort to thuggery that a music organizer had to seek police protection in America. It is this crowd that would boast that Indian-Americans are a 'model minority'. 'Model minority', my foot.

That Krishna singing songs on Allah and Christ raises a furor across India a inflames social media clearly tells us that not even M.S. Subbulakshmi would survive as an artist today. It is this climate of intolerance that Krishna's activism and activist art battles.

For all those who call into question Krishna's motives a simple question. Would you do all that he does and pay the price he pays? I hear Krishna is rich but in a country where a Gauri Lankesh could be murdered in cold blood do you think Krishna may not have any fears? If Krishna had not taken this path he was probably on auto-pilot for Sangita Kalanidhi. Krishna is having tangible losses. Unless I see better evidence to suspect his motives I treat questioning his motives as mere conspiracy theories.

It'd be an injustice if I do not mention that as much as there are Brahmins who are opposed to Krishna there are many others who support him to the hilt. That includes the brave organizers of CMANA and some friends too. And to be fair to those who oppose there are some who oppose him purely because they believe a more conciliatory approach might be better and they share some fair criticisms too. I do not wish to paint an entire community with one brush.

For the sake of better India and for Carnatic music becoming a better art I wish T.M. Krishna succeeds.


1. Washington Post article on Yuja Wang's dress https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/classical-beat/post/on-the-lack-of-classical-style/2011/08/09/gIQAnkLq4I_blog.html?utm_term=.a695c7632e15
2. Article on Cameron Carpenter https://www.theverge.com/2014/5/22/5741570/cameron-carpenter-international-touring-organ
3. Why do orchestras wear black https://www.wqxr.org/story/explainer-why-do-orchestras-wear-all-black/
4. New York Times article on women's dress and New York Philharmonic https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/14/arts/music/new-york-philharmonic-women-dress-code.html
5. Kaamya Sharma's article https://asianstudies.arnold-bergstraesser.de/sites/default/files/field/af-download/iqas_2017_kalakshetra_sari_sharma.pdf
6. Kaamya Sharma profile http://iim.academia.edu/KaamyaSharma
7. Rostropovich https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mstislav_Rostropovich
8. English version of Bala Saraswati's speech
 Bharathanatyam at Tamil Isai Sangam http://acceleratedmotion.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/bharata_natyam.pdf
9. Rukmini Devi Arundale and Bharathanatyam dress https://sangeethas.wordpress.com/2013/11/16/some-historical-snippets-of-bn-part-17-dance-costume/
10. "If the music is sensuous..." - Yuja Wang's profile in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/apr/09/yuja-wang-piano-interview-fiona-maddocks-royal-festival-hall
11. http://www.theclassicalgirl.com/pianist-yuja-wangs-short-dresses-big-talent/
12. The Economist on Yuja Wang https://www.economist.com/prospero/2018/09/25/once-a-prodigy-yuja-wang-is-now-at-the-height-of-her-powers
13. WaPo article on Yuja Wang'd dress (another one), "which offends, her short dress or a critic's narrow view" https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/2011/08/10/gIQAMvtOBJ_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7feb406c8991
14. Civil Rights movement and denim https://www.racked.com/2017/10/30/16496866/denim-civil-rights-movement-blue-jeans-history
15. New Yorker on Yuja Wang https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/05/yuja-wang-and-the-art-of-performance
16. Silk and the Sabha https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/silk-and-sabha-saree-trends-spotted-chennais-kutcheri-season-55674
17. My Facebook post https://www.facebook.com/arvindkannaiyan/posts/10212449821900202?notif_id=1542770616634756&notif_t=feedback_reaction_generic (these photos are mine and have been practically reused by many) This is the original post.