'The Spirit of Enquiry' book review: The proverbial inquisitor

TM Krishna on his collection of over 50 essays—The Spirit of Enquiry— gives readers an insight into the way his ideas have changed and nuanced over a period of time

Published: 27th June 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th June 2021 05:27 PM   |  A+A-

books, book

For representational purposes

You strive to draw focus on class, caste and myriad forms of inequality. Do you think these ‘areas of discomfort’ need to come out in public discourse?
What do I mean by discomfort? It is all about observing, realising and living with the contradictions of who we are, what we do, our past and present. This does not relate only to our personal self; it is as much about the social fabric that we participate in and that which lies beyond the realm we recognise. Therefore, this discomfort has social and political ramifications. It has to be public. We want to brush all the discomfort under the carpet, unwilling to face the consequences of it being public.

Is art a political tool?
All art is political, which means it has political placement and built-in messaging. The reader needs to understand politics in the larger sense of the word. I would say art is always a tool for politics because it is always espousing a socio-political position. For example, both bhakti and Gospel music propagate a specific belief system, a social order, understood morality, a way of life. This is political. But art can also become a tool for specific political movements and be directly used to propagate a political ideology. The Dravidian movement’s use of cinema is a great example of how art can be used as a medium to convey a political direction.

Profiles generally put people on pedestals. Your writings on public figures on the other hand are very different in that sense.
Hagiographies are written to fulfill either a social or a personal agenda. By agenda, I refer to a pre-determined overly enthusiastic perspective. In such writing we do get an image of the person, but this is an impression that is constructed to create and communicate a hyper-positive legacy for the individual. What we do not seem to realise is that understanding people as they are with their rough edges and inconsistencies is truly a celebration of the individual, because it is complex people who gift us the unimaginable. In India, we often see qualities as good or bad. With such a binary lens we are unable to navigate the in-betweens fearlessly.

In our effort to respect art, do we alienate it?
We do not respect all art. We respect art forms that belong to cultures that we wish to associate with. Respect is selective. Those art forms that we respect, we refuse to understand critically because we want to present them as representatives of ‘our culture’. Such respect makes us thoughtless followers and the art form remains static. And we do not even realise that we have alienated ourselves from the art form.

You have spoken of how the guru-shishya parampara needs to go. Can you elaborate?
It is important for readers to keep aside their own personal memories of their guru and any instinctive protectiveness of the system before reading the next few lines. All that we celebrate in the guru-shishya parampara in terms of how knowledge is shared is not really unique to this culture. It can be found under differing learning environments around the world. Even if we were to consider the parampara ‘special’, there is absolutely nothing that can excuse its enormous power differential and unquestioning surrender that it demands of the student. A learning system needs to be kind, caring and protective of all participants especially the student, because she/he is most vulnerable. Its nature cannot be dependent on the quality of the individual. The parampara that we hold in such high esteem structurally enables emotional, psychological and physical violence.

Why do people romanticise the idea of the state?
The state—understood in the manner depicted in your question—is a direct product of nationalism. When nationalism instills and aspires to represent a chosen homogeneousness such as language, race, ethnicity, religion etc, the state becomes the flag-bearer for this ugly nationalism. The moment the state becomes such an identity marker it becomes an autocracy. For the state not to be full of itself and drunk on its own power, social equality, freedom of expression and the free functioning of our constitutional checks are essential. Romanticising of the state comes from the feudal mindset that is ingrained in our culture. When that happens, we provide excuses for all state excesses.

Both ‘Vaishnav Jan’ and the National Anthem in their original form are so much more meaningful. How did we lose the real meaning?
‘Vaishnava Jan’ used to be sung at the Gandhi Ashram when Gandhi was present. The phrase was also rendered as ‘Muslimjana’, ‘Baudhajana’, ‘Jainajana’ and ‘Christujana’. Expanding the meaning of the song through that single word was the creative genius of Gandhi. Likewise, the National Anthem is only a part of a larger song. When I discovered the entire song, I realised that it has much to offer. Tagore does not just describe this land geographically. He calls this the land for all. Today, when we are being divided and torn apart we need the original song more than ever before. 

Quick takes

Artist, activist, or rebel?
Tags and slots are given to people by others for their convenient understanding. I have no say or control in it.

On collaboration with Perumal Murugan.
The ‘Kavadi Chindu’ on BR Ambedkar written by Perumal Murugan is wonderfully composed. ‘Kavadi Chindus’ are songs of praise. The lyrics are simple and celebratory. This is the first time that Ambedkar is being brought into the Carnatic ambit. It is important that Ambedkar is celebrated through multiple art forms.

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