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Thinking and Counter-Thinking: On “Classical India”

Ananya Vajpeyi

Katherine Culver, Untitled, 2016


It’s a great honour to be here in Heggodu.* I am very grateful to K.V. Akshara and K.V. Shishira for inviting me. I have been hearing about this place for almost twenty years. My teachers D.R. Nagaraj, U.R. Ananthamurthy, my senior colleague Ashis Nandy, Shiv Visvanathan, and many other friends have told me of this place. I’m thrilled and grateful to speak to all of you, to see this campus and get a glimpse of your activities here in this beautiful setting.

I am supposed to speak today on “Classical India”, and our overall theme is “Thinking and Counter-Thinking”. I am going to dwell very briefly on “Classical India” as a period of Indian history, after which I will complicate the notion of the “Classical”. What do we mean when we say “classical”? What do we understand by the word in our present time?

Anybody who has grown up in independent India has read about a time referred to as the “Classical Period” in our history textbooks. It dates roughly from the dawn of the first millennium, about 100-200 CE, to about 1100-1200 CE. It is effectively a time when Buddhism becomes salient and systematised. There is the flowering of a plurality of knowledge systems and literary canons in Sanskrit, Prakrit, Tamil and Pali, a period of argumentative vigour, continuing up to the emergence of major Islamic empires in the Indian subcontinent, when significant cultural shifts occur. This is what generations of Indians have been taught in our schools and colleges since Independence. So when I say “Classical India”, I’m sure, no matter what the regional language in which you received your secondary education, you will be reminded immediately of a few things.

You think of the Gupta Empire; the Cholas, Cheras and Pandyas in the South; the Chalukyas, Pallavas and Rashtrakutas in the Deccan. You think of Harshavardhan of Kannauj in central India; of Lalitaditya and Avantivarman, Kashmiri imperialists. You think of great poets like Kalidasa and Bhartrihari. You think of the Sanskrit epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana and in Tamil, Silappadikaram and Manimekalai. You think of cities like Ujjain, Vaishali, Amravati, Avanti. You think of poets, playwrights and prose-writers, like Bana, Sudraka and Bhavabhuti. You think of mighty philosophers like Nagarjuna, Ashvaghosha, Kumarila Bhatta, Shankara and Anandavardhana.

The stunning art, architecture and archaeological remains of Ajanta and Ellora, Kanchi, Badami, Aihole and Pattadakal; monumental treatises like the Bhagavadgita, Mimamsasutra, Brahmasutra, Yogasutra, ManusmritiKamasutra, Arthashastra, and Natyashastra; important schools of philosophy — Sankhya-Yoga, Nyaya-Vaisheshikha, Lokayata-Charavaka, Bauddha-Jaina, Mimamsa-Vedanta; the Shaiva, Vaishnava and Shakta sectarian streams; the massive classification of hundreds and thousands of learned texts by genre – smriti and shruti, itihasa and purana, shastra and kavya, agama and tantra, sahitya and darshana; the foundational discoveries of mathematicians and astronomers like Aryabhatta and Varahamihira; the rich and sometimes fantastic accounts of Chinese and Arab travellers like Fa Hien, Huen Tsang, Al Biruni; the great trans-Himalayan journeys of monks and scholars who carried the texts and teachings of the Buddha and the different schools of Buddhism northwards out of India; the expanding sphere of Indic influence in south-east Asia and the island cultures of the Indian Ocean. These are the myriad things — the vast civilisational detritus of a Golden Age — which come to your mind as the empirically verifiable referents of “Classical India”.



Now, let us begin to move beyond the immediate repertoire of references. When you use the word “classical” in the English language, it evokes a range of meanings in your mind. You are not always thinking historically about India (or some other part of the world, say Graeco-Roman civilisation), a thousand or 1500 years ago. When you go, for instance, to a classical music concert or classical dance recital, or to a classical theatre performance, chances are you would expect a certain kind of aesthetic experience if the artiste is good. The word “classical” qualifies your aesthetic experience, one that imparts both a sensation of pleasure and a knowledge of something that is true.

You might feel an overflow of emotions, rasa-anubhava, a sense of wonder, adbhuta, or even beyond, of miracle, chamatkara. You also gain knowledge through the experience, in listening to the music, or in watching the performance. If it is truly classical, there will be something in the rendering that changes your understanding of yourself and the world. It may come in a moment. You may not be able to express it in language. But you come away from that aesthetic experience changed to some degree. This is a meaning of “classical” that I’m sure all of you, as connoisseurs of the performing arts, as rasika and sahridaya audiences, are familiar with.

You also have certain expectations of the classical art-form itself. That it will be highly structured, rule-bound and difficult, impossible for an unskilled performer to practise, and not really accessible to an untutored audience. The barriers to entry are high on all sides, and involve years of training, rigorous discipline, continuous self-improvement — sadhana — riyaz — taiyyari. In Hindi we say “shastriya sangeet” for “classical music”, where the term shastra/ shastriya captures all of these aspects of the art, which take it out of the realm of the spontaneous. Many of you would have been to at least one performance of Bharatanatyam or Odissi dance, or Hindustani or Carnatic music. For most of us, one of these is what we mean when we say “the classical performing arts of India”.

A classical form that is not quite as popular, so to speak, is Kudiyattam, a recondite form of Sanskrit theatre performed in Kerala, which relies on embedded narrative, bodily movements, hand gestures, facial expressions, costumes, make-up, and continual percussion, but which has close to no linguistic register whatsoever (very few words are spoken or sung), and the minimum of instrumental music. It is extremely hard to practise or to watch, but utterly absorbing and uplifting once you get into it. Kudiyattam appears to be quite an ancient form, and is restricted to specific communities of performers, dancers as well as percussionists. Its root texts are episodes drawn from the Sanskrit Ramayana and the Mahabharata, but the accompanying commentarial texts — the screenplay versions as it were — as well as texts specifying and teaching hand, body and face gestures to actors and musicians, are in Malayalam. One act may be stretched out over two or three weeks of performance, with nightly sessions lasting two to six hours, sometimes even longer. To my mind, Kudiyattam is a sort of apotheosis of what we normally call “the classical”.



Now let us consider the “counter-thinking” on the classical, particularly in Carnatic music. The author of this counter-thinking is T.M. Krishna, one of the great living exponents of the form, often described as a prodigy, a genius and a maestro, someone who has been a speaker and performer right here in Heggodu. Krishna has attempted to deconstruct the label “classical” when applied to Carnatic music. He insists it be called “art music”, pointing out that while the characterisation “classical” suggests the form is very old, it is in fact modern, having taken no more, perhaps, than 100-300 years to arrive at its present juncture. He links the term “classical” to socioeconomic class and the caste system; for him, it is more accurately a sociological descriptor than an aesthetic one. He painstakingly prises open all the subtexts: the antiquarianism, Brahminism, patriarchy, sexism, elitism, nationalism, revivalism, and Hindu religious ideology lying buried in the seemingly value-free appellation “classical”, when it is attached to Carnatic music.

Contemporary Carnatic music, performed in the kutcheri concert space and format, is in Krishna’s account the outcome of a process of the gradual classicisation of a number of other styles, genres and ethics of performance that have in themselves almost disappeared from southern India, together with the marginalisation of the “holding communities” — principally Isai Vellalars and Devadasis — originally associated with them. Taken entire, Krishna’s critique of the classical is so powerful as to render the word’s typically positive connotation thoroughly suspect; in fact, he discredits the term quite comprehensively.

While he has not succeeded in replacing “classical music” with his preferred “art music” in how practitioners, critics, scholars and audiences refer to the form, Krishna has nevertheless unsettled the conservative world of Carnatic music to an unprecedented extent. His struggle with what he calls the “social re-engineering” of Carnatic music has led him to give up performing at the Chennai December concert season (called “Margazhi”) from 2015. Instead, he helps organise an alternative festival of the performing arts in the small fishing village of Urur Olcott Kuppam, which sits cheek by jowl with the bourgeois Brahmin neighborhood of Besant Nagar and Elliot’s Beach. This annual festival (“Vizha”) had its third iteration this month. Together with his friends, family, students and citizen volunteers, Krishna has launched a number of non-profit educational, pedagogic and outreach initiatives to bring this music to women and children, non-Brahmin castes, non-Hindu communities and socioeconomically deprived groups.

Krishna’s counter-thinking on the classical tends to shift our understanding of the locus of Carnatic music, from the stately immovable pinnacles of cultural power to a site of incessant social conflict (an external, historically-driven process) as well as continuous aesthetic negotiation (internal to the artiste’s relationship with the form). He has examined the musical careers of other Carnatic icons like M.S. Subbulakshmi, and Balamuralikrishna, who passed away recently. He takes a particular interest in how they departed from the conservative Carnatic received narrative, and the effects those departures had on their music. That Krishna himself comes from a Brahmin family, and remains constantly aware of the enabling role played by his own caste status in the spectacular success he has enjoyed from a young age, makes his public-spirited chastisements all the more agonistic.

Similar deconstructions of classical/ folk or classical/ popular binaries in a long tradition of socially responsible cultural criticism, from M.N. Srinivas and A.K. Ramanujan to U.R. Ananthamurthy, D.R. Nagaraj and K. Satchidanandan, backed up to varying degrees by the supposedly “harder” evidence of social science, cannot quite equal the moral anguish conveyed by a practitioner-theorist-historian-pedagogue like T.M. Krishna. His sheer artisitic virtuosity seems to grow in direct proportion to his evisceration of the social and political grounds of this music. It’s no joke to try to democratise the classical, particularly in India.

If it’s difficult to get people to see the classical as inseparably a product of its social context, and hence of the extreme inequalities inherent in that context, it is even harder to declassicise Carnatic music as a form. Krishna asserts that this music is intended as “art”, and not as “religion”; that its essence is shringara (beauty) and not bhakti (devotion); that even, say, the names and descriptions of deities and divinities in much of lyric canon of Carnatic music are meant to be primarily melodic and abstract, not lexical or religious. He does not deny the transcendent capacity of this music, but is adamant about dissociating this transcendence from God, or any specific god or goddess.

Lately, Krishna has been setting to music some “Virutham” poems penned by the contemporary Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, and singing them in his concerts. He also recently rendered a Muslim devotional song in Tamil, “Allahvai Naam Thozhudhaal” by E.M. “Nagoor” Hanifa. These are extraordinarily beautiful compositions, musically as accomplished and moving as anything Krishna sings. But their political intent is devastating, and doubly effective for being woven into an otherwise largely familiar and conventional Carnatic repertoire. A heart-rending complaint to Shiva by a fiction writer facing censorship, excommunication and intimidation, using the idioms of outcaste Tamil Shaivite poets from remote antiquity; or a prayer to Allah beseeching Him for compassion in a time of overwhelming Islamophobia — both go to the heart of what music is supposed to do: dissolve adversarial identities, enable mergers across ideological differences, break down our deepest ego barriers, and melt our most adamantine prejudices. Such songs, too, are extremely complex, subtle, and in the end far more subversive arguments, perhaps, than Krishna’s more obviously radical statements and positions on the caste, gender, and class vectors of Carnatic music. He takes aim at the classical simultaneously from the side of social structures, and that of aesthetic interventions. The classical in any conventional sense of the term cannot withstand this double-attack, and must disintegrate entirely.



Sheldon Pollock, again someone familiar to you all here in Heggodu, has developed another way to understand the classical. This is through the idea of a crisis. He has been researching (in) many of the languages of pre-modernity in the Indian subcontinent, vernacular or classical, primarily Sanskrit and old Kannada. He says that there is a crisis in the classics. What is the classical? The classical is the site of a crisis. What is the nature of the crisis?

We have literally hundreds of thousands of texts in India, embodying different narratives, different genres of thought, different knowledge systems, and different kinds of expressions of consciousness and human experiences available to us. But a lot of them are in the pre-modern languages: Tamil, Sanskrit, Prakrit, or Persian; but also old Maithili, old Bengali, old Gujarati, old Marathi, old Kashmiri, Awadhi, Braj, or any of the South Indian languages, in their medieval or later forms.

We are inexorably losing the capacity to read these languages. We don’t have enough scholarship, or people who have been trained, in ways modern or traditional, to actually be able to decipher these texts, to retrieve the vision of the world available in them, and to make sense of the linguistic and epistemological diversity of our pre-modern cultures. And this is the case across the board, across religious sects and philosophical traditions, across knowledge systems, and across the classical languages of India.

Pollock, now 68, came to India as a young man in the early 1970s. He could still go to his guru, Pattabhirama Sastri in Varanasi, or other scholars in Chennai, Mysore and Pune, to read certain texts with them. But his teacher passed away and he himself has finished training two generations of students at the American universities where he has taught — Iowa, Chicago and Columbia. There may come a time when nobody is left of the traditional readers or interpreters, or the community of scholars who deal with texts in old languages. Sanskrit departments at our universities, Sanskrit colleges, our research institutes, archives and libraries, are all in a state of dysfunction and disrepair. Neither the government nor private philanthropy is investing enough to save these resources. Some study, teaching and discussion continue in religious institutions such as temples, sectarian gurukulas, mathas and monasteries, but secular scholarship of the philological kind is fast disappearing.

Between the time that my teacher, Sheldon Pollock, was a graduate student, and I myself was one, some 30 or 35 years later, Sanskrit pedagogy and scholarship in India have declined precipitously, even in old centres like Varanasi, Pune, Mysore and Chennai. There will come a time in the near future when we will lose our connection to the classical past, and we will simply not be able to decipher or read it. This is what Pollock describes as the “crisis in the classics”. Thus the classical becomes a site of worry, of loss, when you think about those hundreds of thousands of texts — lying in people’s homes, or in temples in villages and small towns, or even in the big national repositories to which we simply do not have, or shortly will not have access.



Currently the notable way to understand the classical — I think this is extremely important today, under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the centre — is that the classical is what essentially embodies India. In the pseudo-history of the Hindu Right, the classical period began once Buddhism had been assimilated into the Hindu fold, and ended as Islam, entering from the outside, came to dominate the subcontinent politically and culturally. In our public discourse, which we get from the print and electronic media, from popular history and pulp literature, and from specialist organisations like the Indian Council of Historical Research, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, etc., the classical is the treasure-house of civilisational value.

The classical is what we have to guard, defend, preserve and restore. It has been under siege, attacked continually by outsiders, non-Indians, “others”, “our” enemies, whether they were Muslims, European colonisers, or this modern globalised world, which doesn’t understand the peculiarities and special nature of Indian culture, Indian values or the “Hindu way of life”. We feel victimised that our classical achievements were overshadowed by invaders, and we need to reach back in the past and retrieve that long-lost glory.

Historical time moves away from the classical, and the work of Hindutva is to return us to the classical. In a sense, this ideology militates against the arrow of time. It is always in a state of defensive readiness. Here, the classical becomes the ground for the assertion of a religio-cultural identity. It becomes the source of a discourse of victimhood, resentment, and fear of civilisational and cultural “otherness” that is always in our midst.

Krishna’s deconstruction of Carnatic music from the perspective of its severe caste-class limitations, and Pollock’s anxieties about the dramatic erosion of the philological and epistemological capacities of India’s knowledge cultures, are both perfectly understandable and valid. They look objectively at the state of classical music and classical scholarship in the contemporary moment. But these critiques acquire a heightened urgency against the backdrop of the new culture wars being waged by the ruling Hindu Right dispensation.

Throughout the 20th century, fascist regimes across the world fetishised tradition, classics, the canon, the past. Paradoxically, their fixation on the classical is invariably combined with a populist contempt for intellectuals, scholars, and the actual skills needed for any informed engagement with history. Hindutva modelled itself on the nationalism of Garibaldi and Mazzini; its founding fathers openly admired Hitler and Mussolini, while its votaries continue to do so covertly even today. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar are thus no exception to what Umberto Eco identified as the pattern of “Ur-Fascism” (“Ur” in the sense of “original”, “primordial”, located at the very fount of Fascist ideology). Fascist classicism in the hands of Hindutva ideologues becomes another stick with which to attack religious minorities, homogenise the diverse cultures of our nation into a majoritarian Hindu Rashtra, and further marginalise the knowledge, arts and life-practices of the countless “little” traditions of India.

The culture warriors and internet trolls of the Hindu Right do not see Sheldon Pollock as the world’s foremost Sanskritist and historian of pre-modern Indic literary cultures. Instead, they see him as a person whose identity is American, white, Jewish, and Western. Should such a person be general editor of the Murty Classical Library of India? The library is endowed by Rohan Narayana Murty and published by Harvard University Press in a range of classical languages besides Sanskrit.

They do not like that T.M. Krishna, along with Bezwada Wilson — a leading campaigner for the eradication of manual scavenging by Dalits — won the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay Award. They try to counter Pollock’s argument for building the broad and reflexive discipline of “Critical Indology” with their agenda for constructing a narrow and nativist “Swadeshi Indology”. They are incensed by Krishna’s questioning of the religious and devotional intent of the great vaggeyakaras (composers of poetry and music) of the Carnatic tradition — Thyagaraja, Mutthuswami Diksitar and Shyama Shastri — and of his refusal to grant primacy to bhakti over sangeet, to linguistic meaning over musical significance.

In these circumstances, fresh thinking and counter-thinking about the classical, and activist interventions by practitioners like Krishna and Pollock, become an important part of the larger political project of dissent and resistance to which we are all, I hope, committed. Krishna has said that classical artists consider themselves to be above everyone else. They believe they exist on a higher plane, or float above the mundane concerns of work, livelihoods, markets, politics, caste, or any of the other practicalities of making art in the real world for all kinds of people. This is a false perception of the place of art and its role in society. We have to fall down, fall on the ground, he has said. Only then can we stand up again and rebuild the arts, and the socio-political cultures in which they are embedded, as open, egalitarian, democratic and meaningful.

It’s worth noting that when Krishna sings Carnatic music, or Pollock engages in Sanskrit philological scholarship, at no point can it be said that either is operating from any position but that of the greatest rigour, erudition, and accomplishment. The “classicism” of their respective disciplines is a given — the ancient lineages of texts and art forms; their sheer difficulty; their self-conscious and self-critical character; their strong sense of past history and future possibilities; their concern not just with beauty but perfection, nor elevation but transcendence; the years of unbroken engagement and the commitment to pedagogy required of the best practitioners; the innovative braiding of newly minted traditions and old civilisational memories — all these features of the “classical” are undeniable in both Sanskrit knowledge systems, and in arts like Carnatic, Bharatanatyam and Kudiyattam.

What is being argued, however, is that there is still a need to question and challenge the hidden violence, othering, and exclusion inherent in the cultural politics of the classical. There is every incentive — in fact, every reason — to continually revise, refresh, revivify and reinvent the canons of the classical arts and of classical scholarship. The greatest masters of what has been achieved are also the vanguard of what is yet to come. Radicalisation cannot be formal without also being contextual, aesthetic without being historical, epistemological without being political; it cannot be creative without also being responsible.

If some unimaginable catastrophe were to wipe out the Chennai Margazhi, the Murty Classical Library of India and the Nepathya Centre for Excellence in Kudiyattam of Margi Madhu Chakyar from the face of the earth, would India and the world be irreparably impoverished? Yes, of course. But that does not mean we accept that the doors of higher meaning will forever remain closed to the majority of people. Krishna has said that he began to be critical by asking, of himself and of his music, “What is beauty?” The most beautiful thing that human beings are capable of making is an equal society. If the classical can advance our collective journey towards the achievement of equality, then and only then is it worthy of our continued efforts towards its preservation and proliferation.


*This piece is an edited extract from, and an expansion of a lecture delivered on October 10, 2015 at the Ninasam Annual Culture Camp in Heggodu, Karnataka.




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Ananya Vajpeyi is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi.

Katherine Culver is a linguistic anthropologist studying at the University of Pennsylvania.