At a conference, a few weeks back, a student asked me about dissenting imaginations. He said, can you give me two examples of men. He literally “complained” of the plethora of women leaders and dissenters like Teesta Setalvad, Medha Patkar, Aruna Roy.
I thought of many names from the scientist CV Sheshadri to the political theorist Rajni Kothari, but they had all passed away.
I was looking for two men, not easily classifiable, creative, sustaining their creativity beyond mid-life, open to new questions, eccentric without being fundamentalist.
I was suddenly struck by the two nominees of last year’s Magsaysay award — Bezwada Wilson and TM Krishna.
I cannot think of two more different people. One is a Brahmin belonging to an elite family and the other is a Dalit. Both are obsessive, yet open ended but with different intensities.
TM Krishna is not only a creative musician but a superb researcher into the history of Carnatic music, a man pondering deeply into the relation between creativity and social structure. Currently, he is cocooned by controversy as he has refused to sing at the Music Academy, the bastion of brahminic conservation about music. He performs in parallel assemblies claiming music must be more open, accessible and less dogmatic.
TM does not try to dilute music but demands a more varied craft competence from it. There is a passion about the man that is attractive. He wants his music to go beyond the noise of the establishment.
Bezwada Wilson, his compatriot at the Magsaysay awards, is a Dalit, who speaks an everyday language challenging the narrowness of elite policy. For Wilson, justice is music and he feels one can get justice when one creates dignity of work. Dignity goes beyond equality. Equality can be numerical like equal pay for equal work. Dignity goes beyond status to speak the language of caring.
Wilson points out that there are some livelihoods like scavenging that do not allow for dignity.
Wilson points out that there are some livelihoods like scavenging that do not allow for dignity. It is also comprehensible to see how Dalits can work confronting the stench of septic tanks. Wilson organises them to cease performing certain acts of scavenging.
It is interesting that the upper castes who are dependent on them exploit scavengers for performing dehumanising tasks and also subject them to violence when they refuse to perform these tasks.
Bezwada Wilson comes closest to what I call a liberation theologist, a man who uses the teachings of the Church to push for greater justice. He reminds me of the Jesuit Samuel Ryan, a great inspiration for fisherman during the boat struggles against trawlers.
Two men, radically different from each other in background and style. There is a similar intensity to both. Wilson is easier, friendlier, Krishna equally generous with his ideas tends to be reticent. Wilson seems more at home while Krishna seems to be still quarreling with himself. Both bring to their work a radical sociology as Krishna performs in the Kuppams near Eliots beach dreaming of a more accessible music.
Wilson is open, impishly and radically in his response to the regime’s ideas on Swacch Andolan claiming that every project leads to a septic tank. Till one eliminates the humiliation of manual scavenging one cannot speak of hygiene or justice.
Krishna senses that an elite which has no sense of septic tanks also has little sense of how creativity and justice can hybridise to create new ideas for society.
Wilson’s courage is not in doubt. Treated as an outcast, he fuelled his anger into a fight for justice. Krishna too is finding his feet sensing he must go beyond socialities who parasite on his radicalism to the deeper roots of music.
One seeks transformation in the world of music, the other justice in the world of caste. Both are battles against caste as an idea for its dehumanising or exclusive emphasis. Both have a sense of hospitality which they want to weave into the idea of justice.
Two forms of courage and creativity which should make one proud. What bothers me when I confront these two extraordinary men is the way their dissent is consumed. Both are struggling and both struggles have a long way to go.
The danger is we might domesticate their anger to sanitise our sense of conscience. A few awards cannot satisfy their demand for change. Beyond applause what they need is solidarity, understanding, not to be treated as aliens in a consumerist bureaucratic world.
Both are stars as performers pushing a radical idea but one senses hurt, loneliness, anger, a need to communicate a different and more beautiful world which society is impervious to. I see them as comrades in creativity.
What we need to do beyond applause is to imagine the depth and power of the struggle. Battling caste is not easy. One should not sociologically separate them contending that one is an elite force and that the other is an outcaste.
There is a brotherhood of creativity and justice between them. In fact one wishes that literary festivals which project so many inane interviews would conduct a conversation between the two men, each responding to the others life and innovative radicalism.