TM Krishna's The Edict Project is a stunning endeavour that doesn't fully transcend its technical challenges

Lakshmi Sreeram
·8-min read

Dressed elegantly, a shawl thrown casually over his shirt, TM Krishna sings Emperor Ashoka's edicts as one possessed: "There is no gift like dharma daanam (translated as gift of justice), like dharma samstavo (the celebration of justice)€¦"

This was the first video for "The Edict Project", Krishna's collaboration with Ashoka University; it was released on 14 October, the anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar's formal conversion to Buddhism along with thousands of his followers. There is a promise of more such renditions of Ashoka's edicts in due course.

On Firstpost: TM Krishna's new project sets Ashoka's edicts to Carnatic music ragas

Ashoka is the pride of India, and indeed of humanity. Not for his conquests which were many, nor for his wealth and power, but for his moral sensitivity and strength. To see that the way of the world, where the tide takes you, where the throng of humanity pushes you €" to recognise that it is wrong itself speaks of great moral sensitivity. And then to turn away from the conventional, the accepted and expected thing, and to resist it€¦that takes rare courage and resolve.

Kings and emperors fought other kings and emperors and annexed their land, looted their capitals. That was perfectly acceptable €" that was the dharma of the king. Never mind the cost. After the bloody war of Kalinga, Ashoka, on a winning spree, stopped in his tracks. Who does that? When the going is great, who stops? Ashoka did. They say, and in fact he himself says in his edicts, that he saw the immense destruction; sons, fathers and brothers, bloodied, mutilated, killed; many others displaced, affected in a million ways. They say horror descended upon him and he underwent a transformation.

In his edicts he speaks of his remorse at the war of the Kalingas and describes what he now does as king €" promoting good behaviour and harmony among religions, protecting animals and birds from slaughter, and remaining ready at all times to listen to any petition. His subjects are his children and he strives for their merit €" especially in the other world. He states clearly the purpose of engraving the edicts: "I have had this Dhamma edict written so that my sons and great-grandsons may not consider making new conquests, or that if military conquests are made, that they be done with forbearance and light punishment, or better still, that they consider making conquest by Dhamma only, for that bears fruit in this world and the next."

Simple, unpretentious, clear-sighted; his story fills one with wonder €" can there have been such a king?

In the stunning Edict Project, Krishna has sung the lines that Ashoka engraved in rock and pillar millennia ago. The concept is brilliant and moving: One feels that one is stretching back through centuries to brush against Ashoka's presence €" to feel his moral courage and strength.

While commenting on the selection of the lines and their translations is beyond my ken, I am intrigued by the rendering of the word "dhamma" or "dharma" as "justice", especially when we know that the overarching context of the edicts is the Buddha's dhamma.

Krishna has set Ashoka's lines to music in the Carnatic idiom and sung them, with the tanpura being the sole other presence. Setting prose to music is always challenging. Our music revolves around song, and songs are sung verses €" not prose. How does one negotiate such a task? Tala, which binds the song into an integrated unit, depends on verse and meter. And Ashoka's Prakrit lines are simple, unpretentious prose.

Could tala have been dispensed with? That was certainly a possibility that Krishna might have considered, but did not go with. So we have the lines fitted into an Adi talam, a tishra Triputa and so on. The music meanders tantalisingly, not raising any expectations of how it might move, not generating excitement of tension and release. One floats along, riding on the ebb and tide of phrases. One could see this as a deliberate ploy to reflect the searching spirit of that king. Or one might feel that the setting of the lines in these tala-s sounds contrived.

It's a serious challenge. Krishna takes recourse to nothing else €" just the tanpura's background and we see him singing €" that is all. There are no other visuals to divide the attention. No other accompaniment to support and nourish the music. "After the Kalinga war, Ashoka is contrite. Did Ashoka win the war?" Krishna sings Ashoka's quiet lines with impassioned involvement, the musical setting of these lines diving and lurching with moments of soft paddling in the waters of a Kapi and a Desh.

The music comes across as slightly overbearing in contrast to the sober message of the lines. One misses a delicacy of touch, as one misses absolute pitch perfection at places such as in the transition from Kapi to Shubhapantuvarali. Isn't this mean-minded nitpicking when the idea of the project is spectacular and the overall impact of the music mesmerising? Well, it is TM Krishna and one doesn't lower expectations. One also nods at the sobering thought that Carnatic musicians simply do not train for the level of pitch purity that Hindustani musicians do.

And then I wonder about the release of the video on the anniversary of Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism. Ashoka and Ambedkar both engaged with Buddhism. Both were deeply concerned with justice in society and harmony among people. But it is also clear what Buddhism meant to them was as unalike as day and night. For Ashoka, the Buddha's dhamma was a force that guided him towards justice and goodness. Dhamma to him was a soft sun. Maartanda ze taapaheena, as Jnandeva said. One gets the sense of great positivity.

Ambedkar turned to Buddhism in an act of spurning, a negation of Hinduism with its deeply discriminatory caste system. The first vow that his followers, the Navayana converts, make is: "I shall have no faith in Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara and shall not worship them." He argued that a society needs religion as a harmonisng force and that hasn't been fulfilled by Hinduism. His was a political act. Indeed, he redefined Buddhism by substituting modern ideas of class and discrimination in the place of the four Noble Truths. In a sense, one might contend, it is not Sakyamuni's Buddhism as generally understood and which filled Ashoka's heart with soft music. Ambedkar's act of conversion was the cry of the Dalit, one who suffered and who saw his fellow humans suffer because of the unspeakable injustices €" indeed inhumanity €" of the prevalent social mores of Hinduism.

It has been argued that Ambedkar was impressed by American pragmatic philosopher John Dewey's distinction between rules and principles. Ambedkar argued that what generally passes for Hinduism is a complex and cumbersome mass of rules of behaviour, of rituals, and observances with the deeply discriminatory caste system at its heart. He did hope that Hinduism might purge itself of the caste system and later came to think that it was impossible. Religion according to him had to be about principles, especially of love, that harmonise society, that bring men together €" and the caste system did the opposite of this.

Ashoka too can be seen as rejecting some rules of kingly behaviour €" it was expected and accepted behaviour that they make war, plunder and cause destruction in the name of expansion. He stepped back and redefined principles of what a good administrator and king should bring to his people: Justice, above all; ease of living; promoting kindness and harmony.

TM Krishna too in his remarkable musical journey has disengaged with the "rules" of Carnatic music and stepped back from them to seek its principles, its heart. As a crusader for social justice, it is not surprising that he should be moved by the stories of Ashoka and Ambedkar. Any thinking person would be. But their stories are different and trying to yoke them together in this manner is unconvincing at best.

Yes, as Krishna justifies, "both sought a society where compassion, justice, equality and ethics are an everyday reality". But so did many men and women through the centuries. Ambedkar figures in the project because of his engagement with Buddhism and that is nothing like Ashoka's.

Releasing the video on Ambedkar's conversion anniversary introduces an element of the theatrical, denting the gravitas of this project which would have stood on its own under the splendour of the profound ethics and humanity of Ashoka. Does this theatricality prod us to think more urgently of justice in our own times? As the Jaina syaadavaadin would say €" perhaps, perhaps not!

Dr Lakshmi Sreeram is a Carnatic and Hindustani musician and researcher. She writes about art and culture using myth, story, philosophy, and everything in between. Write to her at larasriram14@gmail.com

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