T.M. Krishna | The dissident vocalist

The Carnatic singer, whose musical genius and reformist activism won him both plaudits and condemnation, has kicked up a storm in the music world after he got this year’s Sangita Kalanidhi award

March 31, 2024 01:04 am | Updated 06:14 pm IST

Illustration: R. Rajesh

Illustration: R. Rajesh

If two hypothetical roads diverged in the mature Carnatic woods, T.M. Krishna took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference. India is no stranger to controversies about awards that are given for meritorious achievement, and yet, seldom have we seen as much flap as was witnessed after the Music Academy in Chennai announced that, this year, it would confer its top honour — the Sangita Kalanidhi award — on the Carnatic vocalist.

The award has always been widely considered to be the ‘highest accolade in Carnatic music’. Conferred by an institution that has been in existence for nearly a century, at the annual conference in Chennai’s most salubrious season in Margazhi, artistes have accepted it with a Bhakti akin to what they might employ on a Thyagaraja kriti.

To understand the opposition to Krishna, comprehending the cultural and historical context is essential.

The idea of a Music Academy originally emerged as an offshoot of the All India Congress Session held in Madras in December 1927 as an institution that would set the standards for Carnatic music. It was inaugurated the next year. In 1929, it started hosting annual conferences on music, which in turn spawned the December music festival of Madras, known popularly as the Kutchery season. The format is a series of concerts across the city conducted in an intensive month-long festival that attracts both the cognoscenti and the common people, drinking in the performances, ticketed or free based on economic capacity, equally possessive of their own fest in their own backyard.

Was this feeling of possession truly universal? Or was this an esoteric stratosphere that, through deliberate plan and design, kept some out? It was here that Krishna, a prodigy who gave his first Carnatic concert at the age of 14 at a noon slot in the Music Academy, branched out on the path that has brought him both awards/plaudits and condemnation, in possibly equal measure.

Krishna himself was born in this crucible of culture, in Madras, 48 years ago, and was educated at The School, run by the Krishnamurti Foundation, with a liberal pedagogical outlook, that urges students to “learn and grow in mindful relatedness”. Initially, he got a hand up from his uncle T.T. Vasu, an industrialist (son of the former Finance Minister T.T. Krishnamachari), who was then a member at the Academy. A privilege that he acknowledged as his now famous awakening dawned, and one he sought to question, even counter, shaking at the roots of the system he was a symbiotic part of.

In retrospect, his grooming and education set him on this inevitable path of introspection. But some critics believe it was prep work on his books that set him askew. His first book Voices Within (2007), with singer Bombay Jayashri, was a coffee table book on Carnatic music maestros. It was his second book A Southern Music: The Carnatic Story (2013) that first hinted at the schisms in Carnatic music that Krishna was beginning to see.

It shows him standing dissatisfied at the edge of that yellow wood, peering at the divergent path. In this clearly polemical book, he strikes the first discordant note: “The environment that pervades Karnatik music makes it very difficult for an atheist to function within its world. There may be a few, but they will find it very difficult to come out in the open and articulate an atheistic narrative for Karnatik music.” Later in an interview to The Hindu, he clarified: “The music — its form, history, integrity — is what I treasure. What we are stuck with is the kutcheri. As far as the kutcheri is concerned, I am willing to give it up. Because, after a point, I think the kutcheri has not looked at the music but got stuck in its own success story.”

Thorny paths

With Sebastian and Sons, Krishna was stridently in the other path, as he questioned what he called caste discrimination ingrained in, this time, percussion music.

The Gist
Krishna was born in Madras, 48 years ago, and was educated at The School, run by the Krishnamurti Foundation, with a liberal pedagogical outlook
Initially, he got a hand up from his his uncle T.T. Vasu, an industrialist (son of the former Finance Minister T.T. Krishnamachari), who was then a member at the Music Academy
Krishna, who gave his first Carnatic concert at the age of 14 at a noon slot in the Music Academy, branched out on a different path that has brought him both awards/plaudits and condemnation, in possibly equal measure

Critics and colleagues, particularly the purists among them, were outraged. His questions went deeper, beyond form and content, further rocking the foundation that all had found comfort in. No one was truly surprised by what he said, that Carnatic music was in the preserve of one community — the Brahmins. However, to express discomfort with that so openly and with judgement as Krishna did, was inexplicable. Was the innate performer in him at play even as he struck out, craving a different kind of attention? It could be said that reformers tread thorny paths; to shock and shake is the play of someone who wants to usher in change. His unvarnished opinion, nevertheless, ruffled many feathers.

It is also what he did later that seems to have built up this bulwark of opposition. Refusing to participate in the Margazhi season in 2015, could well have been harakiri in that world. Krishna said: “I feel that the music season today has reached a point where music has almost disappeared from it. Perhaps I should say music has fled from it, because of the noise that pervades it.” He also alleged corruption and hijacking of the sabhas by certain people. What a dissonance this might have seemed to them.

The Carnatic community perceived his activism as arising from an intrinsic anti-Brahmanism, and was further scandalised by his growing, well-articulated fondness for the Dravidian ideologue Periyar, who was stridently against the Brahmin hegemony of his times. Krishna also performed non-ticketed concerts, besides going out to beaches and streets to take music to the people. In association with the progressive writer Perumal Murugan, he set Periyar’s writing, and ancient Tamil texts to Carnatic music.

The Periyar connection

In the letter that was to muddy the waters, vocalist duo Ranjani and Gayathri (RaGa) invoked Krishna’s Periyar connection, calling the latter a promoter of Brahmin “genocide”, notably not questioning his ability as a musician. Others who pilloried Krishna subsequently too invoked ‘dharma’ and Hinduism. Even as they disagreed with the politics of Krishna, they allowed that to colour their perception of his musical genius, though Music Academy president N. Murali attested in a note that the choice was ‘based on his excellence in music over a long career”.

In response, some sophistry followed: RaGa claimed they had not questioned the institution’s prerogative to award someone, they had chosen not to perform at an event that the awardee would preside over. Inadvertently, his detractors advanced Krishna’s own narrative. In their second letter, RaGa said, “It will be the happiest day for us and for millions of people to see star performers emerge from underprivileged communities and dominate the stage…,” reserving their attack, for the Academy this time, calling for reform to start at the top.

In the 1981 Oscar winning movie Mephisto, the protagonist, an actor famed for playing the demon Mephistopheles, is shown signing a Faustian pact with the Nazi Party of Germany to advance his own career. He ignores the moral compromises his decision forces on him, but seeks to justify it: “I’m just an actor.” Krishna is an artiste who has reached the opposite end of that spectrum, he long stopped being “just a singer”.

This story has been edited for a factual error. The error is regretted.
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