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Published on: April 25, 2024, 5:38 p.m.
Blame game in Chennai's music world
  • Krishna has vilified the Carnatic music fraternity, blame Ranjani & Gayatri; Photo: Sudha Jagannathan

By K.T. Jagannathan

Chennai, considered the Mecca of Carnatic music, is getting hotter by the day. And the heat is turning out to be intense for The Music Academy too. It is really proving to be a summer of discomfort for the Academy, a premier cultural institution in the city of Chennai. This hallowed institution has, for several years, been viewed as the sanctum sanctorum of Carnatic music, a traditional form of music practised widely in the southern part of the country. All of a sudden, the Academy – which is inching towards a century – finds itself caught in a pincer-like situation.  

The Academy holds music conferences every year. The annual music conference begins on 15 December and lasts till the end of month. On 1 January every year, it holds a sadas (gathering).  Though the name of awardee is announced months before the annual conference in December, it is a time-tested practice to confer the Sangita Kalanidhi title – which is an Oscar equivalent in Carnatic music – to the awardee during the sadas. 

This time around, the Academy has chosen maverick musician T.M. Krishna for the Sangita Kalanidhi title. An author, activist and a talented singer, T.M. Krishna is also a winner of the prestigious Magsaysay award. He never hesitates to speak his mind. And, his left-liberal views have endeared him to a newer set of fan constituencies, which stretches beyond the traditional Carnatic music lovers.

Somewhere along his illustrious musical journey, T.M. Krishna has chosen to become a self-styled crusader, who is on a mission to eradicate the alleged casteist bias at all levels – practising, performing and conducting – Carnatic music.  Why should music be of a particular community (read Brahmins)? Why should it be out of reach for others in the society? That has been his refrain. The inference is that he wants Carnatic music to be democratised and be accessible to all.  

T.M. Krishna has been unhesitating in accusing the Carnatic music community as a whole of perpetrating an ecosystem that fosters caste discrimination. He has been unsparing in his accusation. Several seasons ago, he was the first among the contemporary Carnatic musicians to raise a banner of revolt against The Music Academy. Virulent in his attack, he came down heavily on the Academy for its narrow, discriminatory and moribund ways.

He castigated the Academy for its Brahminical orthodoxy and gender/caste bias and even took a vow that he would never sing for the Academy. It has been several seasons since he last sang for the Academy. His caste twist to Carnatic music and liberal views on Hindu gods haven’t really gone well with a significant section of the Carnatic music fraternity, which believes that this art form is bhakthi-oriented.

 Notes of discord

The Academy’s decision to confer the Oscar-equivalent Sangita Kalanidhi title on T.M. Krishna must be read in the context of his rather audacious takes on the Carnatic music community.  The Academy’s decision to honour a rebel with its iconic title has drawn widespread anger. Talented sister-duo Ranjani & Gayatri (who are class vocalists and good violinists) was the first to protest against the award of Sangita Kalanidhi for T.M. Krishna.

The RaGa sisters, as they are popularly known, have since withdrawn from performing at the upcoming music conference of the Academy in December. Vocalist Trichur brothers, too, have announced their withdrawal. Senior artist Chitraveena Ravikiran has even returned the Sangita Kalanidhi award. 

  • Krishna: self-styled crusader?

The RaGa sisters were sharp in their attack on T.M. Krishna. “He (Krishna) has caused immense damage to the Carnatic music world, wilfully and happily stomped over the sentiments of this community and insulted most respected icons like Tyagaraja and M.S. Subbulakshmi,” they charged. “His actions have tried to spread a sense of shame in being a Carnatic musician and have been exhibited through his consistent denigration of spirituality in music. He has vilified the Carnatic music fraternity that has collectively contributed millions of hours of artistry, hard work and literature”.

While voicing their protests against T.M. Krishna, the singer-sisters appear to have opened up the flood-gates. “It is dangerous to overlook T.M. Krishna’s glorification of a figure like EVR aka Periyar who openly proposed a genocide of ‘Brahmins’, repeatedly called/abused every woman of this community with vile profanity and relentlessly worked to normalise filthy language in social discourse,” they went on to state, justifying their protest against T. M. Krishna.

Not surprisingly, the row over the award of Sangita Kalanidhi to T.M. Krishna has offered an irresistible opening for politicians, especially coming as it does in the midst of national elections when caste issues are bound to be the dominant theme. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin and his sister and DMK party leader Kanimozhi have since announced their support to T.M. Krishna. Tamil Nadu BJP President Annamalai has thrown his weight behind the sisters and questioned the Academy’s decision.

The Academy is headed by N. Murali, who belongs to the family that owns The Hindu group of publications. In a letter to the RaGa sisters, Murali asserted the right of the Academy to select the awardee for the Sangita Kalanidhi title and raised doubts about the intentions of the sisters. This has set off a further duel between the RaGa sisters and the Academy.  

“We’d like to clarify that our letter to you was only a notification of our withdrawal without any request for your decisions or actions,” the RaGa sisters said, in a sharply worded rejoinder. “It will be the happiest day for us and for millions of people to see star performers emerge from underprivileged communities and dominate this stage. We want to see the day when the TTK auditorium is filled up with a diverse inclusive crowd from all communities and religious minorities,” they added.

“This transformation should begin at the top. Kindly start with the entrenched Executive Committee consisting of only Brahmins and royalty you have been heading for two decades. Unlike serious hard work and the long journey it takes for artists to excel, this transformation is achievable instantly with a simple resolution and a bunch of resignations,” they further stated. “Please consider leading by example, lest the world call it mere lip service and start branding you as a ‘bigoted, casteist coterie’.”

  • T.M. Krishna has been unhesitating in accusing the Carnatic music community as a whole of perpetrating an ecosystem that fosters caste discrimination

One can debate the caste bias in the Carnatic music world until the cows come home. It all depends on which side of the table one is on. A perusal of the Academy list of Sangita Kalanidhi title winners will reveal a number of non-Brahmin artists. Two things cannot be brushed away, however. For one, Carnatic music is bhakthi-oriented. For another, it is a niche art. Nothing comes without a willingness to learn. And, one has to have an innate inclination to learn.

Clearly, the anti-T.M. Krishna protest has taken a new turn. Ironically, the Academy has chosen to decorate the same artist who raised the first banner of revolt against it several summers ago. The Academy is now being pushed into an unenviable position of defending a rebel artist who has pierced several defences of the Academy in the past.

The T.M. Krishna row has triggered a new twist which has put the arc lights on the very structure of the Academy and its management. With AI (artificial intelligence) and the like coming into play, the dynamics are changing rapidly in every sphere of life. Covid-19 in its wake has redefined the world order in a never-imagined manner. Read in the context of these, the way music is disseminated and consumed is bound to undergo a major metamorphosis. It is time the stake-holders across the canvas in the Carnatic music world realised this.

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