Sections of the Tamil Brahmin Community Protest Strongly against Controversial Singer T.M.Krishna Being the Recipient of the “Sangeetha Kalanidhi”Award from the Chennai Music Academy.

Lakshmi Sreeram

(Lakshmi Sreeram is a musician and teaches at Ahmedabad University.)

The Sangitha Kalanidhi is a coveted award given annually by The Music Academy, Chennai, to a Carnatic musician. By convention, the designated awardee presides over that year’s prestigious Music Conference and over the other concerts in December.

This year, The Music Academy awarded it to T.M. Krishna. This set off a string of protests in the Carnatic music community, with prominent musicians withdrawing from the year’s conference, since it will presided over by a person they accuse of repeatedly offending the community with charges of casteism and Brahmin domination in the Carnatic world.

I was once a judge of a Carnatic music competition held at a premier sabha in Chennai. I was stunned when my fellow judge made a comment about a talented young contestant who apparently did not “look like a Brahmin”. “Such a mismatch between the face and the music—do you see?” I was thrown and confused, not willing to believe such blatant casteism.

When I said I had scored her among the top five, he aggressively dismissed the idea, saying: “We can’t give prizes to ‘them’ (Avaalukku ellaam prize kudukka mudiyaadu).” I regret to this day that I did not make an issue of it. Not only was he openly casteist, but he had assumed that I, too, would naturally share his prejudice.

Is Carnatic music dominated by the Brahmin community? Undeniably, yes. Are they, or are some of them, unwelcoming of other communities? Yes, consciously and unconsciously, although it is denied.

A brilliant musician, T.M. Krishna has, over the years, accused the community of this and much else. He has constantly pointed out aspects of the underbelly of this world, which are at variance with the beautiful and complex melodic system that lies at its heart.

What Krishna could have done perhaps is first create an archive of various people’s experiences of casteism, such as mine above, and also his own personal experiences before making sweeping, abrasive statements that have often sounded like judgments denouncing an entire community as though they were self-evident truths. The complexity of the issue of caste, after all, defies even well-considered scholarly statements.

But the reality of caste is hard to deny. When Dushyant Sridhar, a Harikatha artiste who, too, has withdrawn from the conference, said that nobody in the Carnatic music world denies or stops other castes from coming in, he is either in denial or is being disingenuous.

The sense of upper-caste community, the shared norms of behaviour and values that permeate the Carnatic music world is something that makes it hard for outsiders to penetrate it. This is besides the blatant casteism.

One understands Sridhar’s anguish when he asks: “How can an aastika [believer] tolerate it when this person [T.M. Krishna] juxtaposes a Tyagaraja composition that breathes devotion to Rama with a song on Periyar who wanted to garland Rama with chappals?”

For Krishna, it does not matter “whether a song is about Rama or a wall… only the music between ‘ra’ and ‘ma’ is relevant.” But this, like other stances he has taken, may not withstand scrutiny. For instance, when he sings of Periyar, is only the music between “pe”, “ri” and “yar” relevant? Is he not evoking Periyar’s politics of protest through the song?
In any case, lyrics are very important in the Carnatic tradition, which has an umbilical connection with the Bhakti movement. The centrality of the compositions of the Carnatic Trinity (Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, and Syama Sastri of the 18th century), all of which are devotional in content, and the close links of Carnatic music with the Harikatha or religious discourse tradition have meant that Hindu devotion is a strong presence.

Does this mean that you can only be a part of this world if you are a Hindu believer? Clearly not. Chinnaswami Mudaliar, whose passion for this music was instrumental in getting Subbarama Dikshitar to bestow upon the Carnatic world the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini, a priceless source of compositions of the Trinity and others, was a Catholic.

Does it make no difference to the music if one is a Hindu believer or not? When one sings the charanam line of the composition Jnanamosagaraadaa, for example: “paripoorna nishkalanka niravadhi sukhadaayaka”, a description of Rama as perfect, flawless, and eternal provider of bliss, does it resonate differently if one is a devout Hindu and does that lend an extra dimension to the music?

One wants to say yes. But T.M. Krishna’s own renditions of these and other compositions are unsurpassed in their emotive content. We know that other front-ranking musicians today are quietly atheist.

The great Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer said in an interview that bhakti (devotion) is essential to Carnatic music; bhakti not for any deity, but for the music itself.

A K.J. Yesudas, whose very name means slave of Jesus, loves this music and renders it emotionally. So does the Sheikh Maulana family of Nagaswaram artists. Is their music inferior because they are not Hindu?
This issue, too, like the caste issue, is too complex to be addressed in sweeping pronouncements.

In awarding Krishna, The Music Academy has cast its vote for the art that is Carnatic music, irrespective of other considerations. The Academy is the leading light of Chennai’s famous December music season.

When, in 2015, Krishna announced that he would no longer participate in the “socially narrow and stifling” music season and reiterated his charges of casteism, populism, and the prevailing sabha culture, he clearly implicated the Music Academy. Despite this, if the Academy has awarded Krishna this year, it is creditable.

Certainly, hidden in this is the Academy’s acknowledgment that there is at least a kernel of truth in Krishna’s criticisms of its world. If he had hurled completely baseless charges, it is doubtful the award would have been given to him.

This is also why so many in the community are angered. How could the Academy, the bastion of Carnatic music, validate Krishna’s politics, even if only implicitly? How could it indulge in such unforgivable self-reflection and self-criticism?
Krishna deserves this coveted award and many others for his music alone. But, as many wonder, how is it consistent with his journey thus far to accept it? As one astute observer put it, this ghar wapsi is bewildering. And, this is not the first time that Krishna is not walking the talk.

On the other hand, the anger of those who are protesting is stupefying. There is a reference to Periyar in the note written by the singer duo Ranjani and Gayatri (RaGa sisters) to The Music Academy president N. Murali, who has called it “vituperative and in poor taste”. Periyar was brutal in his anti-Brahmin stances, but to reference him in a protest against Krishna in the context of a Carnatic music award is shocking and absurd.
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Predictably, the RaGa sisters’ social media post has garnered great support from people heralding them as keepers of the “Sanatana Dharma”. In the charged political environment that has seen the spread of Hindutva, the Hindu links of Carnatic music are being valorised more than ever before, and evoking Periyar in such contexts serves only to further polarise the larger community.

The issue is snowballing and there have been calls to boycott the Academy. Such sentiments are hardly consistent with love for the music and assume the colour of identity politics. Us versus Them. And in this post-truth world, everything is seen to have a hidden agenda, as doubtless this article will too.

It is a peculiar fate: Carnatic music, which is historically enmeshed in Hindu bhakti, is also heralded as art music. This has led to repeated eruptions. The furore over Carnatic musicians singing Christian songs is a recent example. At its heart lies the old conflict: Does one see Carnatic music as art or bhakti? Depending on the singer and the listener, it can be either or both. Whether one can dictate what it ought to be is a different matter. But co-existence seems a fraught project in these times.