Sangita Kalanidhi to Mr. TM Krishna

Mr TM Krishna (Thodur Madabusi Krishna), the well-known Carnatic classical vocalist, was conferred with the coveted ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’ 2024 award (Musical treasure trove) by the Madras Music Academy, Chennai. Its President, Mr N Murali, said that the award was conferred on him in recognition of “his powerful voice”, “adherence to tradition when it comes to the art”, “focusing on its exploratory as opposed to tightly defined structures”, and for using music as “a tool for social reform”.

Krishna, the grandnephew of former Indian Finance Minister, TT Krishnamachari, one of the founders of the Madras Music Academy, is considered a musical prodigy. Having begun his learning from Sri Bhagavatula Seetharama Sharma, he presented his debut concert at the academy at the age of 12. Later, he learned the craft of ragam-tanam-pallavi from Carnatic vocalist Chingle-put Ranganathan and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, the famed colossus of Carnatic music.

He thus got strongly rooted in the technique and grammar of Carnatic music. His concerts were a dear delight to listen to the purists. At the same time, they were also provoking, disturbing but awakening, for they often tend to transcend the implicit boundaries defined by the tradition. Though his concerts have in general drawn critical acclaim, they are also known to attract the ire, particularly from the traditionalists.

The reason is: “Art”, for him, “is freedom, abandon, beauty, catharsis”. Driven by this philosophy, and aided by the experience gained over the years of singing, he morphed into an innovator, nay a disruptor. In the process, he claims to have realized that a raga being a sonic body rather than a structure limited by set rules, always moves, and along with it the rules too move, and therefore, he lets himself go where it will take him—unmindful of even the calculus of the notes within the raga space—even while singing the kritis of the past. Hence, they not only sound different but also disturbing to the traditionalists.

He claims to be an unbeliever in god and yet he mesmerizes the listeners with his singing of devotional songs. Anecdotal evidence: Once, at the end of a concert an old gentleman called on him and while complimenting his presentation, said that while he was singing the kriti on Lord Krishna, he felt as though Krishna is standing before him. Thanking him for the compliments, the vocalist replied: “I sang this song umpteen times but I never saw Krishna”.

Unsurprisingly, this award to Krishna threw open a huge controversy in the Carnatic music world. Many well-known Carnatic musicians voiced their resentment against the Academy’s decision to honor Krishna with the ‘Sangita Kalanidhi’ award. And, the reasons for such controversy are, of course, quite evident: He is an ardent activist against caste discrimination. He, believing that the people occupying high positions in the musical world were creating a world of ‘other’ by erecting invisible walls and screens culturally, intellectually, emotionally, psychologically, politically and intellectually, distanced himself from Madras Music Academy’s music season citing caste favoritism in the Carnatic music system.

In an attempt to “push out caste elitism from the existing Carnatic music system”, he launched his own Carnatic classical music festival in 2016—the Uroor-Olcott Kuppam Marghazi Vizha—in a fishing village to offer a platform for presenting multiple art forms such as folk, classical, Dasa and vachana sahitya, dalit poetry, even Sufi, etc.

He also advocates for environmental activism. Sitting amidst the devastated backdrop of the Ennore creek, he sang ‘Chennai Poramboke paadal’ in raagamalika: “Poramboke ennaku illai, poramboke unnaku illai (Poramboke is not for me, it is not for you) Poramboke ooruike, Poramboke bhoomikku (Poramboke is for the city, it is for the Earth) …” with improvizations of his own to the accompaniment of violin, mridangam and kanjira—to draw the attention of the otherwise indifferent government and the public towards the ongoing unmindful exploitation of nature. This had immediately become an avant-garde composition!

His activism against caste discrimination and caste favoritism in the Carnatic music system, and his taking liberties with the established traditions such as announcing to “release one Carnatic song every month on Jesus or Allah” annoyed mainstream Carnatic musicians.

This 48-year-old vocalist, who received the Raman Magsaysay award for his contribution to music and for bringing about “social inclusiveness in culture”, is also a writer, besides being an activist in the social arena. In his book, Reshaping Art, Krishna called for the disassociation of Carnatic music from the stranglehold of social structures and value systems. He also wrote that according to the prevailing system “…musicians have to create the impression of being moral, pious creatures even if they are not. … Even today, women musicians feel the need to de-sexualize themselves and radiate piousness. … All this is bulldozed upon them in the name of appropriateness”. He even considered “the scaffolding, paraphernalia, social constructions” built around the art “were barricades”. This challenging of age-old conventions by him perhaps, affronted the traditionalists/purists.

That aside, he is also accused of passing controversial remarks against Sadguru Tyagaraja, the exponent of salvation through devotional music, which did not go down well with other musicians and music lovers. In an interview, Krishna said: “Tyagaraja is a ‘great genius’; an intellectual who made ‘complex compositions with 25 sangatis (embellishments)’ in a single kriti … as a musical endeavor for people to experience the aesthetic beauty of a raga. In addition, holding an opinion that “if art is saying something, it is creating a perspective and is, therefore, political”, he raises a question: ‘Was there nothing political about him and his works?’” Over and above this argument, he has a problem with some of his kritis in which he notices “gender and caste discrimination”. In this context, he cited the kriti, “Dudukugala …, in which Tyagaraja states, teliyani natavita kshudrulu vanitalu/svavasamavuta kupadesinchi/santasilli svaralayambu lerungakanu/slatmulai shbhaktulaku samanamu …” (I have taught ignorant dancers, the lowest class of men and women to get control over them, delighted in it, and without any sign in them of real knowledge of notes and rhythm except an acquired brazen heart, I asserted them to be the equal of true devotees…).

He is also accused of passing derogatory remarks against the doyen of Carnatic music, MS Subbulakshmi. But a dispassionate reading of Krishna’s essay—‘MS Understood’published in Caravan in 2015, wherein he states: “The free-spirited young woman was to become the embodiment of the ideal Brahmin housewife, seen among the elite as the epitome of purity and devotion”; “A false note from MS was unimaginable”; “Her concerts had to be as impeccable as her personality”; “the power of MS music is irreplaceable and incomparable”, reveals no evidence of derogatory intent.

It is against this backdrop that Ranjani and Gayatri, the renowned Carnatic vocalist sisters announced their decision not to sing in the Music Academy event this December season as they consider participation under TM Krishna’s presidency, who has inflicted “immense damage” on the Carnatic music world, will constitute a “moral violation”. They also said, “He wilfully and happily stomped over the sentiments of this community and insulted most respected icons like Tyagaraja, and MS Subbulakshmi. 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. It is dangerous to overlook TM Krishna’s glorification of a figure like EVR.”

A few other music lovers/performers like Trichur brothers, Chitravina Ravikiran, have expressed their discontent over the Academy’s decision to award Sangita Kalanidhi to TM Krishna. Trichur brothers said that their participation in a conference presided over by TM Krishna would make us “outright hypocrites in our own eyes”.

Sri Dushyanth Sridhar, Harikatha exponent said, “I have had a sea of ideological differences with … TM Krishna … pained by many of his statements on dharma, Ayodhya, Sri Rama …I will prove very disrespectful to their values if I perform immediately after the Sadas (where he will be awarded)”. Similar feelings are expressed by Visakha Hari, the Harikatha exponent, and a few other intellectuals/music lovers.

Interestingly, all this controversy appeared to have emanated out of personal differences at the ideological level. Of course, they are all entitled to have their views and stand by them. In the same vein, Krishna too is entitled to have his views. Intriguingly, none of them appears to have anything adverse to say about Krishna’s musical competency—his mastery over ragas, alapanas, tanam, pallavi, kalpana-swaras, neravas, and kritis that casts a spell on the audience. This indeed gives hope for a probable dialogue among the musicians, scholars of the craft of music, and music lovers to find ways and means to shun such extremities and to arrive at a meeting point for the good of Carnatic music. This may, hopefully, even lead to a dialogue between the past and the present.

It is perhaps right to say here that music, like any art, is not static but dynamic and ever-evolving. So, as Kalidasa observed, “Puraanamityeeava na saadhu sarvam/Na chapi kaavyam navamityavadyam … every old poem is not good because it is old; nor is every new poem to be blamed because it is new ...” let us, for the being, therefore stay focused on music and be guided by the judgment of audience. On this note, let me stop here with a huge congratulations to TM Krishna.

Image courtesy Hindustan Times


More by :  Gollamudi Radha Krishna Murty

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