Madras Music Academy has given the Sangita Kalanidhi to a Hindu-Hating Far Left Activist, not to a Carnatic Musician

A deeply heartfelt commentary by a true Rasika of Carnatic Music on Madras Music Academy's decision to award the Sangita Kalanidhi to T.M. Krishna
Madras Music Academy has given the Sangita Kalanidhi to a Hindu-Hating Far Left Activist, not to a Carnatic Musician

ON JANUARY 22, 2024 a Carnatic Musician performing in Mylapore, Chennai paused before he started presenting the song “Nadachi” of Saint Thyagaraja. The concert was in celebration of the Pranapratishta at Ayodhya. Vidwan Palghat Ramprasad explained how the context of the song has to be understood and that Thyagaraja has not asked us to stop going to Ayodhya. The crux of the explanation: “If there is no personal piety one cannot find either Ayodhya or Rama.” The reason Ramprasad had do it was because his contemporary T.M. Krishna’s mid-concert mistranslation of the song had gone viral. T.M. Krishna had condemned the Ram Janmabhoomi temple construction and consecration.

T.M. Krishna, the “rebellious” Carnatic musician has been doing such misinterpretations for long. Putting out virulent anti-Ayodhya temple statements and essays. They are not confined to music alone. From CAA to Article 370 to farm bills, he has not hidden his politics. When the Bhoomi Puja celebrations were happening on August 5, 2020, Krishna tweeted – “With absolutely no evidence to support this, let me say that the downfall of the BJP begins today. And I am not a superstitious person.” He called it “a shameful day”. He was willing to show where stood politically, walking hand in hand with Rahul Gandhi in the Bharat Jodo Yatra. What political stand he takes is his business and does not bother me. But I have to record that Krishna’s songs and speeches have been specifically designed to convey explicit political and ideological messages.

In this context, the recent announcement of the hallowed Madras Music Academy to confer this year’s Sangita Kalanidhi award to Krishna is a political decision. No doubt, most awards are political and like an Oscar or a Nobel, the Sangita Kalanidhi award too, signals politics. I am not concerned with the Music Academy’s politics, but I regard it as a slap on the face of all Rama Bhaktas.

The Sangita Kalanidhi award to Krishna may also be an honourable rehabilitation of Krishna into the Sabha space. A bizarre “return of the prodigal” to Music Academy if you will.

 A little context here for those who do not follow the cross currents in the Carnatic Music scene. In 2015, Krishna announced that he was withdrawing from the December season concerts, the famed celebration of music and dance in the month of Margazhi in Chennai. It has been an important part of the city’s cultural scene, even earning a name in the list of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network for contribution in music. He also condemned the sabha culture and said he would not perform in the sabhas.

My immediate reaction to the award announcement was to put out a hashtag, #BoycottMusicAcademy. At that time, many people questioned me as to why I am doing it. Also, many replied telling me that Music Academy would have a full house this season and none would boycott. Well, I am not the one to start a “cancel culture” of any sort. The leftists are its expert practitioners, and we have seen enough of their award wapsi dramas. In fact, Music Academy itself had done these things in the past. M.S. Subbulakshmi was banned for having participated in the Tamil only “Tamil Isai” concert at the height of the Tamil Isai controversy in the early part of twentieth century. Eventually she was accepted, as one of founders and the chief patron T.T. Krishnamachari himself was appreciative of her music and also roped her in for charity concerts to raise funds for the new Music Academy building.

Precedents apart, I also view Music Academy’s current actions as not just a standalone act of the Vidwat Sabha finding Krishna to be perfect candidate for the Sangita Kalanidhi award this year. There is no reason to believe that they could not find merit in proposing the names of seniors and colleagues of Krishna say, Vidwan Vijay Siva or R.K. Sriramprasad as candidates fit for the award. I assert that the award is purely political as I see it as an institutional capture in the perfect style of the leftists. I have nothing personal against any of the personalities, but I have to say here that the President of the Music Academy is also the Director of The Hindu, the newspaper that has been publishing and promoting T.M. Krishna the writer, through its publications and also its platforms like The Hindu Litfest. The Hindu also runs a journalism school and trains young journalists and moulds them with the lectures of many of Krishna’s ilk – the Dravidianists, the atheists etc. 

It is not that Music Academy could not have ignored or bypassed Krishna. Because many stalwarts in the past have been denied the coveted award for various reasons. M.D. Ramanathan, Ramnad Krishnan, Ranga Ramanuja Iyengar, Flute Mahalingam (Mali), Nadaswaram Vidwan Rajaratnam Pillai and other such illustrious Vidwans did not get the award. Violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman declined it and Veena S. Balachandar missed it for his controversial views on Swati Tirunal Maharaja’s compositions. In this context, Krishna would have well deserved to be kept out of the list. However, Music Academy signalled that they are in agreement with him, inviting him earlier this year to perform at their Thyagaraja Aradhana celebration, and eventually gave him the Sangita Kalanidhi award.

Why would you invite someone who called the Sabhas as stifling spaces and wanted to take music out of them to open spaces? By his own admission, T.M. Krishna wanted to free himself from Margazhi of Madras to establish an Olcott Kuppam Vizha, a music festival on the beach set in the middle of a fishing hamlet. Why not let him enjoy his space and freedom there?

Clearly, the intent behind all such “protests” were only symbolic. They were meant to spite artists, Vaggeyakaras and pious musicians and Rasikas. The idea was to gain popularity through rhetoric and activism and not through swaras and sahityas and intelligent expositions of complex talas.

These are familiar Leftist tactics designed to occupy spaces in all fields – literature, art and politics. Ugly gossip about venerable seniors and deceased artists are some of the methods deployed. Branding Thyagaraja Swami as a casteist, mocking the alleged orthodoxy of Muthuswami Dikshitar, and thereby moulding young students to become the woke imitators of their “Guru” T.M. Krishna’s “rebellion.” Once a critical mass of these woke followers has been acquired, return to Music Academy and then capture a larger space and thereby dominate the whole field of Carnatic Music.

Which begs the question: didn’t T.M. Krishna not continue performing all these years in spite of staying away from the Sabhas? True, singing elsewhere and returning to Music Academy are different things. Whether one likes it or not, the prestige, history and the record of Music Academy still makes it a foremost institution that others would follow or imitate.

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There are deeper threads as well. As a Sangita Kalanidhi designate, Krishna gets to preside over academic sessions during the December festival. His influence in Music Academy will rise further. Even during the years that he had shunned the Sabha, he was always hovering around to promote his students. Many of his students got slots at MA, got promoted from junior slots to senior slots quickly and he was there to support them.

It is well-known that Krishna hails from the family of the Music Academy founder, T.T. Krishnamacharya. Undoubtedly, he wields considerable clout in the institution. In which case, who was he shouting against all these years? Aren’t his rants against the Sabha culture include Music Academy as well? And isn’t Music Academy still a dominant “Brahmanical” institution that Krishna is vehemently opposed to? But why does he want to return to it so desperately?

As an audience I cannot step into the same portals that T.M. Krishna has slandered. The stage where many pious souls sang, great stalwarts decorated, divine music flowed… I can’t tolerate seeing this malicious man sing there. I stopped going to his concerts long ago, for I could not listen to him sing a Thyagaraja Kriti after his rants against the revered composer. Krishna is like the Dravidian politicians who would say they are anti-God, and also claim they are fine with the “Tamil Gods”, and also say “Onre Kulam oruvane Devan” (One community, one God).  

After all that T.M. Krishna wrote against Thyagaraja Swami, he declared that he will continue to sing his Kritis except for a few “problematic” songs like Dudukugala and a few other “casteist and misogynistic” songs.

I RECALL THAT EVENING sometime in 1999 or 2000 when I heard him sing a beautiful Mukhari followed by Thyagaraja’s Entani Ne Varnintunu Shabari Bhaagyam. I could only pity that the voice that sang these lines refused to imbibe the beauty and spirit of these sahityas, and be a recipient of paramatma’s grace. I had to give up listening to his Jambupathe, and other favourite renditions I remembered from his past. The days when he would still appear on the stage with a bright Srichurnam on his forehead. The day he wiped off his Srichurnam, I thought, was when Mahalakshmi’s grace left him. Of what use is all the technical prowess when bhakti is denied? How can these musicians sing Sangita gnanamu bhaktivina sanmargamu galade manasa without ever believing in it?

Carnatic Music is undeniably spiritual and pious, and to wilfully turn it secular is a crime against

Bhaktas. We have had devout souls sing secular songs. D.K. Pattammal, M.S. Subbulakshmi and M.L. Vasantakumari, all of them sang Mahakavi Bharati’s songs in their concerts. The Dhanammal school, Brinda and Mukta and many others have been known for their Padam and Javali singing. But, to bring in Permual Murugan’s Periyar songs into this ennobling repertoire is unacceptable. Some years ago, T.M. Krishna’s sishya sang Perumal Murugan’s lyrics as the Pallavi during the December season concert leaving the audience wondering what those lines were.

T.M. Krishna cannot fathom even the inclusion of patriotic songs in his repertoire, for his antics have been well recorded. A magazine article recollected how in Mumbai, when the organizers had said they had to play the National Anthem before the concert, Krishna had sat sulking in the green room, refusing to stand up for the anthem. As Jana Gana Mana rent the air, Krishna continued sitting in the greenroom, protesting the “imposed patriotism.” For Krishna, nationalism is a “bogus” concept that “only perpetrates violence.”

THE MADRAS MUSIC ACADEMY is not awarding a Carnatic musician, but an activist. It cannot deny it, because its administration has been under the control of the Director of The Hindu for many years – since the time T.T. Krishnamachari’s son, who was its long-time president, passed away. The same newspaper’s staff also participates in public protests, their journalism school reinforces the Communist ideology. Given this, if we do not boycott Music Academy now, we would only become willing participants of that same Communist ecosystem.

I have to highlight a few things when I talk about this ecosystem. One is the Ramon Magsaysay award. Here is a quote from an article published in The Frontline magazine run by The Hindu group:

“Krishna is the second classical vocalist to receive the Ramon Magsaysay after M.S. Subbulakshmi, who was incidentally the first woman to be honoured with the Sangeetha Kalanidhi title. However, Krishna was chosen for widely different reasons from why M.S. was chosen.”

While M.S. Subbulakshmi was awarded for her music, Krishna was conferred the award for Emergent Leadership from India. This is how the Magsaysay award citation reads: “for his forceful commitment as artist and advocate of art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions, breaking barriers of caste and class to unleash what music has to offer not just for some but for all”.

Not only did Krishna earn a Magsaysay for different reasons, he also became the popular face of Carnatic Music in India. Unlike Subbulakshmi who conquered the world with her music, Krishna has tried to dominate the column spaces and mind spaces of the left liberals through his tinkering of lyrics, format, antics and attire. Changing the spelling of “Carnatic” to “Karnatic,” wearing lungis and skull caps to the performance dais are some of the most egregious antics.

Elsewhere, he has been against the “democratizing” of Carnatic music through the digital medium. However, thanks to digital and social media, we notice the rise of young kids like Rahul Vellal – his guru has brought out talent among small town kids, imparting music education soaked in tradition and Bhakti.

On the other side, the music-needs-no-bhakti gang has already infiltrated the system. Krishna’s award is an endorsement of that gang. His spurious logic to uphold this hoax is this: “why should one be worried? Is our dharma so weak?”

I would like to reply to this with a personal experience. Last year at the Chinmaya Naada Bindu Festival, inside a campus that has a Ganesh Mandir, Hanuman Mandir and where Swami Tejomayanandji delivered a beautiful lecture on Nada Brahmam, Nadopasana with quotes from Upanishads and scriptures, a young Veena Vidwan, Ramana Balachandran had an interaction with the chief of the institute, Pramodini Rao.

Ramana spoke about Swami Ramana Maharishi as his anchor. Those of us who have followed Ramana know his prodigious talent and also his devout nature. A lady from Pune in the audience later got up and asked “why do you need an anchor? Pandit Bhimsen Joshi was our family friend. When we asked him about his anchor, he said “swar hi mera sab kuch hai” and that he didn’t need anything else.” I don’t know whether Panditji was devout, whether Panditji believed in bhakti, or whether he thought that the abhangs he sang were soaked in bhakti rasa. But the lady’s question casts Pandit Bhimsen Joshi as though he were an agnostic. She framed this question to challenge a young musician, Ramana on his bhakti.

This trend has permeated Chennai’s music field too. We hear Carnatic musicians say the same: “Music does not need bhakti,” “we will sing Purananuru, Sangam literature,” etc. This is an appalling  directional change from the core of Carnatic music for centuries. Since the time of Sangita Pitamaha Purandaradasa, the Tiruvarur Trinity, the Sirgazhi Muvar (Trinity), Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi up to Papanasam Sivam, the legacy of Carnatic music has always been steeped in Bhakti. There were Advaitins, Saguna Upasakas Shakti Upasakas, and Bhagavatas who enriched and ennobled this legacy. To deny this heritage is to nullify the very spirit of Carnatic Music.

The attempt to boycott T.M. Krishna is a fight against this corrosion in the field of Carnatic Music. In recent years, several people have been calling out the bluff of T.M. Krishna. Some prominent names include Vidushi Radha Bhaskar, Ramprasad, Ravikiran, and recently, Ramana too, wrote to him about his opposition to the Ayodhya Ram temple. Mani Krishnaswamy Academy openly condemned T.M. Krishna’s tweets against the Ram temple during the Bhumipuja.

We are duty-bound to protest, boycott and speak up for this divine art of Carnatic Classical Music. It is our sacred Dharma towards dedicated and dharmic artists, the great galaxy of past Vidwans and saintly composers who have bequeathed a venerable legacy to us.

The spirit of Carnatic Music is in the Sahitya as much as it is in the beautiful codified swara structures and complex talas. Let us not harm that system. We pulled it out of the temples and put it in secular spaces, but secularising them is not the way to either “reform” or popularize it.

Today, T.M. Krishna is the torchbearer of this phenomenon. Let everyone listen to Carnatic Music, and they should soak in its divinity. Technology has democratized it more than at any time in the past. Let everyone learn it, there are generous teachers who do not discriminate. But what we lack today is a truly receptive audience. As audience, it is in our hands to preserve and protect the real legacy of Carnatic Music – Shraddha, Bhakti and Daivikatvam.  


As I was closing this essay, news poured in that Vidushis Ranjani and Gayathri have announced that they are withdrawing from the December 2024 Music Academy conference. They’ve been joined by other artists like Dushyant Sridhar, Chitravina Ravikiran, Vishakha Hari, and Trichur Brothers.

May their tribe grow.

May we be blessed by Sri Rama.

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