Sangita Kalanidhi goes Woke

Commentary on the Madras Music Academy's decision to award the Sangita Kalanidhi to Far Left Woke activist T.M. Krishna
Sangita Kalanidhi goes Woke

CONSIDER THIS EXCERPT from an opinion piece published in The Hindu on May 15, 2010: 

“When I saw the image of the smiling public prosecutor holding what looked like a file or a book with the cover picture of Kasab and a noose, I was quite taken aback by the happiness on his face. On May 6 I realised that this was the universal feeling all over the country. People were actually dancing and celebrating the declaration of death.” 

Consider one more excerpt from another column dated September 9, 2017 published in Scroll: 

“…let me say this out loud, the BJP and company have not only poisoned the minds of their own supporters, they have achieved a larger goal. They have made the rest of us crass and inhuman to the extent that we are unable to empathise when an RSS member is killed.” (Emphasis added) 

Both columns were written by the same author. 

Judged by the trajectory of our public discourse since the last seven decades, it is only logical for the reader to conclude that these pieces flowed from the pen of say, a professional Far Left intellectual or a member of a Communist outfit. You wouldn’t be wrong also if you assumed that these were written by Hindu-baiting western journalists or commentators. 

But it would hardly occur to you that both these essays — and scores in similar tenor — were written by a veteran, professional Carnatic Classical musician. 

Thodur Madabussi Krishna.  

AT THE TIME of writing this, the controversy surrounding Madras Music Academy’s prestigious Sangita Kalanidhi award to T.M. Krishna had already escalated into a fiery war in the media. Former Sangita Kalanidhi recipients like Chitravina Ravikiran, et al., had already returned their awards following the protest pioneered by the Ranjani - Gayatri duo, respected names in Carnatic music circles. 

There is little to add to the slew of informed commentary and detailed analyses that have followed in the wake of this eruption. Yet, some fundamental questions need answering and some candid truth-telling is due. 

First, the overwhelming and nearly unanimous public opinion in the Carnatic music circles — artists and Rasikas (connoisseurs) alike — has been against T.M. Krishna ever since he morphed himself into a Far Left activist. Awarding him this coveted honour was the unkindest cut of all. Cultural bodies like Madras Music Academy derive their eminence from sustained patronage bestowed by an eclectic host of actors: the institution itself, its founding ideals, its financial patrons, artists and above all, Rasikas. Indeed, this harks back to a foundational principle of Indian Aesthetics: the symbiotic relationship between the Kalavida (artist) and the Sahrudaya (connoisseur).  

Second, the communications that have flowed back and forth between Music Academy and the protesting artists have only served to further tarnish the Academy’s reputation. The proverbial Pandora’s Box has been thrown open, revealing uncomfortable truths ranging from an opaque jury process up to dictatorial tendencies on the part of the current management, which clearly tilts to the Extreme Left.      

The third is the most unfortunate fall out. A sublime musical tradition steeped in sacred antiquity has become the undeserved casualty of a sick fracas scripted and played out by radical actors determined to see its destruction. 

Art forms like Indian classical music (in fact, any classical art form of Bharatavarsha) are the refined outcomes of centuries of Tapas. They are not creations but realisations of this Tapas. They are not the work of one person or one school but are profound offerings that a culture gave to itself. The classic Purandaradasa lyric in a way, alludes to this when it says, kereya neeranu kerege chelli — just like pouring the water of a lake back into it, offer the fortune that Hari gave you, back to Hari himself. Every musician and vaggeyakara (lyricist and composer) who belongs to this tradition has pretty much echoed Purandaradasa’s spirit in his or her own unique method. As the adage goes, one realises the real value of something grand and beautiful once it’s lost. And when we contemplate in silence far away from all the din, this is truly what is at stake here.  

IT IS ALSO IN THIS BACKDROP that we need to examine this issue to get well-rounded insights. Lyrics like the one I just quoted were prescribed at the primary school level when I was growing up. In the generations past, the standard of this cultural education had been much higher and deeper. And this cultural curriculum was almost uniform throughout South India (I’m omitting North India since we’re on the subject of Carnatic Music). 

The emergence of the likes of T.M. Krishna not only threatens to undo this exalted legacy but to annihilate it and to replace it with something soulless and grotesque. Both the online and the offline spaces of Carnatic music show that he has already gathered quite a following among impressionable youth who want to emulate him as some sort of a Carnatic music equivalent of Che Guevara and Pablo Neruda combined. Add to this toxic mix, a mishmash of “Periyarism,” “social justice” and woke, the ugly picture has a self-fulfilling quality to it.  

Which brings us to the story of T.M. Krishna’s transformation. It has not been told in enough detail, depth and nuance in mainstream narratives, perhaps for a simple reason. Large sections of media continue to treat him primarily as a Carnatic musician who has donned the additional role as an activist, while the Carnatic fraternity has been outraged at his Far Left enroachments in a sacred space where politics and ideology have no place.

The story is rather easy to reconstruct. Like every true-blue Leftist, Krishna too, has made no secret of his intent and agenda, and it is best to take his activism and writing at face value, which we will soon examine. Overall, this is the summary. 

From the past decade or so, T.M. Krishna seems to have been indulging in reverse evolution of sorts — from being an exponent of one of the most spiritual and evolved forms of music to willingly transforming himself into an unabashed and crude political propagandist of the global Far Left. His music has been as proportionally soulless as his embrace of the ideology. During the same period, he has converted the sacred podium of Carnatic Music into a pedestal for broadcasting Left propaganda rather than providing unqualified joy to the Rasikas

WE CAN PEG  T.M. Krishna’s ideological rise to the launch of his book titled A Southern Music at the hands of the Communist academician and ideologue, Amartya Sen in December 2013. On that occasion, Sen gave a clarion call to “make classical music accessible to the masses.” In effect, it resembled a farman.

Ever since, T.M. Krishna has trodden on Sen’s path. His pet slogans and writings have been along these lines:  “to take Carnatic Music to the Dalits, to the slums,” and “to de-Brahminize it,” whatever that means. If classical music was “Brahminical,” every Brahmin should’ve been a classical musician, right in the foetal stage. Likewise if a non-Brahmin attains mastery in Carnatic music, will this “Brahminical music” refuse to emanate from his/her mouth? Such formulations are plainly illogical and childish but lethal, given the history of the Left ideology. The long history of Carnatic Music shows that its galaxy has been adorned with innumerable non-Brahmin stalwarts beginning with Purandaradasa, revered as the Pitamaha of Carnatic Music.

But let’s extend this “Brahminical” formulation to Hindustani Music and see what emerges. Till date, T.M. Krishna has not called for Hindustani Music to be “de-Brahminized.” Clearly, there is no dearth of Brahmin musicians there. T.M. Krishna’s convenient silence here can be easily explained by the significant numbers of Muslim Hindustani musicians. That is one lobby no Leftist worthy will dare to offend. Would T.M. Krishna abuse an Amir Khusrau — whose lyrics are staple diet in Hindustani concerts — with the same flagrant ease with which he abuses Tyagaraja Swami? 

This hypocrisy holds true even on the larger plane. As an accomplished Classical musician, T.M. Krishna knows fully well that the distinction of Bharatiya music as Hindustani and Carnatic is merely for the sake of convenience. Yet, he reserves this “de-Brahminizing” sleight of hand exclusively for Carnatic Music. 

In reality, there’s a deeper ideological ploy underlying this alleged “de-Brahminization” project. It played out most notably in 2015.

THE OCTOBER 2015 COVER STORY of The Caravan magazine was pompously titled MS Understood. Written by T.M. Krishna, this long form essay can charitably, politely be described as a vicious hit job against one of the most revered Carnatic musical icons of our time, M.S. Subbulakshmi.

The first thing that strikes about the essay is its timing. It is doubtful if Krishna would have mustered the “courage” to write it when M.S. Subbulakshmi was still alive. The ethics of firing at a posthumous soft target is best left to that author’s sense of decency.   

The other glaring element in the essay is a practised Leftist tactic. Take an eminent, revered personality, pry into their private life, rely on hearsay and “private conversation” that the reader has no way to verify, and conclude that the eminence was not so eminent after all. 

All of this forms the basis for T.M. Krishna’s perennial obsession: Brahmin bashing. In MS Understood, he repeatedly stresses on her origins as a Devadasi who became “Brahminised” to gain “social acceptance,” and how “Brahminical patriarchy” and marriage killed M.S. Subbulakshmi’s music. 

This shows two things. One, although T.M. Krishna has traditionally learned Carnatic Music, he perhaps forgot its other fundamental lesson: Sangita (music) and Samskara (culture, refinement) are inseparable. Two, by invoking her origins, T.M. Krishna, who wants to take music to the masses, has actually slandered the “low classes” whom he claims to “liberate” with his music. 

THE MAGSAYSAY AWARD to T.M. Krishna in 2016 followed the publication of MS Understood. While the distasteful essay in The Caravan invited a maelstrom of outrage, it naturally raised his stature in the Left-Liberal realm. The award was given not for his music but for his efforts at promoting “social inclusiveness in culture.” 

Ever since, T.M. Krishna’s journey as a committed, Radical Leftist ideologue has seen him escalate fault lines and create schisms in the world of Carnatic Music. And now, the same ideologue who had boycotted the “Sabha culture” of Chennai Carnatic Music wants re-entry. And Music Academy, now in the thrall of hardcore Communists like N. Ram and N. Murali, have obliged him by conferring the Sangita Kalanidhi.    

More fundamentally, Carnatic Music was one bastion that the Left could never break into despite their toughest efforts. In one of his old interviews, Padmashri Dr S.L. Bhyrappa had stated that unlike literature, drama and cinema, which have been nearly monopolised by the Left-Liberal clique, Classical Music had largely remained out of their grasp because, “what Communist revolution can you bring about by singing an Alaap in say, the Todi or Bhairavi Ragam?” Clearly, Dr. Bhyrappa had not foreseen the emergence of T.M. Krishna. 


T.M. KRISHNA FOREFEITED the qualification to have his music evaluated by Rasikas the day he became a willing carrier of the Global Far Left. It was the same day he stopped being a musician in the Carnatic tradition. He thus needs to be assessed solely on the basis of his politics. The Sangita Kalanidhi too, was awarded for his politics, not music. With that, Music Academy is fast joining the league of Kalakshetra, that other iconic cultural insitution of Madras, which was de-Hinduised by Leela Samson. 

However, it is a heartening consolation that prominent members of the Carnatic Music fraternity have solidly united for once to protest against this infraction. A good first step, no doubt. However, the tougher task that faces them is to find ways of building long-term immunity against similar tresspasses in future. 

That immunity had existed for centuries in the form of musicians for whom Sangita and Samskara were indivisible. Tyagaraja Swami who is so revered was essentially a profound mendicant. He chose music as a vehicle that enabled his quest for Sri Rama. And music chose him to bestow immortality. 

No Music Academy or Sangita Kalanidhi can do that.

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