Carnatic musician TM Krishna is never one to shy away from controversy. His outspoken emphasis on the caste equations of Carnatic classical music, and the larger question of Tamil culture, has often attracted both shining praise and vociferous denouncements.
But never have his views received more outrage than his November 24 speech organised by Manthan and the Hyderabad Book Trust in Hyderabad on Carnatic legend MS Subbulakshmi. A report by Deccan Chronicle on the event, where Krishna reportedly asserted that the legendary MS had to transform herself into the ideal brahmin woman to receive wider acceptance, has generated a storm of heated opinions online.
In his speech, Krishna reportedly said that MS had to distance herself from her family in order to embrace brahmanism, and argued that this transformation was also visible in her music.
“One can hear MS Subbulakshmi’s old songs on YouTube. The music is free-spirited and electrifying and one feels like one is listening to a rock star. The music rendered by her after undergoing cultural and social transformation is equally fascinating to hear, but one notices the sorrow behind her voice,” Krishna reportedly said. He also reportedly asked if MS would have been as adored if she was dark-skinned and dressed differently.
The response to the report has been a widespread wave of outrage, as numerous people have accused Krishna of hitting out at a dead icon to publicise himself and indulging in ‘brahmin bashing’.
Chennai-based musician Anil Sreenivasan, for instance, said that there were more pressing issues to deal with, before talking about casteism in classical music.
Carnatic vocalist Sudha Raghunathan also shot back at Krishna without naming him, arguing that, “The point on upper class hegemony is overdone.”
“As musicians we need to be cognizant of the fact that origin, caste, creed are man-made and short sighted aspects that we are all overcoming in the movement of time. To rake these up is unnecessary,” Sudha wrote in her Facebook post.
BJP spokesperson Malavika Avinash accused Krishna of “insensitively” digging, analysing and reciting “unverifiable facts from the life of a great soul, posthumously.”
“What is the Intellectual’s fixation about color? What skin type is he? Does he acknowledge that he is earned his status as a musician by virtue of his hard work? Or is it because he is Brahmin & Fair?” Malavika wrote in her post.
Krishna’s statement regarding skin colour and appearance, in particular, have touched a nerve, with many throwing up examples like violinist T Chowdaiah, singer KJ Yesudas and others as counter-examples. Many also compared him to Kamal Haasan, who has recently faced the heat for his statements on ‘Hindu extremism’. Waves of vitriol have also come Krishna’s way, with many calling him senile, publicity-hungry and hypocritical.
However, some sections of artists have also hit back at Krishna's detractors, accusing them of vitiating the debate further. Nrithya Pillai, a dancer from a nattuvanar/ devadasi lineage, for instance, said in a statement to TNM, "As an apolitical person who has shed her communal garb, but understands and respects the struggle and social oppression undergone particularly by women from the isaivellalar community ( to which I belong), I believe that TM Krishna has not disrespected or denigrated Madurai Shanmugavadivu Subbulakshmi. I have written her name in full for a reason, she wasn't shying away from keeping her mother's name as her initials and hence was open about her ancestry.My perspective of the article is that he merely questions if the same appreciation and celebration of her would have been meted out if she hadn't portrayed herself the way she did after her marriage .One can disagree with his views but to somehow make it about disrespecting M.S Subbulakshmi and making responses that actually put down another community or to have misconstrued facts written is not in good taste. No one needs to be ashamed of belonging to a particular community."