Perumal Murugan & TM Krishna’s ‘Kavadi Chindu’ on Ambedkar, a first for Carnatic music

While ‘Kavadi Chindu’ is predominantly associated with the Hindu deity, Perumal Murugan and TM Krishna have used the form innovatively to talk about Ambedkar and his anti-caste message.
TM Krishna, Perumal Murugan
TM Krishna, Perumal Murugan
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“Karpi ondruser puratchisei…” begins the unique ‘Kavadi Chindu on Babasaheb Ambedkar’, written by eminent Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan, and composed and sung by renowned vocalist and activist TM Krishna. The song begins with the Tamil translation of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s revolutionary slogan, “Educate, Organise, Agitate.” The Kavadi Chindu was released on April 14, the 130th birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar, and is touted to be the first Carnatic song to be written about Ambedkar. It talks about the leader’s role in uprooting the caste system.

Speaking to TNM, TM Krishna says that the idea for the song came from Perumal Murugan, who wrote it a few months ago. “I have been working on it since March and I tried it with different ragas. But when Murugan said that it was a Kavadi Chindu in his mind, I changed the tune and set it into a Kavadi Chindu,” he shares. “This is a song that praises a great leader. Since Chindu is better suited for a song of praise, I formatted the song accordingly,” Perumal Murugan says.

Redefining Carnatic music

The word ‘Chindu’ refers to a form of poetry in Tamil. While there are many varieties of Chindu, Kavadi Chindu is popular in Tamil music. It is usually sung by the devotees of Lord Muruga while performing the Kavadi Aattam, a ceremonial dance. The songs are sung while carrying the ‘kavadi’, a physical burden, to temples dedicated to Lord Murugan, which are usually situated on hilltops. The Kavadi Chindu is sung in praise of the deity, and is believed to enhance the singer’s strength as they travel through hilly terrain.

While Kavadi Chindu is predominantly associated with the Hindu deity, Perumal Murugan and TM Krishna have used the form innovatively to talk about Ambedkar and his anti-caste message. The song praises the visionary leader. 

“Arpa saadhiyai azhiththida vandhaey

Arivai oottiya ariya theerar.”

He came to uproot the ugly caste system

This rare gem gave us wisdom.

The song also refers to Ambedkar as an “axe to annihilate Manu.”

Forever we shall sing of his fame,

Babasaheb Ambedkar is his name,

For our fight, his name is the flame.

“Usually, Carnatic music is predominantly occupied with Sanskrit verses. But the trend is changing now, where a lot of songs in the genre are composed in Tamil, and they are liked by many,” Perumal Murugan tells TNM.

“There are multiple issues to tackle with the so-called classical art forms,” TM Krishna says, “The people and the community around the form tend to sing and practice an art form that does not have a connection with the larger society. The other problem is that the circle does not allow other people to come into the circle.”

He adds that there are hundreds of students from multiple castes learning Carnatic music, but mainstream musicians do not welcome diversity in the form. He also expresses that the Carnatic form must become more flexible to embrace different cultures, to encompass people from all castes. “People might argue that they never restrict anyone. But the fact is that these are invisible walls. This definitely has to change.”

Speaking about his Chindu on Ambedkar, TM Krishna says, “These kinds of songs allow for Carnatic music to get a reality check. It also reaches a larger audience. In fact, people who do not come to a sabha are listening to this Kavadi Chindu and that is the whole idea behind the song.” He emphasises that there is no real distinction between folk and classical music. “It is only the social hierarchy that decides which is folk and which is classical,” he says.

Perumal Murugan adds that a change cannot happen in a single day. “There is feasibility for many people to think along the lines of democratic equality when such works of art are created. The last two decades have been very significant for art forms in Tamil Nadu, where there is a vivid enhancement of diverse thoughts,” he says. He also says that there is considerable scope for the thoughts of Ambedkar post-1990, a hundred years since his birth, when his works started to become more accessible as they were widely translated into various languages.

The state of art in Tamil Nadu

TM Krishna has been advocating for structural support for musicians in Tamil Nadu for many years. “We need to do more for all the art forms of Tamil Nadu. There is no point in saying we are a cultural state unless we take care of the multiple cultures and artists of the state. We are the state of the Dravidian movement. I don’t think we have given enough respect to the multiple cultures of the state,” he points out.

Krishna and Perumal Murugan have produced other works in association, including songs which call for action against social evils like caste discrimination, and even in solidarity with the recent farmers’ protests. Their ideologies meet at a common point with Ambedkar’s philosophy, they say. They aim at redefining Carnatic music, which can be made to reflect on current issues rather than merely being a repertoire of “a certain kind of past”..

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