Breaking caste barriers through music: TM Krishna's journey to the Magsaysay Award

TM Krishna made the comfortable uncomfortable with his performances and discourse on caste
Breaking caste barriers through music: TM Krishna's journey to the Magsaysay Award
Breaking caste barriers through music: TM Krishna's journey to the Magsaysay Award

Carnatic musician TM Krishna has been the face of and the voice behind music and art that helps break across caste and communal lines.

As a recipient of the famed Magsaysay award in 2016 for "ensuring social inclusiveness in culture," Krishna has, received a major recognition for his efforts with his commentary on caste and to build an inclusive form of communicating music and culture with the Urur Olcott Kuppam vizha. Urur Olcott Kuppam, a small hamlet of fisher folk who reside and work at the Besant Nagar Beach in Chennai, has seen a swathe of cultural performances ever since the festival's inception in 2014. 

At the age of 12, TM Krishna made his debut in 1988 in the Madras Music Academy, and since then it has been a steady rise to success.  He however began questioning the format in which Carnatic concerts were presented and experimenting with it.

The traditional format was aimed at presenting a wide variety of Carnatic genres in a single performance. But TM Krishna’s experiments unsettled a performance form wedded to tradition but surprisingly caused his popularity to swell. 

TM Krishna has authored a book called Southern Music: The Karnatik Story, where he’d opened up about the many shades of the Carnatic season, both the good and the bad.  He also writes in a weekly column in The Hindu. In 2014, he along with several environmentalists came together to spearhead the Urur Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Vizha on Besant Nagar beach that would help many across castes and class engage with Carnatic music.

 In the 2015 edition of the Margazhi Vizha, he announced in a Facebook post that he would not perform in the lineup as he was “unable to reconcile his musical journey with that of the December season.”  

“TM Krishna has been relentlessly going out of his way to tackle caste domination in the form of the arts. It’s not just the Urur Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Vizha that he has won it for – his social commentary, and many other nontraditional concerts have contributed to the way discourse on caste has become, says Nityanand Jayaraman, environmental activist and volunteer of chief at the Vizha. Welcoming audiences that cut across caste and communal lines is a big feat, he says. “Those from fisherman families need not have to be educated by the malaise in our county that is caste, it’s those who benefit from it that need to.” 

In a piece in Kafila, an FAQ by Jayaraman on the Vizha details how the Vizha is more about redefining the status quo of communicating music rather than pander to or challenge an existing one

“ I see it as operating in and invoking a separate frame – of what a celebration could look like if it were conscious of the need to heal historical fractures in society. To me, the festival is also a critique of the corporate patronage that seems to contaminate every exercise of civil society – from marathons, to concerts, to clean-up drives, campus festivals and kindergarten lemon-and-spoon races. If there is a challenge, that challenge is to the notion of the classical and all the other associated baggage.”

For Archanaa Seker, a journalist and member of the Vettiver collective, it was all about leaving her privilege as a Tamil Brahmin at the door. “I was never really interested in Carnatic music, but when I saw the way he broke across traditional lines with both speech and performing at the beach, it changed the way I saw music and caste,” she says. For many volunteers who initially wanted to clear the Kuppam as they viewed as dirty, 

Apart from being a musician, TM Krishna as a voice in caste discourse has received a fair amount of backlash. An initial reaction to the Kuppam Vizha was by a section of the rasikas who felt he was pushing Carnatic music down the throats of people who weren’t interested. Another was a challenge – Would you take folk music to sabhas? “He had one tactful answer to all of these questions – No stage is taller than the other,” Seker says.

What about the famed parody site TM Krishna doing things? Seker says, “He broke into a loud, hearty laugh. What is an artist if he can’t make fun of himself?” 

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