TM Krishna’s Sangita Kalanidhi award row has become a battle of ideologies

The Carnatic music industry has remained a Brahmin domain for centuries, and TM Krishna – a Brahmin himself – became an outlier by openly criticising the community and its attempted monopoly over the classical arts.
TM Krishna, Periyar and Carnatic music
TM Krishna, Periyar and Carnatic music
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The heated debate over Carnatic musician TM Krishna receiving the Music Academy’s Sangita Kalanidhi award has turned into an ideological battle between Dravidianism and Brahminism, with political parties including the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now weighing in on the debate. The controversy erupted after singer duo Ranjani and Gayatri issued a joint public statement on March 20, stating that they were withdrawing from the Music Academy Conference on January 1, 2025, where TM Krishna will be felicitated. Several Carnatic singers soon followed suit, alleging that he had immensely damaged the Carnatic music world with his activism.

TM Krishna, who is a social activist and author besides being a Carnatic vocalist, has frequently called out the Brahminical hegemony in the industry. He has also been a vocal supporter of sexual assault survivors who called out prominent names in the Carnatic music industry during the ‘Me Too’ movement in 2018. Among the allegations raised against him by Ranjani and Gayatri was his “glorification” of Periyar, a rationalist and staunch anti-caste crusader who spearheaded the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu.

Periyar, whose ideological stances form the core of the Dravidian political parties in Tamil Nadu, is known for his heavy criticism of the Brahminical culture. He publicly advocated against ritualistic Hinduism and the practice of Brahmin priests being treated as messengers between a devotee and god. He had clear disdain for the ‘purity’ and ‘untouchability’ practices of caste Hindus, and strongly advocated for reservation in government jobs and education. 

The classical music and dance fraternity meanwhile has remained a Brahmin domain for centuries. The craft is widely considered a legacy to be inherited, passed on from generation to generation of Brahmin musicians. Some of the most successful musicians who perform at the Margazhi festival in Chennai, at the Music Academy, and other Carnatic music festivals across the globe, are Brahmins. More often than not, the songs performed by these musicians are also firmly rooted in Hindu devotion and spirituality. 

TM Krishna, a Brahmin himself, became an outlier in the fraternity after he began to openly criticise the community and its attempted monopoly over the Carnatic music industry. He often denounced the casteist and elitist practices in classical art spaces, and along with environmentalist Nityanand Jayaram, questioned the way Carnatic music contained itself to spaces that only certain audiences can access. Nityanand has also alleged a “ghettoisation of Carnatic music,” stating that Carnatic musicians were not attempting to reach out to a wider audience.

In the wake of these concerns, in 2014, the duo established a music festival titled ‘Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha’, an event where people from all walks of life could come together and witness art in an “equalising space.” The festival, held at a fishing hamlet named Urur Olcott Kuppam at Besant Nagar in Chennai, holds space for art forms such as rap and therukoothu (Tamil street theatre) just as it does for Carnatic music. 

Even while accepting his Ramon Magsaysay award in 2016, Krishna had spoken about how he wanted to “resist the hegemony” of the art he was practising. “It became clear to me that the music was not just about the melody and rhythm; it had been so internalised by the religion, conventions and rituals of the holding community, my community, as to make it ours – ours to practise, to preserve, to protect, excluding the rest, especially those on the first step of India’s caste-based social order,” he said.

Last year, Krishna also composed a song dedicated to Periyar, titled ‘Sindikka Chonnavar Periyar’ (Periyar who asked us to think), commemorating the centenary of the anti-caste Vaikom Satyagraha movement.

He has also written extensively about the need to democratise classical arts, and his book A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story (2016) elaborates on how one’s gender and caste locations can become barriers to their success in the Carnatic music industry. 

During an event organised by Mathan and the Hyderabad Book Trust in 2017, Krishna said that veteran Carnatic singer MS Subbulakshmi distanced herself from her Devadasi lineage and “Brahminised herself” to become successful. “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,” he said. 

He also questioned if MS Subbulakshmi would have been adored by the Carnatic music industry if she was a dark-skinned woman who dressed differently than she did. Subbulakshmi was known to dress in a conservative Brahmin fashion especially after her wedding, donning rich silk sarees, diamond nose pins and earrings, her hair neatly tied up with fresh flowers, and her forehead adorned with the traditional kumkum.

Krishna’s comments were met with significant backlash from prominent musicians such as Sudha Ragunathan, who alleged that analysing Subbulakshmi’s personal choices nearly a century later was “unjust and wrought with present day biases.” “The point on upper class hegemony is overdone. As musicians we need to be cognisant 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. We need to be progressive and focus on the music alone and carry the legacy with pride,” she said.

Kalakshetra Foundation, a popular classical dance institute in Chennai, cancelled the launch of Krishna’s book Sebastian and Sons on its premises in 2020, after an excerpt published on The Hindu questioned the irony of Brahmins playing the mridangam — which is made of cow skin — while practising cow worship.

Krishna has also acknowledged the imbalance in power dynamics between the gurus and shishyas in classical art spaces, which in turn led to the exploitation of students at the hands of their teachers. When the Me Too movement gained momentum in Tamil Nadu in 2018, several prominent musicians in the Carnatic music industry were called out for sexual assault. Up to seven of them were dropped from the Margazhi festival that year. Speaking to The Scroll in 2018, Krishna said that harassment in the classical arts circle was an “open secret,” and that the silence surrounding it has “normalised” this behaviour.

Even when students of the Kalakshetra Foundation came out with sexual harassment allegations against their staff member, Krishna expressed his disappointment with how the institute handled the issue. “No process of enquiry will be effective unless the atmosphere is caring and compassionate towards those who are alleging sexual abuse, in these cases, young students and alumni. When the place is so hierarchical, no one will speak freely and fearlessly,” Krishna wrote in a letter to S Ramadorai, chairman of the Kalakshetra Foundation. 

Now, as a bandwagon of Carnatic musicians boycotting the Music Academy conference over the felicitation of TM Krishna, citing “ideological differences” among other reasons, an array of people including politicians, writers, and activists have also come out in his support. Chief Minister MK Stalin, his sister and Member of Parliament (MP) Kanimozhi, writer Meena Kandasamy, and N Ram, Director of The Hindu Publishing Group, have also criticised Ranjani and Gayatri for their controversial statements about Periyar, pointing out that he was a feminist who preached for equality of all castes, including Brahmins. 

Stalin said it was worrying how TM Krishna was being attacked for aligning with Periyar’s ideology, and for siding with the marginalised. “The management of the Music Academy deserves our appreciation for choosing Mr Krishna as a worthy candidate and giving him the recognition for his contributions to the music industry. TM Krishna’s talent is undeniable. Do not mix your narrow politics with music, like how politics has been mixed with religion by some groups. The need of the hour is to have an inclusive vision, the ability to avoid hatred, and embrace fellow humans!” he wrote.

Kanimozhi said the hate Krishna was receiving for his social beliefs or his engagement with Periyar was “uncalled for.” “A basic reading of Periyar’s ideas shows us that he is one of the greatest feminists the world has seen. He never called for a genocide. This hate, similar to the hate filled speech given by the BJP politician in Karnataka recently. Maybe they don't believe in the freedom of thought and expression that our country believes in,” she added.

BJP chief Annamalai’s solidarity, meanwhile, went to the artists opposing Krishna and Periyar. Reiterating the ancient notion that equates Carnatic music to Hindu spirituality, Annamalai called the Music Academy in Chennai a “temple of Carnatic music and spiritual consciousness,” which was now under threat from “divisive forces detrimental to the sanctity of the organisation.” The rather vague framing of his statement implied that the “threat” here is posed to the ‘Hinduness’ of Carnatic music, especially by an artist such as TM Krishna, who has been working to democratise an art form that has been monopolised by upper caste elites.

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