T.M. Krishna—a lone crusader

krishna File- T.M. Krishna | PTI

Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna is among the list of awardees announced by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation this year.

His citation says that the award is in recognition of “his forceful commitment as an artist and advocate to art's power to heal India's deep social divisions, breaking barriers of caste and class”.

If any sceptic out there is thinking how a musician did all that, it is high time they learned more about this man—who has been striving to ensure social inclusiveness in art and culture.

Thodur Masabusi Krishna, also known as TMK, is a renowned vocalist in the Carnatic tradition. Born in 1976 in a Brahmin family in Chennai, Krishna was trained in Carnatic music from the age of six.

Though an ancient musical system, Carnatic music gradually became the dominion of the Brahmin caste. In the 20th century, majority of Carnatic performers have been Brahmin.

Krishna felt that this was unjust as the other castes were missing out on a vital part of India's cultural legacy. Thus, T.M. Krishna the rebel was born. In this avatar, he seems to have made it his mission to share what Carnatic music has to offer with all. And he has undoubtedly stayed true to this mission.

Krishna demonstrated his commitment when he said that he would no longer sing at the Chennai December Season—a famous annual music festival. “I am unable to reconcile my musical journey with that of the December season,” he wrote on his Facebook page on June 10, 2015.

An observer might have seen this coming as Krishna had tried to set an example the previous year, by singing on the beachfront of a fishing village.

However, his bold initiatives have largely been met with indifference and not many musicians have supported him publicly.

From Russia, Krishna told THE WEEK over the phone that he understood why some people could not openly agree with him. “I am going against established norms, so it might be difficult to accept what I am doing. I understand that.”

“But if people say that social separations are justified, they are absolutely wrong. If there are socially contrived divisions, there will be hierarchy and oppression. And that is against humanism,” he said.

The vocalist, who is also an author of books such as A Southern Music—The Karnatic Story, is a regular columnist for various publications. And, while his voice may be pleasant, his pen is sharp. Krishna does not mince words.

His articles unfold with the same smoothness as his renditions, but convey his opinions forcefully. In a 2006 piece titled 'A crisis of culture' for a national daily, he lashed out at the overdose of Bollywood in the Indian section of the closing ceremony at the Commonwealth Games.

“Is India so lacking in great dancers and musicians that we have to rely on films? Are we not modern enough if we showcase our traditional music and dances?” he remarked. It is precisely this thinking that has set him apart. While the majority of India celebrated what was hailed as a spectacular show, Krishna wept for the cultural shallowness that his nation had displayed.

He said in the phone conversation that people need not agree with all he was doing. “But, at some point if they realise that the questions I am raising are relevant and begin a process of self-introspection, unburdened by habituated beliefs, then there will be movement. This is not as yet happening,” he said.

For some time now, T.M. Krishna has been fighting the battle against caste and class, alone. He has been the lone crusader navigating a sea of artificial divisions. The time is ripe for some new deckhands.

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