T.M. Krishna: A rebel with a noble cause

Three days after Chennai-based Music Academy awarded popular singer T.M. Krishna with the Sangita Kalanidhi award, the highest honour in the world of Carnatic music, the entire Carnatic classical fraternity came down heavily on the vocalist. A bunch of musicians and singers protested against the move.

Popular singer duo Ranjani and Gayatri had boycotted the annual December festival, the most revered music season in the classical world of music and dance. While many opposed Ranjani and Gayatri, few vocalists and artists came in support of them, opposing Krishna. Chitravina Ravikiran who received the Sangita Kalanidhi award in 2017 announced that he will return the award and the prize money to the academy as a protest against the academy’s decision to honour Krishna. Another vocalist duo known as Trichur brothers—Srikrishna Mohan and Ramkumar Mohan—also withdrew from the academy’s annual music conference. Vocalist Vishaka Hari also slammed Krishna and the academy for honouring Krishna.

Soon, Thodur Madabusi Krishna, popularly known as TMK, turned the target. But for TMK who has been facing the wrath of his own music fraternity for his effort to democratise Carnatic music, this new episode may hardly be demoralising.

A speaker, author and writer on social issues, Krishna was the first to push out caste elitism from the Carnatic classical establishment. Krishna had always distanced himself from the most popular December music season in Chennai which happens during the Tamil month Margazhi. He launched his own Uroor-Olcott Kuppam Marghazi Vizha. He had always openly said he believes that caste privilege is entrenched within classical music.

For me as a journalist and as a regular visitor to his Uroor-Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Vizha every year, Krishna’s music and singing is a social movement to empower people. As a layperson, who doesn’t understand the ragas and the renditions in depth, Krishna’s concerts have been vibrant laced with a tapestry of songs and ragas that talk about India’s rich and diverse culture. When every Carnatic singer would choose to sing the songs of composers like Thyagaraja Shyama Shastri and Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Krishna would get into my heart through my ears with much ease with his own compositions of songs on the Dravidian icon EVR Periyar. TMK’s virtuosity and his compositions can bring alive the rebel voices of authors like Perumal Murugan.

In 2017, his comments on M.S. Subbulakshmi triggered a row. Krishna saying Subbulakshmi distanced herself from the Devadasi culture to gain wider acceptance attracted criticism. He was called “anti-Indian” and wasn’t allowed to perform in the national capital. He was to perform at the Dance and Music festival organised jointly by the Airports Authority of India (AAI) and the cultural body, SPIC-MACAY.

In 2018 he had extended support to Sofia Ashraf, the young woman who fought for the men and women affected by Unilever’s toxic mercury dump in the Kodaikanal hills. As Sofia sang, Krishna was among the audience, supporting the environmental cause. His book ‘Reshaping Art’ asks several uncomfortable questions—how art is made, performed and disseminated, and addresses crucial issues of caste, class and gender within society while exploring the contours of democracy, culture and learning—which the popular names in the Carnatic classical establishment would never accept.

In his most popular book ‘Sebastian and Sons’, which talks about the caste divide, Krishna presents anecdotes, reminiscences, accounts and memories of the discrimination faced by the Mridangam makers.

Krishna’s song in honour of Periyar in 2023 was an epic. And go ask any young girl in the Urur-Olcott Kuppam along the east coast of Chennai and you will understand that Carnatic music is not the preserve of one particular community or caste. Krishna may be the rebel against orthodoxy, gender and caste bias, but he brings peace and harmony through his magnanimous gesture in the serene world of Carnatic music.