Friday, July 29, 2016

TM Krishna gets Magsaysay award!

And this has created a lot of discussions in social media. There has been a surfeit of posts in my timeline questioning if the selection of TMK for this award has been truly on merit. There have been multiple reasons put forth as to why this selection is not right. 


The first criticism has been, his stand that Carnatic (I have not gotten used to spelling this as Karnatic and the citation has used yet another variation - Karnatik!) music has become exclusive for Brahmins is not true and that it is a very inclusive art. My friend Jataayu has written an acerbic post on why this is wrong. In this he says,

/What is this 'lack on inclusiveness'? The Sabhas had accorded highest respect to the likes of Rajarathinam Pillai, Dhandapani Desikar and Madurai Somu etc., all 'non Brahmin' Vidwans. The concerts are filled with the Kritis of 'non Brahmin' composers like Puranadara Dasa, Kanakadasa, Arunachala Kavi, Muthu Thandavar, Swathi Thirunal etc. etc. Renowned art historians like Kapila Vatsyayan have recorded how every Indian classical art form transcended caste orthodoxy and rigidity of the regular society and operated on its own rules based on the spirit of Hindu spirituality and Bhakti. Carnatic Music is also no exception to this. There might have been individual cases of discrimination and non inclusion by certain persons and certain institutions - but the way the citation attributes this to the *art itself* is wrong and deserves condemnation.

However, the citation itself says "Karnatik music started centuries ago in temples and courts but was subsequently ‘classicized’ to become the almost exclusive cultural preserve of the Brahmin caste – performed, organized, and enjoyed by the elite who have access to it."

Is this art form inclusive today? From my understanding the answer is sadly no. It is learnt, performed, appreciated and administered only by the Brahmin community. If there is anyone involved from outside of this community, they would be more of an exception to the rule. 

Take the list of the performers that Jataayu himself has mentioned. Is there anyone current in that list? What proportion of Sangeetha Kalanidhis, especially in the last 50 years, are Brahmins? If you leave out the Nagaswaram and Thavil artists (who are under rated beyond belief anyways) would there be anyone of non Brahmin background, who has reached pinnacle of the art in recent years? Sadly, the answer is no. And if we were to talk about non Hindus, the list would be basically be zero. 

Even students of the art today have been only from the Brahmin community. The reason clearly is lack of exposure to this art form amongst others. Kerala, with its emphasis on learning this art form in school has been trying to make this form available for everyone and might have produced a handful of non Brahmin performers. In states like Tamil Nadu, this art form has been labelled Brahminical and has been actively discouraged. I do not know what is done in the music college and its likes in Tamil Nadu. 

All the composers that Jataayu has mentioned have all sung about Hindu Gods and today this music is almost uni-dimensional in the Bhakti format. It is only the Sanjay Subramaniams and the TM Krishnas who are trying to bring in varied compositions be it from Tamil classic literatures or from other languages. I am yet to see someone sing anything on social issues or even the Bhakti aspect to include other religions. Where is inclusiveness here? 

Should we talk about administration of this art form? Gone are the days when this art was practiced in temples and other public places and was accessible to the public at large. Stories of Rickshaw pullers listening to Mani Iyer and refusing to ply till his concerts are over are history. Today this music has gone into the firewalled zones of sabhas and it is exclusively managed by Sabha officials, who determine when and where, who can perform and who cannot. Stories of fledgling performers paying their way to get on to the schedules are plenty. Should we take a census of who runs these sabhas these days? Inclusiveness? My foot! 

The popular refrain to this is, who stops anyone from coming in to listen or learn this art form. It is open to all. Does that solve anything at all? Like any art form, there will be an audience and there will be students only when they are exposed to the art in some way or the other. Unless there is constant exposure, there will be no appreciation. Has the previous and current generation of performers and administrators done anything to take this art form into the demilitarized zone? No! So let us not cheat ourselves into believing everything is well and good with this art form and that anyone who is questioning the politics of the art is doing it with an ulterior motive. 

I came across a post by musician and musicologist Radha Bhaskar bemoaning how the Brahmin community is not interested in Carnatic music anymore and how naive is it of people to think that the community is all steeped into it. I have this urge to explain that the view Carnatic music is dominated by Brahmin community does not equal to all of the community accepting it using Venn diagrams. The tone of the post clearly shows her feeling that this music belongs to the Brahmin community first and then to the masses. The very fact TMK is so vociferous in condemning. But again, it is he who is beaten up in the comment section of this post as well! Talk about a maththalam getting it on both sides. 

Better Candidates

Another friend, Sudhakar Kasturi, has had a spate of posts ever since the award was announced and most of which can be ignored as they have very little substance. But in one post he has given a list of people who have done immense work in archiving village art forms and have never been winners of the Magsaysay award. I can only say I can add a dozen more people or a hundred more, who are worthy of the award but have not been awarded. And that would be true of any award. Should I go ahead and list the greats who have never won the Sangeetha Kalanidhi award and suggest that the people who have been awarded have been done so because of lobbying and lobbying alone? Is there any merit in such arguments that are done just for the sake of arguing? Tsk!

TMK has been vocal against the current government and leans quite far left in his thoughts and this irks many. These are the people who come up with conspiracy theories that these are all part of a grander plan of foreign entities trying to break up India. While I am not a favorite of TMK’s political leanings, I would stay further away from these crazies. 

And finally we come to a set of egotists, who can never think of any awardee to be the right candidate unless they are the awardee or if the awardee belongs to their inner circle. The prime example of this is Tamil Author Jeyamohan, who has written a very stupid post about this award. This is not the first time he has pooh poohed the choice of an award committee and won’t be the last time, knowing him. 

He goes on to say in his first paragraph that he has no idea on what premise this award has been given and if it was for musical abilities, TMK is a sub average performer who cannot be heard the second time. This only portrays his lack of appreciation for Carnatic music as even someone like Jataayu has condemned him for this statement. And if he has read the citation, he would have been clear that this was not for his musical abilities. 

Jemo himself, states that in the very next paragraph, that this award is not for the musical abilities and ‘thinks’ it is for just the articles that TMK has written. The rest of the article just goes on in this same manner. While the entire post can be shred line by line, it is not worth the effort and some of his previous posts would show his double standards in such matters. 

He ends with this line - "சமீபத்தில் மிகக்கூசிய ஒருதருணம் இது.” I just have to say that, I felt this exact same way, that Jeyamohan, whom I consider as one of the foremost writer of fiction in Tamil today has come down to this level. This too shall pass! In the same vein, I should say I loved this post from another friend and a writer in his own merit, Era Murukan - 😃 

My Views

  • I agree with TMK’s views that this art form has become synonymous with just the Brahmin community and there is a need to break this shackle. 
  • I have witnessed first hand on what TMK is trying to do in this regard and I am appreciative of his efforts. Especially through the Svanubhava events, I have witnessed some art forms which otherwise I had no access to and found myself enthralled by them.  
  • I have been to some of the concerts he has taken to fishermen villages and I have seen the attendees happy not because they are able to appreciate the art but because they felt included. 
  • His lectures on introducing Carnatic music to someone who is not familiar with the art form is very educative and he has delivered such lectures to a variety of audiences including school students. I personally know of people who have taken up to listening to Carnatic music after these lectures. I know he is not alone in this but he is not just about writing columns in 'The Hindu’ as well! 
  • Sumanasa Foundation, mentioned in the citation, helps music students from rural places and bring music to special children as part of their therapy. Laudable causes indeed. 
  • I do not feel it is wrong for a performer to experiment like he does on stage and agree not every experimentation would be to the liking of everyone. But it is his freedom to do so and I do not think the art would suffer from it. 
  • His political views are not to my liking but does not take away his efforts in highlighting the problems with the Carnatic music and trying to change it. 
  • I know what he speaks in the open is what a lot of his colleagues would accept in private but do not want to acknowledge publicly. It is the outsiders who are so angered and refuse to accept the need for any changes. 
  • I do not know of any standards to determine if he is worthy of the award or not. The Board of Trustees have chosen him for the award and I congratulate him for the honor and wish him the very best to take his effort in bringing Carnatic music to the larger world. 

  1. Jataayu’s post on Inclusiveness -
  2. Radha Bhaskar post on propagation of Carnatic music -
  3. Sudhakar Kasturi’s post on better candidates - 
  4. Jeyamohan’s condemnation of this award selection -
  5. Jataayu’s criticism of Jeyamohan -