The announcement of conferring Sangita Kalanidhi, the highest honour, equivalent of the Grammy Award in the World of Carnatic music, for 2024 to T. M. Krishna, the Carnatic musician par excellence, by the Music Academy in Chennai on March 18 stirred up a controversy among the fraternity.

This unexpected announcement irked the hardliners of the conservative school of thought in the Carnatic music world. To register their unhappiness and anger, some publicly announced their boycotts and ‘Award Wapsi’ (returning awards in protest). The condemnation and controversy first erupted with Carnatic vocalists Ranjani-Gayatri withdrawing their names from the concert scheduled at the December Music Festival.

The sisters reportedly did so because T. M. Krishna would chair the session of their concert before he received the award, as per the convention of the Music Academy. They accused Krishna of the “dilution of divinity and spirituality of Carnatic Music”. They also accused him of the “denigration” of one of the trinity of Carnatic Music, Saint Tyagaraja and that of the globally acclaimed Carnatic vocalist M. S. Subbulakshmi.

They said Krishna engaged in the “glorification” of E. V .Periyar, who they claimed “openly proposed the genocide of Brahmins and vilification of Brahmin women”.

A host of other artists joined the chorus, such as Harikatha exponents Dushyant Sridhar and Visakha Hari, the Trichur Brothers, Krishna Mohan and Ram Mohan. Awards were ‘surrendered’ by Chitravina artist Ravikiran, as well as by Rajamani, the eldest son of the well-known Mridangam artist Palghat Mani Iyer.

One can debunk these allegations as ill-conceived, baseless, and vague. It is nothing but an act of ‘sophistry’ to make a political point by Krishna’s detractors.

Carnatic vocalist Thodur Madabusi Krishna, popularly known as T. M. Krishna, has neither diluted the divinity and spirituality of Carnatic Music nor denigrated Saint Tyagaraja or M. S. Subbulakshmi. According to musicologists, Krishna’s musical insight is incredible, and he is one of the sought-after Carnatic music artists in India and abroad.

He is a purist or traditionalist in terms of music. He does not prefer to tinker with the ragas, nor does he encourage ‘fusion’ music.

Krishna has sustained the sanctity of Carnatic music intact by adhering to the tradition or grammar of the art. His Bhakti music renditions are profound, soul-stirring, joyful and ecstatic. They transport the listerners to a state of rapture and trance.

His concerts are thronged by the Carnatic music ‘rasikas’ or connoisseurs, including those who disagree with his political ideology. Krishna has adhered to the sanctity of Carnatic music. At the same time, he is an avant-garde artist who has extended the framework of Carnatic music by blending diverse genres and themes, leading to both admiration and criticism.

Krishna traverses with poise and elan in the realm of Bhakti, secular, and progressive music. He has not transgressed the tenets of Carnatic music, but has pushed its boundaries to make it more secular than before.

He has a deep respect and reverence for Saint Thyagaraja. Krishna’s concert repertoire always has Thyagaraja’s compositions. As reported in ‘The Hindu’, when the news about the Sangita Kalanidhi award was conveyed to Krishna’s by N. Murali, president of Music Academy, he was performing, with his wife Sangeetha and students, at the memorial of St. Thyagaraja at Thiruvaiyaru in Thanjavur District of Tamil Nadu. Krishna reportedly visits the memorial once a year to pay his homage.

Nevertheless, Krishna critically reflected on those compositions of Saint Tyagaraja, which have caste and gender discrimination. It is a scholastic exercise, not one to disgrace or defame the revered saint.

Similarly on the subject of Carnatic vocalist Subbulakshmi, through nuanced intellectual scrutiny, Krishna illustrated the impact of Brahmin patriarchy on her life and career while highlighting her musical legacy. Such fact-based and evidence-based intellectual scrutiny should be welcomed, or debated for a deep understanding of such personalities, rather than perceiving them as trivialisation, defamation, malicious, or blasphemous acts.

The anger against Krishna stems from his endorsement of anti-casteism, caste discrimination, and anti-untouchability of E. V. Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar, a well-known radical social reformer and the ideologue of the Self-Respect Movement. As claimed by the vocalist duo, Periyar “openly proposed Brahmin Genocide”.

According to Periayarists, he never instigated or advocated for any “Brahmin Genocide.” They say this is a dubious, fallacious, ruthless, virulent remark by the vocalists on Periyar who advocated for a casteless society.

One has not read or heard of any reports about the incidents of physical attacks or killings of the Brahmins during the times of Periyar or after. It is false propaganda to play a ‘victim card.’ The fact is that, on the advent of politics of social justice in Tamil Nadu, propelled by the Dravidian movement, the historically socially economically well-privileged and advantaged Tamil Brahmin community voluntarily migrated to various parts of India and abroad to make good fortunes in the burgeoning Indian and global economies.

It is well-known that Periyar’s close friend and confidant was C.Rajagopalachari, known as Rajaji, the well-known Congress leader, freedom fighter and Founder of the Swatantra Party. It is clear that Periyar stood against ‘Brahmanism’ but was not against the Brahmin community per se.

At the same time, the radical reformer Periyar is known for his tantrums, taunts, intimidating and provocative speeches, non-conformist views on various socio-economic and religious aspects of Tamil society to promote or popularise the 'rationalist ideology' aggressively in the state. For instance, Periyar intimidated Tamilians by saying that "Tamil is the language of barbarians”.

This was a provocative remark. However, the people did not hate Periyar for the remark because his intent was not to hurt, as he staunchly stood for the democratisation and rationalisation of Tamil society.

In a similar vein, in his inimitable way, Periyar might have taunted the Brahmin community in general, and Brahmin women in particular, for being steeped in religious orthodoxy or conservatism, and being exponents of archaic Hindu religious scriptures or texts. He may have crossed the limits at times on the emphasis of rationalist ideology for social change of Tamil society.

At the same time, Periyar was one of the indefatigable defenders of women's rights in our country. He advocated for the freedom of women from the entrenched Indian patriarchy in every sphere of life. The disparaging remarks on Periyar by the vocalist duo shows their hate, prejudiced and feudal outlook.

Krishna sang a song in Tamil titled "Sindikka Chonnavar Periyar”. It translates as “Periyar asked us to think”. This song was performed to commemorate the centenary year of Vaikom Satyagraha, the Temple Entry Movement, led by Periyar to grant entry of ‘untouchable’ communities in temples.

The song was about caste discrimination, untouchability, and the oppressive nature of Hindu scriptural injunctions. In light of the above, the vocalist sisters made an outrageous and nasty insinuating remark on Krishna calling him a “genocide monger”. This is an uncalled for and unscrupulous and vituperative remark on a senior artist.

The Chitravina artist Ravikiran has recently invented a new raga called “Narendramodini”. Isn’t this the transgression of the sanctity of Carnatic music? There were no objections from the vocalist sisters on creating a new raga that does not exist in Carnatic music.

In contrast, when Krishna sings on Periyar, or performs ‘“Hum Dekhenge” the resistance song of Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, based on Carnatic ragas, it is seen as the “erosion of divinity and spirituality of Carnatic music”.

Venom has been spewed against Krishna by his vicious critics to muzzle his politics of social justice in the world of Carnatic music. This is done because Krishna’s ideological stance is against the status quo, establishment, and 'Brahmin Hegemony' in the domain of Carnatic music.

Krishna has exposed the prevalence of a 'glass ceiling' to prevent the entry of non-brahmin and lower castes students into learning Carnatic Music. He is the first whistle-blower from the world of Carnatic music to tell the outside world about anomalies in the system.

He exposed the discrimination, alienation, and marginalisation of non-Brahmin, and ‘lower caste’ students. His books include ‘Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Mridangam Makers; A Southern Music —The Karnatik Story; Reshaping Art’. He has written articles such as "Can Carnatic Music be de-Brahmanized?; The Myths and Misconceptions around M.S. Subbulakshmi”. These provide testimonies to his claims of caste discrimination, alienation and marginalisation, Brahmanisation, and gender oppression of the art form.

Krishna has articulated that despite the fact that Carnatic music is a shared social heritage of different Hindu communities, it is now being appropriated by the Brahmin community at large, which is unfortunate, unfair, and unjustifiable.

Of course, the Carnatic music world has produced non-Brahmin stalwarts such as Veenai Dhanammal, T. N. Rajarathinam Pillai, M. K. Thiagaraja Bhagavatar, Palani Subramanya Pillai, Madurai Somu, and Mandolin U. Srinivas. It has also produced famous non-Hindu artists, such as K. J. Yesudas and Sheik Chinna Moulana, but they are symbolic and are the exceptional ones.

Krishna pointed out systemic or institutional discrimination and structural inequalities in the Carnatic music scene, which are stumbling blocks for entering others in large numbers. He makes a clarion call to eliminate these barriers plaguing art's growth.

One can spot T. M. Krishna with the "Iyengar Naamam" drawn on his forehead. this is the Vaishnavite Brahmin identity marker. He has been seen with it at music concerts, and may have done it to get the acceptance or recognition of his musical genius in the Carnatic music circles.

Simultaneously, it is discernible that he is not against the Brahmin community per se, but he stands against "Brahminism" in the world of Carnatic Music.

Krishna is not rhetorical, he has taken novel initiatives to shed any image of Carnatic music being elite and of its religiosity by organising concerts in locales apart from temples, and sabhas. Carnatic music vocalists have been singing compositions of respected Tamil Poets Subramanya Bharathi and Gopal Krishna Bharathi, which espouse caste and gender equality. But, Krishna has further extended this to include the compositions from resistance, revolutionary and queer genres.

Given his long, illustrious Carnatic music career, despite not being the 'victim' of the existing system, Krishna should be lauded for bringing the fault lines into the limelight. He has developed his convictions to fight for casteism and gender oppression based on observations, self-discovery, and self-introspection. It is not for 'sensationalism' or 'fame', as his critics argue.

Krishna's quest for social justice is evident. While commenting on the boycotts of the Brahmin artists, he said, "If more artists withdraw, then I hope more deserving people come in their place," and added that he hoped to see more inclusive replacements. Perhaps more Periyarists as well."

The present controversy snowballed into another spat between the vocalist duo and the Music Academy over the question of social justice in the academy, the vanguard of Carnatic Music. Krishna might be happier to watch this development as social justice politics is making headway in the realms of Carnatic music.

Given Krishna's intense social and political activism for various impending social and political causes, he is being dubbed as an “anti-India, urban naxal, Hinduphobic, genocide monger”. This tagging will not deter his zeal to fight for social justice, plurality, and diversity as being the seeker of the truth. Let us join him in solidarity.

DR. M. Mahalingam teaches Social Sciences at the Faculty of Law, SGT University, Gurugram. Haryana. Views expressed are the writer’s own.