T M Krishna and the Carnatic Music Controversy

  • By Dr Ketu Ramachandrasekhar
  • March 22, 2024
  • 1545 views
  • Krishna is a talented artist. Why has, conferring of the Sangita Kalanidhi award by the Madras Music Academy, resulted in protests. He stated that would not be part of Chennai’s December Music Season from 2015 and announced would release a monthly Carnatic song on Jesus!

Last Sunday, the announcement of the prestigious Sangita Kalanidhi award 2024 being conferred upon singer T M Krishna by the Madras Music Academy triggered a storm in the world of Carnatic music. What followed were a series of protests and withdrawals by prominent musicians from the December 2024 music season.

The decision to honor Krishna was met with criticism from many quarters within the Carnatic music community. Leading musicians such as Ranjani and Gayatri, Dushyant Sridhar, and the Trichur Brothers expressed their disapproval, citing Krishna's alleged disregard for the traditions and sentiments of Carnatic music.

Ravikiran, a chitraveena player and former Sangita Kalanidhi awardee, even returned his award in protest. The family of Late Mrdangam Mastreo Palaghat Mani Iyer too has announced the return of Sangita Kalanidhi presented to PMI by the Academy.

Ranjani and Gayatri, in a strongly worded statement, accused Krishna of causing irreparable harm to the Carnatic music world by disrespecting revered icons like Tyagaraja and M S Subbulakshmi. They also condemned his association with figures like EVR, known for controversial views and language.

The backlash extended beyond verbal criticism, with musicians withdrawing from scheduled performances at the Music Academy's events. While some are openly critical of Krishna's actions, others remain silent but discontented. Many musicians feel that Krishna's activism, though purportedly aimed at social reform, is self-serving and detrimental to the art form.

While Krishna's musical prowess cannot be denied, his divisive rhetoric and alleged hate-mongering have stirred deep-seated tensions among musicians and aficionados alike.

Krishna's vocal criticisms of traditional Carnatic music and its practitioners have earned him both admirers and detractors. However, it is his inflammatory remarks and polarizing actions that have drawn widespread condemnation from within the community.

One of the most contentious aspects of Krishna's rhetoric is his perceived disrespect for revered figures and traditions in Carnatic music. Accusations abound that he has willfully denigrated icons such as Tyagaraja and M.S. Subbulakshmi, casting a shadow over their contributions to the art form.

Moreover, many view his praise for EVR (Periyar), known for his divisive views and derogatory language towards certain communities, as a betrayal of the inclusive spirit of Carnatic music.

Krishna's activism, often couched in progressive language, has also come under scrutiny for its perceived divisiveness. While advocating social reform is commendable, critics argue that Krishna's methods and rhetoric have only served to deepen existing divides within the Carnatic music community.

His criticism of traditional sabhas and their perceived elitism has alienated many longstanding practitioners and patrons of Carnatic music. By painting these institutions as bastions of conservatism and exclusivity, Krishna has created a narrative of "us versus them," further polarizing an already fractured community.

Thyagaraja Samadhi, Thivaiyyaru, Tamil Nadu. 

According to this Hindustan Times report, “TM Krishna boycotted the popular Chennai Music Season (in December), which is the pillar of Carnatic music in Chennai and considered the most coveted by mainstream Carnatic musicians in India and around the globe. To counter the December music season, TM Krishna started a festival which was focused on using art to heal. This festival debuted in February 2016 at the Uroor-Olcott Kuppam in Chennai.

In 2018, there was an article in The Print about how classical vocalist OS Arun was intimidated ahead of a concert titled Yesuvin Sangama Sangeetham, conceptualised by T Samuel Joseph (Shyaam), who was a disciple of violinist Lalgudi Jayaraman. At the time, TM Krishna, who believes that Carnatic music is for everyone, wrote on social media, “Considering the vile comments and threats issued by many on social media regarding Karnatik compositions on Jesus, I announce here that I will be releasing one Karnatik song every month on Jesus or Allah.”

Krishna said, “I would like to inform all of you that henceforth (beginning December 2015), I will not be singing in Chennai’s December Music Season.” Source

This India Today report adds, “Carnatic music, deeply rooted in devotion and spirituality, traditionally features compositions in praise of Hindu deities, primarily in languages like Sanskrit, Telugu, and Tamil. Krishna, however, has expanded this repertoire to include songs in Bengali, Malayalam, Hebrew, and even Arabic, set to Carnatic ragas.”

Additionally, Krishna's selective interpretation of bhakti (devotion) in music has raised eyebrows among traditionalists. His dismissal of traditional bhakti songs as mere expressions of religious sentiment, coupled with his own controversial performances, has sparked accusations of cultural appropriation and disrespect.

In the midst of this turmoil, Krishna's acceptance of the Sangita Kalanidhi award from the Music Academy, an institution he has previously criticized, has drawn sharp criticism. Many see this as a hypocritical move, undermining the principles he claims to uphold.

Ultimately, the divisive rhetoric and alleged hate-mongering propagated by T.M. Krishna have cast a shadow over his musical legacy. While his musical acumen is undeniable, his controversial actions and statements have left a bitter taste in the mouths of many within the community.

In the midst of the controversy, Krishna's supporters defend his artistic integrity and applaud his efforts to challenge established norms within the Carnatic music community. However, detractors view his actions as opportunistic and damaging to the cultural heritage he claims to champion.

As the debate rages on, it becomes apparent that the controversy surrounding T M Krishna is not just about one musician or one award. It reflects broader tensions within the Carnatic music world, forcing stakeholders to confront uncomfortable truths about tradition, innovation, and identity.

As the Carnatic music world grapples with these tensions, it is clear that the path forward must involve dialogue, understanding, and a renewed commitment to the principles of inclusivity and respect. Only by bridging divides can we hope to preserve and protect the rich cultural heritage of Carnatic music for future generations.

Ultimately, the 'Carnatic war' sparked by Krishna's award underscores the complexity of preserving cultural heritage in a rapidly changing society. It prompts us to question who has the authority to define tradition, and what role activism should play in shaping the future of classical arts. Krishna too must realize that there are better ways of effecting change e.g. through quiet action, less posturing.

Shobha Narayan summed it up aptly in Hindustan Times, “In giving the award to a musician who disdains and insults his musical fraternity and doesn’t respect the gradual evolution from tradition and modernity, the Madras Music Academy may well have reduced its stature, invited questions about its motives, and, you could argue, made itself a subject of derision amongst those who love Carnatic music.

To read all articles by author

Also read

1. Thyagraja – Saint poet and Musician par excellence

2. Comparing Carnatic and Hindustani Classical Music

3. 4 Basic Elements of Carnatic Music

4. T M Krishna controversy explained

5. Why the Award has divided the Carnatic Music scene

6. T M Krishna can no longer have the cake and eat it too

7. How the award is polarizing Carnatic Music  

8. T M Krishna must not be rehabilitated

9. 2023 article T M Krishna – we had enough of your virtue signaling

10. History of the Dravidian Movement in Tamil Nadu

11. When caste was not a bad word   

Editor Notes – No divide happens overnight. This award was a trigger to express their unhappiness. 

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