Days after Chennai’s Music Academy announced that its prestigious Sangita Kalanidhi award will be given to Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna, some exponents of the classical music form have announced that they will not perform at the music festival in December at which the prize will be given.

The musicians have alleged that Krishna has “vilified the Carnatic music fraternity” and “tried to polarise and destabilise Indian classical music”.

Vocalists Ranjani and Gayatri declared their decision to stay away from the event in a social media post on Wednesday. On Thursday, the vocalists Trichur Brothers said they would not appear the festival, while instrumentalist Chitravina Ravikiran said that he will return the prize he received in 2017.

Dushyanth Sridhar, a Harikatha exponent, also said he was withdrawing from the event.

The outrage stems from Krishna’s expression in his music and his public statements challenging Carnatic music traditions that are rooted in caste and class privilege, say people who follow the music scene.

Social activist Nityanand Jayaraman told Scroll that the criticism stemmed from a “threat to an elite status” that Carnatic musicians enjoy. Jayaraman and Krishna are co-organisers of the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha, an annual music and dance festival held in a fishing village near Chennai.

“I can see from the responses that their purity has been defiled by a person who has been talking about caste in Carnatic [music], about equality, about making Carnatic more than something that is divine and profound,” said Jayaraman.

Over the years, Krishna has been a vocal critic of the upper-caste status quo that experts say is deeply entrenched in the Carnatic music ecosystem. In 2016, when when the organisers of the Ramon Magasaysay award gave Krishna the prize, they lauded his decision to “question the politics of art” and the fact that he “devoted himself to democratising the arts as an independent artist, writer, speaker, and activist”.

At the Magasaysay award ceremony, Krishna had said that art must transcend the barriers of caste. “A precious, aesthetic experience can become part of a political and social commentary,” he said. “This, it was clear to me, was wrong, unfair – unfair to society, unfair to the art. I must, I felt, resist this near hegemony.”

Tool for social reform

When The Music Academy announced on March 17 that it was conferring the award on Krishna, it expressed appreciation for his efforts to use “music as a tool for social reform”.

“Known for his powerful voice and his adherence to tradition when it comes to the art, he has experimented widely with its format,” the institution said in a press release. “He has also worked towards expanding the listener base of the art by taking it to varied social settings and focusing on its exploratory as opposed to tightly defined structures.”

Krishna, by virtue of being awarded the Sangeeta Kalanidhi, will preside over the academic sessions and concerts of The Music Academy, scheduled to be held between December 15 and January 1, 2025.

Expressing gratitude for the award, Krishna wrote in a social media post: “The music kept me honest.”

In a social media message on Wednesday, Ranjani and Gayatri claimed that Krishna has “wilfully and happily stomped over the sentiments of this community”. They added: “His actions have tried to spread a sense of shame in being a Carnatic musician and has been exhibited through his consistent denigration of spirituality in music.”

On Thursday, The Music Academy President N Murali responded to their statement, saying that he was “shocked by both its vituperative content, which is replete with unwarranted and slanderous assertions and insinuations verging on defamation, and its vicious tone against a respected senior fellow musician”.

In his social media post, Ravikiran alleged that Krishna had “painted some of the greatest architects and institutions of this country and its culture black”.

Meanwhile, Harikatha exponent Sridhar said that he was "pained by many of his [Krishna's] public statements on dharma [religion], Ayodhya and [Hindu deity] Sri Rama".

Several observers pointed out that even as these artists have criticised Krishna for his socio-political views, none of them have questioned his brilliance as a musician.

“I find it unfortunate that none of the protesting musicians have mentioned TM Krishna’s artistic qualities, which the Academy has eloquently described in its citation,” said columnist Sumana Ramanan. “These musicians have completely failed to understand the substance and spirit of Krishna’s critique.”

Ramanan said that Krishna argues that caste privilege has shaped Carnatic music and its ecosystem. “Is caste divisive or is he divisive for pointing it out?” she said. “Moreover, from his writing and singing, it is clear as daylight that his critique comes from a place of deep love for the art form. Realising that we can critique what we love is a sign of maturity – the opposite of blind faith.”

Social activist Nityanand Jayaraman said the decision of The Music Academy, which many see as a “Brahminical institution”, to give Krishna the award demonstrates that the vocalist’s efforts to highlight problems within the Carnatic music community has hit home. “A much-needed churn had started when someone of Krishna’s stature started talking about the problems and now that churn is bearing fruits,” said Jayaraman.

Columnist Malini Nair, who regularly writes on culture, traces the churn Jayaraman mentioned to Krishna’s first book A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story, published in 2016.

“In the book, he pointed at the class, caste and gender barriers within the Carnatic music ecosystem,” Nair said. “That was quite revolutionary because these barriers were prevalent but nobody was talking about it because the Carnatic community had the facade of being open and liberal.”

Nair added that many artists were upset with what Krishna wrote in his book because the Carnatic music community had nurtured the vocalist himself. “But what he [Krishna] did do was that at the height of his career, he took stock and said that these are issues that are not being addressed.”

In an interview with Scroll, after his book was published, Krishna was candid about the fact that his criticism of the Carnatic music community was addressed as much to him as to everyone else. “Maybe people will be upset,” he told Scroll. “Anger is the normal initial reaction and I expected it. My only hope is that after it subsides, we can have a serious debate on these issues.”

Nair said that after his book was published, Krishna continued to upturn the established traditions of performing Carnatic music.

“He stopped singing at the renowned establishments in Chennai that hold concerts every winter,” she said. “He then started writing and speaking extensively on the issues he highlighted in his book and all of this coalesced to opposition to the right-wing rhetoric and the fact that a bulk of the Carnatic community is aligned with this rhetoric.”

Nair also pointed out that in his performances too, Krishna introduced elements that were antithetical to the traditional manner of performing Carnatic compositions.

“The whole dictionary of Carnatic music is full of religious compositions dedicated to various deities," Nair said. "This did not sit well with Krishna and he started to dip into what he thought were secular compositions and he even created such compositions, he started singing [Rabindranath] Tagore's works and [16th century saint-poet] Kabir's works.”

In his interview with Scroll, Krishna had touched upon his idea of aesthetics at concerts, while speaking on the specific method of presenting Carnatic music.

“...A concert is not a fixed box in terms of the experience it provides, but responds to the aesthetic direction taken by the musician without being bound by presentational traps and compulsions," he had said.