The annual Carnatic music season has only just kicked off in Chennai, and already a controversy has erupted. For the past few days, people in music circles – and beyond – have been debating a statement that noted singer and writer TM Krishna made during a talk in Hyderabad on November 24 about music stalwart MS Subbulakshmi.

Krishna has often maintained that the Carnatic music scene does not offer a level-paying field to musicians from all communities, and is the preserve of the upper castes. This is a view that has elicited great support and trenchant criticism.

In a lecture about culture and its role in creating identities, Krishna said that Subbulakshmi had gained acceptance in broader society by distancing herself from her Devadasi roots and identity to become someone else culturally – an ideal Brahmin woman. This was a tragedy, he said. “If MS’s voice came from a dark, non-upper-caste beauty-ish lady, would all of us celebrate her like we do today?” he asked. “I don’t want an answer to that question. I just want us all to think about it.”

Earlier in her career, Subbulakshmi’s music had “incredible freeness in spirit”, Krishna contended, but later, it was imbued with a certain sorrow that was mesmerising in itself. “Her music was what it was because of the sorrow in her,” Krishna said. “Which is why nobody will shake you and stir you like MS Subbulakshmi does.”

Krishna was speaking at an event to mark the release of the Telugu translation by noted Telugu writer Volga of TJS George’s book on Subbulakshmi. The video of the talk was uploaded on the internet on December 1 but the debate was sparked by a report about the event in the Deccan Chronicle on November 25.

Strong reactions

On social media, many have expressed their outrage at the reported statements. “Analysing her [MS Subbulakshmi’s] personal choices or her journey through the prevailing ethos of her time nearly a century later is both unjust and wrought with present day biases,” singer Sudha Ragunathan wrote on Facebook. “Future generations should talk of her music.”

The point on upper-class hegemony is overdone, she maintained. “As musicians we need to be cognisant of the fact that origin, caste, creed are man-made and short sighted aspects that we are all overcoming in the movement of time,” said Ragunathan. “To rake these up is unnecessary. We need to be progressive and focus on the music alone and carry the legacy with pride. There are definitely no brownie points for dissections here!”

Social media sites were also flooded with posts of people claiming to be “proud Brahmins” and accusing TM Krishna of “Brahmin-bashing”. Others claimed that Krishna’s view on caste bias in the Carnatic music world was untrue, pointing to the prominence of violinist T Chowdaiah, singer KJ Yesudas, neither of whom were Brahmin, reported The News Minute.

Some people agreed with some of Krishna’s contentions but claimed that he was “community-shaming”. Among them was musician Anil Srinivasan. “I refuse to be ashamed of my birth as a Brahmin,” he wrote on Facebook. “It is an accident.” This too, has caused a furore. Srinivasan told he has been receiving calls of enquiry and even abuses ever since.

Srinivasan said that he was born a Brahmin, it was a part of his identity and he was neither proud or ashamed of it. “I have to accept responsibility for certain things and acknowledge my privilege,” he said. “But I have to look at it from the perspective that I don’t deny the identity for what it is.”

Regarding Subbulakshmi, Srinivasan said that there was a “grain of truth” in what Krishna said. “There is a certain choice that MS made, to assimilate with a particular way of life, which worked to her advantage,” Srinivasan said. But he added: “The key there was that it was her choice.”

Solution in sight?

Srinivasan agreed that historically, there has been a brahmanical appropriation of Carnatic music due to a complex combination of social and economic factors. “But the solution must come from inward reflection, and enough of us need to do this inward reflection,” said Srinivasan. “I always believe in working from within the system. Name-calling and community-shaming is not going to solve the matter. It is going to polarise people more.”

In his speech, TM Krishna said that art could help overcome judgements made about various communities. “But art becomes real only when the artist and the community are in the constant zone of trouble, of internal reflection,” he said.

This is a collective challenge to create inclusive communities, said Krishna.

“If we can re-curate our cultures to challenge ourselves, then we can create interesting communities,” he said. “Then we can also empower identities and communities that we don’t even see in our horizon.”