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Virulent, but not quite rational…
A decade ago, in his address at the CII National Conference at Delhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh propounded the concept of inclusiveness. He urged business leaders to work towards an inclusive society providing wider opportunities for those sections that have been kept out of social and economic development. In subsequent years this has become a mantra.

This concept has spread from the corridors of power to the social spheres. Several prominent personalities have been involved in this mission.

In the south, Carnatic vocalist T M Krishna has been passionate about broadening the reach of classical music by blending with it vast varieties of folk music, practised by those sections of society not having access to music sabhas.

For a few years now, Krishna has been endeavouring to take classical music to a wider audience in the lower rungs of social order. His annual concerts at the Olcot Kuppam, Elliot’s Beach, in Chennai, his efforts in teaching music to children in the city’s Corporation and government schools, his recent presentation at Karnataka along with transgenders highlighting their music and efforts in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere have evoked a lot of interest. Sections that have not been exposed to such interactions have been enthusiastically participating in these efforts.

An ace communicator, Krishna has been effectively using the media (especially The Hindu), and through his prolific writings, he has been propagating this concept of inclusiveness. Recently, he was selected for the Ramon Magsaysay Award, which he described as a “celebration of music and art as part of the human dialogue.” Congratulations, TMK

On 20 August, the Chennai International Centre presented Krishna in conversation with the former Governor of West Bengal Gopalakrishna Gandhi. The theme was ‘inclusive music.’

Krishna expresses strong views critical of the hold of Carnatic music by brahmins and sabhas. His critique extended to the US, where, according to Krishna, Carnatic music was controlled by the upper strata of NRIs from south and he made particular mention of his discomfort in performing in the Bay Area (San Francisco).

While I appreciate Krishna’s passion for inclusivity, I have concerns about his unfair criticism of musicologists, musicians and sabhas who have nurtured and maintained the quality of music through tough times after it lost the patronage of  kings and zamindars. I cite a few instances to highlight  the nature of this unfairness.

 •     Not all music maestros have confined their performances to high-end sabhas. For instance, several artistes over a few generations, such as Madurai Mani Iyer, T R Mahalingam, Kunnakkudi Vaidyanathan and Veena S Balachandar to cite a few graciously provided numerous cutcheries free at temples, schools and other public places that attracted thousands from all strata of society. I have heard dozens of such thengai moodi cutcheries (literally translated to mean the fee the artists got was one half of a broken coconut) .  In my generation, many including me were  lured into Carnatic music thanks to the ‘inclusive’ spirit and dedication of these maestros.

Voices within Carnatic music...

•    A decade ago Krishna, along with Bombay Jayashri and Mythili Chandrasekar, produced a coffee table book, Voices within Carnatic music, providing graphic description of the lives and contributions of seven maestros – Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, G N Balasubramaniam, M S Subbulakshmi, T N Rajarathnam Pillai, T R Mahalingam and Palakkad  Mani Iyer - in lucid detail. The present kutcheri format introduced by Ariyakudi was described in detail. For close to hundred years, this pattern has been followed.

•    However, in later years, Krishna has been critical of this format and has been breaking loose from this pattern that he has described as rigid.’ In a recent brilliant concert at Vani Mahal, he ended the concert with a soulful rendering of Thyagaraja’s Pancharathna Kriti Jagadanandakaraka traditionally sung at the beginning. No issue. The audience enjoyed this rendition.  Krishna has the freedom to experiment, to differ, to evolve his own pattern.  But should he be critical of the traditionalists and purists?

•    Krishna should also remember the vastly expanded opportunities available for Carnatic musicians today: a Sudha Raghunathan or a Krishna can get paid a lakh of rupees for a concert in hard cash. A Neyveli Santhanagopalan can rake in the moolah teaching global students over the internet.  The Music Academy or Krishna Gana Sabha can get overwhelming support from corporates. But such opportunities were not available until a couple of decades ago. I remember the struggle of T T Vasu in his earlier years as President of Music Academy to afford a decent coat of paint  for the  Academy building.

•    Krishna has been critical of the dominance of the brahmins. For over three decades, Nalli Kuppusami Chetty and Obul Reddy have been so actively involved in supporting sabhas and in serving the cause of Carnatic music.  I can’t recall several other individuals so spontaneously supporting so many sabhas and cultural organisations. Tamil Isai Sangam, run by the Annamalai Chettiar clan and the Indian Fine Arts Society, headed by V Perumal Chetty’s progeny, have been rendering yeomen service. Of course, these are not brahmin preserves.

•    Krishna has been equally unfair to the south  Indian diaspora in the Bay Area and elsewhere in the US. In his short, crowded, well-pampered and well-paid visits with ‘buckets’ of dollars flowing in, Krishna may not have the time to look at the passion and the involvement of hundreds of NRIs in learning, appreciating and committing their time and efforts to Carnatic music. I cite a couple of instances: the work of Kanniks Kannikeswaran to bring together disparate individuals, across different urban hubs in the US, blending  Carnatic music with western notes and instruments and rich music history and literature deserves mention. A decade ago, I had an occasion to attend his performance at Allen Town in Pennsylvania. Over several months, he worked with nearly a hundred men and women  to teach and train them for the event. These dedicated  singers and instrumentalists travelled over hundreds of miles from different parts in and around New Jersey, spent out of their pockets and presented a great concert.Kanniks has since extended this to several cities across the US.

•    More recently, in June, under the tutelage of a dedicated teacher from Andhra, dozens of women, men and children rendered soulful music at the Bridgewater Temple. Young professionals – specialist doctors, a senior journalist working for Wall Street Journal, bankers, communication specialists, engineers and computer scientists met regularly to learn and practice  for the event  for weeks,  driving long distances  after a long day’s work. Of course, there is no opportunity for them to present a Parai melam from around  desired by Krishna.

•    In another instance, I met Sravya, a 13-year gifted singer and daughter of top-ranking globally-renowned scientist, Anand Tanikella, who headed the Saint Gobain Research in India till recently. Sravya has been practising Carnatic music vigourously at Boston and recently was adjudged the best singer at the Cleveland annual  music competition. Sravya also heads the choir in the state of Massachusetts.

•    The Indian diaspora in the U.S., whether from southern states or Northern India, takes great pains to learn Carnatic krithis, with scripts often written in English, taking great care with diction and pronunciation. Should Krishna paint all these dedicated singers with the same harsh brush that he uses to critique non-inclusion in Chennai?

For close to a century, an anti-Brahmin stance has been a favourite pastime in  Tamil Nadu. This has been good business too. E V Ramaswamy Naicker, K Veeramani and their followers made the most of it. While the objective to eliminate caste differences was laudable, over time caste calculations have started dominating our politics and our society in larger measures. Today caste differences have intensified with rigidities as never before.

Brahmins, denied opportunities in the state, migrate in hordes. Those that remain are not organised and revel in self-criticism and excel in taking contrarian stances. Look at the well-known and prominent representatives of the caste like Chinna kuthoosi (a prized writer for Murasoli), Gnani Sankaran and T M Krishna, so spiritedly working on anti-Brahmin exclusivity.

(with inputs from Sangita)

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