The controversy over Sangeetha Kalanidhi - Hindustan Times

The controversy over Sangeetha Kalanidhi

Mar 21, 2024 09:50 PM IST

In giving the award to a musician who doesn’t respect the evolution from tradition and modernity, the Madras Music Academy may well have reduced its stature

What was the Academy thinking?

The Music Academy decided to give this year’s Sangeetha Kalanidhi award to musician TM Krishna PREMIUM
The Music Academy decided to give this year’s Sangeetha Kalanidhi award to musician TM Krishna

As I write this, a growing number of eminent musicians including and beginning with Ranjani-Gayatri, Trichur Brothers, Vishakha Hari, and Dushyanth Sridhar have withdrawn from performing in the Music Academy’s 2024 season. Chitravina Ravikiran has returned his Sangeetha Kalanidhi award. You could argue that their arguments for taking this stance are flawed — there was no need to draw Periyar’s name into the debate. But united they stand against the Academy’s decision to give this year’s Sangeetha Kalanidhi award to polarising and polemic musician TM Krishna.

The problem is that Krishna’s public persona is that of a self-righteous scold — and nobody likes that. His admirers revel in the fact that he has upended the conservative world of Carnatic music by singing songs by new and hitherto unheard-of authors (Kuvempu, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Tagore and more) in new and radical locations — on a public transport bus and amongst fisherfolk.

Well, guess what? Everything that Krishna has done in the name of revolutionising Carnatic music has been done before. Except it was done with quiet albeit firm grace and a respect for tradition, consensus and community. The list of musicians who advanced and evolved Carnatic music is long but one commonality is that they are linked by tradition and a respect for what Indian poetics called auchitya or appropriateness.

Take my guru, Sangeetha Kalanidhi RK Srikantan. He once told me in the quiet confines of his modest home that ragas had an innate proportion. He mocked performers who told up “thukkada” ragams and made them the main ragam of the concert. He did not name names — that wasn’t his style. Rangaramanuja Ayyangar, who wrote the magisterial book, History of South Indian (Carnatic) Music, championed Tamil composer Papanasam Sivan, worshipped the music of Dhanammal, and helped ML Vasanthakumari and her mother notate the krithis of Purandara Dasa. New directions in music, all of them, done without fuss or diatribe.

Musical stalwarts like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar and Veenai Dhanammal were no less revolutionary in their desire to change the format and structure of Carnatic music. But they earned the respect rather than the revulsion of their fellow musicians.

How did Ariyakudi do it? How did he carry people along when he decided to alter the way Carnatic music was performed pretty much forever — given that most musicians except Krishna have adhered to this tradition so far? In an article for Sruti magazine, Ariyakudi’s student, Alleppey Venkatesan describes the process by which Ariyakudi decided to drastically reduce the expansive hour-long raga alapanas that were the norm in those days. “...he successfully prevailed upon his violinists never to exceed his own duration of raga alapana even if the violinist happened to be a senior artist like Malaikottai Govindaswamy Pillai… He quietly asserted the primacy of the singer and his prerogative as to time management for the success of the concert.” Talk about revolutionising the form without inviting denigration from your fellow musicians.

In his 1938 presidential address to the Madras Music Academy, Ariyakudi explained his thought process. He began by noting the Urdu origins of the word, katcheri. As explained by scholar Lakshmi Subramanian in her book, New Mansions For Music: Performance, Pedagogy and Criticism, Ariyakudi laid down a list of prescriptions of how to perform music but “these expressed the collective wisdom of a generation of musicians”. In other words, you have to carry people along — which Krishna does not seem to want to do.

Is it because he is a rabble-rousing self-serving iconoclast who seems to seek publicity above all else? I am not sure; I don’t think so, but I don’t know what to make of him. Krishna fancies himself as a revolutionary, but he is an inconsistent reactionary whose argument is “anti-whatever the norm is” rather than cogently thinking through the evolution of music. He is incongruent in his stance, which is fine for an artist, but not if you want to establish a legacy that changes the status quo. Surely, there are those in the musical fraternity whom Krishna respects. Why couldn’t he have created an informal adda with his musical peers and tried to persuade them of his ideologies much like Ariyakudi and others before him did? Instead, Krishna chose disdain and the path of social media rather than building consensus.

I have met Krishna a few times. I last met him at my friends, Valli and Ramesh Swamy’s house. He was light, playful and informal, relishing the home food after singing at the Odukathur Mutt to a packed house. Ramesh told me that Krishna never charges a rupee for his concerts for Unnati — the organisation that they run. He is a gifted musician — no more gifted than the others who have taken up cudgels against him, but no less either. But there appears to be a lacuna inside him that I cannot fathom, something that his music doesn’t seem to fill. Isn’t music enough, I once asked him at an author evening in Bengaluru and he basically said No, for him, it wasn’t.

Although I don’t agree with the conservative ideals of Anglo-Irish philosopher, Edmund Burke (I fall more on Mary Wollstonecraft’s side in that debate), I agree with Burke’s thesis that “society is but a contract between the dead, the living and those yet to be born”. In choosing a maverick path for its own sake, in drawing attention to the cult of personality rather than the strength of his ideas, and in his incongruent and inconsistent arguments, Krishna has decided to ignore the dead — the ancestors and elders of this grand Carnatic music tradition — and has, unlike previous innovators of the form, muddled the waters without providing a clear path for “those yet to be born”.

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.

Shoba Narayan is a writer and journalist. The views expressed are personal

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    Shoba Narayan is Bangalore-based award-winning author. She is also a freelance contributor who writes about art, food, fashion and travel for a number of publications.

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