Winning awards and winning hearts could be two different things
By Bala Shankar
TM Krishna has won many new friends and lost many old ones in the past couple of years. His recent Magsaysay (Emergent) award has stirred a hornet’s nest for more than one reason. The accolade has been drowned in questions. What kind of an award is this? What is the body of work that has led to TMK getting it? What are the underlying messages one gets from this award? Does Krishna deem it a significant step in his ‘crusade’ (which is also a part of the debate)? Where does he go from here?
The wide acknowledgement and appreciation of his musical prowess is now inextricably woven with the ‘caste in Carnatic music’ drumbeat that has echoed stridently in the last few years. We owe it to him and to the award givers to judge the situation impartially.
The award says, ”for social inclusiveness in culture”.
The topic therefore is social. Krishna’s tirade is about unjust exclusion of non-Brahmin stakeholders from Carnatic music and his pungent writings are seen as a sufficient endeavour towards obtaining justice. We analyse two things: Is there injustice of any kind and have Krishna’s efforts reached any milestone?
Carnatic music has always been a ‘niche’ art. Neyveli Santhanagopalan used the term ‘cottage industry’ during a conversation. All niche sectors are the exclusive territory of a few and leave out large sections of people. Car racing, rangoli, molecular genetics and Renaissance painting are all in the same league. There are passionate insiders and completely uninterested outsiders. Even in Carnatic music, this is the case (the caste angle notwithstanding). There should however be no discrimination of any kind for or against people who want to take to it. And I think there is none. Do teachers turn away students if they are not Brahmins? Do sabhas look unkindly to a non-brahmin contender? And has anyone from the ‘aggrieved’ communities made a case, even informally in public discourses?
So, is Krishna making a mountain out of a molehill? His sponsors and sympathisers in the media and otherwise may have ignited a wrong flame. And even if empirical evidence points to the dominance of the Brahmin community, would you rather pursue grassroots initiatives of teaching and concert exposure than wield the pen to ad nauseam? It is not even a multi-billion dollar industry in the preserve of a few. There is a clear misplaced sense of what can be achieved by writing in cosmopolitan upper class media asking for social change. The irony is that the reader community is in fact, the very same accused lot!
Social movements like those of Subrahmanya Bharati and Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy had a certain compelling context, a widespread unease with the status quo and a selfless pursuit along multiple modes of attack. They succeeded because of unjust exclusion from mainstream life, not from a niche pursuit, even as we confuse lack of enablers with wilful exclusion.
Some awards are more motivated than motivating. Even the Nobel prize committee shocked the world by giving the peace prize to Barack Obama as he woke up from bed in the first weeks of his office one morning. He was stunned as was the world. Krishna’s wellwishers, sponsors and recommenders may have been overenthusiastic, as there is no palpable change in the caste dynamics of Carnatic music – never mind if it is a burning issue at all or if it is maliciously engineered.
We would normally celebrate any international recognition for a fellow Indian and a member of the Carnatic music fraternity, but something is holding us back this time. A dramatically different strategy is required to unearth talents like Naina Pillai, Malaikottai Govindasamy Pillai, Rajamanickam Pillai, Palani Subramanya Pillai, Chittoor Subramanya Pillai and TM Thiagarajan among the new generation. AR Rahman, in a parallel world, is quietly doing this through his KM Conservatory, where geniuses are groomed independent of their social and financial backgrounds.