T.M. Krishna: a non-conformist who seeks to democratize Carnatic music

Born in Chennai, Thodur Madabusi Krishna, Ramon Magsaysay award winner, was trained in Carnatic music from the age of six


T. M. Krishna during a session at the Jaipur Literary Festival. Photo: HT
T. M. Krishna during a session at the Jaipur Literary Festival. Photo: HT

Bengaluru: On June 2015, Thodur Madabusi Krishna dropped a bombshell of sorts when he made the following statement on his Facebook wall (he is very active on social media).

“I would like to inform all of you that henceforth (beginning December 2015) I will not be singing in Chennai’s December Music Season. Right from when I was five or six the ‘season’ has been part of my musical universe and I have learnt so much from musicians, musicologists, scholars and rasikas. Unfortunately at the place I am today I am unable to reconcile my musical journey with that of the December season,” he said, adding that he had already told the organizers of his decision.

Krishna, one of two Indians who have just been named for the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, has always been a non-conformist. He has sung varnams, traditional vocal warm-ups that come at the beginning of a Carnatic music concert, bang in the middle of it.

He has stopped mid-performance to berate someone walking in late or walking out. He has cut off a recital and walked off, leaving his saree-clad, jasmine flower scented rasikas aghast. He constantly seeks to democratize Carnatic music—pushing it off its metaphorical high art horse and into the lives of those who presumably had little access to it. He has strong views on a variety of issues from the Dadri lynching and the Art of Living World Culture Festival to Kashmir.

“He sticks to what he believes in and is completely fearless about expressing his opinion,” says Sriram Ayer of the Nalandaway Foundation, a Chennai-based non-profit organization that empowers children from disadvantaged backgrounds through the arts. Krishna offers advice on the curriculum of the Nalandaway Foundation and is a mentor for the Chennai Children’s Choir, a Nalandaway initiative.

Chennai-based musician Rithvik Raja recalls his experience working with Krishna at Svanubhava, a movement ideated by Krishna that hoped to cultivate sensitivity to the arts among youth. “He had a vision that none of us imagined. What started out as a festival of music and dance has now become a cultural movement only because of his direction and own personal journey,” says Rithvik, who has been associated with the festival since its inception in 2008. “To watch a bold forward thinker like Krishna anna (older brother) from such close quarters has changed our outlook and perceptions in life.”

Born in Chennai, Krishna was trained in Carnatic music from the age of six by teachers like Seetharama Sharma, Chengleput Ranganathan and the legendary Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Having studied at The School, Krishnamurthy Foundation—his early education is partially responsible for his somewhat unusual perspectives on most issues—he went on to graduate in Economics from Vivekananda College, Chennai.

But he chose to pursue his musical career full-time.“The only reason I speak, write or sing is due to Carnatic Music. It is why I do what I do,” says Krishna, on a call from Russia where he is on a climbing expedition. He adds that clichéd as it may sound, he is immensely humbled by the recognition: “It makes me introspect on whether I have done enough to deserve it, on the mistakes I have made and the way I can change.”

The Ramon Magsaysay award, named after a Filipino president by the same is one of Asia’s premier prizes offered to celebrate the greatness of spirit and transformative leadership. Krishna has been honoured for, “showing that music can indeed be a deeply transformative force in personal lives and society itself.”

“Every art form is trapped inside ideas of caste, community and ownership and all these hierarchies are inbuilt,” says Krishna who has taken Carnatic music to fisherfolk through the Urur Olcott Kuppam music festival and to war-ravaged northern Sri Lanka. He has also launched two festivals to promote “culture retrieval and revival” in Sri Lanka. “Art forms need to break out of these shackles—that is when they enrich themselves,” he says.

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