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Krishna says there is no unity among leading musicians. Photo: Prakash Bala
Krishna says there is no unity among leading musicians. Photo: Prakash Bala

Why did TM Krishna boycott Chennai?

Decoding the Carnatic vocalist's decision not to perform at the Chennai music season

The fact that Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna will no longer perform at the Chennai music season should normally matter only to those of his fans who depend entirely upon this festival to hear him perform live. On 10 June, Krishna announced on his Facebook page that he would not sing during the series of music concerts and dance performances held between December and January. The season is considered one of the world’s largest cultural festivals in terms of the number of events. He confirmed his decision in an email, saying that he would not perform in sabhas that hold concerts in the festival.

Chennai-based Krishna is a thinking musician with a significant following. It is also true that for several years he has been reimagining the Carnatic kutcheri, or concert, and reinvigorating it, which makes his live performances particularly interesting. During the last season, for instance, he ended his recital at the prestigious Music Academy with a wild yet mellifluous rendition of Jagadananda Karaka, a Pancharatna kriti in raga Natai, a composition traditionally sung at the beginning of a recital. But he is one among many highly committed, accomplished and admired, if more conventional, singers.

At the same time, the reasons behind an individual musician’s decision may be of wider interest because they offer an insight into the artistic process and the challenges that someone at the top of his game faces as he tries to continue to grow. In this case, the reasons go well beyond the personal. In an article in DailyO, India Today’s online opinion platform, following his Facebook announcement, Krishna offered a stinging indictment of the system and the institutions that sustain the festival. If he is personally alienated from the festival, he says, it is because of debilitating institutional problems.

On the face of it, the issues he has raised merit consideration. Yet his critique falters because he does not offer evidence for some of his more serious allegations. Also, his response to the system’s ills in the form of a one-man boycott appears politically naïve.

What is his critique? He says a handful of stars dominate the festival, with less and less room for artistic diversity and for wonderful musicians who may not be as popular (this is not a result of sour grapes because he is among the stars). He says that accompanists are not paid as well as they should be. He says the festival is socially stifling, by which he means that it is dominated by Brahmins. He also says that the festival has become a largely NRI (non-resident Indian) dollar-driven affair. He says money and middlemen are increasingly playing a role in determining opportunities for youngsters. He says reviewers take money.

He has levelled some of these criticisms before, including in his 2013 book A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story. The strength of that book, however, lay in its critique of the Carnatic kutcheri, both from an aesthetic and socio-economic viewpoint. Krishna married his own performing experience with research into the history of Carnatic music and a philosophy of aesthetics. Furthermore, the proof of the pudding lay in his singing: audiences could judge for themselves whether they liked what I call his “Carnatic Modern". But, general accusations about contemporary institutions, especially allegations of corruption, without evidence, hang in the air. Is the problem widespread? Are one or two powerful organizations to blame? In the absence of specifics and names, these statements unfairly cast doubt upon the integrity of a whole group of musicians, organizers and reviewers.

Krishna says he cannot offer proof because the dealings go on behind closed doors. Whoever said that corruption was easy to prove? Yet even one investigative report about an organization taking money to promote an artiste will have much more effect than general statements, offering a window in to what might be an ugly home. Perhaps Krishna cannot don the trench coat of an investigative journalist, but independent scrutiny of institutions by the media is what is required and that is what he should call for. For instance, one could begin with the Music Academy, the most powerful and prestigious organization. Is there consistent, independent reporting about this institution?

Then, let us turn to Krishna’s response to the rot he perceives around him. He no longer feels like being part of it. Sure, everyone has the right to opt out. Krishna’s decision may also spur a few people to think. But unless a person has the moral authority of Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela, a one-man boycott cannot amount to political action to bring about a change in existing power structures. A boycott has a chance of making a dent only if a critical mass of people supports it.

No musician has openly come out in support of Krishna’s critique, a point he himself has earlier acknowledged. In the absence of evidence for some of his allegations, this further makes people wonder whether his description of the system is as dire as it sounds. Krishna says there is no unity among leading musicians, but surely at least a few people share some of Krishna’s concerns? If accompanists are poorly paid, if youngsters have to pay money to climb the ladder, if NRI money is increasingly calling the shots, surely there is enough discontent within the system for collective action?

Krishna is not new to organizing. He has reached out to youngsters and to communities who are not part of the Carnatic Brahmin elite. Just this past season, he helped organize a music festival at a fishermen’s colony. But these are feel-good events. Political organization to bring about radical institutional change that involves dismantling existing power structures is more complicated. If the situation is as bad as he says it is, at least a few musicians will be willing to support him in private on some issues. Slowly, they may be emboldened to speak out as a group. Building a coalition is a long, arduous process, calling for patience and compromise, for people will not agree about everything. Whoever said building a social movement is easy?

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