- T.M. KRISHNA was born in 1976 to a privileged, Brahmin family in Chennai and was trained from the age of six in the aristocratic Karnatik music under masters of the form.
- While grateful for how Karnatik music has shaped his artistry, KRISHNA would question the social basis of his art. He saw that his was a caste-dominated art that fostered an unjust, hierarchic order by effectively excluding the lower classes from sharing in a vital part of India’s cultural legacy.
- In 2004, KRISHNA and a colleague created Sumanasa Foundation, that identified gifted, rural youth who lacked the opportunities to develop their talents, and brought them to Chennai to train under well-known artists at the same time that they were getting a college education.
- The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his forceful commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions, breaking barriers of caste and class to unleash what music has to offer not just for some but for all.”
The healing power of music is an idea that often does not rise beyond being a platitude, a comfortable truism. But a young artist in India is showing that music can indeed be a deeply transformative force in personal lives and society itself.
T.M. KRISHNA was born in 1976 to a privileged, Brahmin family in Chennai and was trained from the age of six in the aristocratic Karnatik music under masters of the form. Though he earned a degree in economics, KRISHNA chose to be an artist and quickly rose to become a highly-admired concert performer of Karnatik classical music. An ancient vocal and instrumental musical system, Karnatik music started centuries ago in temples and courts but was subsequently ‘classicized’ to become the almost exclusive cultural preserve of the Brahmin caste – performed, organized, and enjoyed by the elite who have access to it.
While grateful for how Karnatik music has shaped his artistry, KRISHNA would question the social basis of his art. He saw that his was a caste-dominated art that fostered an unjust, hierarchic order by effectively excluding the lower classes from sharing in a vital part of India’s cultural legacy. He questioned the politics of art; widened his knowledge about the arts of the dalits (“untouchables”) and non-Brahmin communities; and declared he would no longer sing in ticketed events at a famous, annual music festival in Chennai to protest the lack of inclusiveness. Recognizing that dismantling artistic hierarchies can be a way of changing India’s divisive society, KRISHNA devoted himself to democratizing the arts as an independent artist, writer, speaker, and activist.
In the 1990s, he was president of the Youth Association for Classical Music, that took Karnatik music to the youth and the public schools. To further diffuse classical music, he is at work on a curriculum for teaching Karnatik in schools and communities that have no exposure to it. In 2004, KRISHNA and a colleague created Sumanasa Foundation, that identified gifted, rural youth who lacked the opportunities to develop their talents, and brought them to Chennai to train under well-known artists at the same time that they were getting a college education. In 2008, KRISHNA and a fellow artist started the Svanubhava movement to bring together students of diverse social backgrounds to interact with renowned artists and learn about different art forms, in a program of lecture-demonstrations, film showings, and performances. Held annually in Chennai and featured in various cities, this unique platform has involved thousands of young people from some thirty schools and is now a movement directed by young artists and students and supported by India’s Ministry of Culture.
During the period 2011-2013, KRISHNA brought his passion and artistry to war-ravaged northern Sri Lanka, the first Karnatik musician to tour that region in three decades, and launched two festivals to promote “culture retrieval and revival” in that country. More recently, he conducted, with a prominent environmentalist, a free festival of “art healing” on the beach of Besant Nagar in Chennai that brought together a divided community of dalits, fisherfolk, and upper-class residents, to commune in performances that richly combined musical and dance forms formerly exclusive to the upper class and the dalits.
While much of his work is still ahead of him, he is embarked on an important path. KRISHNA is resolved to break barriers of caste, class or creed by democratizing music, cultivating thought-processes and sensibilities that unite people rather than divide them. Now a leading advocate in India of “music for all and music for a better quality of life,” he says: “Music and the arts are capable of bridging cultures and civilizations and liberating us from artificial divisions of caste and race.”
In electing THODUR MADABUSI KRISHNA to receive the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his forceful commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions, breaking barriers of caste and class to unleash what music has to offer not just for some but for all.
I am a musician; practitioner of Karnatik music – one of India’s two celebrated classical systems. From when I can remember I have been part of the world of this music. Learning the art as many Brahmins do from my childhood years. I was a full time musician by 22 focused on only success as an end.
A set of unusual situations made me delve into my music’s life beyond the learning and singing of it.
What is this music, its history and purpose?
As the questioning progressed it turned into self-questioning. Who am I, what is my social address and who are the people who applaud my music, every movement of it? And it became clear to me that the music was not just about the melody and rhythm; it had been so internalized by the religion, conventions and rituals of the holding community, my community as to make it ours, ours to practice, to preserve, to protect, excluding the rest, especially those on the first step of India’s caste based social order.
A precious, aesthetic experience can become part of a political and social commentary. This, it was clear to me, was wrong, unfair – unfair to society, unfair to the art. I must , I felt, resist this near hegemony.
Belonging to the holding community made the task anything but easy. The art – my art, which was my very life – was being seen as part of India’s dominant or ‘ace’ culture. A culture which dominates can call itself powerful; it cannot call itself culture. Power is about power, culture is about culture. Every community even the most marginalized has its own exquisite art and hosts multitudes of cultures. Power has tall citadels, culture has a level stage. The tall citadels need to be brought down; the ignored artistic traditions brought on to the proscenium stage.
Democracy demands that society’s wealth, physical and cultural be shared with openness, respect and love. This calls for empathy and not just tolerance; an embrace not putting up with one another.
Cultures are not bound by the lines that we draw on a map. It is in fact art that reveals to every human being inhabiting this complex yet beautiful planet that we have similar struggles and celebrations. But to truly sense this oneness we need to detach art traditions from socio-political constructions.
My journey in this direction has just begun and will proceed with awareness and constant learning. This award has reassured me that the art experience is seamlessly linked to life. I would not be here without the guidance and support of so many of my fellow-journeyers. This award comes to me in name alone, but belongs to the great music tradition that has nurtured me and has led me, with many others, to experience its majesty, and has opened not one but an infinity of windows to the mystery called life.
I will conclude with a few lines from a Karnatik song. A few words about it.
In the 19th century, the Tamil composer Gopalakrishna Bharati composed a musical opera describing the struggles of the Dalit Hindu saint Nandanar (6th – 7th century). In this song from the opera, Nandanar seeks entry into the temple to be in the lord’s (Siva) presence and celebrate him in song. We must remember that Dalits were not allowed inside Hindu temples even until the early part of the 20th century.
Today, in 21st century India, Dalits are demanding access, not into temples that are no longer closed to them, but into the architecture of opportunities, rights and power-sharing. Today’s Nandanars are stronger, organized, aware of their rights, far more powerful and impactful. The struggle for marginalized communities – across the globe – to ensure respect and equality in every sphere of living, be it the political, social or religious, unfortunately still finds doors closed.