The healing power of music is an idea that often does not rise beyond being 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. Born in 1976 to a Brahmin family, Thodur Madabusi Krishna was trained from the age of six in Karnatik music under masters of the form. Later,  Krishna chose to be an artist and quickly rose to become a highly-admired concert performer of Karnatik classical music. The ancient Karnatik vocal and instrumental  system started centuries ago in temples and courts, but was subsequently ‘classicized’ to become the cultural preserve of the Brahmin caste—performed, organized, and enjoyed by the elite who have almost exclusive access to it.

Although already an acclaimed Karnatik artist, Krishna began to 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 this 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. 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.

As president of the Youth Association for Classical Music, he took Karnatik music to the youth and the public schools. To further diffuse classical music, he developed a curriculum for teaching Karnatik music in schools and communities that have no exposure to it. With a colleague he created Sumanasa Foundation, that identified gifted rural youth for training under well-known artists. 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 unique platform of lectures, films and performances that has benefitted thousands of young students.  The movement is now directed by young artists and students themselves, supported by India’s Ministry of Culture.

Much of Krishna’s  work is still ahead of him, but he  is resolved to break barriers of caste, class or creed by cultivating thought-processes and sensibilities that unite people rather than divide them.  He says: “Music and the arts are capable of bridging cultures and civilizations, and liberating us from artificial divisions of caste and race.”