T.M.Krishna: From a Musician to a Provocateur!

Usually, when the Madras Music Academy (MMA) announces its annual awards, there is not much of chatter or noise around it. This year has been different. Ever since MMA announced the awards for 2024, the most significant one among the awards being the Sangitha Kalanidhi, it has kicked up a huge storm among Carnatic music lovers and its fraternity.  The reason is, the Sangitha Kalanidhi has been awarded to vocalist T.M. Krishna. (TMK)

Did we hear any noise or discussion when this award was announced last year? Certainly not. For, the awardee in 2023 was Bombay Jayashri, a very accomplished vocalist. Is TMK not an accomplished musician? Of course, he is. Then why the hungama? It is because TMK has ceased to be a musician of late and has become an accomplished provocateur.  A provocateur is someone who intentionally causes arguments or discussions or intentionally makes other people feel angry, offended, or uncomfortable.

In the past 10 years and in particular ever since he wrote his first book – “A Southern Music – The Karnatik Story”, TMK has been positioning himself as not just a Carnatic vocalist but an activist, a thinker and above all a rebel. While no one should have a problem with him trying to be all of these, the problem comes when he uses the platform he gets, to kick off controversies when none exist.

Initially, I thought that he was a sincere human being and trying to be a harbinger of change in society.  But, over a period of time, it became obvious that his primary aim was to seek attention and the path he took for the same was to provoke.  Provoke people in the fraternity, provoke rasikas of Carnatic music and finally provoke people who support the present ruling dispensation. In this avatar, he tries his best to be a non-conformist who has a problem with everything that a majority of people like or follow, thereby getting under their skin.

In his 1st book, which I referred to earlier, he wrote at length about M.S. Subbalakshmi (MSS) who is considered an icon beyond parallel in Carnatic music.  In what could be called as plain slander, he writes that MSS “brahminised” herself to gain acceptance within the Carnatic society as she was not a brahmin. The allegation is of course that only brahmins can occupy a pride of place in the Carnatic society – a theory he has been trying to peddle for long. This kind of hypothesis was made by TMK when MSS was not there to defend or explain herself.  Being a brahmin himself, this is perfect virtue signalling!

In more than one opportunity, TMK has talked about the need for breaking out of the system and not sticking to the rules, for art forms to thrive. But when Ilaiyaraaja did that in the film Sindhu Bhairavi, TMK had a problem.  Raaja had taken Mari Mari Ninne, a Thiagaraja kriti which is in raga Kamboji and re-tuned it in the raga Saramati so that it syncs with the Tamil folk song Paadariyen Padipariyen at the end. I am sure, Raaja did this instinctively to ensure a seamless transition from the folk genre to Carnatic which is what the song situation demanded.  This is just the pure genius of Raaja. TMK took exception to this and criticised Raaja for “removing the lyrical part of the song and giving it another raga”.  In a concert in Mumbai, TMK sang a Nagoor Siddiqui song in the Sufi genre and sang it in Carnatic Raga – Behaag. Is this any different than what Raaja tried to do??

Well, as per me Raaja tried to do what TMK has been trying to do with his Uroor Olcott Festival etc – taking Carnatic music to the masses. Try googling “Mari Mari Ninne” and almost all the search results will be Ilaiyaraaja’s Saramati version! Incidentally, the germ of TMK’s idea of the Uroor Olcott festival of conducting concerts around the dwellings of the fishermen’s community must have come from a scene from the same film – Sindhu Bhairavi!

In his 2nd book “Sebastian and Sons – A Brief History of Mridangam Makers”, TMK writes about those who make mridangams – an important percussion accompaniment in Carnatic music. So far so good. When you read the book, you will understand that the main objective of the book is to tarnish reputed mridangam players as some who are heartless and elitist.  As per him, the mridangam players don’t care about the makers of the instrument who are largely from the underprivileged community. Well, this kind of anomaly could be or is the case with many things in society. So, just picking on mridangam artists to drive home his point and showcase revered yesteryear mridangam vidwans in poor light was TMK peddling his provocative agenda.

While on the subject of mridangam makers and their plight in society, filmmaker Rajiv Menon made a film called Sarvam Thala Mayam. Menon said that the film is loosely based on a real-life story of a mridangam maker Johnson sending his son to Umayalpuram Sivaraman, one of the best percussion players in the country, to learn mridangam.  In the film, the famous mridangam vidwan is shown taking a Dalit son of the mridangam maker under his wings to teach mridangam who eventually becomes an All-India star. TMK would have none of this kind of positive stories.

While it is very appreciative of TMK to bring mridangam makers to the fore by putting their names on concert invite cards, it is important to call out TMK’s propensity to peddle his agenda of putting down revered mridangam vidwans. Just to earn brownie points.

Recently in a concert just after the Ram Mandir opening ceremony, TMK while singing the Thiagaraja kriti on Rama – Nadachi Nadachi, paused to say that Thiagaraja himself says “They walk all the way to Ayodhya, yet they were unable to find him”, taking an obvious dig at Ram devotees visiting the Ram temple at Ayodhya.  TMK obviously was doing a literal translation of a line in that kriti without looking at the context. This was promptly called out by vocalist Palghat Ramprasad who on stage explained the context and meaning of the line in that kriti. TMK’s act was another attempt at garnering eyeballs when the entire country was gripped by the Ram fervour.  By the way, to my knowledge, this was the 1st instance when a contemporary to TMK called him out on his mischief, without taking his name though.

I can go on and on. But you get the drift. Coming to the ongoing charcha of MMA conferring the Sangitha Kalanidhi award to TMK, the first thing that comes to my mind is what was MMA’s compulsion? TMK is one who shunned sabhas in general and MAA in particular calling them “Upper-class private clubs”. He of course has no problems doing private concerts in the homes of upper-class elite people!  Be that as it may, why should the Music Academy go out of the way to recognise a man who had no respect for it, with its tallest honour?  Even in a large-hearted sense, why should the Academy confer its biggest honour to a person whose agenda these days is to provoke rather than perform?  The award is “Sangitha Kalanidhi” and is connected mainly to music.

I am sure that the Music Academy would not have expected the kind of outrage that its choice for Sangitha Kalanidhi attracted. All these years, TMK was getting away as his fellow musicians never took him head-on or countered his slander. It was only the Carnatic music rasikas who would take to social media and rebut him. This is the 1st time I am seeing more than one person like Ranjani-Gayatri to Trichur brothers to Ramprasad to Visakha Hari to Dushyant Sridhar to Ravikiran to Priya sisters and others pushing back on TMK and rightly so.

In my post of 2018 (Read here), I had written that TMK has transitioned from being a Musician to an Activist and it is best to ignore him. From being an activist to a provocateur, his journey has been swift. As much as he is entitled to his freedom of expression to provoke, others are entitled to their counters. It is now an even playing stage!

Pic courtesy: Rediff.com

0 thoughts on “T.M.Krishna: From a Musician to a Provocateur!”

  1. Well articulated Anandkumar

    I find many arguments defending TMK downright ridiculous and peurile.

    Let us assume a person committed a heinous crime and is convicted and completes his life imprisonment sentence. Then he is given Padma Shri by the Government of Bharat because of his accomplishment in his chosen field. Are the defenders of TMK telling us that it is absolutely ok to do that? They must be smoking the same weed that RaGa smokes.

    TMK has done much worse than a heinous crime – he has insulted Bharatiya civilisation not once but multiple times. He may have done it because of his supreme ignorance which reflects in his woke behaviour. So what – ignorance is no excuse by any yardstick.

    And the point of bringing up “brahmins” is a fig leaf being used to defend the indefensible and reflects a mind steeped in woke mentality having no clue of the Varna system and mouthing what the West says like a parrot.

    These wokes should realise Bharat existed across Yugas (let them learn first what the word Yuga means) and we do not need ignoramus nitwits to mouth banalities pretending to be professors of the subject.

    N Murali President of Madras Music Academy is also the Director of the Hindu Group of Publications whose brother is N Ram. “The Hindu” has nothing in common with its name. Both brothers are Left Leaning Liberals who are wokes of the first order. It is a shame that N Murali sits on the President’s chair at Music Academy, Madras – that has Mother Saraswathy as its logo. It is a shame he heads a newspaper publication that has the ability to influence young Bharatiya minds in the wrong direction.

    I for one will never give time to a person who has abused my mother in public however great the person is. TMK has done worse he has abused Bharatiya civilisation with impunity. We must be thick skinned to ignore his behaviour and condone his actions. As true Sanatanis we are protesting in the best manner possible – through our views aired and boycotting the Music Academy, Madras for its despicable action.

    धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः

  2. Hi there, I’m in agreement with you on some things but I’m not sure I agree with the point you make about the way he has portrayed MS in both A Southern Music and in The Caravan. I found the narrative to be well argued overall and believable, given the times in which MS lived. Patriarchy and misogyny are alive and well even now in this industry and for you to state categorically that TMK is just a trouble creator and nothing more is unfair. The way he goes about his brand of social reform needs an overhaul, yes, but I’m afraid we need folks like him to bring about change.

    Thanks anyway. Cheers!

    1. Thanks Kalpana for reading and leaving your comment. Appreciate it. My point on MMS was – it was more like a conjecture and saying something about a person when that person is not alive to agree or disagree. There are problems in all fields today – some carried forward for many years. But the way to reform is to be sincere and make the changes rather than just provoke people by words and actions.

  3. Sankar Narayanan

    Well articulated Anand. I was looking for a word to describe him and you provided the perfect one – provocateur!

    In his books TMK invents societal issues after issues without offering any actionable solutions or thoughtful ways forward. Now, that would require someone who is a true thinker and a genuine agent of change, won’t it?TMK’s theatricals on Carnatic Music itself, only make him look like a immature kid who simply asks ‘why is coffee is made with milk and why not with buttermilk?’, and think he has revolutionized the world!

    Hats off to the musicians who have boldly spoken against the hypocrisy of Music Academy and TMK, and have even returned the award given to them – Andariki Vandanamu. TMK, if he stands by his words, should reject the SK award as it is from an organization he himself has labeled elitist and exclusionary. I am not holding my breath.

  4. Hey Anand a well written piece . I am not a musician, but i have closely associated myself with several musicians and my wife and daughter are accomplished in this field. In as much i am a rasika. While , i am not going to comment on the music ability or prowess of TMK, i certainly believe his antics and lack of reverence and bhakthi which is the fundamental aspect to carnatic music has led to denigrating the art. I will not want to go and sit and listen to him for carnatic music is not for pure entertainment. It is a classical art and not everyone can be adept at it and those who have put in the effort and some of the geniuses have not been Bramhins. It is the same Academy that has ignored several non bramhins earlier and awards the SK title to an Iyengar although no longer practicing as such! It is ironical that TMK has been chosen for this title for clearly denigratingbthe art and has no reverence tl it! The title will spoil him further and i am sure he will not be known for his mudic even during his lifetime, his legacy will be that of spoiling the dignity of Carnatic Music

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