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The trouble with TM Krishna

A scholar like TM Krishna falls on a continuum which none of us can truly understand, as he has made himself the subject of his own inquiry

Singer TM Krishna was given the Sangita Kalanidhi award this year, triggering a controversy
Singer TM Krishna was given the Sangita Kalanidhi award this year, triggering a controversy (HT_PRINT)

Who can talk about caste, class and inequality? What does it mean to be a Brahmin scholar? In light of recent events at the Music Academy surrounding TM Krishna’s conferment of the Sangita Kalanidhi, a broader debate has emerged which articulates a conundrum in scholarship about classical music and dance.

In 2021, while presenting my project work on the dance history of Bengaluru, supported by the India Foundation of the Arts, my Instagram inbox was inundated. On one hand, activists were upset that I had chosen to present research about the South Indian courtesan community because my caste position proved problematic, likely to perpetuate types of oppression that had occurred in the past. On the other hand, staunch Brahmins thought I had lost my mind, as the representation of a courtesan was certainly not as important as the “spiritual” meaning of dance as a vehicle of Bhakti.

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That dichotomy, in many ways, was a mild foreshadowing of what TM Krishna is being subject to today. One faction believes that he must return the award to stay intellectually consistent with his past criticisms of the Academy and the larger systemic structures within Carnatic music. The other faction believes that a heretic maverick like him simply has no place in a form which originates in the temple traditions of south India, firmly rooted in ideas of devotion.

There is absolutely no denying that Brahmin scholars have caste privilege—easier access to materials, temple spaces and networks that greatly aid research. Several scholars also have the mobility to traverse conferences across the world with their research. But one must ask- what is the best use of that caste privilege? It often feels like acknowledging the privileges of being Brahmin is celebrated while actually taking action is denigrated. Should one use their platform to prioritise marginalised voices, they run the risk of being seen as opportunistic. Should they interact with the rightful, marginalized guardians of classical forms, they are likely to be seen as being sinister about accruing social capital. Should they decide to study under marginalized gurus, they are often seen as perpetuating the violence and mutilation of the art form through carrying the tradition on the brahmin body. Is there a correct way to be privileged and critical of that privilege in scholarship today?

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One of the undeniable ways in which Krishna has used his privilege is by spotlighting those who have historically been marginalised, while acknowledging his own privilege. His many initiatives, including his publications, online presence and festival curation have aided his organisation, the Sumanasa Foundation in doing some truly impactful work. The foundation was at the forefront of raising money for marginalised artistes during the covid-19 pandemic as well as providing grants for art creation to those without the infrastructure to do so. Krishna’s book, Sebastian & Sons, highlighted caste and class discrepancies amongst those who make the most resonant, beautiful mridangams, and those who play them. In many ways, Krishna has amplified the work of the hidden and the erased through his own fame, and that itself is deserving of accolades. To him, art itself is the lens, the mic and the dialogue.

While there are no right answers about the path forward, the increasing shrillness of polarisation has become a feature of identity discourse around the world. A scholar and musician like TM Krishna presents such a problem to both sides because he is the anomaly. He doesn’t unquestioningly accept either view, or any view for that matter. He falls on a continuum which none of us can truly understand, as he has made himself the subject of his own inquiry. In doing so, it appears that he has shown us that there could be a way to be a critical, caste privileged scholar. Sangitha Kalanidhi or not, the discourse remains changed by his presence.

Gayathri Iyer is a dancer and art historian based in Bengaluru

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