fugitive frequency, season 4 episode 4: Carnatic controversy

The cover photograph from Lalgudi G. Jayaraman and Party’s album "Violin, Venu, Veena". Six men sit on the floor of a stage, poised for the camera with their instruments.

Recently, when visiting my mother in Sydney, I came across a cache of vinyl records that she bought in the 1970s and was now storing in her garage. They are predominantly recordings of South Indian Carnatic music, often considered to be a “classical” form. Whenever I visit, I spend some time clearing out items accumulating in storage. While I’m certain these records had not been played for decades, my mother and I both agreed to hold on to them. Hidden in a cupboard I found the family stereo system from the late 1980s, and while its radio was useless, its tape deck was defective and its speakers had been misplaced, I was surprised and delighted that the turntable and amplifier still functioned. So I set about dusting off and digitizing some of these records, listening closely to a kind of music that I largely ignored growing up.

Coincidentally, my mother introduced me to a family friend; a distant relative who had recently moved to Sydney who is a musician and visual artist active in the Indian classical music scene. As we were getting acquainted, the conversation turned to the controversy rippling through the Carnatic music community. The singer Thodur Madabusi Krishna, popularly referred to by his initials T.M.K., had been awarded the coveted Sangita Kalanidhi for 2024. This is a prestigious accolade conferred annually by the Madras Music Academy (established 1928) and is considered to be the “highest accolade in Carnatic music.” The 48 year-old musician and writer has become a controversial and divisive figure for his criticisms of caste and class inequalities in the world of Carnatic music, notably as one of these privileged elites. Indeed, in 2023 Krishna was given another prestigious award; a Ramon Magsaysay award for his efforts to reduce inequalities, using “art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions, breaking barriers of caste and class.”

While Krishna gave his debut performance at the Music Academy, aged 14, in recent years he refused to participate in the Academy’s annual month-long festival in December/Margazhi, known as Kutchery season, objecting to its caste favouritism. Instead, he was among a team of social organisers who co-founded the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Festival at an under-served, centuries-old fishing village in Chennai, to showcase a range of cultural forms across numerous sites and venues.

In 2023, T.M.K., who is of the Brahmin caste, commemorated the centenary anniversary of the anti-caste movement Vaikom Satyagraha, with music that honouring E.V. “Periyar” Ramaswamy, who is often referred to as the father of the Dravidian movement. Krishna’s critics responded that he in turn advocated for “Brahmin genocide”, recalling one of Periyar’s provocations.

“Carnatic controversy” does not include any music by T.M. Krishna. Rather, the task of digitising my mother’s record collection became a timely entry point into learning about Carnatic music and its current issues in the context of India’s Hindutva. The music in this episode in sequential order is:
N. Ramani, “Raga Ranjani”
Salem S. Jayalakshmi, “Muthu Vidhanam”
Palghat T. S. Mani Iyer, “Eka Tala” (excerpt)
Lalgudi G. Jayaraman and Party (N. Ramani, T. R. Mahalingham, R. Venkataraman, Umayalpuram Sivaraman, T. K. Murthy), “Violin, Venu, Veena” (excerpt)
Sivananda Vijayalakshmi, “Soundarya Lahari”

It’s worth noting that the family of the late Palghat T. S. Mani Iyer (1912–1981) have a particular “beef” with T.M.K. who interviewed the revered mridangam player’s for his recent book Sebastian and Sons (2020). Concerned with Dalit Christian mridangam makers and their relationship with Brahmin musicians, the family claimed they were not aware of the scope of Krishna’s concerns and felt deceived by the “caste-based” tone of his book.