Madras Music Academy.
Madras Music Academy.  (Photo | EPS/ AS Ganesh)

Carnatic crossfire: Social bhakti vs musical shakti

Madhavan Narayanan

As the crow flies, the predominantly Tamil Brahmin Chennai locality of Mylapore is only a mile or so from Alwarpet, an equally predominant TamBrahm area. Or, should one say ‘unequally’ predominant? In that lie the social nuances of the current controversy in Carnatic music.

Thodur Madabusi Krishna being awarded the title of Sangita Kalanidhi, the highest honour in Carnatic music, has so many dimensions it reminds one of Rashomon, the Akira Kurasawa film in which everyone appears right in their version of the truth. Krishna is getting extra marks because he stands for the in-vogue DEI (diversity equity inclusion) value system.

The challenge thrown by the Ranjani-Gayatri sister duo, who criticised the mighty gents of the Madras Music Academy, is stuff of both literature and pulp. You have caste, politics, diversity, musical excellence, aspirations, life goals and culture coming together for an epic conflict, like two ragas getting mixed up in a concert.

I wonder whom to take inspiration from on this: my great grandfather, who once argued for and against the TamBrahm practice of sandhya vandhanam (twilight ritual) to show his debating skills, or his composer brother-in-law (ergo, my great-grand-uncle), who won the Sangita Kalanidhi in 1940. Either way, I don’t fancy Carnatic music itself facing the music.

Both Krishna and RaGa are cult figures in the Carnatic world. Their conflict also echoes the current state of national politics, in which those who speak for social justice are pitted against those for whom culture, tradition and religious devotion are paramount. Caste makes it all so quirky, because, as Krishna notes, there are invisible screens that block those other than Brahmins from breaking into the upper echelons of the classical world dominated by a clutch of male-dominated sabhas, whose roads lead to the Music Academy, the Vatican of the Carnatic church.

Krishna has broken norms. He has, on occasion, avoided the December season concert, mouthed lyrics in honour of anti-Brahmin ideologue Periyar, and sung in Arabic in praise of Allah while sporting a skullcap, besides conducting a music festival in a slum. Periyar’s well-documented rants against Brahmins are such that the RaGa duo has some evidence-based case against Krishna’s ideological zeal. But Krishna unquestionably excels as a musician and historian of theory and practice, and deserves the honour.

The Music Academy has a double identity, one of unwritten Brahmin dominance in composition and as a centre of musical excellence. Things get complicated when a term like ‘culture’ gets attached. Culture is viewed by the average Jagannathan or Janaki as a combo pack that includes Carnatic music, higher education, vegetarian food, pursuit of excellence in a white-collar career, and respect for traditions and elders. Oh, add some cricket connection, too.

Carnatic music’s acknowledged goal is to express devotion to god (bhakti) to seek union with the infinite (mukti). The methodical form has lent itself to film music, jazz and world music, but its core remains devotion. The bhakti tribe is not usually conscious of its historic privileges. TamBrahms can be economically poor, yet pay to learn classical music, because it is their culture. Contemporary political correctness is usually not part of this baggage.

Thanks to a new affluence spawned by economic growth, rewards for higher education, and the boom in IT, younger TamBrahms who would have been singing a kriti while working as humble accountants are now ambitious and increasingly tilted towards a resurgent Hindu nationalism. Singers now fly to Cleveland, where an annual Thyagaraja festival is part of a new, hip TamBrahmdom.

One tweet shared by RaGa described them as a modest duo that travelled from Matunga in Mumbai to Mylapore, where humbler Brahmins live, and contrasted them with the privileged elite of Alwarpet, whose prime road is named after industrialist T T Krishnamachari or TTK, who served as India’s finance minister. TMK is a grand-nephew of TTK, whose family has historically been a key force in the Music Academy, which is located on TTK Road.

The Academy has a strong tradition of respect for talent and an awesome archival system that makes it a mini university. But its awards can get arbitrary. While TMK says breaking of the caste barrier is rare in the Carnatic world, Sangita Kalanidhi awardees include Sheik Chinna Moulana, a Muslim nadaswaram player. Some nadaswaram players from the Pillai caste have figured on the long list since the 1930s, but a prominent Pillai vocalist like Madurai Somasundaram never won the accolade.

In some ways, the controversy in Chennai is strikingly similar to that at Harvard University, where the faculty’s pursuit of excellence has been shaken by a push for diversity. It’s not for nothing that the elite of Harvard’s city were once called Boston Brahmins.

As an avant-garde liberal among Alwarpet Brahmins, the Magsaysay-award-winning TMK is challenging social rules. By questioning the Alwarpet elite’s traditional dominance, RaGa are being reverse-swing radicals challenging the Academy select after striving long to be blessed by them. If the TMK vs RaGa tale strikes discordant notes, it’s between the streets of Mylapore and Alwarpet.

(Views are personal)

Madhavan Narayanan | Senior journalist