The Magsaysay Masterstroke: Larger Play At Work In Krishna Being Conferred The Award
While the debate over the conferment of the Ramon Magsaysay Award on Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna continues, most critics are missing the wood for the trees.
There is a larger play in motion here, where Krishna is being locked into his current path and implicitly made to prove himself worthy of the award.
The Ramon Magsaysay Foundation announced its 58th set of awards this year, most likely on 27 July, with the ceremony set to be held on 31 August.
Thodur Madabusi Krishna, who initially made a name for himself by singing a style of music known as the Traditional South Indian Classical or Carnatic Music, was named as one of the recipients. This raised eyebrows, some much more than others.
The reason for the raised eyebrows is that the causes for which he has been given the award, as mentioned in the citation, are already being addressed, partly by technology and partly by the initiatives of some musicians who are busy doing something about the issues that the citation mentions.
Here is a line from the citation on Krishna:
An ancient vocal and instrumental musical system, Carnatic music started centuries ago in temples and courts but was subsequently ‘classicized’ to become the almost exclusive cultural preserve of the Brahmin caste – performed, organized, and enjoyed by the elite who have access to it.
Now, as to the much-vilified ‘Sabhas’ that are allegedly at the heart of the ‘conspiracy’ to make Carnatic music the exclusive cultural preserve of the Brahmin caste, there is a very simple fact that has not been mentioned.
During the Chennai Music and Dance Festival that starts in December and goes on until mid-January, most of the lecture-demonstrations and concerts held up to 4 PM are not ticketed. Concerts held from 4 PM to 9 PM are ticketed. Well, the ‘Sabhas’ have to sustain themselves, and they pay the artists. I think they are doing a good balancing act between ‘free entry’ and ‘ticketed entry’.
In addition, such music festivals are being organised through the year. Many festivals are open to all fans of music. The videos of these concerts are often available on YouTube, which India’s ubiquitous mobile phone, laptop and desktop users can listen to from anywhere in the country.
It is not that ‘Sabhas’ have snatched away concerts from Temples. Temples continue to host music and dance performances during festivals. They are free for their audiences. The temples at Mylapore (Sri Kapaleeswarar Temple) and Adyar (Sri Anantha Padmanabhaswamy Temple) come to mind as popular examples. There are many other temples that host such events in festive times.
Further, with long distances and heavy traffic becoming an issue in all major urban centres, including Chennai, many localities and communities have started their own music festivals. They are accessible to all those who are interested. Over time, some of them will become very popular. Then, the temptation to ticket them will arise, even as legitimate expenses would increase, such as with the need for proper concert halls with good acoustics, seating and food and toilet facilities. But these commercial considerations will have nothing to do with ‘classicism’.
Many musicians have also started numerous online and face-to-face courses. They are not picky about their students. There is no class or caste consideration involved.
Much before Krishna, ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurthy, Rasikamani TK Chidambaranatha Mudaliyar and Rajaji had also done their part to form a bridge between Tamil language and South Indian Classical Music.
Even now, the Raja Annamalai Mandram in Chennai near Fort St George demands of its musicians to sing in Tamil and provides a great platform for musicians of all hues and classes. The so-called Brahmin musicians come and perform there too.
Finally, before Krishna, there have been many television channels that, with their music competitions, have taken music to all cities and to all communities and castes. For all their emphasis on filmy music, these channels are arguably doing more for enhancing the accessibility of Carnatic music to all and for the popularity of Carnatic music itself.
Tamil writer Jeyamohan wrote a stinging post after the announcement of the award to Krishna was made. One can argue with Jeyamohan on his evaluation of Krishna’s music. But, the broad thrust of his post is correct. He received many letters – some in praise and some in criticism of his post. He chose to comment on one of them, explaining his original scathing criticism of the conferment of the award on Krishna. More than his original critique, Jeyamohan provides a far more cogent critique in this response to a reader. He is on the money when he mentions at the end of his article that the path that Krishna has chosen for himself is likely highly rewarding, especially in India.
Clearly, regardless of what one thinks of Krishna’s music (which is, for the most part, praiseworthy) and his social commitment (I do not think much of it), the award was a surprise. The Magsaysay Awards are usually given to those who have had a lifetime of demonstrated work and results. Even Krishna’s admirers would be hard-pressed to come up with a tangible list of the things he has done to deserve the award.
Then, why was the award given to him? The citation mentions his ‘emergent’ leadership and acknowledges that much of his work lies ahead of him. Both are giveaways. So, what is the hurry to confer this award on him? The broader agenda is deeper than what’s visible. That is the masterstroke that many are missing.
The award is meant to lock him in his current path; it is meant to prevent the return of the ‘prodigal’ to the Brahminical fold from where he emerged and won his popularity, acclaim and stature. It is to ensure that the split and division within the community – between Krishna and those who support him and others who don’t – continues to fester. ‘Divide and rule’ is not that original, but it has been put to good use here.
Krishna would, forever, be in gratitude and debt to those who conferred the award on him prematurely and the network behind them – in India and elsewhere. Finally, by conferring the award on someone who has not earned it, those who confer the award are expressing the reasonable hope that he would redouble his efforts and prove worthy of the award in the years to come. Mission accomplished.
Failing to see these aspects of the award and focusing on the very aspects that the citation mentions ends up vindicating the citation. They have neatly created a ‘win-win’ situation for themselves and a ‘lose-lose’ situation for Krishna’s critics. For the most part, Krishna is a pawn in a larger game that is being played in the Indian society. Sometimes, many pawns – and Krishna is not alone in this – think that they are the ones who are making the move.
Those who are railing on about Krishna and his undeserved award are missing the wood for the trees.
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