CASTE barriers are being broken down in India by a classical musician who is causing controversy by refusing to stick to tradition.

Award-winning TM Krishna has shocked many by trying to extend Carnatic music beyond the upper-caste Brahmin community.

Instead of using prestigious venues called sabhas, he hosts concerts in packed buses and crowded railway stations so that music can be played in “spaces symbolic of day-to-day life”.

As well as opening up the classical music to the underprivileged and lower castes, he is also trying to create platforms for the music made by marginalised people such as the Dalits, previously known as the untouchables. His aim is to confront “cultural and artistic hegemonies and hierarchies”.

“Through our work, we attempt to break barriers, inhibitions, complexes and fears that societies have built to keep control, ownership and power in art and culture,” he said. “Most of my ideas originate from the belief that we need to allow art to breathe and flow freely, through which people can hopefully come together.”


TM KRISHNA won the coveted Ramon Magsaysay award last year for “ensuring social inclusiveness in culture”. His citation said the musician recognised that Carnatic music “was a caste-dominated art that fostered an unjust, hierarchic order by effectively excluding the lower classes from sharing in a vital part of India’s legacy”.

The music is considered sacred by some, with its roots in devotions more than 2000 years old. These musical prayers were common in temples across South India and evolved through the writings of 17th century Hindu poets, moving from the temples to the courts of the royal families.

It then spread to reputable music halls where it was played by upper-caste performers to upper-caste audiences and celebrated with a glittering music festival held every December and January in Chennai (formerly known as Madras).

Krishna broke away from the century-old festival by starting up his own along with social activist Nityanand Jayaraman.

Instead of stuffy concert halls, the pair took the festival to a fishing community on the Bay of Bengal. Open-air concerts are now held at Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha every February. “Krishna is using art to heal differences and break stereotypes and liberate the art to new spaces,” Jayaraman said.


BORN Thodur Madabusi Krishna in Chennai in 1976, he was exposed to South Indian classical music at an early age by his music-loving family.

The young Krishna was sent to a school founded and run by the Krishnamurti Foundation, which influenced his perceptions and outlook on life. As well as being a musician, he has a BA in economics from Vivekananda College, Chennai, and is married to Carnatic musician Sangeetha Sivakumar, with whom he has two daughters.

While he has been called the “enfant terrible” of Carnatic music he says he is just serious about his music.

“They call me a lot of things,” he said. “I am not a genius or a maverick or a rebel without a cause.

“People often ask me why I write and speak about things not directly connected to my art. But honestly, everything I say comes from the art. Whether it is politics or society or music itself, I am speaking from music. That is my window to life.”


EXPLAINING why he withdrew from the Chennai music festival, Krishna said the word “classical” made no artistic sense.

“It has a social sense as it is almost always practised and supported by the caste and/or class elite of any society,” he said.

“I feel that the music world isn’t thinking about this. The season [festival] takes place over 30 days, but it rarely goes beyond the sabhas. You have to understand a sabha is not a public space. It is a space that is culturally and socially controlled by certain groups and there is a certain intimidation in that space that stops people from coming in.

“We need to go beyond that. It’s not about giving deliverance to someone by taking Carnatic music to them. We must go there respecting the art that is already practised in that space and provide access to another artistic form.

“Everyone must be able to be touched by any art form irrespective of caste, class or gender and, as artists, it is our job to break any barriers that may separate our worlds. Having diverse sets of people listening to it, practising it and teaching it will only make music richer.”


OTHER breaks Krishna has made with convention include combining Carnatic music with the lyrics of a local rock band and making a video to expose pollution on common land in Chennai. He has also sung about the plight of Tamil author Perumal Murugan, whose novel caused an outcry because it explored the tyranny of caste.

He also rails against those who believe issues of caste, religion and music are beyond the understanding of ordinary people, such as those who live in the fishing villages.

“To presume that such ‘issues’ need to be simplified for the understanding of the fisher-folk is condescending and wrong,” he said.

“Secondly, to think that we, the so-called educated, somehow have a greater ability to understand these issues is a complete mistake.

“We are all human beings grappling with the same issues, sharing ideas, learning and hoping that in the process we all grow as people. The removal of ingrained mental hierarchies is an essential part of any such engagement and unless all of us think deeply about this, no amount of collective work will change society.”