Art has always been the most vital medium for various expressions that could exert influence upon the cultural and social milieus. Throughout history, those expressions have become revolutions and paved the way for several social transformations and political reflections. Especially music has been utilized as the prominent way to convey ideas and prospects into society. Well, in Indian music there have been only a few artists who stood out on their own with their vivid political stand and a progressive outlook towards the real issues happening around them. T M Krishna is certainly estimable among them as he is the only musician in India currently writing op-eds about political issues or receiving prizes for social inclusivity, regardless of where they are from.
His passion in Carnatic music was nurtured by his parents as they provided exposure for him to learn the many layers of Carnatic music and musicians with diverse styles and methods. He began the performing career at the age of 12 and later as he acquired prominence as a renowned vocalist, he focused on experimenting the structure of concerts and started to create his own interpretations in music.
His music is applauded as being uniquely expressive and alive with ‘raga bhava’ and for the soulful ambience it creates. He is acclaimed as well as criticized for his innovative renditions and the method of presentation in concerts, because he chooses to differ in rendering in a manner purists prefer, such as singing Ragalaapa after the Keeethanams, spending more time on Neravals and Varnams (traditionally introductory pieces) in the middle or at the end of a concert.
But what made him surpass the usual imageries of a contrarian or an unconventional artiste was his active participation in accepting and attempting to change the cultural and social divide and political injustices in the past decade. His reformative perspectives must have been influenced by his mother who was an educationalist and founded and run a school for underprivileged and tribal children in Anaikkatti. His decision to boycott performing ever in Chennai’s famed music season because its authorities are corrupt and support caste favouritism in selecting artists to perform, was a major one at the dawn of his ardent social activism.
In 2016, he won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in culture as the first Indian musician to achieve it in recognition of ‘his forceful commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions. In 2017, he was featured in a music video , Chennai Poromboke Paadal, which was an environmental plea to save Ennore Creek and reclaim the Tamil word poromboke, which had come to mean a person or place that is worthless or “uncivilized”. With deep and hard-hitting lyrics, Poromboke Paadal was a thrashing hit and was the first Carnatic song sung in colloquial Tamil. Krishna’s collaboration with the Jogappas ( Transgender musicians) and bringing the poems of Bharatiyar, Sree Narayana Guru and Perumal Murugan into concerts were significant revelations in South Indian music. He is also a part of the group of activists that organizes the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Festival in Chennai and the Svanubhava initiative in Chennai.
T M Krishna writes and speaks about a wide range of social issues, without limiting to the cultural sphere. His works traverse based on left-wing activism aiming reformation in caste, combating communalism and liberalizing classical music. He spoke against the revocation of Article 370, the destruction of statues of Lenin, Ambedkar, Gandhi and Periyar and writes articles and columns against fascist practices and injustices with acknowledging and using his privileges for the just reasons.
In a society deeply rooted in cultural hegemony and political injustices, the inevitability of personas like Krishna is remarkable. When many privileges being misused, such attempts to reinstate the unity and openness are the true upliftment. Let us hope to witness many more artists utilizing their voice to dismantle the power edifices and empower those unseen.