T.M. Krishna & the art of making news

By K.T. Jagannathan
Chennai: 31-01-2020 10:41PM

Maverick musician T. M. Krishna has the uncanny knack of hitting the headlines. Time without number, he has managed this. Now, the Carnatic vocalist is in the eye of a storm over his ready-to-be-released book Sabestian & Sons: A Brief History of Mrdgangam Makers. It is being published by Westland.

Chennai-based English daily The Hindu published excerpts of the book in the Op-Ed page on January 30 with a title "Keeping the cow and brahmin apart".

"That the cow is an unslayable holy animal is a modern brahminical concept,'' Krishna said in the book.  He went on to add that "brahmin castes, which have had an out-sized impact on the policy and in constructing  cultural norms when compared to their size in the population, have established this untruth as a sacred universal, so much so that it found a place in the Constitution.''  To buttress his argument, Krishna narrated in his book how yesteryear artiste Palghat Mani Iyer "went through a period of battling contradiction: an instrument that necessitated taking the life of three animals - most critically, of the holy cow - was his very life.''  He sort of sought to drive home the point that artistes of the brahmin variety have no compunction in using instruments made of cow hides but aren't willing to concede equal space to the makers of those instruments! Krishna, perhaps, is trying yet again to establish the existence of discrimination in the world of Carnatic music.

Ever since he landed the Magsaysay award  a few summers ago, Krishna has been on a mission mode to convert the classical Carnatic music into a common man music. Can anybody pronounce himself / herself  to be absolutely non-discriminatory in outlook? Can anybody pronounce himself / herself absolute democrat in approach to others? Why should anybody, let alone a common man, be forced to learn Carnatic music? Let us leave aside these questions!

Eye of a controversy
The fact of the matter, however, is  Krishna's upcoming book - nay, the excerpts from it published in The Hindu, predictably, kicked up a controversy.  In the wake of the article in The Hindu,  Kalakshetra Foundation withdrew the permission it had given to hold the book release function for  Krishna’s Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers on its premises.

Kalakshetra  acts 
 Director of Kalakshetra Revathi Ramachandran said that the institution was an autonomous body under the Ministry of Culture, Government of India. “Being a Government organisation, it cannot allow any programme that may instigate political, cultural and social disharmony,” she said in a  statement.

“A book review that had appeared on Wednesday (i.e. January 30) contained certain statements related to the book that touched on controversial issues and had a lot of political overtones. We were unaware of the controversies surrounding the subject matter of the book at the time of renting our auditorium for the book release,” the statement added. “An exceptional and unverifiable incident has been projected as some kind of universal rule. This is likely to create avoidable issues, including disaffection among communities,” the  statement further said.  

Krishna defends
“The book is a celebration of generations of makers of mrdangams. They have worked with blood, skinned cows, goats and buffaloes so that we can all enjoy music. The book brings out the reality of how they have been marginalized for generations — how is this controversial?” The Hindu quoted Krishna as saying in reaction to the decision of Kalakshetra.

The book release event would now take place at the Asian College of Journalism on February 2 at 6.45 p.m.

Family protests
Musician Palghat Ramprasad, a member of the Mani Iyer family, was livid, in the meanwhile, for  distorted and selective usage of information about  Mani Iyer. .

"I am forced to clarify certain points on this article since I have been reached out by many - both belonging to the musical fraternity and otherwise. At the same time, I want to document publicly why Mani Iyer's family members want the names to be removed from the book (if used in acknowledgement),'' he said.

Nevertheless, he confirmed that the incidents narrated in the article pertaining to his grandfather were factually correct and accurate.

Intent not disclosed
"At the same time, none of my family members (i.e. my father and peripa), while sharing this information about Mani Iyer to the author, had any clue that the information that was collected had a political and caste-based undertone: had they known, they would have avoided - not because of forceful suppression of information (as the incidents presented in this article are fairly common knowledge) - but for the inappropriateness of the platform in which information is being used and processed, as well as the ulterior motive behind presentation of these facts, which was NOT shared while collecting the information,'' he said in his social media posting.

He felt that today's age and time, drawing upon what happened 6-7 decades ago and casting a caste-based overtone seemed over-ambitious with respect to the intent of the narrative.

"If the article also brought out progressive thinking (even for the sake of art and not necessarily communal harmony) - that was unthinkable those days - then the research may be considered as neutral and dispassionate in analysis. For instance, the same Mani Iyer had his 'so-called upper caste' disciples and family members visit the house of these mridangam makers (for informational dissemination on mridangam making) which was situated in slums. In the 40's was this even fathomable? Hopefully the book includes facts like these, which are progressive and uniting," he added.

Appeal to the author
He wondered if the book was about mridangam per se or a tool to use Carnatic music to portray in its worst form through one's perception and ensure that the readers were misdirected. "And in all this, using Palghat Mani Iyer's name in this environment is definitely not acceptable by the family members,'' he said.

Asserting that the intent was not conveyed by the author while collecting the information, he said," Through this note, on behalf of all my family members, I appeal to the author of the book that the names of Palghat Mani Iyer's family members, if used in the book, as acknowledgement, may kindly be removed - and none of our family members' names feature in the book. None of us would want any of our family members' name, least of all Mani Iyer, whom we all revere, to be associated with political and caste-based agenda.''

Highly aspirational brand
His music has a secular appeal, no doubt. Somewhere along, however, the artiste in Krishna doesn't seem to be happy with it. TMK is now turning out to be an highly aspirational brand. Not surprisingly, it pushes hard to expand visibility and base.  The  value of brand TMK depends largely on the sustainability factor. Time alone can provide the answer.