South Indian classical musician T M Krishna is among winners of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for 2016
The healing power of music is an idea that often does not rise beyond being a platitude, a comfortable truism. But a young artist in India is showing that music can indeed be a deeply transformative force in personal lives and society itself.
THODUR MADABUSI KRISHNA was born in 1976 to a privileged, Brahmin family in Chennai and was trained from the age of six in the aristocratic Karnatik music under masters of the form. Though he earned a degree in economics, Krishna chose to be an artist and quickly rose to become a highly-admired concert performer of Karnatik classical music. An ancient vocal and instrumental musical system, Karnatik 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.
While grateful for how Karnatik music has shaped his artistry, Krishna would question the social basis of his art. He saw that his 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 cultural legacy. He questioned the politics of art; widened his knowledge about the arts of the dalits (“untouchables”) and non-Brahmin communities; and declared he would no longer sing in ticketed events at a famous, annual music festival in Chennai to protest the lack of inclusiveness. Recognizing that dismantling artistic hierarchies can be a way of changing India’s divisive society, Krishna devoted himself to democratizing the arts as an independent artist, writer, speaker, and activist.
In the 1990s, he was president of the Youth Association for Classical Music, that took Karnatik music to the youth and the public schools. To further diffuse classical music, he is at work on a curriculum for teaching Karnatik in schools and communities that have no exposure to it. In 2004, Krishna and a colleague created Sumanasa Foundation, that identified gifted, rural youth who lacked the opportunities to develop their talents, and brought them to Chennai to train under well-known artists at the same time that they were getting a college education. In 2008, Krishna and a fellow artist started the Svanubhava movement to bring together students of diverse social backgrounds to interact with renowned artists and learn about different art forms, in a program of lecture-demonstrations, film showings, and performances. Held annually in Chennai and featured in various cities, this unique platform has involved thousands of young people from some thirty schools and is now a movement directed by young artists and students and supported by India’s Ministry of Culture.
During the period 2011-2013, Krishna brought his passion and artistry to war-ravaged northern Sri Lanka, the first Karnatik musician to tour that region in three decades, and launched two festivals to promote “culture retrieval and revival” in that country. More recently, he conducted, with a prominent environmentalist, a free festival of “art healing” on the beach of Besant Nagar in Chennai that brought together a divided community of dalits, fisherfolk, and upper-class residents, to commune in performances that richly combined musical and dance forms formerly exclusive to the upper class and the dalits.
While much of his work is still ahead of him, he is embarked on an important path. Krishna is resolved to break barriers of caste, class or creed by democratizing music, cultivating thought-processes and sensibilities that unite people rather than divide them. Now a leading advocate in India of “music for all and music for a better quality of life,” he says: “Music and the arts are capable of bridging cultures and civilizations and liberating us from artificial divisions of caste and race.”
In selecting Thodur Madabusi Krishna to receive the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his forceful commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions, breaking barriers of caste and class to unleash what music has to offer not just for some but for all.
THE RAMON MAGSAYSAY AWARD FOUNDATION