Debate: Why T.M. Krishna Should Have Said No to the Magsaysay Award

The Carnatic musician’s acceptance of the award for “social inclusiveness” is not only in contradiction with his own politics but could also compromise its credibility.

tm krishna cropped

T.M. Krishna. Credit:

After decades of toil, sacrifice and the struggle for justice by hundreds of subaltern social movements, their time has begun to arrive.

Disenfranchised castes and communities are no longer passively waiting for their rights. Through uprisings across the nation, they are asserting themselves to reclaim a rightful space that has been denied to them for centuries. Marginalised peoples are not looking for charity. They want a level playing field, equality and justice. The language of their socio-political struggle has moved from seeking bestowal to the assertion of rightful ownership; from merely being ‘included’, to reclaiming the commons.

When the Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna was announced as a co-winner of the Magsaysay award, 2016, for bringing “social inclusiveness in culture”, the first question that came to mind was, why so prematurely? Krishna has taken some very worthy steps in the right direction to blur caste boundaries in the world of classical music, but these are really only baby steps. Wouldn’t he need to develop a more sustained and fine-tuned body of work to deserve an international award for social inclusiveness in culture? And it doesn’t help that he is juxtaposed with Bezwada Wilson, albeit in the emergent leadership category, since Wilson is nothing short of a phenomenon.

But there is a deeper question that this award raises.

Krishna is an upper caste Brahmin by birth, someone who has enjoyed the privileges of his social status, including training and performing in the precincts of Brahminical edifices. His artistic reputation was established there, which he lent to noteworthy publications and outreach initiatives in Carnatic music that he continues to curate. To his credit, Krishna has stepped out of this comfort zone, but his presence in the public domain outside these caste walls has been for a far shorter period time than his rise within them.

Krishna’s stated politics, accentuated in the past couple of years, has been to challenge the status quo of the very caste hegemony that nurtured him.

He has criticised the annual Madras music season for representing the stranglehold of the upper caste Brahmins. Krishna revolted against exclusive Brahminical spaces that he said do not seem to include, or even reach out to the other. His decision in 2015 to no longer participate in the annual Madras music season was primarily premised upon his critique of the Brahminisation of the festival and what he now describes as “man-made ghettoes”.

Among the nascent endeavours that manifest his cultural politics are his columns for various newspapers and magazines that go beyond critiquing the caste hierarchy in Carnatic music. His writings have ranged from issues of sexuality and gender to political observations, where he has boldly taken on the political establishment.

Krishna’s political signature in the musical realm was to become the face of the Urur Olcott arts festival on the sands of  Elliot’s Beach in Chennai alongside the dwellings of local fishing communities. Having completed its second successful year, the festival, which features eclectic artists across genres, has begun to draw an equally eclectic audience, with a remarkable youth presence. Therefore, it can be safely assumed that Krishna’s cultural politics includes creating a platform where the upper castes move aside to free up space for the hitherto disenfranchised. This is a worthy real-world agenda that few from his socio-cultural milieu have dared to even think about.

But here is the problem. Krishna’s acceptance of the Magsaysay award for “social inclusiveness” is not only in contradiction with his own politics but could also compromise its credibility.

In the current context of post-modern politics, crediting an individual with “social inclusiveness” itself seems to be at odds with the notion of justice, rights and equality. Even taking this label at face value, the socio-cultural position of the individual awardee would inevitably go under the scanner. Who is given the legitimacy and authority to include whom? And who gets awarded for it?

If Krishna’s own political discourse is intended to evolve as one that takes on the upper caste for its inflexibility to move over and make way for the disenfranchised, then should he, – who was born to, and who has benefitted from, the very community that he challenges – accept an award that makes him the face of that very cause that aims to “unshackle” the art form from his own caste’s chains?

It raises the larger and more contentious question in the politics of appropriation: Are we in a self-defeating place when a Brahmin is awarded – and becomes the agency and poster boy – for a discourse that critiques Brahminical hegemony?

Sharada Ramanathan is a Chennai-based filmmaker.

  • Anjan Basu

    I am not sure if Sharada Ramanathan quite made the point she seems to have tried making. She acknowledges the fact that T M krishna has rebelled against the existing ethos of exclusivity for the privileged ( and, concurrently, of the ghettoisation of ‘ the other’) in the world of music. Krishna seems to have done this quite forcefully, and done so repeatedly. What is the issue, then? That a Brahmin becomes the ‘poster boy’ of the anti- Brahminical critique? Well, in my mind, it begs the obvious question: is it then obligatory for the repressed and the exploited NOT to find a mouthpiece for their cause outside their ghetto? Well, it seems to me to be quite a stretch. Of course, being a complete ignoramus in the culture of post-modernism to which Ramanathan refers somewhere in her essay, I may have missed the fine print somewhere. But I would imagine that such issues as people like Wilson and Krishna have espoused ( in their own different ways) are too large and too critical for us to be seen to be nit- picking about.

  • Sheilen Bhansali

    I read the article twice. I still don’t get why TMK should have declined the award! Was it because he is a brahmin who rose to fame in the carnatic music circuit which is supposedly ‘brahmin-dominated’ or because a brahmin becomes less of a brahmin if he accepts an award for social inclusiveness (as the last few paragraphs of the article seems to suggest). Damned if you do and damned if you don’t!!

  • sulochana

    I felt that the award was too early and TMK was doing excessive self-promotion, but I never thought of this viewpoint before. especially when Dalits are agitating all over the country this might aggravate them. Very well put forward. Thank you.for this excellent article.


    Award is an oxymoron. It helps a not so famous person rise to popularity and it becomes a demacles’ sword on a famous person for acceptance. Krishna, an upper caste brahmin by birth, revolted against brahminism. But, when he was awarded the prize, he should have at least stated his position and solemnly rejected or even could have expressed his dissent at the present social turmoil. Many noted personalities have rejected their awards, notably, G B Shaw and Sartre who stated their positions clearly. Pablo Neruda while accepting stated his views on private property and bourgeoisie plans of co- optation. Similarly, arundhati Roy stated her position even though accepting award. As such, it is not acceptance or rejection that determines ones commitment to values but the force and frequency of articulating the anti- feudal and anti- brahminical voice even if award is announced without caring for the institution presenting the award at any stage