Debate: The Magsaysay is Recognition of T.M. Krishna’s Inclusive Vision

TMK Urur Olcott

T.M. Krishna at the Urur Olcott Festival in Chennai. Credit:

The news of T.M. Krishna winning the Magsaysay has led to an outpouring of opinion on social media. Much of it has been congratulatory but some has also been openly hostile.

To say that Krishna was not deserving yet because he has not done enough work, or as much work as Bezwada Wilson, is to compare apples and oranges. The citation clearly states that his award is in the ‘emergent leadership category’. Who gets to decide what is too early for an international award? Or any award for that matter?

To say, as Sharada Ramanathan does, that Krishna does not deserve the award so early because his music and reputation come from his upper caste, privileged upbringing and that “his presence in the public domain outside these caste walls has been for a far shorter period time than his rise within them” is an ingenious but specious argument. The fact that he has not shrunk away from expressly stating his position  over the last few years shows an increasing consciousness and awareness that needs to be applauded even if one may not always agree with everything that he says.

A close friend once pointed out that it must take a lot of courage for Krishna and his wife Sangeetha to put themselves out there and go against the established norm when this is their full time career. It must take extraordinary conviction to reject the comfort of everything you know to be familiar and easy, especially the recognition and acceptance by peers.

His writings reveal a mind that sees the seamlessness of life and refuses to treat politics as separate from gender or from sexuality, or from caste. He recognises that injustice in any one of these areas has implications on another. It is a stubborn refusal to see this that allows others, including his peers, to remain unquestioningly within their own narrow comfort zones and believe that these are not their fights.

For Krishna, working towards an inclusive society using the arts as a point of intervention is natural because that is what he knows and does best. Sharada’s argument – 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.” – is where the fault lines become evident. It is not about freeing up space for the hitherto disenfranchised. Krishna and  the festival volunteers have been accused by some of taking “our” music to “them.” It appears inconceivable to those who make these accusations that it might be possible for “us” to listen, learn, and enjoy “their” music, art and culture as well. The kuppam vizha – festival – is an invitation, a challenge if you will, to cross that divide and walk into the fishing village. To recalibrate our ideas of culture and recognise the possibility that the disenfranchised have a rich vibrant art and culture and that perhaps if we were willing to be open, we might be the ones learning something.

Unfortunately, much of India still lives in a feudal mindspace without ever having engaged with modernity except in a very superficial manner.

The premise of moving over and making way is a patronising construct by the upper caste. The cunning of caste is that it actually allows ‘us’ to believe that an accident of birth is an entitlement to privilege. What it really is, and has been, is a continuous plundering of the commons and an erasure of rights.

Is it so inconceivable to co-exist? Is the thought of a shared space so hard to imagine that the caste/class conscious privileged must ‘leave’ in order to make way? Just opening up at all levels could break the shackles. Instead of questioning whether or not Krishna deserves the award, or ‘becomes the agency and poster boy, for a discourse that critiques Brahmanical hegemony,’ the question should be whether we are ready to pick up the gauntlet he has thrown down as a challenge, and change the discourse, and review our understanding of shared spaces in the real sense of the word – as opposed to ‘making way’.

As Sharada Ramanathan herself has so rightly and beautifully pointed out, “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.” The sooner those who are apprehensive about Krishna getting the award accept this, the greater the possibility of understanding what the vision of the vizha – an idea that Krishna brought to the table – stands for. The Magsaysay award, I suspect, is recognition of this, especially since no one else has openly, vocally and vociferously spoken for this vision from within this fraternity.

Gita Jayaraj volunteers with the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha team.

  • sulochana

    Madam I read Ms. Sharadha and your reply. I also thought like you till I read hers. I agree with her that the upper Caste cannot start taking awards for including others. This is only self-promotion. Bad taste. He is an excellent singer and will get awards for that, no doubt

  • Anjan Basu

    Very well-written! As I noted earlier today in my comments on Sharada Ramanathan’s article on this subject, it is pointless — even counter-productive — to speculate if social change can or needs to be driven only by the dispossessed, the wretched of the earth. Krishna is not seeking to usurp a space that can be seen not to belong to him or his like :: he is merely adding his voice and his stature to the resistance, and doing it in the way he knows best, through his music. Let us not worry overmuch about hegemony here, nor about the supposed cultural baggage that Krishna seems to some to bring with him. India is living in the humdrum, mundane world apportioned to the Third World, not in any post-modernist intellectual construct so dear to many of us.