"Krishna is always a magnetic performer," Samanth Subramaniam writes of T. M. Krishna in the Indian magazine The Caravan. "His voice is strong and sure, his diction is cleaver-sharp, and his energy is boundless. On stage, he does not request your attention, he demands it."
Like most great Indian musicians, Krishna started performing at a high level at a very early age. Now 40, he has become a key figure of generational renewal in Carnatic music, the classical tradition of South India. But his demand for attention is not limited to the stage. The energetic and voluble Krishna has made it his mission to challenge the artistic and social orthodoxies of Carnatic music. He has published a thick volume of essays on the music and its culture, A Southern Music. He no longer takes part in the Chennai winter music season, the month-long festival that is the central event on the global Carnatic calendar, judging it conservative and hostile to new audiences.
If you knew nothing about Carnatic music, you might think Krishna was a political writer and social critic, judging from his busy Twitter feed or his column at news site Scroll.in, where he has taken on violence against women, LGBT rights, caste discrimination, and other issues.
For Krishna, it all connects. Starting in the late 19th century, Carnatic music performance became codified among the bourgeoisie of Chennai (then called Madras). A certain type of concert, known as a kutcheri, became the norm, with a standard formula: short pieces first, long in the middle, and a series of light ones at the end. The concert world became a province of Tamil Brahmin culture, with caste and religion filtering access—not completely, but in large measure—to high-level music training and also to serious listenership. Critics, such as Krishna, argue this has not changed much to this day.
Krishna is himself a product of this world, the Chennai "Tam-Bram" elite. "I am, in fact, proud of my caste and have subconsciously always held on to that identity," he wrote in Scroll.in recently. "I am empowered by its history." He went on to describe the benefits he gained from caste and class privilege. He continued: "The top-down cultural model gives the privileged the best seat in the house. . . . Therefore, I feel the onus falls equally on those who occupy this seat to demolish this structure."
Krishna isn't a fusion artist. He is steeped in Carnatic music, and his concerts and recordings rarely stray outside. How he delivers it, however, is different. The conventional sequence of the kutcheri is out the window. If he develops a raga to his satisfaction in the alapana, the slow exposition phase, he might switch to a different raga altogether for the rhythmic phase. The short form called varnam, which usually appears at the start of the concert, like an appetizer, can occur at any point in a Krishna recital. The point is not disruption for its own sake, but to let the ragas breathe differently, and the audience hear differently.
The next challenge, for Krishna, is to take the music to the people. It isn't a simple exercise. Indian classical music is highly technical and requires an early start and years of apprenticeship-style training that most families cannot afford. Still, non-Brahmin virtuosos do emerge—many in other parts of South India, outside Chennai—and there is plenty of room to expand the audience. Krishna is involved with an alternative festival, the Urur-Olcott Kuppam Vizha, which presents high-end Carnatic music alongside other arts, including dance-drama, children's, and folk performances, in an open-air seaside setting for a working-class audience, and anyone else who cares to attend.
This year Krishna was a recipient of a Ramon Magsaysay Award, an Asia-wide public service honor. The other Indian laureate for 2016 was Bezwada Wilson, the organizer of an empowerment group for one of India's most oppressed communities, the people who conduct "manual scavenging" of latrines. Some critics sniped that the privileged Krishna had yet to earn his stripes on that level, but the award committee disagreed. Democratizing music, as Krishna is doing, is an essential project, they argued in the citation. "While much of his work is ahead of him, he has embarked on an important path."
Siddhartha Mitter is a culture journalist in New York. He contributes regularly to the Village Voice, Boston Globe, and other outlets.