Music for change

Print edition : September 02, 2016

T.M. Krishna at the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha in Chennai on February 29. Photo: R. Ravindran

The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation is honouring T.M. Krishna with its award this year in recognition of “his forceful commitment as artist and advocate of art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions”.

Does classical Carnatic music have any role to play in healing the deeply entrenched social divisions in India? Yes, if the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation’s (RMAF) assessment is to be believed. It conferred the award on “Thobur Madabusi Krishna, for Emergent Leadership, from India”, said a release from the Foundation. He is being recognised for “his forceful commitment as artist and advocate of 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”, it added.

Krishna is the second classical vocalist to receive the Ramon Magsaysay after M.S. Subbulakshmi, who was incidentally the first woman to be honoured with the Sangeetha Kalanidhi title. However, Krishna was chosen for widely different reasons from why M.S. was chosen.

No cause is too small or too big for Krishna. When a friend asked him whether he would be willing to train Chennai Corporation school students in music, he was more than ready. He visited Chennai Kottur High School last year, had an interaction with children cutting across age groups, and decided that he would try the experiment of teaching students in a few lower-middle-class schools. The outcome does not matter; the effort does. The effort is on, and Krishna believes he will see some results in a few years.

Taking music to the slums of Chennai via the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha was an exercise fraught with a great deal of risk: that of being ridiculed or, worse, being ignored. The second edition of the festival, held in February this year in front of the Ellaiamman temple in the fishing village of Urur Olcott Kuppam, attracted a huge crowd.

December 2015 floods

He did not stop with just taking Carnatic music to the slums. In addition to the two-day festival, the entire crew made its way to one of the many neighbourhoods in West Mambalam affected by the December 2015 floods. There, in the heart of orthodox Brahmin land, the festival began with a ceremony to honour Chennai’s fisherfolk for their role in flood rescue efforts. The concluding event in Urur Kuppam honoured the city’s youth who spontaneously participated in the relief work and also the conservancy workers who cleaned up the city even at the cost of putting their own health and lives at stake. The festival had moved on from being a mere experiment in sounds to something much more profound, something that has a lasting effect on society: that of bringing people from various strata of society together at one place and celebrating each of their work in the manner it had to be celebrated.

Asked how the award would help him in his endeavour to reach out to more people and use “art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions”, Krishna told Frontline that the recognition gave him great strength. “It reassures me that the path I have chosen has value in society. I am the same person I was on the 26th of July [before the award was announced], so that does not change. The essence of healing social divisions through the arts lies in making human beings open themselves with freedom, abandoning every inhibition. Here art becomes an experiential catalyst allowing people to see the universality in all of us, making our social addresses irrelevant.”

Krishna says that he will work harder on his projects and implement newer initiatives that connect people. “Such endeavours are long term, so I need to be persistent, patient, committed and always willing to learn. I promise to do that. But these processes are not just about Carnatic music; it is about creating many intersections where diverse art forms meet with equality. To me this is as much about respecting every art form, especially those that have been stigmatised by our [the culturally powerful] judgment. It is essential that whatever I do I try and encourage people to share and experience separating themselves from the conditions that society has forced upon us. I see myself only as a facilitator and learner. In all this I am one member among many volunteers with whom I continue to share this journey.”

Krishna will also continue engaging with people through all means available: “My discourse has always been in the form of music, the spoken word, actions and the written word dealing with both the internal and the external. Each one enriches the other. I have a long road ahead, really looking forward to it.”

A release from the RMAF, quoting its president, outlines the reasons why this year’s six awardees, which include Bezwada Wilson of the Safai Karamchari Andolan, were chosen for this prestigious honour: “The Magsaysay awardees of 2016,” said RMAF president Carmencita Abella, “are all daring to create social good in Asia. Clearly, they are creating bold solutions to deeply rooted social problems in their respective societies, problems which are most damaging to the lives of those trapped in poverty, ignorance, prejudice, and unjust systems. It is also clear that through their solutions each of our 2016 Magsaysay awardees is expanding the space and opportunity for other individuals and groups to themselves become creators of greater social good as well.”

She added: “While their respective social causes and leadership solutions are uniquely their own, there is one thing this year’s Magsaysay laureates all share in common: a greatness of spirit that infuses their crusade for change. All are unafraid to take on large causes. All have refused to give up, despite meagre resources, daunting adversity and strong opposition. Their approaches are all deeply anchored on a respect for human dignity, and a faith in the power of collective endeavour. We have much to learn from the 2016 Magsaysay awardees, and much to celebrate about their greatness of spirit.” The six 2016 Magsaysay awardees join the community of 312 other Magsaysay laureates who have received Asia’s highest honour to date. This year’s Magsaysay Award winners will each receive a certificate, a medallion bearing the likeness of the late Philippines President, and a cash prize. They will be conferred the Magsaysay Award during formal presentation ceremonies to be held on August 31.