TM Krishna's Magsaysay Award controversy: Who has the last word?

Carnatic musician TM Krishna's Magsaysay Award has ruffled quite a few feathers on all sides of the spectrum, courting controversies as the days go by.

FP Staff August 02, 2016 16:23:05 IST
TM Krishna's Magsaysay Award controversy: Who has the last word?

Carnatic musician TM Krishna's Magsaysay Award has ruffled quite a few feathers on all sides of the spectrum, courting controversies as the days go by.

Writer Jeyamohan was one of the first to voice his displeasure at Krishna's acceptance of the award. Writing in his blog, Jeyamohan said that he didn't really understand why Krishna was awarded the Magsaysay — if it was for singing, he argued, then Krishna is a "very, very average singer"; someone who doesn't deserve to occupy the same chair as fellow Carnatic musician Sanjay Subrahmanyam.

The Magsaysay Award citation hails Krishna for bringing "social inclusiveness in culture", and for his "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".

TM Krishnas Magsaysay Award controversy Who has the last word

The Hindu right wing has also lambasted Krishna for the Award, terming the citation an insult to Carnatic music. Photo: tmkrishna.com.

Jeyamohan made light of the citation and said that "humanity" cannot be a cause for the award, and that if Krishna was given the award for that, then it was because of the latter's columns (in The Hindu) on advocating progress and taking Carnatic music to a fishing hamlet, the Urur Olcott Kuppam Margazhi Vizha.

Writing for The Wire, Sharada Ramanthan also echoed a similar view, but she did mention Krishna was on the right track to social reform and "to blur caste boundaries in the world of classical music", except that the award came "prematurely". There was none of the vitriol that writer Jeyamohan poured into his blog post.

The Hindu right wing has also lambasted Krishna for the award, terming the citation an insult to Carnatic music.

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.

Another writer, who goes by the pseudonym Jataayu, said that attempts by the likes of Krishna are "divisive" and these attempts get awarded by agencies with an "ulterior motive of seeing India divided and broken".

What perhaps has caused the most outrage is a piece by The News Minute that had referred to the fishing hamlet Urur Olcott Kuppam as a slum.

The residents and the office-bearers of the Fisher Cooperative Society penned a rejoinder in a Facebook post where they say the phrase "for taking Carnatic music to a few slum children in Chennai" only,

... belittles us, reduces us to insignificant objects incapable of exercising our wills, thinking through our choices or influencing our own collective futures. It also reminds us of the challenges that remain in tackling inaccurate stereotypes about us, and in educating the "educated" people, including writers in media like your own, who tend to become victims of their own privileged upbringing...

They also establish that Urur Olcott Kuppam is a fishing village and not a slum, and that their village might be older than the city of Chennai.

We object to the use of the word slum because the word invokes certain stereotypes — of illegitimacy of tenure, of crime and violence, of unsafe environs and dangerous people.

The Economic Times, interestingly, also refers to it as a slum. It quotes a girl from Urur Olcott Kuppam who talks about taking Bharatanatyam classes that are being regularly taught to them in their "slum". Nityanand Jayaraman, Chennai-based social and environmental activist, has also been quoted by the paper as referring to the area as a 'slum'.

... I had not heard of TM Krishna until then. But when he expressed his interest in going to places where his music had not reached, I gathered some of us and took a walk to Urur Olcott slum...

Why the confusion?

For one, kuppam is colloquially referred to as slum by Tamil speakers.

And over the years, some words have undergone a change in meaning, including words such as cheri and kuppam, which now identify with 'Scheduled Caste habitations', instead of their original meanings. Cheri (or seri) used to mean 'a place where various sections of people lived together', and kuppam, in Tamil literature, referred to 'fishing hamlets'.

The News Minute, on its part, responded with a dignified apology by the journalist who took responsibility for that piece.

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