Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Carnatic Music and Bharata Natyam: Sanskritizing the Arts. T.M. Krishna on M.S. Subbulakshmi and Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s Brahminical Arrogance.

T.M. Krishna is on a mission. His mission, as an artist and a member of a community that is dominant amongst the practitioners, is to raise uncomfortable questions about the state of the art in relation to the community. He uses the example of M.S. Subbulakshmi to be the sharp edge of his arguments and that, given her stature in the Carnatic music world, angers many.Many angry rebuttals have flooded to T.M.K’s recent speech. Is T.M.Krishna correct?

A Note

I'm not an academic researcher but I've borrowed the academic notation for the most part to show where a quote or perspective was taken from. I've cited the source within bracket in the custom of last name of author, book name and some times the  page reference. This helps avoid unnecessary verbiage of "in that book this author wrote". 

Yes, this is lengthy blog. I've strived to set the historical backdrop to an epochal cultural transition before going into the justifications of T.M. Krishna's remarks. A patient reader will be duly rewarded. At least that's the hope. I don't expect everyone to agree but I sincerely hope a reader would at least recognize that I've merely gone in pursuit of truth and not pandered to prejudices.

Differences with T.M. Krishna

I’ll, first, set out the differences I’ve with some of T.M.K’s ideas. Krishna, speaking on the occasion of releasing a Telugu version of T.J.S. George’s hagiography of M.S., disagreed with George on whether we need to label any music as ‘classical music’. To George the idea of ‘classical’ sets an aspirational benchmark for others. To Krishna, in his newfound zeal for egalitarianism, that’s elitism which looks down upon anything not labeled ‘classical’. 

One can argue about whether any particular music has earned the label of ‘classical music’ but one shouldn’t argue the very idea of calling a music or literature as ‘classical’. One can certainly argue that what is not called classical has it’s place in the cultural spectrum as an intellectual and artistic output but to flatten the intellectual space is, in a way, communist.

On the question of whether an artist’s creation can be enjoyed despite an artist’s unsavory biographical history Krishna offers the weak example of Roman Polanski. A better example would be Richard Wagner who was an anti-semite and whose music was performed at Nazi rallies. Israel, a nation that adores music, had to struggle with accommodating Wagner in it’s music halls and they accommodate Wagner today in a node to his genius his spiteful persona notwithstanding.

Krishna advocates allowing ghana (a rap like genre that’s generally considered rustic) to be sung on Carnatic music stages. While that’s an interesting thought I’m dumbstruck to see him take a soulful Bharathi poem, where he beseeches a goddess to bless him to be able to sing endlessly, and perform it in a crowded bus with everyone jumping around. There’s a difference between popularizing and cheapening. Music can mean differently depending on whether one listens to it in an opera house or on a CD or as background to a chore (Johnson 2011).

Image Courtesy ms_home.jpg

Is this Brahmin-bashing

Thanks to E.V. Ramaswamy, whom I consider a hate monger, Brahmin-bashing is the easiest way to be considered a rebel or egalitarian. I’ve resolutely condemned and many times written against such virulent anti-brahminism to the level that I’ve earned pejorative sobriquets from the non-brahmin crowd. On the other hand any criticism of Brahmins earns the sobriquet of “closet DK” or “wear a black shirt” from the Brahmins.

Today we accuse the Brahmins of appropriating an art form and for making it an exclusive preserve of their community. The latter part is not an exclusive vice of the Brahmins.

Bangalore Nagarathnamma and the celebrated Veena Dhanam, upholding devadasi custom, were loathe to teaching members who were not devadasis or traditional performers (Sriram 2007). When Rukmini Devi Arundale, a Brahmin woman, made her foray into dancing the Nattuvanars saw it as encroaching into their fiefdom. If Brahmins had not appropriated the arts it is possible we would be accusing Pillais and Isai Vellalars, instead of the Brahmins, of keeping the arts as their exclusive preserve.

Soolamangalam Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar who led a faction that organized rival Thyagaraja Aradhana for over decade was adamantly opposed to letting Nagaswara vidwans play on stage and organized food for the poor along caste lines. To be fair, no other upper caste non-Brahmin community would’ve acted any different. 

The criticisms in this article contain both information that could be seen as critical of Brahmins but not exclusive to them and information, critical of Brahmins, that emphasizes some of the events as manifestations of Brahminism. The idea behind much of this is NOT to bash Brahmins but to lay out a record of the past that is often being whitewashed today. 

Someone like Rukmini Devi, for example, is a revolutionary and deserves a place of pride in history. This is only a blog focusing on a specific issue and only issues relevant to that are being mentioned. This is not a wholesome appraisal of any of them especially about their musical contributions. 

Devadasis: A short history

Every naysayer to Krishna cited the examples of how revered Vina Dhanammal and Bala Saraswati are in the Carnatic music fraternity. True, but that’s not the whole story.

Devadasi, in that one word we have conflated a long and tangled history of a tradition that is complex and layered. Davesh Soneji’s “Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, memory and modernity in South India” is a landmark study of the 18th and 19th century when the devadasi system started crumbling and forms the backdrop in which they got sidelined from being artists. 

The matrilineal system of Devadasis came with independence and power that other women folk lacked and they even had a place of pride in relation to the king and temple (Saskia Kersenboom). But that was not all. Davesh Soneji establishes, based on epigraphic evidences of the Maratha Court of 18th century, that devadasis were also commodities who were bought and sold in a thriving slave economy of Thanjavur. “Young girls who were orphaned or destitute were often bought by the court in order to have a poṭṭu tied and then given to a courtesan household, or simply brought to work as the servants of other palace women. Many also lived with the concubines in the seraglios.”

As the Tanjore Maratha empire disintegrated devadasis started migrating to Madras, the new commercial capital in search of newer patrons and sources of revenue.  One such family that migrated was that of the storied Vina Dhanammal, whose grand daughters were Brinda and Bala Saraswati. The penury into which devadasis had fallen is evident in the fortunes of the family of Dhanammal. When Dhanam was a child her family had to sell of their home to pay creditors and move to a ‘rented portion of a house’ near Georgetown (Knight Jr., 2010).

Dhanam, her daughter Jayammal and then Bala Saraswati herself took patrons as mates. Bala, notably, lived with R.K. Shanmukkham Chetty, a leading member of the Justice Party and later free India’s first finance minister. The fabled performances in Dhanam’s home were, in reality, less glittery and pathetically remunerative. Also, it signaled the era of ‘salon’ performances,dance performances in homes, that would get a besmirched reputation and become a leading factor cited by the devadasi abolitionists.

The Devadasi abolition movement spearheaded by Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy created complex cultural currents. Theosophists and reformers, for once, spoke in nearly identical language about the need to abolish a practice that had become degenerate and notorious for its licentiousness. 

Interestingly, aligned with orthodox Brahmins were a group of Devadasis themselves who rejected the label of degeneration and sought to portray the tradition as a hallowed one. Some Brahmins like E. Krishna Iyer and Devadasis led by Bangalore Nagarthnam Ammal sought to oppose the abolition. Nagarthnam Ammal, “a prominent devadasi who led the protest against male and Brahmin domination of the Thyagaraja festival at Tiruvaiyaru (and later commissioned the building of the shrine where the festival now takes place), spoke out against the legislation, claiming that it denied devadasis not only their right to own and inherit property but also their status as artists” (emphasis in italics, mine). 

Congress stalwart Satyamurthi, a Brahmin, voiced his apprehension that those who call for abolition of devadasis would later ask for non-Brahmins to become archakas in temples. Satyamurthi, it could be inferred, was defending the hereditary occupation of devadasis purely out of a subservience to that most abominable Indian tradition, varnashrama.

That dancing had become disreputable even amongst devadasis is evident from the fact that Bala Saraswati’s mother and grandmother had move away from dancing and to singing instead. When Bala evinced an interest in dancing it created tension in the home (Allen , Knight Jr. 2010; 26)

The complexities of caste and music is best illustrated by the tensions within a group of varied sub-castes that the government collectively called ‘Isai Vellalars’ in 1920s. Thanjavur centered ‘barber-musicians’ (ampattan) now were clubbed on par with nagaswaram players and nattuvanaars. This also highlights how music and art, now considered the privilege of the few, was actually practiced by a wide variety of people in the not too distant past. 

The newly formed Music Academy provided space to devadasis and Isai Vellalars to perform. “Mylapore Gowri Ammal performed sadir in 1932; in the same year, Veena Dhanammal gave a veena recital; in 1933, the year in which the Isai Vellalar musician Ponniah Pillai was made the President of the annual Music Conference, the Kalyani Daughters danced again; and Balasaraswati, Varalakshmi and Saranayaki were all featured in Academy programmes.”

The Music Academy’s openness to devadasis was dictated more by pragmatism than anything. In the early years of the academy it was the devadasis and Isai-Vellalars who dominated the music and arts, areas shunned by Brahmin orthodoxy until then. 

Male Brahmins, as temple priests and otherwise, maintained intimate, pun intended, contacts with devadasis in a manner that was scripturally sanctioned and privileged (Dr.K. Sadasivam, 2013). That tradition made it possible for the Brahmin male dominated Music Academy to have cordial relationships with the hereditary classes that performed arts. 

While Music Academy certainly feted Bala and others, Kalakshethra, under the aegis of Rukmini Devi Arundale, was bent upon keeping devadasis and Pillai caste members who were nattuvanars out of the arts. She was revolutionizing not just the art but who practices the art.

Caste, along Brahmin and non-Brahmin lines, was already a major factor in the Thyagaraja aradhana festivals where one faction, called the periya katchi, led by Malaikottai Govindasami Pillai was hospitable to non-Brahmin musicians while another faction, called the chinna katchi, led by Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, as cited earlier, was inhospitable to non-Brahmins and women (Sriram, 2007)

The eclipsing of devadasis happened in the backdrop of resurgent Brahminical Hinduism and its corollary, anti-brahmanism. This battle tore apart the world of politics, music and arts. At its center was one person, Annie Besant.

Annie Besant, Theosophical Society and Anti-Brahmanism

Latter day Dravidian politicians created a narrative of victimhood and propagated that Brahmins were the only elites and the only educated people. This served a political agenda. What is worse, Brahmins have come to think of themselves carrying a version of the ‘white man’s burden’ to civilize the less fortunate or carry the cross of protecting the hoary traditions while the less privileged catch up. Non-Brahmins- Vellalas, Pillais, Nayars, Mudaliars, Chettiars, Nadars and not to forget the devadasis and Isai-Vellallars and Dalits- had educated and accomplished people amongst them. Many were patrons of arts and intellectuals of the highest order.

The vast majority of the so called Brahmin elites in Carnatic Music, until recent times, including the legends, were school drop outs and were barely literate. Just Sanskrit knowledge, that too only from knowledge of rituals and little else, and familiarity with arts have earned them the moniker of ‘elites’. Lalgudi Jayaraman can probably match Yehudi Menuhin as a violinist but as an intellectual and musicologist Menuhin is in a league that a school dropout like Jayaraman cannot even come close to.

Brahmin author Lakshmi Subramanian, in her book related to Carnatic music, brims with communal pride to note that “adaptability and industry” were the “key attributes” of success for Brahmins. She supplies a quote with relish, “there is hardly a pursuit, literary, industrial or professional to which they do not apply themselves with remarkable success” (Subramanian 2006; 46). Unlike North India Tamil Nadu had a very rich tradition of literature and arts where non-Brahmins competed on par with Brahmins or dominated the scene. Only to a Brahmin author such a quote becomes useful despite its questionable nature.

For the year 1935-36 Brahmins comprised 45% in Arts Colleges and Non-Brahmins, including Muslims and Christians, 52.1%. In Primary and Secondary schools Non-Brahmins completely outnumbered Brahmins. In 1927 of the 490 Gazetted posts in All-India Services Brahmins occupied 75 and Non-Brahmins 65 with the rest by Europeans (Baker, 1976 46-47). 

While Brahmins were far disproportionately represented in education and jobs, relative to their population, it is complete nonsense to ignore the presence of other classes. The reasons for the preponderance of Brahmins are many and the democratic process was already changing the power equation anyway. Hence this habitual reference of Brahmins as a class as ‘elites’ is a lazy intellectual exercise. 

Tamil literature has a long and cherished history which had little to do with Brahmins until the Colonial era. The man who practically invented the Tamil short story was a non-Brahmin, Puthumai Pithan. The man who blazed in Bharati’s trail and took Tamil poetry in new direction was a non-Brahmin.

Sundaresa Mudaliar was Veena Kuppier’s patron and once even hosted Thyagaraja. Chinnaswami Mudaliar (a Christian) was the force behind Subburama Dikshithar who wrote carnatic music with notations. Juttur Subrahmanyan Chetty created an endowment for nagaswaram players. Abraham Pandithar, Mayuram Vedanayakam Pillai et al to name a few were notable non-Brahmins and even non-Hindus who were prominent as patrons and practitioners of music. 

David West Rudner’s study of Nattukottai Chettiars gives a sweeping account of a mercantile community that was very successful in commerce. The Raja of Chettinad was a key patron of arts who went on to create the first private university in Asia. When U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer wanted to raise funds for his publication efforts 40 out of 53 donors were Chettiars. Chettiars were major patrons of arts. It was ‘Chettiar dominated Indian Bank that was the banker’ for 1940 Thyagraja Aradhana when the warring factions had unified. 

Contrary to the stereotyping of Dalits, they, between 1869-1943, ran nearly 42 newspapers and some even exceeded the Bharathi edited newspaper in circulation. That implies a good readership amongst Dalits.

Interestingly for a community that prided itself for it’s passion for learning the Brahmins were not keen on creating educational institutions and left it to the Christian missionaries largely. They were more interested in creating vanguards of privilege in the areas of the  sacred and music. To make music part of their cultural vanguard Brahmins took a largely secular art and made it subservient to, what else, the devotional. 

In this backdrop Annie Besant trying to forge a Brahminical Hinduism as face of rising nationalism found its natural supporters and detractors. Annie Besant “More than anyone else enjoyed a special status in southern India especially among high-caste elite groups, as she was explicitly partial to the Brahmanical tradition” (Subramanian 2008; 118). The ‘high-caste elite groups’ referred by Subramanian was essentially one group, the Brahmins. A convenient omission to state explicitly.

George Arundale who headed the Theosophical movement did for Rukmini Devi what Sadasivam did for M.S. Subbulakshmi, viz. shepherding the Brahmins to accept and admire the artistic efforts of George Arundale’s wife. Sadasivam used his connections to the nationallist movement and the then reigning pontiff of Kanchi mutt to promote M.S. while George Arundale’s Theosophical Society performed the same role for Rukmini Devi. 

Undergirding both enterprises were the capitalization of what the Brahmins projected of themselves. “A heightened self-reflection mediated through music and religious performance combined with the Theosophist reading of the Hindu past and the special place accorded therein to the Brahmin caste fueled an enormous enthusiasm for Hindu culture”.

Chagrined at the support for the advocacy of Brahminical-Hinduism by Annie Besant the non-Brahmins formed an association and declared in their manifesto that the association would strike fear in the hearts of Brahmins.

The antagonism between Brahmins and Non-Brahmins literally shaped the political and cultural landscape of Tamilnadu in 1900-1940. Conflict played out from selection of curriculum in universities to how the arts were appropriated and transmitted.

Bala Saraswati and M.S. (Image Courtesy m.s.-subbulakshmi-and-balasaraswati_courtesy-t.-balasaraswati-archive-352x500.jpg)

Tamil as Vernacular and Tamil Isai Movement

“Language has always been a major concern for Brahminism, not least because of its inseparable connection with the veda” (Bronkhorst 2016, 191). Tamil, a language with a rich heritage was relegated as vernacular and its study was optional in the Madras University affiliated colleges and when chosen to study it had to be studied with Sanskrit, which was considered a classical language along with Greek, Latin and even French (Arooran, 1980; 70-139). The university syndicate had a Brahmin run majority. 

The Brahmin community had a love-hate relationship with Tamil. One cannot think of contemporary Tamil without mentioning Bharathi and one cannot say enough of the yeoman efforts of U.Ve.Swaminatha Iyer in reclaiming ancient Tamil texts and yet the community at large worked assiduously to make Tamil subservient to Sanskrit. The language issue, besides the caste issue or because of it, further divided the world of music.

“The classicization of Karnatic music depended on considering the lyrics less important than ‘‘the music itself.’’ “As musical standard-setting was increasingly dominated by Brahmins, Telugu and Sanskrit repertoires were privileged, and Karnatic music was disconnected from Tamil both as a literary language and as a mother tongue.” (Wiedman 2006, 155)

The Tamil Isai Movement started as a counterpoint to the obsession of excluding or ignoring Tamil songs in the repertoire of musicians. The Raja of Chettinad who had established a school for music and donated generously for Tamil Isai was criticized by Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Iyer and the editorial board of The Hindu for using the allure of money to influence an art form. Of course they had no compunctions when it was Carnatic music that drew donations, from the Raja himself and the nationalist movement, and happily used Brahminical influences in All India Radio, post-Independence, to propagandize Carnatic music. (Arooran 1980; 70-139 , George 2004; 46-48)

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer cautioned “good music cannot be dictated to us by the lay, and democracy in music is an evil”. (Arooran 1980; 261).

A common charge against Tamil Isai was that Tamil lacked compositions. Of course that was not true. Muthu Thandavar, Arunachala Kavirayar, Vedanayakam Pillai, Gopal Krishna Bharathi, not to mention Tamil’s own rich devotional literature had a creditable corpus of work. 

Over the decades stung by the criticism of being step motherly towards Tamil Carnatic musicians began to make an elaborate show of including songs by Bharathiar while studiously avoiding anything by Bharathidasan. Bharathiar, a Brahmin, was tormented by his community for his reformist zeal and unconventional life. Later, when Bharathi was shunned for being a Brahmin by the Dravidian movement the Brahmin community hugged him close.

The Music Academy once banned M.S. Subbulakshmi, their latter day darling, for nearly 4 years. Her sin was raising money, Rs 3000, during the first Tamil Isai Conference in 1943. When the Music Academy needed money and figured out that M.S. could be draw they promptly rescinded the ban. ( )

Music and Nationalism. Music Academy becomes the Nicene Council

Whether it was the then nascent nationalist movement or the movements to create a cultural paradigm in the shadow of the nationalist movement Smarta Brahmins dominated the discourse.

Academic literature by Christopher John Baker, R. Suntharalingam and David Arnold, which cover the period from 1852-1937 with regards to politics in Tamil Nadu underscore how Smarta Brahmins dominated Indian National Congress thoroughly. The Smarta Brahmins swooped in under the aegis of Congress to appropriate the arts and to create narratives of past glory as histories. 

Ironically, as a colonial official pointed out, this creation of a Saksritic narrative about the past was aided by the Indology that colonialism gifted thanks to Orientalists like William Jones. It should be noted that the early Orientalists collaborated mostly only with Brahmins and hence a predominantly Brahminical slant in the narratives was already there.

An All India Music Conference was held in 1927 on the sidelines of an Indian National Congress meeting in Madras. The funds that remained after the conference were utilized to create the Music Academy in 1928 to standardize and revive classical music. The Music Academy was to become to Carnatic Music what the Nicene Council was to the Catholic Church. 

The advent of Harikatha and Bhajan culture in the city, in addition to the nascent nationalism and attention to music in that shadow, all led by Smarta Brahmins, effectively braided music, religion and nationalism together as an inseparable whole and it was a far cry from the way music was practiced by devadasis or Isai Vellalars. Carnatic music compositions by the Trinity were a staple in Gandhi’s meetings during bhajan singing. The word ‘Trinity’ to denote Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyama Sastry was an invention of the 1930s (Weidman 2006, 99).

“Music was used by Brahmin elites to create a kind of public sphere in Madras and a sense of common outlook” (Weidman 2006, 17). “What distinguished the engagement of the Brahmin elite in Madras was the enhanced symbolic significance they attached to the practice of listening and appreciating music, thereby participating in the construction of a sense of community, with exclusivist overtones”. (Subramanian,2006; 42-43)

The Music Academy, to its great credit, initiated and ran a journal with “original contributions from members and readers on the history of music and musical literature (charitra), musical compositions (lakshya), and musicology (lakshana). Its editorial committee made up of scholars and performing musicians” (Subramanian, 2006; 87).
The most signal contribution of the Music Academy to the oeuvre of Carnatic music was the deification of Thyagaraja as poet-saint archetype. This had repercussions beyond just formalizing the ethos for a musician and echoed in which caste had place in Carnatic music.

“The projection of Thyagraja as the ultimate synthesizer of simple bhakti traditions and high learning, as an exemplary composer who sought neither fame nor riches, and who sought salvation in the grace of devotion was integral to their (Smarta brahmins) self-definition”. (Subramanian, 2006; 74). V. Sriram, also, notes that it was in the 1920s that “canonization of Thyagaraja was gaining momentum”. 

The promotion of Thyagaraja, significantly, assigned primacy for melody (raga) over tala, the latter labeled as primitive by Subba Rao. The corollary to this promotion was deciding which instruments get to share the stage with the singer. “The rhythmic intricacies of Karnatic music are strongly associated with the non-Brahmin traditions of periya mēḷam (music that accompanies Hindu rituals and festive occasions) and cinnamēḷam (music that accompanies Bharata Natyam).The instruments one sees on the Karnatic stage and the music one hears are thus the result of a discourse about what constitutes music and who can be called a musician. The canonization of Thyagaraja as the voice of Karnatic music involved more than selecting a composer; it also determined what that voice was supposed to sound like and who would be allowed to play along with it.” (Weidman 2006, 102). 

“The entry of Brahmin women as singers onto the concert stage solidified the developing caste rift: many felt that female Brahmin singers in particular could not sit next to Icai Veḷḷālar accompanists on stage. The rise of Brahmin women as performing musicians thus served as a catalyst to the Brahminizing of music as a profession. Since the1980s, Karnatic music and Bharata Natyam have become almost exclusive markers of middle-class English-educated Brahmin identity.” (Wiedman 2006, 121)

Even the location of Sabhas reflected the castes that they primarily catered to. Caste is the ever present shadow that looms over Carnatic music and often its not just a shadow but a prime mover of the choices relating to music (Weidman 2006, 81).

Aided by the canonization of Thyagaraja and the consequences it unleashed Rukmini Devi’s appropriation of Bharatanatyam as a Brahminical art set afoot. 

Rukmini Devi, V.N. Bhatkande and V.D. Pulaskar: Appropriators Par Excellence

Matthew Allen quotes Rukmini Devi at length about what she considered her achievement and that one quote suffices: 

“One great new thing that has come as a result of these difficulties is the complete separation of our work from the traditional dance teachers. It is a well known fact that they are a small clan of people who have never believed it possible for anybody else to conduct a dance performance. I have always had a determination that this must go. They used to think that, except the usual class of people, no one else would be able to dance. Now there are so many girls from good families who are excellent dancers. The second aspect is to train Nattuvanars (dance teachers) from good families. I am happy that on Vijayadasami day I was able to prove that we could do without them (in Sarada 1985:50)”. 
Allen is appalled at the brazenness of the remarks and asks, “How can an intelligent, idealistic human being like Rukmini Devi exult on an auspicious day she is able to dispense with the artistic collaboration of an entire class of fellow human beings? Why did she think that appropriation- though she probably never used this term, it is implicit n her use of separation above-of the dance art was legitimate, indeed imperative”. Of course the simple answer is this was a Brahmin lady who has lived a life of privilege. Was she a revolutionary in taking the art to an institution and away from male chauvinists and a closeted community based teaching? Of course. But she was no mere liberator she was a distinct Brahminical version of the ‘White man’s burden”. 

Rukmini Devi took Sadir from the temple and renamed it as Bharatanatyam (Music Academy’s E. Krishna Iyer too is credited for that) and put the temple on the stage. Bala Saraswati hated and disagreed with the idea of putting a Nataraja idol on the stage, an idea that Rukmini Devi started. Even costume was reinvented not to reflect the devadasi era and again Bala Saraswati marched to her own tune and refused to dress up Kalakshetra style. To top it all Rukmini Devi insisted on vegetarianism. Ballerinas of the west who dance to Tchaikovsky eat meat and sip wine and their dance is none too poor for that.

A researcher points out an interesting linguistic nuance employed by dance reviewers or critics, “a whole new vocabulary —of 'delicacy' and 'disinterested love of the art'--was in the making in this kind of criticism; a vocabulary which was clearly distinct from the one used to describe the sadir recitals of the now despised 'professional ranks,' the devadasis.”

Rukmini Devi downplayed the role of Pillais and Isai Vellalars in the history of Bharatanatyam and instead harped on Sastras and gave the dance an ancient and purified hue. In reality the four Pillai brothers collectively referred to as Tanjore Quartet did for Bharatanatyam what Ariyakudi Ramanujan Iyengar did for Carnatic music. Vadivelu, one of the brothers, a disciple of Muthuswami Dikshitar, learned to play the violin from evangelist Friedrich Schwartz and even introduced it to Thyagaraja (Wiedman 2006, 30).

In North India meanwhile V.N. Bhatkande did to Hindustani music exactly what Rukmini Devi did to Sadir. The parallels are striking and the fact that they adopted similar strategies to Sanskritize art forms exposes, what sociologist M.N. Srinivas, a Brahmin himself, called a grammar of sanskritization. 

Brahmins who had zealously preserved an oral tradition for transmitting Vedas and eschewed written texts were irked by the ‘gharana’ tradition of Muslims who dominated Hindustani music. Ironically Carnatic musicians today speak constantly of ‘gurukula’. Apparently, as long as it is they who are transmitting knowledge to their kin it is perfectly fine and in fact advisable to adhere to an oral tradition. Bhatkande viewed the Muslims as being obscurantist and ‘illiterates’. “Ustads were constantly branded with the title of ‘illiterates’ rather than ‘Muslims’”. V.D. Paluskar, a blogger writes, added the charge of ‘debauchery’ to ‘illiteracy’ when referring to Muslim Hindustani musicians. Of course he also added a tale of a glorious past when Hindustani music was pure. (Bhakle 2005)

Just like Rukmini Devi, Paluskar created schools to teach Hindustani music “through an explicitly Hindu curriculum”. While Pandit Kumar Gandharva ‘allegedly’ “refused to perform ragas associated with Muslims” the Muslim performers on the other hand make explicit obeisance to Hindu gods and Hinduism. While there is no written code to enforce that one can guess the compulsions. (Bhakle 2005)

Odissi and Kathak: The story repeats

An article in the magazine Outlook commemorating the passing away of renowned Kathak dancer Sitara Devi has choice excerpts.

“Both the institutionalisation as well as the remoulding of aesthetics were important markers to the creation of new performers from respectable middle class families who were neither devadasis (temple dancers) nor tawaifs (courtesans), and these trends also contributed to a new phase of cultural nationalism"

“Choice of Sanskrit and sacred dramas was again an attempt towards creation of Kathak as a respectable dance that was aligned to the classical language Sanskrit and to the sacred Vaishnav realm and, in the process, Kathak, it was hoped would gain a respectable status far removed from the world of tawaifs”

Margaret Walker’s ‘India’s Kathak Dance in Historical Perspective’ gives detailed on the tangled history of the Kathak dancers and caste narratives that have been generated over the decades. The claim of latter day Kathaks, originally the name referred to a caste and only later to the dance, to have Brahmin lineage is questionable.
An article carried by online magazine First Post spoke of how Odissi dancer Krittika Mondal while performing at JNU and choreographing a Buddhist theme did not bow to a deity of Ganesha or Jagannatha. She said she “steered clear of the HIndu mythology”. Mondal, the article said, “seeks to explore the roots of Odissi outside Hindu culture, her viewpoint is sharply at variance with the prevailing narrative”. The prevailing narrative , of course, was that the history of Odissi could be traced to a dance form that finds mention in, what else but, Natya Shastra. Nandini Silkand’s book on Odissi is an excellent resource to understand the complex caste politics of Odissi.

The Sanskritization of music was the central charge of T.M. Krishna in how M.S. Subbulakshmi is perceived and appreciated. The story so far should’ve established for the reader that music and dance were effectively Brahminized across the nation. 

Perceptions of M.S. Subbulakshmi. Interviews by Sanjay Subramanian and Aruna Sairam

We’ll take up Krishna’s observations and compare them to opinions by others to show that Krishna’s opinions were widely shared and he’s not alone in making them. Also, we can buttress some of Krishna’s opinions with academic literature and not just personal opinions of others. 

The Voice

Krishna said that songs recorded early in M.S’s career showed a ‘free voice’, not to be confused with the reference to ‘natural voice’ that male chauvinism of that era preferred, whereas her later performances were tailored and even showed a certain painful tinge. How M.S. was perceived in her own days supports Krishna’s observation. 

Amanda Wiedman’s music teacher, a Brahmin, told her that M.S. rendered ‘Rama nannu brovaraa’ soulfully because  “the song related to a period of unhappiness” in her life. Appreciations of M.S.’s voice was always linked to how she was perceived and the expectations that males imposed on what they thought a female voice should embody. “M.S.’s voice, as revealed by the various discourses about her voice and persona, is as much a product of a particular historical and social moment as it is a vehicle of her individual expression”. (Wiedman 2006, 149)

“A woman was expected to sing music as though it were a natural property of her voice. The natural voice and the chaste female body were thus linked. By the 1950s, the adjectives natural and artificial had come to be used to contrast female voices singing classical music and film songs, respectively. Kalki Krishnamoorthy, the same reviewer who had raved about M.S.’s voice, wrote disparagingly of the ‘‘insipid’’ and ‘‘artificial’’ sweetness of the renowned film singer Lata Mangeshkar’s voice. Kalki used the Tamil word vacīkara, meaning attractive or alluring, with distinct sexual connotations” (Weidman 2006, 148)

The Persona

Weidman quotes Indira Menon to drive home the idea of how the perception of M.S. as a dutiful house wife when she’s not on stage and when she’s on stage as one who’s in communication with the divine, is intrinsic to how a listener relates to her music.

 “As a celebrity she has moved with and played hostess to world leaders with gentle charm and dignity. At home she is the traditional housewife, stringing flower garlands for her puja room and decorating the floor with her beautiful kōlam (rice powder designs). It is on stage that she comes into her own—sensuously captivating, with an occasional lift of the eyebrow and a bewitching smile, not for the audience, but for the Divine’’ 

Contrast that with what Sanjay Subramanian recently told an interviewer on stage. Sanjay is brutally honest in saying he chose music as a way of making money. Could M.S. Subbulakshmi have said that? If she had said it would she be revered as she is today? Sanjay goes on to say how he draws inspiration and ‘adrenalin’ from the audience. He even quotes Adoor Gopalakrishnan that “everything is cinema”. Asked if he could be labeled as both “performer and artist” he is is forthright in replying “call me what you will just get people to my concert”. M.S. Subbulakshmi could not speak that way. Nor can Aruna Sairam. Nor Sowmya. 

It is so interesting to watch the body language of Sanjay, or T.M. Krishna for that matter, and to compare the body language of, say Aruna Sairam onstage. The Brahmin woman has a stereotype to fulfill.That stereotype is a composite product of what the music is defined as, the relation of music to values and making it a sign post for culture and how a woman is at epicenter of this concoction. 

Did M.S. convey an image with her appearance? Absolutely. Again, T.M.K. is correct. Wiedman sums up the gender politics related to attire, “The effacement of the female musician’s body on the concert stage is accomplished not only by a lack of gesture but also by an implicit dress code that ensures that all female musicians look the same.Unlike Western concert black,which is supposed to make the musician’s body symbolically invisible, Karnatic concert attire makes female musician’s bodies visible as a certain type: a respectable family woman. Whereas men’s appearances on the Karnatic concert stage vary—pants, veshtis, silk jibbahs, Western-style button-down shirts, hairstyles from topknots to short haircuts—women’s appearances have changed little over the years. All female musicians wear a fairly lavish (but not too lavish) silk sari and have their hair pulled back in a neat, tight plait or bun…female musicians whose appearance differs from the norm provoke negative comments; their appearance is considered extramusical excess, an unseemly element.”

While Sanjay Subramaniam could jokingly refer to his attire, denim pant and sandals, during an interview it is not accidental that Aruna is bedecked in silk saree even in an interview. Whether M.S. a non-Brahmin by birth could wear a 9 yard saree like a Brahmin became a question important enough for the Kanchi Shankaracharya to weigh in. The Shankaracharya did not agree. (George 2004, 151)

Ironically people who were angry about Krishna’s remarks supplied evidence, in their half baked rebuttals, to buttress precisely what Krishna said. Brahmins repeatedly asserted that Carnatic music was ‘bhakti’ oriented and they adored M.S. for providing that. T.M.K.’s charge, too, is just that. An actress and a BJP functionary went to the extent of even confessing that she used to try to dress up like M.S. If M.S. didn't dress up like a demure Brahmin woman on a bridal stage this actress would not be aping her. 

MS's Skin Color

T.M. Krishna riled up many by asking if M.S. would have been accepted had she been “dark skinned beautyish”. Krishna, was by no means denigrating the genius of M.S. rather his questions were to probe what chance genius stood without being fair skinned and a willing participant of Brahminization. The Rig Veda speaks of the ‘fair skinned’ driving southward the ‘dark skinned’. India, cutting across caste and religion, has an obsession with fair skin as evidenced by the multi-million dollar market for fairness producing creams. I’ve heard a Brahmin lady refer to her dark skinned daughter-in-law as “looks like a Shudra” and I’ve equally heard derogatory remarks about dark-skinned by non-Brahmins and Christians. There are pejorative terms amongst Brahmins themselves to refer to dark skinned Brahmins. During the recent controversy over Andal, a Brahmin Jeeyar sneered that Vairamuthu was as dark as a crow. Yes, skin color matters to a Brahmin. 

The Brahmin Listener

Lakshmi Subramaniam agrees with Amanda Wiedman on how a Brahmin listener related to M.S. and adds “it is not mere chance that the image of M.S. Subbulakshmi was fashioned in a very special way and that her music became so appropriate to the expressive needs of the Brahmin community in the city. The rendering of Sanskrit hymns that became an integral part of the quotidian listening schedule of the middle class Brahmin homes as well as temples, the projection of a certain concert etiquette and persona that emphasized above all the singer’s subjective absorption with personal devotion”. Essentially Subramanian and Wiedman say, in academic verbiage, what T.M. Krishna said colloquially. Put simply the middle-class Brahmin adores a Brahminized M.S. 

Celebrating Bala and Brinda. Really?

As for the usual retort about Bala and Brinda being feted T.M.Krishna is spot on with his rebuttal. Out of the thousands of devadasis who existed over the centuries barely one handful are mentioned today. In Bala’s case the acknowledgement actually came after she completed a successful and attention garnering tour in US prior to which she was marginalized. 

“These women”, Davesh Soneji writes of the selective commemoration of few Devadasis by the modern section of elites, “have been strategically coopted into the scripts of cultural history precisely because they demonstrate “exceptional” qualities for women ‘of their background.’ These carefully selected devadāsī artists, appropriated and authorized by the world of Chennai’s elites as representatives of tradition and heritage in the nationalist imagination, have come to occupy places in the history of arts that other devadāsīs could not.”

Banagalore Nagarathnamma who spent her own money to create a shrine for Thyagaraja and worked to assiduously cultivate the deification of the composer had to not only fight to get a place in the annual festivities for women to sing she also had to assure Brahmin priests who took part in some ceremonies that the food they ate would not be touched by here. This pious narrative of how esteemed a place devadasis held is complete nonsense. 

Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and others, we are told, learned from ‘Brinda Amma’. The story, in light of Sriram’s documentation of the devadasi tradition of not teaching others, should be taken with a liberal pinch of salt. The ugly side to this is, as I’ve shown before, Brahmin men were comfortable relating with devadasis but when it came to respecting fellow Brahmin women as artists they were at their sexist and misogynist best. Charumathi Ramachandran, a disciple of M.L.Vasanthakumari, in article for Times for India highlighted the sexism that was prevalent.

“The top pakkavadyams or accompanists of the time avoided the leading women artists, preferring to play for male artists like Chembai Vaidyanathan Bhagavathar, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer followed by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, GNB and Madurai Mani. Lalgudi Jayaraman, T N Krishnan and MSG, after playing for male artistes, avoided pakkavadyam and switched over completely to solo.” “While many played for Flute Mali at a high shruti because he was a male artist, they refused when women with the same shruti or pitch approached them”. 

Refusing to play for women singers is not the only discrimination. Male singers are loathe to use women accompanists. In this backdrop the saintly protestations about women and devadasis being accorded their place in Carnatic music is complete hogwash.

'Don't analyze M.S. Intellectually!'

More interesting was the actress, joining the like of Chitraveena Ravi Kiran and singer Sudha Raghunathan, suggesting that M.S. should not be analyzed intellectually. Here’s why.

Johannes Bronkhorst identifies an important distinction regarding how Brahmins related with rationalism. “Brahmanism adopted a tradition of rational enquiry only in the field of of philosophy and nowhere else”. “Only in this area did they have to face opponents-primarily Buddhists”. “In areas where they did not have to confront such opponents they preferred tradition to criticism” (Bronkhorst 2016; 274-275). 

Also, to the Brahmin, locating something in the spiritual and beyond rationality works precisely to their advantage since, in popular conception thanks to millennia of traditions, they hold a preeminent place in the area of tradition and spirituality. This is also why, to a Brahmin, it is offensive to delink overt religiosity from Carnatic music and such suggestions are met with indignant rebuttals. 

T.M. Krishna emphasized that the adulation for M.S., quite often, had less to do with her genius but what her voice, not she, conveyed to the listener and what kindred feelings it evoked. The admonition that M.S. should not be analyzed, intellectually, is connected to this. To the Brahmin listener, and many others who have swallowed in whole the Brahminical appreciation of M.S., any entertainment of the notion that M.S. could be be an ‘individual’ with a mind of her own and possibly thoughts of her is a complete impossible notion.

“Whereas Bangalore Nagaratnammal and Vai. Mu. Kothainayaki, part of the previous generation of female singers, spoke in public on issues such as Indian independence and the betterment of Indian women, Subbulakshmi and Pattammal assiduously avoided public speaking. Indeed, it seems as though the ‘‘naturalness’’ and ‘‘purity’’ of their voices could only be guaranteed by maintaining the idea that those voices expressed an interior self, an innocent self detached from the world at large, who knew ‘‘nothing but music’’—except, perhaps, a little house keeping. In this sense, the very audibility of their singing voices depended on the silence of their speaking voices in the public sphere.” (Weidman 2006, 148).

Carnatic Music commentator V. Sriram in a conversation with Aruna Sairam speaking of Brinda, recalled a male artist’s remark about how her singing was nectarine while she had a tongue as sharp as a kitchen knife. I’m sure there were male artists who had a sharper tongue but it is about the woman it is said like that, especially the allusion to the kitchen. We seldom see women, including Brahmins, voice political opinion or stir up an ideological controversy like T.M.Krishna or Ravi Kiran or others could.

Brahminical Arrogance

Overt religiosity in the shape of religious icons on stage are par for the course in Carnatic music. Added to this are off handed but habitual references to how music was part of their growing up since they’re used to chanting mantras. Ravi Kiran’s wife, in an interview for a magazine meant for house wives, mentioned that her husband knew several languages and singled out, innocently, knowledge of Sanskrit. 

Sriram and Aruna, both Brahmins, nonchalantly talk about Brahmin household customs and Brahmin customs as the norm of South India. The housewife singing bhajans to Krishna or the Bhajanavali customs were specific to Brahmins and who were, incidentally, a minuscule minority in a vast population and neither of this was customary for the rest. It is THIS blindness that T.M.Krishna draws attention to.

Asked by a lady interviewer as to how Sanjay Subrahmanyan moved from learning music from the women of his home to public performances he responded, “typically people like you and other tambrahm (slang for Tamil Brahmin) girls learned music for a specific purpose” (and he gestures a ‘quote’ sign in the air and guffaws). It is stunning to see such display. The interviewer did not announce her caste but Sanjay seems to know. I guess this being a literary festival organized by the Brahmin run ‘The Hindu’ newspaper and she interviewing him could’ve made him guess or perhaps he knew. Either way, why the reference? And the audience knowingly laughs. Why would they not.

Recently Sanjay Subrahmanyan was interviewed in ‘The Hindu’ on what the interviewer, his uncle consider a historic occasion, the singer’s 50th birthday. The uncle asks the nephew about the efforts of some ‘evangelists’ within the Carnatic music fraternity to take music ‘to the masses’. The nephew indulges his uncle and offers as answer a question, “Did the masses request it, want it, demand it?”. This arrogance is PRECISELY what non-Brahmins label as Brahminical arrogance. 

What gives a Brahmin the divine right to refer to a whole section of people as ‘masses’ as if they’re a lump of shit and what kind of arrogant ignoramus would answer by asking if the ‘masses’ demanded to know music. But pause here, it is precisely this kind of networking that a non-Brahmin lacks in the music scene even today. A pedestrian interviewer, a Brahmin, working for a largely Brahmin institution interviewing another Brahmin on the cosmic event of the interviewee turning 50. Oh Lordy. (Incidentally the original online edition had no disclaimer about the interviewer being the uncle of the interviewee but now it does. What chicanery)

Ask any Brahmin about any of the above they’d be offended that these are consciously adopted techniques. To be fair, it is not, sometimes. However, there’s considerable resistance when these are raised and that’s what the T.M. Krishna imbroglio brought to the fore. 


Many have questioned why is T.M. Krishna dredging up the past. The past, as William Faulkner teaches us, is never truly past. Indians are always uncomfortable talking about history or the past or the personal side of a historical personality unless it is flattering. One has to go to some ‘mama’s home’ to get a recording of a specific performance once upon time unlike today says Sanjay happily. Speaking about taking criticism in his stride Sanjay jokes that some listener, a ‘mama’, would say that a raga did not come out good that day.  Whether it is getting a recording of a music or a jocular reference to a generic listener it is always a ‘mama’ for Sanjay. How did this happen in an art that the ‘mamas’ never owned or dominated? To know that one has to dredge up history. 

Until the recent Andal episode I used to feel that amongst the many Tamil castes Brahmins have shown a phenomenal capacity for both orthodoxy and introspective criticism. No other caste has probably thrown up more reformers who were critical of their own community. From Bharathi to T.M. Krishna the voices of dissent and criticism have been a perennial feature of the Brahmin community. Though my trust in the Brahmin community to take criticism has been badly shaken it is not yet battered. The Andal episode could still be seen as touching as very raw nerve and decades of being mocked at and ridiculed finally found an issue on which to burst forth especially in the political vacuum that exists in Tamil Nadu today.

Krishna is correct in saying that as the dominant community it behoves them to open the doors to all and make the environment a welcoming one. Creating a welcoming environment involves lot of effort and a willingness to recognize blindness. From the stage decor to the canteen and the linguistic nuances changes could be made. Many Brahmins work in mega-corporations in US where diversity and inclusiveness are the new mantras. I suggest they take to Thyagaraja festivals at Cleveland and Thiruvaiyaaru the lessons on how to create an atmosphere that’s welcoming to a diverse population. 

It’d not be a bad idea to learn how to secularize music, even music that’s devotional in content. Keep your devotion in your temples and keep music secular on the stage. 

By the way the Carnatic musicians should hang their head in shame for the pathetic state of Thyagaraja’s temple and the pedestrian museum they’ve put up. Oh wait, that was all the munificence of a devadasi. Anyway, I wish they paid a visit to Bach museum at Leipzig and learned how to celebrate a genius. 


  1. From the Tanjore Court to the Madras Music Academy: A social history of music in South India — Lakshmi Subramanian
  2. Bala Saraswati: Her Art and Life - Douglas M. Knight Jr.
  3. Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, memory, and modernity in South India - Davesh Soneji
  4. When a Great Tradition Modernizes: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization - Milton Singer
  5. Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics of Music in South India — Amanda Weidman
  6. Nityasumangali: Devadasi Tradition in South India - Saskia Kersenboom
  7. தமிழகத்தில் தேவதாசிகள் - முனைவர் கே. சதாசிவன். (தமிழில்: கமலாலயன்)
  8. Tamil Renaissance and Dravidian Nationalism: K. Nambi Arooran
  9. The Politics of South India: 1920-1937 — Christopher John Baker
  10. Politics and Nationalist Awakening in South India, 1852-1891 — R. Suntheralingam
  11. Two Men and Music: Nationalism in the Making of an Indian Classical Tradition — Janaki Bakhle
  12. Aruna Sairam V. Sriram interview 
  13. Sanjay Subrahmanyan interview 
  14. M.S. A Life in Music - T.J.S. George
  15. T.M. Krishna’s speech 
  16. M.S. banned from music academy 
  17. M.S. Subbulakshmi and Music Academy 
  18. Matthew Allen on Rukmini Devi 
  19. Saraswati Bhai 
  20. On Devadasis - Johannes Bronkhorst 
  21. Removal and re-introduction of percussion instruments in Carnatic Music - 
  22. New Mansions for music: Performance, Pedagogy and Criticism - Lakshmi Subramanian
  23. Odissi performance at JNU 
  24. Sitara Devi Obituary 
  25. India's Kathak Dance in Historical Perspective — Margaret E. Walker
  26. Languid Bodies, Grounded Stances: The Curving Pathway of Neoclassical Odissi — Nandini Silkand
  27. Who Need Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Value - Julian Johnson
  28. The life of Music in North India: The organization of an artistic tradition - Daniel M. Neuman


வன்பாக்கம் விஜயராகவன் said...

" Brahmin community had a love-hate relationship with Tamil. ......... yet the community at large worked assiduously to make Tamil subservient to Sanskrit. ". This is quite wrong. In Ramanuja Tradition Tamil is considered equivalent to Sanskrit and Ramanuja parampara calls itself 'Ubhaya vedantam' i.e. proficient in both Tamil and Sanskrit. The roots of Ramanuja Tradition lies as much in Nalayira divya prabandham as in vedic orthodoxy. This is a gross misunderstanding in an otherwise passable (academically) writing and plausible narrative.

வன்பாக்கம் விஜயராகவன் said...

"creation of a Saksritic narrative about the past was aided by the Indology that colonialism gifted thanks to Orientalists like William Jones. It should be noted that the early Orientalists collaborated mostly only with Brahmins and hence a predominantly Brahminical slant in the narratives was already there."

Thats was not always like that. Ellis Whyte , who studied south Indian languages in order to come up with a language group different from that of Sanskrit origin ones, was aided by two Telugu Brahmins and it was they who pointed out many non-Sanskrit roots of Tamil and telugu words. Even to arrive at 'Dravidian proof' the colonialists depended upon Brahmins who were happy to oblige

Anonymous said...

It is wrong to say sanjay's 'masses' comment aimed at non-brahmins and thus a brahminical arrogance. It is not. The minuscule rasikas primarily consists of brahmins and their is a sizeable number of non brahmins too... The masses here means those who don't want or don't bother about classical music including those from brahmin community... A very weak example of brahmin arrogance..

Unknown said...

Religion has three vital and critical parts-First, Mythology-make belief, aim and secure state of authority and authority securing resources support; Theosophy-systemization and organization for the ritualistic practice of religion; Philosophy-art of thinking, searching for truth and communicating to partake the knowledge with seekers. Carnatic Music as an art form with the patronships of Nayaks, Tanjore Marathas and later by other Kingdoms and states in the Southern India was also developed and practiced with thesis and antithesis of religion and philosophy of Hinduism. Seeking a synthesis of thesis and antithesis in art form growth and development is constant and attempts for contemporizing is the aim to retain and enhance the appeal to the lovers of art form. The Challenge the contemporization creates is the present changed, hailing the past, securing legitimacy for the change in the present. Other challenge is balancing the primacy for materialism with idealism advocated as primacy, but not the reality. 'Divinity', metaphysical, abstract is to secure the following, unquestioningly seeking fulfillment of physical and finite -recognition, popularity and reward, a highly successful practice ensuring power, influence. All the attention is on such highly successful, leaving all the others, unrecognized, and of no consequence.

South Indian said...

What kind of networking that people @ Ivy Leagues and Cambridge have that is lacking for everybody else huh? Just apply it to your own class and you will see how ridiculous you sound. MSS is making garlands at home? You know they ask in the U.S: do you work outside of your home?, not : do you have a job?

Remember the wife of Boston Brahmin :, who asked Laura Bush - if the latter ever had a job. Uppity up snob would you agree?