When Social media becomes Antisocial!

For the uninitiated, Sudha Raghunathan is an accomplished Carnatic vocalist from Chennai. She is a Sangeeta Kalanidhi – a revered title awarded by the Madras Music Academy. She is a Kalaimamani – an award given by the State government of Tamil Nadu to illustrious artists. She is a Padma Shri. She is also a Padma Bhushan. She has been one of the leading Carnatic vocalists of the country.  And has been in the fore front of spreading this art form world over, for decades now.

All these don’t seem to matter anymore. If you go by what you see on Social media these days! In the past few days, Social media has been flooded with posts and forwards, all centred on the upcoming marriage of Sudha Raghunathan’s daughter to a Christian. It all started with the appearance of the marriage invitation card on Facebook and Twitter which then found its way to myriad WhatsApp groups!

For the conservative South Indian society in general and for followers of Carnatic music in particular, it is as if the earth quaked! “How can the daughter of the venerable Sudha Raghunathan marry a Christian?” was the initial reaction. What started as a general lament on the affairs of the youth these days (of studying abroad and marrying out of community and religion) soon turned into a barrage of vitriol and bile targeted at the singer.

One may recall that few months ago, a few Carnatic vocal singers were caught in a controversy over singing songs on Jesus set in Carnatic ragas.  Singers like O.S. Arun, Nithyashree Mahadevan and few others were targeted for agreeing to sing Carnatic music based songs on Jesus and participating in Christian events. There was a loud call for a ban on these artists and finally the controversy blew over when the concerned artists clarified that they are not going to participate in such events. The issue was also attributed to the Church’ larger design of promoting Christianity by appropriating native culture. Conservative and orthodox followers of Carnatic music hadn’t forgotten that story or forgiven those artists, when this issue of Sudha Raghunathan surfaced now.

In Social media, attempts have been made to explain this as a part of the larger “Missionary project” of evangelisation. In line with this presumption, a fake narrative was also propagated that Sudha Raghunathan and family were getting converted to Christianity religion to facilitate this marriage.

While the news of the marriage along with the invite went viral, there was another audio clip which went viral too! This was of a telephone conversation between Raghunathan (Sudha’s husband) and one Ramanathan belonging to the Rashtriya Sanadhana Seva Sangham. Some have mistaken it for the RSS but this organisation has got nothing to do with the RSS.  In the course of the call, Ramanathan almost questions Raghunathan as to why they are letting the marriage happen. In the entire call, Raghunathan is almost apologetic and tries to explain the situation around the fake news of them converting into Christianity and so on. The height of absurdity is that along with the audio clip, the phone numbers of both Raghunathan and Ramanathan were circulated as well!  This is the same Ramanathan who had called O.S. Arun during the earlier controversy, bullied him over phone, recorded the phone conversation and put it out on social media!  Raghunathan is also heard as saying he has been in the receiving end of many such calls in the past few days!

The matter didn’t end here. Another picture of Sudha Raghunathan and her family ostensibly clicked in some wedding reception started doing the rounds with a caption –“National Integration, Unity in Diversity”. The claim was that, Sudha’s son had married a Muslim before and now her daughter is marrying a Christian! This was again a fake narrative and even if it was true, how did it matter?

In Social media, many were of the opinion and rightfully so, that this was purely a personal matter and not of concern to the music lovers. It is good to see that for every nasty comment, there are equal and opposite comments condemning extreme reactions to the wedding news. However, the virulent reactions of many, including that of calling for a boycott of Sudha Raghunathan, the Carnatic exponent, exposed the faultlines that exist today in our society.

The whole episode raises a few serious questions and concerns.

  • That a public figure and a respected artist is just turned into a much hated figure over night by guardians of culture and religion just because the public figure or his/her family member exercised his/her personal freedom.
  • That any self-proclaimed protector of the Hindu religion can call and bully a public figure over a matter of personal choice!
  • That such calls can be recorded and put out on public domain without an iota of concern or respect over individual’s privacy!
  • That an artist’s credentials can be buried overnight and his/her career stunted over issues not concerning the art form!

It’s high time we as a society realise that it is none of our business to comment or express concern on purely a personal matter involving any public figure.

When Social media arrived in the scene we all rejoiced at the empowerment it gave to all those who wanted to express themselves.  Narrative building was no longer the privilege of a few or so we thought.  However, in the recent times, we have been witness to the ugly face of social media more often than not. This incident involving Sudha Raghunathan and her family is an example of how Social media becomes Antisocial!

One of the most popular renditions of Sudha Raghunathan is the song “Brahmam Okate…”! This song is one of the best compositions of Saint Annamacharya in which he describes the universal truth of Oneness! It’s time we as a society understand the profound meaning of the lines of this song and spare the likes of Sudha Raghunathan, this hate on what is clearly a non-issue!

Image courtesy: Milapfest

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T.M.Krishna – A Musician then, an Activist now!

So, T.M.Krishna (TMK) did manage to sing in Delhi yesterday, at the original appointed date though under a different aegis. Originally TMK’s concert was to be under the aegis of SPIC-MACAY and supported by Airports Authority of India (AAI). Quoting some bizarre reasons, AAI pulled out of the event and SPIC-MACAY had to cancel/re-schedule the show. It was clear that the reasons for the cancellation were not straight forward as they were professed. It was more to do with people from the Right wing trolling TMK for his views against the Central Government, his open rebellion against the Carnatic establishment, his open declaration to sing songs of other religions on Carnatic concerts and in general for going against the tide on many issues related to music and everything else.

As an ardent follower of Carnatic music, I have been following TMK for many years now. He is a talented singer and among the younger generation of singers, he is right at the top. I live in Mumbai and I usually don’t miss his concerts as long as they are in the weekends! While on stage, you can see through his passion and involvement in his music. Usually he is so consumed by his music, I wonder if he really sings for the audience or himself! His style of singing is very different. In Tamil, we say ‘Konjam izhu izhunnu izhuthu paadarathu’ (Stretch and stretch while singing) He doesn’t usually sing the very popular Kritis which people generally are familiar. He picks up not so familiar and tough Kritis and delves into them. And in the past few years, one can notice that he doesn’t stick to the established format of a Carnatic Kacheri. One can cite many examples but his rendition of the Kriti ‘Hiranmayim,…’ in Raga Lalitha or the more popular Krishna Nee Begane,… in Yaman Kalyani are samples of his talent and brilliance. In the current crop of singers, in my books he is right up there.  Watching him, his expressions and his way of communicating with his co-artists on stage itself is an enjoyable experience.

 Being a genius that he is, naturally he has got a big following among Carnatic music lovers. But, I see that something has changed. And this is not all of a sudden. As per me, it is since 2013 when his book on Carnatic music titled “A Southern Music – The Karnatik Story” got published. Till then, TMK was a gifted Carnatic musician but with the release of the book he also became an author and a controversial one at that. (Confession – I haven’t read the book yet and it is on my bucket list).  In the book, TMK kicked up quite a bit of storm questioning established thoughts and ideas on Carnatic music not leaving even the spelling and saying it is not Carnatic but “Karnatik”!!! In the run up to the release of the book and after, TMK started ruffling quite a few feathers!  And since then, I have been noticing that among the Carnatic followers, he has become a bit of enigma! An individual who is extremely talented in singing but who is a rebel and an eccentric!

True to his now established image of a rebel, TMK stopped singing in main line Sabhas during the very popular December “Season” in Chennai. He started a parallel forum called “Urur-Olcott Kuppam Festival” to take the Kacheri to slums of Chennai. TMK even kicked off “Kacheri on the move” in a moving bus in Chennai during the season – all in an attempt to take Carnatic music out of the Sabhas to the streets! Such initiatives soon earned him the Ramon Magsaysay Award early in his life in 2017 and as the citation claimed in recognition of “his forceful commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions”!  And also a bunch of critics! Still, he went about his mission of breaking the class divide that exists in Carnatic music by collaborating with transgender community on stage in his Kacheris, setting Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s lines to Carnatic music and singing them in his concerts and so on!

In the meantime, I observed that TMK also started articulating his thoughts on matters outside the music domain as well. He started taking up issues related to environment strongly. His ‘Porambokku paadal’ music video was an initiative to use music to highlight the environmental damage done by the Ennore Power plant. Soon, we started seeing him being part of many other issues like taking on Hindustan Unilever against dumping toxic Mercury in Kodaikanal,… He is now a regular columnist and the topics are not restricted just to music. He is a strident critic of the present Modi Government and anything to do with Right wing!

Now in my known Carnatic fans circle, I see a sea change in their outlook and attitude towards TMK and his music. He is no longer the genius he was a few years ago in their eyes when he just limited himself to Carnatic music. He is today labelled a leftist, Naxal supporter and a publicity seeker! He is today accused of raking up issues which is not his domain just to stay in limelight!

I am not hence surprised that TMK is subject to constant trolling on Social media.  Even his erstwhile fans are calling to boycott his concerts as he is a “gone case” as per them! This is where I have a big problem. As I mentioned before, I am an unapologetic admirer of his craft. I am in agreement with some of his thoughts and ideas. I don’t agree with him on many counts. His take on M.S.Subbulakshmi for example, I thought was a lot of conjecturing. Yet, I have no problem in listening to his music. When I listen to his music, I don’t think of his views on Indian politics or Narendra Modi!

There could be a happy ending here! By constantly trolling him, the right wingers and others are in the verge of achieving something that the Carnatic aficionados haven’t been able to, all these years – That of taking Carnatic music beyond the ears of just South Indians! I heard that TMK had a full house in Delhi yesterday at the concert with people even standing for full two hours to listen to his music! And If I go by the tweets with #TMKrishna, I can make out that many probably went to a Carnatic concert for the 1st time in Delhi yesterday and came out intrigued by the form of music!

Today, Thodur Madabusi Krishna might have turned an activist. But he is a musician first. And an extraordinary one at that. So, my appeal to fellow Carnatic followers is, if you don’t like his views, ignore them! But, leave him alone. But, it doesn’t make any sense to call for a ban on his singing! Lest, Music’s loss could become some political party’s gain!

Image courtesy: India Today

Carnatic music’s recent discordant note!

In the ultra-fast moving news cycle these days, the rage over few Carnatic musicians singing songs on the Christ, is already behind us. Have not seen any vitriolic or otherwise WhatsApp forwards or posts on Facebook on this, in the past few days. Except for an update that, a group of volunteers from Washington DC have managed to organise a concert of T.M.Krishna at the same date and time as his earlier cancelled concert at Maryland temple. The organisers at the temple unilaterally cancelled his concert after Krishna tweeted out that he will from now on release a new Carnatic song on Allah, Christ,… every month!

To back up a bit, the trigger for Krishna’s announcement was the uproar among Carnatic music rasikas and right-wing apologists on social media over a proposed concert of O.S.Arun (titled ‘Yesuvin Sangama Sangeetam’ on the 25th of August in Chennai and its aftermath.  Arun quickly announced that he was backing out of the programme. The controversy didn’t end there. Other Carnatic musicians like Nithyashree and Aruna Sairam were also dragged into the muddle, citing some past instances of them singing Christ songs. They had to issue disclaimers, which they did.

One person who went against the grain was T.M.Krishna. As we all know, Krishna has been the rebel with a cause in the classical music scene these days. I don’t agree with him completely on some of the issues he has raised over Carnatic music but we will keep that for another Sunday afternoon blog! On this issue though, I tend to agree with him. He went on to say that there is nothing wrong in Carnatic musicians singing on non-Hindu Gods.

The furore over these Carnatic musicians were around few points and the goal post kept changing as the debate ensued.

First, it was about how can Carnatic music be used to sing songs on other religions? Is it not blasphemy? I understand completely where this argument is coming from. Carnatic music has its strong moorings on the Bhakti rasa. Invariably the compositions of the Great Trinity of Carnatic music – Thiagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri are all on Hindu Gods. For that matter even the other composers outside the Trinity like Swati Tirunal, Bhadrachala Ramdas, Annamacharya, Papanasam Sivan and so on basically sang on Hindu Gods. This doesn’t mean that Bhakti rasa of Carnatic music cannot be used to invoke Gods of other religions and cultures.  If we accept that Carnatic is a form of classical music and music is universal, we must be open to it being adopted by other cultures.

While we are quick to denounce Carnatic musicians adopting other cultures, our hearts swell with pride when others adopt our culture. While on this, the oft repeated example is of K.J.Yesudas a born Christian who learnt Carnatic music under Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and till today revered as a top notch Carnatic vocal singer. As I know, his rendition of the famous Harivarasanam song is used every day in many Ayyappa temples in India and may be outside when the temple nada (door) is closed in the night after the day’s proceedings. And I have lost count of the times, I have been forwarded the clip of him singing the song live at the Sabarimala temple in Kerala as a matter of extolling the virtues of our tolerance and secular credentials.

And who can forget John Higgins, originally a famous Jazz musician who learnt Carnatic music out of his passion and love for the art. There is a story of him being denied entry into the Udupi Krishna temple because he was not a practicing Hindu.  The authorities relented after he sang the popular Kriti ‘Krishna Nee Begane….’ sitting outside the temple! Until fate snatched his life too soon, Higgins Bhagavathar, as he came to be known, was a celebrated Carnatic musician in India.

Similarly, when we forward the clip of the Malay-Chinese singer, Chong Chiu Sen singing ‘Ninnu Ko ri…, with the associated diction, body language of a veteran Carnatic singer at Puttabarti, we do that with a sense of pride and happiness that our culture is being adopted by others. So if the reverse happens, why the insecurity?

When these were logically pointed out, the argument then shifted from blasphemy to plagiarism. That these singers of the like of Arun, Nithyashree,.. were plagiarising songs of the great Thiagaraja by replacing the word Rama with Jesus/Yesu and so on. As much as I heard those songs, I didn’t find this. The songs were indeed based on ragas of popular Thiagaraja Kritis on Lord Rama but I didn’t see the virtues of Lord Rama being mapped to the Christ. While I accept that swapping words of Hindu Gods with others is a matter of gross impropriety, lifting tunes (ragas) isn’t such a big crime. In matter of composing music, imitation is the best form of flattery!

Then after, the discussions took more ominous turn. That of Christian organisations using Carnatic music and thereby musicians for their long-standing agenda of “conversion” in India. The whole issue of conversion is a complex topic with social, economic and cultural overtones. So, without getting into justification of the same, my limited point would be – To popularise Christianity and promote the religion, will not a more popular and mass music/art form be more effective than Carnatic which, as we know today has a limited following and reach? So, I find this conspiracy theory a bit far-fetched. Here again, I would like to point out that for a country which has withstood the onslaught of different cultures fairly successfully, the kind of insecurity is bereft of wisdom.

I am an ardent follower of Carnatic music and the subject matter of the composition doesn’t come in my way of enjoying the same. As we know there are many compositions in Carnatic music overflowing with Sringara rasa, patriotism and so on and we do enjoy all of them. In any concert, compositions of Subramania Bharatiyar which are not necessarily on Hindu Gods are a big hit!

The unfortunate part is, fearing a major backlash, except for T.M.Krishna who held his ground, all other musicians apologised on social media. It was tragic to hear a viral audio clip of a telecon between O.S. Arun and a Right wing activist who threatened of dire consequences if Arun didn’t mend his ways. Arun, who in that call initially tried to justify his position, later cowed down!

In this context, it is heartening to see that there are more mature and level-headed supporters of Carnatic music who managed to organise an alternate concert of T.M.Krishna when his original programme was cancelled.

Music has no boundaries. Carnatic included. Listening to his piece by T.M.Krishna on Allah which he sang in Mumbai in raga Behag is a case in point.

As a closing, I would only like to invoke the words of the great Thiagaraja in his fine composition – Pibare Ramarasam, Rasane,.. the translation of which goes like this:
“Drink the essence of the name of Rama, o tongue!
It will help you remove or be distant from association with sin or be distant from those who cause you to sin and you will be fulfilled with many kinds and types of rewards/gains”

If only those who took offence, follow this in letter and spirit and cut the bile.