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Ramon Magsaysay Awardee T.M. Krishna on the Healing Power of Music

The advocate and musician has been using his privilege and talents to bridge social divide in India

“You can’t see it, you only hear it,” T.M. Krishna, a leading activist and musician in India, says about music. What is it about this art form, this medium, that leaves a lasting impression on individuals and communities, since time immemorial? “It’s this invisible, beautiful creature. And then it’s gone, poof. In a second, it disappears. It only stays in memory.”


Trained in Carnatic music from the age of 6 by some of the most accomplished masters of the form, Krishna has since gone to college to become an economist, emerging from it a bonafide artist and advocate. Encouraged by his peers and colleagues to take music seriously and to see it as “more than just a hobby,” Krishna says: “I still wanted to be an economist and do music part-time. But things turned out differently.”

An ancient vocal and instrumental musical system, Carnatic music is a centuries-old style of music found in temples and courts, which has since been ‘classicized’ to become the “exclusive cultural preserve of the Brahmin caste—performed, organized, and enjoyed by the elite who have access to it.” Carnatic music is characterized by devotional lyrics addressed to the Hindu deities. 


Krishna, who received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2016, has been using his privilege and his talents to bridge social divide across his home country of India. He was honored for “his forceful 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.”


As an artist-advocate, he is careful to stay in his lane; careful not to speak over marginalized communities, especially when he is asked to keep quiet. These are some of the challenges of pursuing an advocacy, and creating art that furthers that advocacy. Krishna says that he is constantly being watchful of his own privilege, remembering not to get carried away into a “savior complex.”

After all, sound—like other forms of art—is political, Krishna says. “The fact that you like some sounds and you dislike some sounds is political,” he adds. “It situates you in a politics; it situates you in a social context; it situates you in a cultural context. So, I think the difficult thing about music or any art form for that matter, is that there are always power struggles happening within it.”


Krishna even makes mention of “humanly-created barricades and hierarchy” within music itself—take the term ‘classical,’ for example. “If the form is owned by people who are socially and culturally powerful,” he continues, “the chances that it will be [called] classical is much higher. If it’s owned by people who are marginalized, you’re not going to call it classical. These words are humanly-created barricades and hierarchy.”


For him, what’s important is for artists to keep their art real. “As a musician, you need to be critical about your own art; you need to be critical about its politics; you must be able to subvert your politics. And if art does not ask questions in some manner, then for me, it is not art at all. It’s not art at all.”


And he, of course, would know: his work has required him to travel all over India—and all over the world—to meet and work with underprivileged artists. He brings people together through his chosen art form, music—that which makes him happiest. “I think that’s very powerful,” Krishna says, “the idea that you can abstract human experience in sound.”

That’s another thing that sound is: mystical, able to transcend cultures and beliefs, simply by feeling it. “I think that’s what makes music very different from other art forms,” says Krishna. “Here, it is just intangible. But that’s what makes music something that impacts people in a very deep way, and it stays with them for decades and decades and decades.”


Krishna himself, after all, was touched by the healing power of music, and he continues to share that gift as much as he can. “Being able to experience something that is truly profound in its possibilities, I think, allows me to do everything else I do,” Krishna tells me. “Music is what keeps me alive.”


Celebrating Asian Excellence in the Arts Through Bravo, ASIA!

RELATED STORY:

Celebrating Asian Excellence in the Arts Through Bravo, ASIA!

This weekend, tune into Bravo, ASIA!, a two-day digital arts festival that will showcase the region’s excellence in the arts, happening this Sunday and Monday, November 28 to 29, 7 to 9 p.m. PHT


It will feature the work of six Ramon Magsaysay awardees: National Artists Nick Joaquin, Bienvenido Lumbera, and Ryan Cayabyab, as well as awardees from other countries, like Akira Kurosawa (Japan), Lin Hwai-Min (Taiwan), and T.M. Krishna (India). 


Bravo, ASIA! will also screen Rashomon online via Vimeo from Nov. 28–29. Visit bravo.rmaward.asia and follow the Ramon Magsaysay Award on Facebook and YouTube for more updates and to watch the free film screening and live streaming of the shows.


Lead photo courtesy of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation