The maverick singer

“Who killed Johnny Keats

I, said the Quarterly…..”

This couplet aptly describes how an artist can be finished by a hostile press with bad reviews; by indifferent sponsors who withdraw support; by an uncharitable public with its false accusations. We may now add, by the salacious social media with its malicious trolls. Keats, the greatest of the Romantics, died young surrounded by all these enemies, although his incandescent poetry lives on.

India’s prized musician was also victimised by vicious trolling these last few weeks. The reason is not far to seek. Here is an artist who is vocal, not just in music, but in other spheres too. His published writing and public speaking expose forces that undermine individual freedom and artistic values with the same eloquence.  

In his musical journey, he has chosen the road less travelled — a road meant only for the fearless. This has ruffled many feathers. So, the solution is simple. Stifle him. Don’t allow him a space to sing. Humiliate him by ensuring that his concerts are called off. In short, gag him so that he can neither sing nor talk.

His more charitable critics merely advise him to stick to music and leave activism behind. They forget that social activism is part of his creativity. They also forget he is the only musician in this country to have stretched the boundaries of music to encompass other spheres of activity. It may be the destruction of the environment or the destruction of democratic institutions. His music has travelled many paths to restore their sanctity.

“Why can’t he simply come, sing and leave like any other decent musician?” is a question his detractors ask. Why must he stir up controversies? Why is he bothered about environmental pollution? Or, about some writer’s banned book? How does Sabarimala concern him? Why cannot he keep his mouth shut when some actor is sexually harassed? Oh, and what about singing with transgenders? Was that included in his music lessons? Was Aadhaar his business too?

Even as these questions are asked, they have answered themselves. Music is not an isolated activity for this singer. In his own words, it is the window through which he sees life in all its beauty and ugliness. And it is through music that he can draw public attention to the ills that plague this world. If greed and nexus had to be exposed, what better method than singing the Poromboke Paadal? If bigotry and superstition had to be corrected, isn’t Perumal Murugan’s poetry more relevant than Annammacharya or Thyagaraja?

As for ugly casteism, this crusading singer shames his privileged audiences with the outcast Nandanar’s agonised plea to the god inside the temple that he cannot enter. The poignant melody of Gopalakrishna Bharati’s Varugalamo Ayya… is his signature piece which leaves his listeners astonished and embarrassed.

A musician who dared to break the rigid walls of Carnatic music, threw it open for all to enjoy and courted enemies in the process, needs to be celebrated, not condemned.

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The maverick singer

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