Caste, Class and the Classical: How the annual Carnatic Music Festival in India Excludes and Intimidates

In the past month, the Indian media has been agog with news of, and discussions surrounding, the awarding of the Ramon Magsaysay to classical musician and writer TM Krishna for his efforts to ensure social inclusiveness in the arts. Krishna is the organizer of the Urur Olcott Kuppam Festival, in which both the classical and the folk, the ‘highbrow’ and the indigenous art forms are showcased on the same platform – in a fishing village in the city of Chennai, far from the hallowed urban concert stages. This attempt to democratize the arts has sparked one of the major current debates surrounding caste, power relations and status in the media in India – the working of caste’s subliminal barriers in the arena of South Indian classical Carnatic music.

To understand this issue so vociferously discussed in the media today, one must engage with the symbolic and cultural creation of power in the realm of the arts and the institutionalized exclusion it fosters. This exclusion, so intrinsic to the caste system in India and linked inexorably to class status, begs to be studied, especially at a time when ideologies of meritocracy and egalitarianism have become increasingly widespread among the rising middle classes. Caste – ascribed and unchanging – and class – acquired and thus allowing for transformation and movement – inform each other in myriad ways in contemporary India, reinforcing ideas of exclusivity and differentiation. The conflict between the aspirations to modernity and equality and the structural, restrictive forces of caste and class is particularly evident in the study of Carnatic music and the manner in which upper castes employ it as a tool to maintain the status quo.

While Krishna’s endeavours have met with both appreciation and hostility, they have, undoubtedly, successfully created dialogue on how caste can impede participation in and production and consumption of classical music. In order to engage in the debate surrounding the issue, it is imperative that one understands the trajectory of Krishna’s use of music as a socio-political tool and, simultaneously, that of Carnatic music.


The Urur Olcott Vizha, spearheaded by TM Krishna (below), is held in a fishing village on one of Chennai’s many  beaches and aims to showcase the classical and other art forms together on the same platform; source: The Quint










Carnatic music and its Brahminisation

Carnatic music is imbued with the politics of power, class and caste. Much like any other ‘highbrow’ classical art form, it has long been the cultural preserve of a few privileged upper caste members of society. Among the Hindu Brahmins of south India, traditionally the priests and the intellectual elite, it is not uncommon to find an inculcated taste and interest in Carnatic music; children begin lessons early, music is an integral part of their socialization. If one were to use theorist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, it would not be incorrect to say that Carnatic music becomes a set of internalized habits among the upper castes, a naturalized way of life. The hexis, the bodily expression of this habitus, wherein the personal interacts with the social, is the participation in this upper caste activity. Consequently, almost all performers of Carnatic music are Brahmins, automatically making it an elite, minority space.

This, however, was not always the case. For centuries, Carnatic music had two other important communities as participants. The devadasis, women attached to temples, performed regularly, and non-Brahmins played the wind instrument nadaswaram. At the time, performances took place in royal courts and temples, patronage offered by kings. In the early 1900s, however, as India inched towards becoming an independent sovereign nation, the royals lost their power, and the devadasi system, considered exploitative of women, was abolished. It was at this time that the Brahmins played a role in the modernization and resurrection of Carnatic music. The venue of performances, now formalized in structure and length, shifted to concert halls in urban cities. The contributions of the other communities slowly decreased – nadaswaram players did not have a role in the new concert format. Consisting of a repertoire of compositions written mainly by Hindu saints and philosophers and often in Telugu and high-flown Sanskrit, which was the language and therefore the preserve of the priests, the art became increasingly connected to Hinduism and Brahminism; unsurprisingly, music and religion started being thought of as inextricably tied to each other. The classical became a signifier of modernity, a symbol of nationhood and Indianness in a post colonial Indian nation.

India’s Carnatic Music Festival

What is surprising, however, is that concerts today remain dominated by performers belonging to the Brahmin caste, which constitutes less than 5 per cent of the state of Tamil Nadu’s population. In December every year, Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, hosts a festival of the classical arts. The festival, referred to as the ‘December season,’ is a phenomenon in that it is one of the largest of its kind, with over 3000 concerts in 30 days in a variety of venues. In 2015, Krishna, one of Chennai’s most celebrated musicians, created a stir when he opted out of performing at the festival, in line with his criticism of the Carnatic world as an exclusive, minority space, in which almost all the performers and organizers of events belonged to the upper castes. He likened the sabhas, organizations that hosted the events, to “upper-caste private clubs” and “closely-held private precincts” which effectively intimidated and excluded other sections of society instead of being welcoming public spaces. The musical world may not explicitly disallow lower caste performers, but its structures impose some (potentially surmountable) restrictions. Carnatic music, he said, perpetuated and reinforced caste inequalities.

Brahmins constitute a minuscule percentage of Tamil Nadu’s population; source: Outlook India

Here, a complex interplay of caste and class comes into focus. While sabhas do not discriminate overtly or explicitly, they become confines of the upper classes and castes. Tickets, especially to concerts in the reputed, older sabhas like the sacred, much revered Madras Music Academy, could be limited, expensive and difficult to procure. Moreover, spectatorship at the festival becomes a status symbol, one flaunted by the classes possessing this dominant cultural and social artistic preference and aspired to by the “outsiders”.  After all, taste in the classical has long been considered a “social weapon” used by the high to distance itself from the low. Thus, those who are upwardly socially mobile and enjoy greater affordability and buying power than their ancestors belonging to the same castes are likely to see attending the festival as a sign of cultural empowerment.  The conspicuous consumption of this status symbol has begun to be used to gain acceptance and approval and to enjoy social superiority. It is increasingly evident how the Carnatic world tacitly establishes dominant aesthetic preferences, and consequently, consumer practices.

TM Krishna’s alternative music festival



 Top: A folk dance performance at the Urur Olcott festival in January 2016; bottom: Sheejith Krishna, celebrated classical dance  exponent of Bharatanatyam, performs at the festival; source: The Hindu

Despite the ability of the moneyed lower castes to convert their economic capital into social and cultural capital, Carnatic music remains riddled with power struggles. One is unlikely to see a Dalit performer; it is still an exception to the norm if a child of a lower caste family learns classical music; the associations between Carnatic music and high caste Hinduism are unlikely to vanish soon. And it is here that Krishna, in his critique of Brahmin hegemony, attempts to make a difference. For three years in a row, he has helped organize the Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha, a festival of music, dance and drama in a fisherman’s village in Chennai, home to lower castes. The festival aims to transcend caste and class divides in that it showcases all forms of the arts – classical, folk and all others – in an accessible, public space open to all, restricted to no caste or class.

Krishna’s efforts, though widely lauded, has had its detractors, some of whom believe his act of “charity” to be problematic and violent; why should the dispossessed and disenfranchised have to be given space or art by a man who comes from a position of obvious privilege (Krishna himself is Brahmin) and opportunity? Is there no apparent imbalance of power? Krishna and his supporters, however, only claim to want to attempt to “recalibrate ideas of culture” and cultural superiority, recognize the vibrant artistic heritage of other classes and castes and make the field of Carnatic music accessible, open and inclusive. Further, the criticism of charity assumes that the festival only “takes Carnatic music to the masses.” The most fitting response to people’s general conception of the festival as an upper caste effort to include the ‘uncultured’ masses came in the form of a poignant, indignant piece written by the residents of the fishing village, who objected to their being thought of as deprived of art. “Have you seen our men poised on boats as they ride the surf? Have you seen the lines of our boats, the colours and the art that adorns them?” they asked. “Did you notice the backdrop of the main stage – a catamaran with its sails unfurled? Who do you think put that up? It was five elderly fishermen with calloused hands from years of work at sea.” The festival, it would seem, reinforced their sense of pride in their own artistry and craftsmanship.


The Urur Olcott festival aims, as its poster explicitly states, to celebrate oneness; every art form – whether classical or folk – is equally important and has much to offer

Most significant, perhaps, is the slow erasure of the unjustified negative stereotypes about fishing villages being the seat of crime and poverty, and the liberation of arts, artists and audiences from the confines of class and caste by making the village the venue of a potpourri of art forms elite and indigenous that would otherwise be consumed separately. Not only do sabha regulars come to the festival, if only out of curiosity about a celebrity famous for his opinions and whom people love to hate, lay people on the beach may be drawn to the performances. As Krishna has said, “the people of the village share the art forms that they celebrate with the near-aliens from apartments and bungalows” in the more affluent, more urban middle class neighbourhoods, thereby allowing for a respectful interaction of people and art, and an audience more educated of the richness of the cultures of the ‘other.’

The Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha has spurred thought, conversation and reflection on some of the deeply intrinsic symbolic violence in our societal structures. Whether this lone effort can bring transformation to what Krishna considers a currently static, immutable, elite art form remains to be seen. It is, for now, a step towards consciously engaging with and addressing social hierarchies and caste barriers.

– Shreya Ramnath


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Krishna, TM. An Equal Music. India: Harper Collins, 2014.

Fuller, Chris, and Haripriya Narasimhan. Tamil Brahmins: The Making of a Middle-Class Caste. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Trigg, Andrew B. “Veblen, Bourdieu, and Conspicuous Consumption.” Journal of Economic Issues 35, no. 1 (2001): 99-115.

Krishnamachari, S. “Carnatic Music’s New Spaces, Practices and Styles.” The Hindu (Chennai), July 28, 2016.

Krishna, TM. “TM Krishna on Why He Won’t Sing in December Sabha.” Daily O. June 12, 2015. Accessed September 23, 2016.

Srinivasan, Latha. “There’s a Distinct Caste-elitism in Carnatic Sabha Culture in Chennai, Says Musician TM Krishna.” DNA India. September 12, 2015. Accessed September 24, 2016.

Saravanan, K., Palayan, and Velan. “Media Got It Wrong in Its Coverage of TM Krishna’s Magsaysay Award, Say Fishing Village Residents.” August 04, 2016. Accessed September 23, 2016.

Ramanathan, Sharada. “Debate: Why T.M. Krishna Should Have Said No to the Magsaysay Award.” The Wire. August 02, 2016. Accessed September 23, 2016.













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