What is the right way to honour ‘accompanists’ in Carnatic music?

Vishnu Vasudev
10 min readSep 18, 2019


M.S. Subbulakshmi with accompanying artists in 1966.T.K. Murthy on the mridangam. V. Nagarajan on the kanjira. Radha Vishwanathan providing vocal support. Vikku Vinayakaram on the Ghatam and V.V. Subramniam on the violin. Photo sourced from a Hindustan Times feature.

The Indira Sivasailam Awards 2019

The Indira Sivasailam Endowment Medal, an award instituted by the eponymous Foundation and the Madras Music Academy, aims to “recognize and promote” Carnatic musicians of “distinction”. The annual award ceremony also consists of a lecture and a concert by the awardee. This year is the 10th year of the award. To mark the occasion, it has been announced that three musicians will be awarded the “Indira Sivasailam Foundation 10th Anniversary Special Award for their performance as accompanying artistes”.

T.M. Krishna has responded to this announcement with with a heartfelt note in which he expresses his deep disappointment with the secondary treatment meted out to these three musicians. He argues that they are highly accomplished in their own right, and ought to have been awarded the Indira Sivasailam Endowment Medal itself, along with the awardee this year (making a total of four medals), and should not have been given a separate clearly secondary award for “accompanying artistes”. He feels that such a step (four equal awards) would be a small step in correcting a situation in which they are discriminated against and given little respect.

I agree and I disagree .

I agree that the award, as conceived, does more harm than good. It perpetuates the “second-class” status of accompanists. It would have been better if it had not been instituted.

But I do not agree that if anything, they should have been given the ‘main’ medal as well this year. Any one-off ‘anniversary-special’ type gesture is still problematic tokenism, and would have been perceived as secondary — small, reluctant pickings for the not-quite-deserving, for form’s sake.

Mainly, I do not, on the face of it, think that instituting a separate award for accompanying musicians is retrograde. Provided, and this is a big ‘provided’, such an award is authentically treated with the same respect as an any award for ‘main’ artistes. In this case, I think it would have been lovely if the Indira Sivasailam Endowment had instituted an annual award for accompanying musicians. With exactly the same treatment — same monetary award, same fanfare in the press, a lecture by the awardee, and a concert accompanying a musician of their choice. Such an example may have gone a long way in changing institutional prejudices and the wider public’s attitudes towards accompanying artists.

I want to explore these two views further. The first says that categorization of musicians into two (‘main’ and ‘accompanying’) perpetuates existing discrimination against the latter. The second says the categorization is immaterial — the way to remove discrimination is demonstrating conviction in the idea that they deserve equal respect. All within the limited context of awards.

The ideal

The ideal is clear — musicians who accompany the ‘main’ musicians in Carnatic concerts should be recognized for their musicianship per se. There is no reason to believe that their musicianship is by definition in any way inferior to that of artistes in the ‘main’ role in a concert. The success of a concert depends as much on them as it does on the main artiste.

If anything, an accompanist is in many ways superior to musicians who have the privilege of performing as ‘main’ artistes, mainly because the burden of converting a performance into a concert. They have learned their art in a particular way. But for each artiste they accompany, they have to adjust their playing to be complementary to the style of the main artiste (who can pretty much do what they will), and yet find a way to make their presence felt in their own individual ways. Not just that, they need to be prepared to accompany artistes of vastly differing styles. It is a mammoth, mind-blowing brief.

Therefore one would expect that an annual award for distinction in music would have a fair representation of accompanying artistes. The question is, how do we get there?

Together and unequal

It is perhaps not at all surprising that in its nine years of awards-giving, none of the Indira Sivasailam Endowment medals have gone to accompanists. Nor should it be surprising that they thought a token ‘anniversary present’ would suffice to recognize their artistry. After all, the Madras Music Academy is a partner in the enterprise. And their track record with their own principal award — the Sangita Kalanidhi, considered by many to be the equivalent of the Carnatic Nobel — is not great.

In most concerts, there are three essential components — the ‘main’ artist, accompanying melody (usually violin) and accompanying percussion (usually mridangam). The exception is when the main artiste is an instrumentalist (e.g. veena), in which case there is often only accompanying percussion. There is also usually a second percussionist who adds immensely to the concert and the music — ghatam, kanjira or morsing. So if this were a fair world in which all musicianship was treated equally, you would expect something close to an equal distribution between main, violin and percussion.

Since they started awarding the Sangita Kalanidhi in 1929, 45 vocalists have received the award, ten violinists,seven percussionists (6 mridangam, 1 thavil) and 14 other instrumentalists (veena, flute, nadaswaram, gottuvadyam, clarinet). [I have left out a few awardees who don’t neatly fit into any of these categories]. You can see that the ratio is clearly skewed, in favor of vocalists specifically (59%) and ‘main’ artistes more generally (vocal + other instrumentalists; 78%). Violinists and mridangam players, who together you would expect at ~66%, are at a paltry 22%. Even more shocking are the mere 7 percussionists in the 90 years of Sangita Kalanidhi awards.

To be fair to the Music Academy, the numbers are much better when considering only the Sangita Kalanidhis awarded from 2000 onward. They seem to have actively tried to correct for the historical bias against percussionists, by awarding five of them from 2001–11. But since 2000, only 2 violinists have been awarded, giving the accompanists a tally of 36% in this period.

If you consider the Krishna Gana Sabha’s Sangeetha Choodamani award, since its inception in 1971, the accompanists (mridangam + violin)tally is at 27%. Since 2000, it’s actually gotten worse, and stands at 23%.

That’s not great. What stands out to me though, is the Music Academy’s use of one-off awards, much like the Indira Sivasailam Anniversary award for accompanying artists. They have given three ‘Special Lifetime Awards’. It’s purpose is unclear, though this is what is claimed by them: “ It has been given to them in recognition of their outstanding contribution to the arts. The Music Academy periodically chooses to recognise certain exemplary artistes this way.” This is clearly separate from the Sangita Kalanidhi, which in their own characteristically humble way, they describe as “Considered the highest accolade in the field of Carnatic music…”.

The first of these awards, in 2002, was given to Kamala Lakshminarayanan, a Bhartnatyam dancer. Fair enough. This was before they instituted their regular annual accolade for dancers in 2011, and they may have felt a need to recognize this one particular dancer’s achievements. Then in 2008, it was awarded to the great violinist and composer Lalgudi G Jayaraman. There is a back story to this that is instructive. They had apparently wanted to award him the Sangita Kalanidhi almost two decades previous, but he refused. One of the reasons widely cited for his refusal is that the Music Academy refused to provide him a slot in which he could perform as the ‘main artiste’ — as late as 1990, a violinist was not considered good / important enough to be the main artist. The other reason cited is that he thought he was being offered the award too late. Whatever the reason, the 2008 Lifetime Award was seen as a way to make amends to Lalgudi Jayaraman.

It is the third award, given in 2018, to the legendary ghatam player Vikku Vinayakram, that I do not get at all. If he is good enough for a Special Lifetime Achievement Award, why was he not awarded the Sangita Kalanidhi? Was it simply because he plays a “secondary percussion” instrument, not deserving of the Sangita Kalanidhi? I cannot think of one good reason for him to have not got the Sangita Kalanidhi. Vikku Vinayakaram himself did not seem too perturbed. Humble man that he is, he said at the time:

“I am really happy and deem it as an ward for the ghatam, an upa-pakkavadhiyam. It is a real privilege that I have been placed on par with great dancer Kamala and Lalgudi Jayaraman”.

Good enough for a Special Lifetime Achievement Award, but why not the Sangita Kalanidhi? Photo source

I could be entirely wrong (it could be that Vikku Vinayakram himself did not want the Sangita Kalanidhi award), but I think it is a case of a pre-eminent institution taking advantage of the deep and widespread prejudice against ‘secondary’ percussion as an excuse to resurrect their own defunct Lifetime award, while also riding on the humility and popularity of a great artiste. Vinayakram honoured the Music Academy, not the other way around, and still the upapakkavadhiyam is considered too infra-dig to warrant a Sangita Kalanidhi award.

And it is this same attitude that permeates the “one-off” nature of the Indira Sivasailam anniversary award for accompanists. They indicate that the artiste is good enough for an award, but not the award. And that is an insult.

What should be clear is that a ‘unified’ award such as a Sangita Kalanidhi or Sangita Choodamani as they stand, are far from being the right vehicle to do right by accompanists. Ghatam, kanjira and morsing artistes don’t stand a chance — if Vikku Vinayakram is not good enough, it is unclear who is — and violinists and mridangam players get short shrift, as the numbers show. The inherent prejudices and discriminating practices against them show up in award distribution.

Separate, but equal

So if a grand unified award is too prone to prejudice, what if we had a separate but equal system of awards? Like suggested earlier, what if there were two awards — one for the ‘main artiste’ in a concert and one for ‘accompanying artistes’, but both explicitly and authentically bestowed with equal honor and respect?

The separate categorizations simply acknowledge the differences in the roles played by the artistes, but also ensure that both sets of artistes get their due, by design, and therefore go some way in countering prejudices.

The fatal flaw that we quickly encounter is vocabulary. In today’s world, ‘Main’ and ‘accompanying’ connote primary and secondary. I have been wracking by brains to come up with alternatives to these categories, which do not have these connotations, but simply cannot. T.M. Krishna’s preferred phrase is “co-musicians”. But even then, we can’t have awards for musicians and co-musicians — that leads us back to square one, or the failed idea of a unified award.

Specific, and equal (trio of awards)

So, the quest is to see if there is a way in which awards can be used to counter existing biases against accompanying artistes. The two obvious solutions — unified awards, and separate but equal awards run into the very real-world prejudices that we are trying to counter.

What if we go with specific and equal awards. In this case, the categorization of awards is based not on the role they play in a concert, but the instrument through which their artistry is displayed — voice, melodic instrument or percussion instrument. So any organization bestowing annual ‘lifetime’ awards would have three awards, treated absolutely equally. There is no distinction between ‘main’ and ‘accompanying’, but recognizes that the artistry of voice, melodic instrument, and percussion can be very different.

A violinist’s artistry and musicianship would be recognized through the award for melodic instruments, along with veena and flute players and other instrumentalists. Mridangam, kanjira, ghatam, thavil and morsing players would be recognized through the award for percussionists.

I think if done right, this could be a very plausible way in which to actively fast-track a change in attitudes toward accompanying artistes.

The slow track to progress

Of course, awards, and the humans that bestow them, do not function in a vacuum. They have the responsibility to set the agenda, which mostly they fail at doing, but they also take their cues from the Carnatic fraternity at large — whether listeners, critics, or artistes themselves. Even in my preferred solution of three separate awards, it is not clear that a violinist of superlative artistry will not repeatedly lose out to veena or flute players, simply because the former has not had opportunity to display his musicianship in the role of a ‘main artiste’.

T.M.Krishna has been among the most vocal voices advocating for accompanying artistes. This includes fair treatment in pay, fair treatment and respect in general (e.g. no second-class accommodation), consciously using new vocabulary (co-musician), and of course, the most well-known of these interventions, new stage arrangements. [I have to say, the first time I encountered these arrangements, I wasn’t blown away, but it is of course, a step in the right direction]. All of this will take time. Behavior change is akin to turning a ship-liner.

But the main area in which there has been no progress, or little thought, is in the way concerts are marketed to the public. And this is the crux of it. A T.M. Krishna concert is still marketed as a T.M. Krishna concert, and a Sanjay Subrahmanyam concert as a Sanjay Subrahmanyam concert. If the excuse for this is that market forces are at play, then the same excuse can and is used to perpetuate discrimination against accompanying artistes.

I have two suggestions for current ‘main’ artistes and the organizers of their concerts:

  1. For artistes who now perform with a fairly stable cohort of co-musicians (e.g. Sanjay-Varadarajan-Venkatesh-Rajaganesh), consider re-branding as a band or a troupe, featuring A,B,C and D. Even for TM Krishna, who performs with a wider set of accompanists, a re-branding as a band featuring special guests, could go a long way in actually changing attitudes towards co-musicians
  2. Consider marketing Carnatic concerts without the ‘main artiste’ in the title. Simply stating, for example ‘An Evening of Carnatic music’, or a ‘Carnatic Concert’, featuring A,B,C and D, with absolutely equal treatment to A,B,C and D in font size and type, use of photos etc. If you want to take it a step further, even list them alphabetically, not with the main artist first.

Only steps like these will change wider-spread attitudes and make people sit up, take notice, and realize that the accompanying artistes are the concert.



Vishnu Vasudev

I write mainly about my experience as a listener of Carnatic music.