Illustration: Akila Weerasinghe / Himal Southasian
Illustration: Akila Weerasinghe / Himal Southasian

The caste of Karnatic music

An untold history of mrdangam makers.

Deepa Bhasthi is a writer based in Madikeri, Kodagu. Her essays, journalism and other writings have been published widely in ArtReview, Literary Hub, The Guardian, Hyperallergic, MOLD, Atlas Obscura and elsewhere. The archive of her works are available at

The story of the world, if you think about it, is really a history of erasures. It is characterised by the effacement of women's triumphs or the furtive rubbing away of how oppressed groups live and love. And then there is caste, a system that derives its strength from its power to dictate who and what to erase from collective memories. Such violence, internalised for generations, is at the heart of Karnatic vocalist, activist and writer T M Krishna's newest book Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers.

On the surface, the book is an investigation into the lives and work of the makers of the mrdangam – Karnatic music's primary accompanying instrument (Krishna uses the phonetic spelling for mrdangam throughout). But really, it is a treatise on the deep-rooted caste systems entrenched in Karnatic music, and the systematic erasure of those who do not fit into desired gender and/or sex, class and caste backgrounds.

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