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.
While there have been performers, composers and musicians from other communities and religions, the rasikas – or connoisseurs – of Karnatic music remain predominantly Brahmin; the community also controls cultural power centres like Thanjavur and Chennai in Tamil Nadu. A notable exception was M S Subbulakshmi of the devadasi tradition. Not long after she shot to fame, her social origins were sanitised by her upper-caste manager-husband who successfully rebranded her as a chaste Brahminised wife, thus erasing her rich and nuanced cultural lineage.
Matters of caste are routinely swept under the rug by stakeholders in the Karnatic world. T M Krishna does not mince words when elaborating on the unequal relationships between mrdangam makers and upper-caste players. It was unsurprising then that Krishna’s book has courted controversy from day one. Sebastian & Sons was to be released at the prestigious Kalakshetra on 2 February 2020; the event was also going to celebrate mrdangam makers. A few days prior, The Hindu published an excerpt from the book on how Brahmin players sought physical and mental separation from the fact that cow-skin was used to make their instruments, given their belief of the ‘holiness’ of the cow. Soon after, Revathi Ramachandran, the director of Kalakshetra Foundation, a Chennai-based cultural academy with parliamentary recognition, withdrew permission for the launch, stating in a letter that they were unaware of the controversies surrounding the book. Predictably, most of the controversies about the book hinge on the discussions on caste.
Not long after she shot to fame, her social origins were sanitised by her upper-caste manager-husband who successfully rebranded her as a chaste Brahminised wife, thus erasing her rich and nuanced cultural lineage.
Krishna tackles the complicated issues of caste relationships by tracing the lineage of families famous for their mrdangam work and describing how they have shaped the Karnatic music world. One chilling passage in Sebastian & Sons describes how families with social and caste privilege can take pride in their roots and grow up on the tales of their ancestors’ courage, fortitude and other virtues. Memory is preserved through heirlooms, last names, recipes and career paths. Those from marginalised castes, on the other hand, are conditioned to suppress their stories, either by circumstance or for survival in societies where their origins might invite violence. Krishna writes:
history is a burden of emotional, intellectual, aesthetic and economic denial and deprivation. Memory decides that forgetting is its job in the hope that the scars might disappear and explanations become unnecessary. Father and grandfather are remembered by name and function alone. Villages are not remembered, timelines erased and, often, names are blurred or altered.
This thought is followed by a descrition of the reluctance of many mrdangam makers to detail the names of their villages or their castes. It is unclear whether these facts have been forgotten or are just being withheld from Krishna, an upper-caste, upper-class man who, as he is quick to admit, has been the beneficiary of every privilege his background offers. Krishna may now be seen as the enfant terrible of the Karnatic music world, but he rose to fame playing by all the rules. From wearing the namam as a caste symbol to keeping the rasikas happy by sticking to established formats of performance, Krishna’s journey to stardom was facilitated by his caste, gender and class. Krishna does not shy away from such realities: his self-awareness surfaces regularly in Sebastian & Sons and he acknowledges that his previous book, A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story (2017), failed to address the role of instrument makers in the discourse on casteism and classism in the Karnatic tradition.
The easy way to read Sebastian & Sons is as an introduction to mrdangam making – mrdangam 101. The sheer physicality involved in the making of the instruments is explained in much detail: how the requisite cow and goat skins are sourced and processed, the preferred wood for the frame, the necessary pastes and the stones powdered to make these pastes, and how these materials come together.
Another reading demands the reader question her own privileges. The very ability to read this expensive English-language book speaks to socio-economic privilege beyond the reach of the mrdangam maker families that Krishna writes about. The book raises questions that are at once both humbling and uncomfortable in the most necessary ways. For example, makers are often not considered professionals who need financial compensation both during their careers and in retirement. Although they might have recently been receiving more respect from the rest of the music fraternity, such respect is not a substitute for a pension. Their physically demanding work creates health problems and they may also get into trouble with police over the animal skins they work with. These forms of discrimination have no easy and fast solutions.
T M Krishna may now be seen as the enfant terrible of the Karnatic music world, but he rose to fame playing by all the rules.
The first mrdangam maker whose name emerges in oral history, Krishna finds, is called Arogyam. His son was Sevittian (or Sebastian) whose family tree gave the mrdangam world some of its finest makers, and the book its title. The rest of the book follows the careers of some of these ‘sons’ and their associations with the likes of Palghat Mani Iyer – one of the most famous mrdangam players – to detail the many ways caste shaped and sustained unequal relationships. After the book launch was cancelled, Mani Iyer’s family told The Hindu that when they had shared information with Krishna, they had not known that the book would be about caste. Iyer’s grandson Palghat R Ramprasad said the family felt cheated and deceived, adding: “None of our family members is ready to get involved in this controversial issue.” Evasive stands taken by those who define power structures further strengthen the arguments Krishna makes in the book about how institutionalised casteism has disenfranchised non-Brahmin stakeholders in the Karnatic world for generations.
While the stories of Sebastian and his son Parlandu (the superstar among mrdanga makers) constitute the bulk of the book, Krishna extends his history to include stories of makers from Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh. Plenty of anecdotes demonstrate “the modulations and accommodations within which caste exists.” Krishna writes about how, under the guise of tradition, caste is used to deepen the divide between the Brahmin employer-mrdangam artist and the Dalit Christian employee-mrdangam maker.
To the upper-caste player, the mrdangam maker from a marginalised community is always only a ‘worker’ or a ‘labourer’ and sometimes a ‘repairer’. He is never the ‘maker’. Yet, the makers are equal owners of the sound that a mrdangam makes. Like the influence of the aesthetic ideology of Wabi-Sabi in Japanese culture – something understood but near impossible to articulate – the mrdangam maker receives rhythm through his entire body. Krishna calls the maker “cupid” for bringing together textures, colours, sounds and shapes of wood, skin and other materials, for finding a way to marry all of them. “He looks and he knows, and feels in his fingers the beat of the mrdangam. And, when he strikes it for the first time, the mrdangam is born.”
Bharatanatyam, another cultural cornerstone of the Brahmins, was appropriated from the Devadasi dance form Sadir, sanitised of its more passionate, erotic features by the likes of Rukmini Devi Arundale (a Brahmin) and elevated to a high art among the upper-class elites.
A great mrdangam can be distinguished from a good one by the instinct and indescribable ‘something’ that a maker adds to the process of making the instrument. Dismissing this work as mere labour negates the intellectual and creative aspects of the craft and implies that really, anyone could do the job. By reducing the makers’ work to a mechanical contribution, the player succeeds in appropriating the credit for the sound borne from the mrdangam, when his skill, fame and livelihood is really a result of the collaboration between the maker and those who supply materials, like the wood. For unless the instrument is made well, the sound, no matter how expert the fingers of the player striking it, would be passable at best. Unless the quality of the wood is great and the paste and powders needed are made just so, the maker cannot assemble a good mrdangam. How is it then that the player can claim to be the sole creator of the sound without acknowledging this collaborative effort?
Erasures in the performing arts are not unique to the world of Karnatic music. For instance, Bharatanatyam, another cultural cornerstone of the Brahmins, was appropriated from the Devadasi dance form Sadir, sanitised of its more passionate, erotic features by the likes of Rukmini Devi Arundale (a Brahmin) and elevated to a high art among the upper-class elites. Neither are these erasures limited to India or the Brahmins. While caste is usually the underlying reason for erasures of those who were/are equal custodians of an art form’s origins, growth and advancement in India, erasures elsewhere may be driven by class or the generational trauma of slavery.
In the United States, Black and Native American creative energies have been effaced from certain music genres despite their hand in birthing string band music – Old Time, Bluegrass, and aspects of Appalachian music. During a TED talk composed of traditional folk ballads and an original inspired by slave narratives, US musician Rhiannon Giddens tells her audience that documenting individual stories is as important as condemning systems of injustice or violence. Such stories provide agency, ownership, belonging and pride in one’s ancestry. In other shows and interviews, she describes her research of the banjo – a century-old plantation instrument with African origins brought over by slaves before it was appropriated by white communities. In an interview that sheds light on the dangers and deception in whitewashing Appalachian music history, Giddens says, “A lot of people looking for a narrative ignore everything that is outside of that narrative” (italics added). By appropriating music with deep ties to Black history, white communities succeeded in denying Black communities their history and culture as well as access to financial success. Adding insult to injury, white musicians would perform these music traditions in blackface when touring the country.
As in the US, systems of oppression in Southasia help determine what is classical and what is folk. Krishna talks about this in Sebastian & Sons, quoting the musicologist Harold Powers, “When something goes up the social ladder, it transforms from the folk to the classical.” Music labelled ‘classical,’ a tag Karnatic music has always enjoyed, is elevated to an aesthetic ideal, making it so pure, ancient and chaste that questioning any aspect of it is blasphemous. Noting in an interview in Frontline that music labelled ‘classical’ is perceived to be ‘greater’ than other art forms and enjoys privilege, power, audiences and wealth, Krishna calls Karnatic music ‘art music’ instead. When what is deemed ‘folk’ art is taken to the world, it is more often than not exoticised, its performers and their artistic contributions belittled. Folk music is treated as base, crass and unworthy of deep engagement. That such narrow characterisation extends from the art to the practitioners is further testament to the depth and extent of caste and class violence.
Reading, writing and talking about the caste system requires mind space and time that is in itself a luxury; not many of the makers have much of either to indulge in these discourses.
The subtle, routine and quotidian nature of caste experiences requires everyone to remain restricted to their role. When a maker is invited to sit on the dinner table for his meal, generations of internalised difference compel him to refuse and retreat to a corner with a plate and glass intended only for his use. There is no question either of any mrdangam maker trying to make it as a player, or of a player learning how to work with skin and being physically involved in the making of the instrument. There have been exceptions, Krishna notes, but these individual instances leave no lasting impression on the system.
Although the lives of the upper-caste performer and the marginalised maker overlap constantly, there is instant pushback when one tries to perform the role of the other – originating mostly from Brahmins who prevent makers from learning how to play the mrdangam (not the other way around). This double standard, writes Krishna, “conveniently reinforces the brahminical lie that caste is varna (occupation or ability-based social hierarchy) and not jati (birth-based social hierarchy).”
Reading, writing and talking about the caste system requires mind space and time that is in itself a luxury; not many of the makers have much of either to indulge in these discourses. There are no testimonies from the makers themselves, their stories reaching English-speaking audiences mostly through upper-caste intermediaries like Krishna. In a poignant line about Parlandu, the master mrdangam maker who worked with two of the most famous players of his time, Palghat Mani Iyer and Palani Subramania Pillai, Krishna wonders, “Did he even have the luxury to explore his emotions?” Another complexity without easy answers is whether privileged writers like Krishna appropriate agency from the makers even while widening spaces for discourse.
The older generation of players might have treated makers like family (even calling them ‘like our sons’) inviting them indoors, serving them meals and looking after their wellbeing. But as he investigates the dynamics between makers and players, Krishna constantly wonders if this is enough. When mrdangam making was done in villages or in the back-lanes of old cities, before the 1950s and 1960s, there was no need for proximity between the maker and the player. With shrinking city spaces, the work could only be done in sheds or yards of Brahmin households. In later years when most makers and players lived in cities, caste transgressions did not take place not because the participants had evolved, but because they had no choice but to ‘allow’ the makers to come into their homes. In Kannada, this is called anukoola shastra or the rule of convenience.
Krishna’s is not an easy book to read or analyse. The personal stories of the makers and their families illustrate the many levels at which social conditioning, generationally internalised behaviour and casteism work. The stories that are not too overt are those that are among the most violent. For instance, a member of the maker community might be served food or drink in a separate plate or glass, or a young Brahmin player might address a senior maker using the second-person subject pronoun ‘nee’ (in Tamil) instead of its respectful alternative ‘neenga’, which is usually used to address those more senior in age. Sebastian & Sons only scratches the surface of the innumerable ways in which the Karnatic music world has erased the narratives of some of its most talented practitioners. One hopes for more critical voices of reason and dissent from other practitioners of culture in years to come. However, although there is yet a long way to go, this book is an impressive start.
(Note: This article has been revised to correct an error. Updated on 09 July 2020)
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 https://deepabhasthi.wordpress.com/