TM Krishna’s New Book on Mrdangam Makers Focuses on Caste Divide

TM Krishna launched his book ‘Sebastian and Sons’, which explores the lives of those who make the mrdangam.

4 min read

Video Editor: Mohd Irshad
Cameraperson: Smitha TK

“When I looked back at my books, I realised that there was no mention of the makers of the musical instruments that are part of every kutcheri. And in spite of growing up in the world of Carnatic music, I was unaware of the lives of these makers. I knew nothing. Thus began my journey of writing this book.”
TM Krishna, Singer

Musician, activist, writer, and Magsaysay award winner, TM Krishna's latest book Sebastian and Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers is a tribute to the creators of the mrdangam, the percussion instrument that is fundamental to Carnatic music.

At the launch of the book on Sunday, 2 February, at the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, Krishna told The Quint, "The book is completely the voice of people from different generations, different regions. There are multiple narratives – it is part of society, politics, it is sociological, it is about the anatomy of the animal, about the skin, about possessing. I hope the reader goes back asking questions."

The mention of ‘Sebastian’ in the title of the book denotes the mrdangam makers whose families have been practising the trade for years, and the name is representative of every maker in the state, said the singer.

Sebastian & Sons explores caste-based discrimination through the lives of mrdangam makers.

Historian Raj Mohan Gandhi, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) chief Thirumavalavan, and mrdangam makers launched the book.

The singer felicitated the 'Periya thalas' (senior-most in the industry) with shawls. “Today was very emotional seeing all of them here. They have been so kind to me,” said the singer.

Lauding TM Krishna’s work, Thirumavalavan spoke about the need to acknowledge the prevalence of deep-rooted caste discrimination is in the world of Carnatic music.

“Holding the mrdangam by his feet, the maker ties up and makes the instrument, which is what he (the singer) keeps inside his pooja room. But he, the maker, is not allowed even inside his house. That is how massive the difference is.”
Thirumavalavan, VCK Chief

Controversy That Got Everyone Talking

Just two days before the event, Kalakshetra Foundation had withdrawn permission to host the launch, stating the content of the book would instigate political, cultural and social disharmony.

The decision came after an excerpt of the book titled ‘Keeping the cow and brahmin apart’, was published. The book touches upon the pivitol role of mrdangam makers – who are primarily from Dalit communities – in the world of Carnatic music which is dominated by brahmins.

The excerpt detailed how the brahmins are shielded from the manufacturing process which involves cow slaughter. It also addressed how brahmins worship the cow, while they are reluctant to acknowledge the importance of cow skin in the creation of the mrdangam.

Taking a dig at the foundation, Raj Mohan Gandhi said, "It was wrong for them to shut the door on such a pioneering book. But actually, this in turn has opened several doors and made this launch the talk of the town."

TM Krishna said he was surprised at how controversy erupted when nobody had even read the book.

“I thought that was a beautiful excerpt. If you read that excerpt, it is the struggles of an individual. It is Mani Iyer’s struggle. And isn’t that what life is all about? About these dualities we don’t know. I never thought it was going to become what it became. But now I am very glad many people are speaking about mrdangam makers and I hope every time a person goes to a Carnatic music concert and sees a mrdangam, they will wonder, who made this mrdangam?”
TM Krishna, Singer

The Divide Between the Player and the Maker

At the launch, TM Krishna talked extensively about the existence of a vast divide between the player and the maker. Beyond caste, he talked about how the maker, who is not trained in Carnatic music, was a vidwaan (expert) when it came to judging the tone. He said he was surprised to see how several veteran mrdangam makers had a raaga within them for every singer.

Thirumavalavan, in a conversation with journalist Kavita Muralidharan asked about the difference in the culture that is inside the sabhas and outside it. The leader said Dalits were not even included in the idea of culture in India.

“Lord Krishna spoke of the different castes in the society in the Bhagavad Gita. Here is TM Krishna questioning the caste system.”
VCK Chief Thirumavalavan

Kavita told TM Krishna that he has, in a way, served to be a bridge between the two, taking forward the discourse between the marginalised and the celebrated.

“Despite voicing my objection to the discrimination on several levels, at the end of the day I am still in a privileged position in terms of caste, language and several other factors. And when I was speaking to these makers, who use science, math, history to create a beautiful instrument, I was very careful to find my line –  When do I stop so that I am not invading into their privacy? Is it my place to ask them this?" said Krishna.


Stories of Six Generations

Experts view Sebastian and Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers, as a timely, well-researched book where TM Krishna profiles the unsung heroes who have, for generations, handcrafted the mrdangam. Speaking to at least six generations of makers from Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, the singer spoke of how each of their skill, technique and finish are starkly different.

Parlandu, the brilliant Mrdangam maker, and the legendary player, Palghat Mani Iyer are at the heart of the narrative. While Iyer’s fame is known far and wide, it was heartwarming to hear Krishna recall the contributions of Parlandu, a Dalit Christian and second of Sebastian’s three sons “who ruled the mrdangam-making industry”.

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