An unequal talam

Malini Nair | Updated on March 06, 2020

At source: The brilliant craftsmanship that goes into the making of a mridangam begins on the floor of an abattoir - KV Srinivasan   -  The Hindu

In his book on mridangam makers, Carnatic singer TM Krishna argues that the social gap between the Brahmin player and the Dalit maker still exists

There is a story in Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Mridangam Makers, Carnatic singer TM Krishna’s latest work on the caste inequities between the Dalit mridangam maker and the Brahmin player, that is as comical as it is poignant. The percussion legend Palghat Mani Iyer had sought the best quality cow hide for his mridangam from Alkattan, a member of a maker family known for its knowledge of the skin. Alkattan found a cow with the ideal hide, landed up outside Iyer’s home, animal in tow. The musician, horrified by the reality of having an animal whose carcass would likely soon be sitting on his resonant mridangam, shooed Alkattan away.

This story illustrates the irony of the yawning social distance between the man whose creative genius was widely admired and the man whose brilliant craftsmanship would begin on the floor of an abattoir.

It was a relationship that was set to shift over the coming decades: The Dalit maker, once allowed only outside the courtyard of the Brahmin musician’s home, was to finally walk in through its door and, years later, set up his own shop where his customer had to visit him for his needs. But Krishna remains unyielding in his assessment of this evolution of an unequal relationship.

Beyond the beat: TM Krishna says his book isn’t just about the mridangam, but also knowledge and respect, and whether one kind of knowledge is eclipsed   -  Amar Ramesh


In an interview with BLink, Krishna explains why he remains sceptical of what we call caste reforms. They remain superficial, he maintains, and came about only because of social and economic factors. A lot more needs to be done before we can claim that the musician and the maker are equally respected for their symbiotic skills, he says. Excerpts:

Of all the inequalities in the world of music, why did you pick the lives of mridangam makers and their players for this book?

I was working on the second edition of my first book, A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story, when I realised that I had made no mention of any instrument maker in it. This exposed my caste blindness and the limitations that came from my sense of hierarchy. And I thought: Oh, my god, where is the [instrument] maker in all this? I thought of weaving in a paragraph about them in the second edition but realised that it was highly inadequate. Was I doing this to feel better about myself?

Instrument makers are a neglected lot, be it the veena maker of Thanjavur or the tanpura maker of Miraj. But in the case of the mridangam there is need for constant care and, hence, the maker and the artiste have a long-term relationship. You have to change the skin once in a few years, the black patch every few concerts, the straps require tightening and the pitch needs constant checking and adjustment. And the presence of cow, buffalo and goat skin in the mridangam complicates the relationship between the maker and the player. There is definitely a huge disparity between the Brahmin player and the mostly Dalit maker. I decided to try and understand the makers, their history and investigate the process of making itself.

Sebastian & Sons: A brief history of mridangam makers; TM Krishna; Westland/Contxt; Non-fiction; ₹799


Sebastian & Sons isn’t just about the mridangam. It is also about knowledge and respect. Who are the people who skin, cure, cut, braid and tie the skins, and who performs on stage? Who decides what is ‘knowledge’ and what is not? Is one kind of knowledge not talked about?

Aren’t there established hierarchies everywhere in the world that put musicians above instrument makers?

In India, caste is the ugly mechanism that allows a very particular and diabolical system to operate. Caste decides who cleans the sewage and is a scavenger. Ignoring such discrimination is a display of casteist arrogance.

As I point out in the book, when you go down the social ladder, the distance between the artiste and the maker shrinks. So, a Dalit drummer is also expected to know how to make the instrument. As you go up, this separation expands. In the case of the mridangam, the distance between the social position of the player and the maker is enormous, and, hence, the difference stark. The relationship between the maker and the player is very complicated... yet intimate, because of the permanence of their interdependency. Of course, there is affection, too, but it is knotted in the many hierarchies.

Why are you persistently pessimistic and dismissive about progressive changes in caste equations over the decades? Even when Brahmin musicians start interacting in increasingly closer physical spaces, you put it down to condescension or social/economic needs, not desire for reform.

I’ve been called a pessimist by some makers, too. I am one because I ask myself: Has our attitude to those from the same community as mridangam makers but not in this profession changed? And the answer is: No. This leads me to believe that the changes were situational. If there was, and is, a need-based requirement for change, then it happens. It does not seem to be coming from self-realisation. However, today, younger makers are much more assertive, stronger, and they have definitely enabled a lot of these changes, too.

Some makers told me that they developed this privilege of access and friendship with the musicians only because they made and maintained the mridangam. The mridangam enabled the crossing of a line. If this need was not there, would such interaction have been possible? The makers have moved from outside the house to the courtyard and then to the inside of musicians’ homes. But as one maker told me, devastatingly: ‘Now they share tea with us... but still discriminate’.

We, the upper castes, think we have wiped out every caste boundary because we share a meal at a dhaba with a person from a marginalised background. We think to ourselves, ‘We are better than the rest.’ But this is an ugly self-serving act of patting ourselves on our back. Have we ever wondered what that other person thinks or feels?

Also, tell me, if I were to shift this same discussion to feminism, would you have asked me all these questions?

Perhaps not.

Exactly. When we talk of feminism or racial discrimination, we upper castes suddenly see the point in these criticisms. For instance, the ‘look’ that women talk of — that they can sense the lack of respect in how a man looks at them. We don’t say, ‘Oh, that is in the realm of imagination’, do we? Women simply know. I think we need to take ourselves out of the equation to clearly understand caste privilege.

But a whole lot of people we regard as reformists of their time wouldn’t measure up to contemporary standards of woke thinking. Do we then disregard their efforts?

I wouldn’t say that it was all useless, ideas keep evolving. What feminism was in the 1960s is not the feminism of today, is it? It is the same with caste discrimination and its discourse.

You go beyond dispassionately documenting the social history of mridangam-making in the book. There seems to be a certain rage, for example, in how you refer to mridangam legend Palghat Mani Iyer.

It is definitely not rage. What I have written is not a figment of my imagination. These things did happen. Mani Iyer is one of the most interesting characters in the book. He is exquisitely grey and doesn’t fit into any one box.

Upper hand: Mridangam maker Parlandu (right) with the percussionist Palghat Mani Iyer   -  TR Rajamani


He has a complicated relationship with (his mridangam maker) Parlandu, which is very interesting, even within the limitations of caste and of his time period. But he just couldn’t push it beyond a point. I am sharply critical of Mani Iyer, but I don’t see him as an opportunist. There is what I call a ‘hidden friendship’ (between him and Parlandu) and we need to understand it. Mani Iyer wasn’t god but neither was he a demon, he was a man, as real as any of us.

Sarada Sowriar, the wife of a mridangam maker and a Periyarist [follower of the social reformer EV Ramasamy, alias Periyar], picks up an interesting argument with you in the book. She says the push for change must come mostly from the makers, not the musicians.

But how do we shift the power? Sarada thinks the energy should come from the makers. I believe that for a foundational shift, everyone needs to participate. There has to be wider socio-political change. If we force a change, does it last? I don’t think so. Those of us from privileged homes need to be a part of the churning too.

Among the younger generation of mridangam players, has there been a change in how they relate to the makers?

One player, after he read the book, told me his relationship with his maker has transformed. Now that there is a discussion, we need a shift in our thinking — it has to become more nuanced. The door is open for a conversation.

Malini Nair is a journalist based in Delhi

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Published on March 05, 2020
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