RSS understood art and culture are ‘political’ and that’s why it called itself  a ‘cultural’ body 

In this interview to Ashlin Mathew , TM Krishna speaks of his book ‘Sebastian & Sons’, which deals with Mridangam makers, caste and how the ‘impure’ turns into ‘pure’ music of gods

 RSS understood  art and culture are ‘political’ and that’s why it called itself  a ‘cultural’ body 

Ashlin Mathew

What prompted you to write a book like Sebastian & Sons? This book is very different from your first book, A Southern Music, which had only a chapter on caste.

First, both the books are very different. A Southern Music was an overarching view of the art form – its history, its technical fabric, the internal questions about its presentation and within that discourses on gender,caste and the social and political scaffolding that holds the aesthetic element. The intention of the book was to bring the aesthetic discourse and socio-political discourse into a sort of intermingling of some sort. It was a different endeavour entirely.

Sebastian & Sons began with my own quest of understanding Mridangam makers and Mridangam making. This book definitely came from the first book because soon after it was published, I suddenly realised that there was nothing in it about the instrument makers at all. There was a huge problem in my own understanding of caste discourse as I had limited exposure to the world of Carnatic music, and that too only the performative and my own imagination was limited by that. Even in the social and political construction in my mind, the maker of the instrument was not in my mind, which is intrinsically a casteist notion. That’s when I started looking at Mridangam Makers and I had met a few.

Parlandu was one of the few names I had heard, but not more than that. So, I started to look at the world of Mridangam Makers, who are these people and most importantly, what goes into the making of the Mridangam. I realised that the voice of the Mridangam was always heard via the voice of the Mridangam player. I think we also need to hear the voice of the Mridangam Maker, and we need to understand the making of the Mridangam from the maker, not the player.

Hardly any Mridangam player can make a Mridangam, but anything I knew about Mridangam making came only from the player. We also didn’t know the people and we can’t reduce people to just functionality. That is something we had done.

You are a Brahmin writing about Dalit mridangam makers. You will be benefitting from telling the tales of Dalits. How will it change their lives and how do you think this is going to be viewed?

This is a Catch-22 situation. Ideally this book should be written by Mridangam makers and ideally, I don’t even need to be in the picture. But societal construction and my own privilege allows me the access to do a variety. One could consider this as an amplification of voices. This amplification is, of course, entrenched in the problems that you clearly spotted, that is I’m still going to benefit from the book. But, I do think this also gives energy, power and a feeling of community among the makers to move a lot of things on their own.

It is a little too early to speak about how things will move on their own, but I think it definitely will. For the discourse to go forward from here, I cannot be in the picture. Negating me from the discourse is also an important aspect of the conversation moving forward. Now, anyone who enters the auditorium will think about the Mridangam maker. The maker is no longer invisible.

That itself moves forward the possibility of discourse. But, the world of music itself will now think more than once about not just Mridangam makers but also instrument makers; not just in Carnatic music, but hopefully it would have reverberations in other worlds of art. I think there is a possibility that this book can lead to more awareness, discussions and more respect. That itself moves the possibility of what can happen to the world of the makers. This is my hope and my prayer.

We also have to look at the nuances of power. I don’t like to take any extreme position on participation in caste discourse. I think everybody’s participation is essential and I completely concede the participation of a savarna is entrenched in problems, but I will disagree if anyone says that savarnas have no role in the caste discourse. I will not agree with it because transformation has to happen throughout society. Unless we engage, we cannot move forward. Forced change will not last.

Where and how would you place your book in today’s conversations on caste, privilege and music?

This book has many aspects to it. It has a lot about gender and it always gets missed. The whole gender play and my own missing of it is also there in the book. I would place this book on multiple levels as it also questions knowledge creation. This book is about the genius of makers. Why is this not considered knowledge and who constructs knowledge.

There is this Tamil/Malayalam word ‘angeegaram’, which loosely translates to respect. Where did this angeegaram come from? I place this not only as a discourse on social interactions, but also on constructions of work, respect, knowledge and tradition. Somewhere this book is also turning an eye on myself as I also play the exact same game. It’s a mirror on all of us. It’s a mirror on the little things we all do in life and not notice.

Could you explain how the caste rules are stretched to accommodate the need of the Brahmin musician to work with the Dalit instrument maker? Are there ways to ensure the instrument maker also gets her/his due?

The rules are stretched in very interesting ways including the complete non-discussion of what happens during the procurement of skin which is used to make the Mridangam.

The musician is saying that the skin is simply a by-product of the process as the animal is being killed for meat. The musician seems to suggest that any kind of skin can be used but that is not true. This is an important negotiation in keeping the old caste notions intact.

One of the makers says in the book that they are intermediaries and they allow for the transference of the impure into pure. It’s like Theyyam. The moment the ‘vesham’ (costume) is put, the person becomes god and the moment the vesham is taken off, the person goes back to being considered a lower caste person. This is also the notion of purity and impurity.

Here the notion is completely prefaced on the instrument; even calling something ‘thol’ and something ‘thattu’ changes the notion of the part. Thol is the skin, but when it is on the instrument, the same part is called thattu. All these things are done to keep a distance from it. The Mridangam maker doing what they do also allows the Brahmin musician to say that this is the music of the gods.

There are a lot of changes that have happened from the 1920s to now, including the professionalism that shops bring in. A lot of younger makers now use the term customers.

I think the fundamental thing is that word  ‘angeegaram’ and how do we bring respect for the wisdom, the workmanship and the individuals. You can’t dehumanise them and make it only about the wisdom and workmanship. They are also human beings, which means it is also an emotional, psychological, social and political conversation that must be had. Several things have to change and I do hope the next generation will start thinking.

You explain quite vividly about your visit to the abattoir and in fact, at one point you seemed worried about what you could expect and then suddenly there is an ease. Why did you decide to write about this?

I realised that if I had to speak about the Mridangam, then I have to go and spend time with every step of the making and it starts with wood and skin. That inevitably would lead me to the abattoir. It was fundamental to my understanding. We all have these images of a slaughter house and maybe some people find it problematic, but it was a truthful experience.For me it was entering a completely new reality and I eased into it quite surprisingly. It was an everyday thing – they have a cup of tea, they skin the cow, then the meat is cut, it is taken away and by 1 pm the whole place is cleaned up.

Even though most of the stories you have narrated in your book are still steeped within the caste hierarchy, were there any stories of mridangam makers or their families being able to rise above this divide in away as to be treated as an equal?

I have written about this in the book and I think there definitely has been change. The reasons for the change can be argued. I think the reasons for the change are partly societal constructions and necessity, but somebody like Sarada (mridangam maker Sowriar’s wife) argues that people have changed. While another mridangam maker says that things have changed, but not really changed.

There have been changes in the way relationships have panned out especially in the younger generation. The younger generation is far more forthright and that’s where the Dravidian movement has played a role in Tamil Nadu at least. They are far more overt in having this conversation as they are clear about who they are and yet they are negotiating it as that is the necessity of the profession. In Kerala, it is a very different kind of conversation.

Are there any Mridangam makers who can play the instrument at par with any musician? Have any of the children in any of these families been given access to such knowledge systems?

There are three who have learnt the mridangam. There are three in Tamil Nadu and are sons of Thanjavur makers and there is one in Kerala. None of them have come into the mainstream Carnatic world. Many of them play church music and at semi-classical concerts. There is one who played for Nagoor Hanifa, who used to sing Islamic devotional music. Maybe this book will initiate change and someone will play.

You speak of Madurai Ratnam, who demanded his due in the world of mridangam making. He doesn’t fall within the usual narrative of a Dalit instrument maker. What are your observations about him?

He is definitely an outlier, but that is all the information we have. That is such an unfortunate thing. Even Mridangam players have not spoken too much about Ratnam and I don’t know too much about his workmanship either. So, when I saw his photograph, it doesn’t fit any image one has of Mridangam makers. Economically, he did much better than anybody else. I didn’t get enough information about him from his grandson.

For me the most dynamic character in the book is Rajamanickam. He is the strong man who was far ahead of his time. He set rules including the time when he would sleep in the afternoon and the kind of lunch he expected if he had to go over to the Mridangam player’s house. Even when you speak to the family, they’ll tell you that Rajamanickam was different. He was a person who overturns the stereotypical idea of a mridangam maker in my head. He was a fighter, who believed in his due and no body could ignore him. That’s the brilliant part because he was an incredible maker. If he were alive, I would have loved to interview him and the only place I have quoted him is from an interview by S Anand. And the quote is powerful and strong.

You mention three women who have ignored the boundaries laid by men and have entered the field of making mridangams. Were there only these three women?

These are the only three women who are making Mridangams in all the extensive research I have done. There are other women who participate in stone crushing, but in terms of working directly with the skin, there are only these three women. I don’t know of anyone else.

Kalakshetra cancelled your book launch in Chennai. What doyou have to say about the incident?

I can only say that Kalakshetra lost an opportunity to honour some incredible mridangam makers and to pay respects to the tradition of mridangam making.

How many years did this book take to write? Could you describe your research and also the family trees you have drawn? There are still ambiguous bits in them… How did you piece together the narrative?

It took me almost four years. I never planned any interview;there would be a few general questions, but I would let the interview take its own shape.  The toughest part of this book was that I didn’t know what story I was going to tell; I didn’t know what the foundational aspect was going to be. Every interview gave me a different insight and spent almost a year just listening to the recordings and reading the transcripts over and over again.

Several people have asked me why are there so many people in the book, but my point was how do I delete a voice. I can’t be looking at only main voices and forget about softer voices.

Putting that family tree together was a job in itself. I don’t know how many times I redrafted that family tree and will probably have to redraft it for the next edition. It took numerous calls to various family members to put it together. Even within the family, different people thought there were different linkages to a single person and sometimes relationships were vague. It took a long, long time.

Through this book you are moving art into a political discourse. So is this your way of saying art can be used for political transformation?

Art is political. Just because we didn’t call it political doesn’t mean that it is devoid of politics. I am not doing anything special; I am just saying out loud that art is political. I am saying it using the different ideas that I have and the various interventions that I do. I think it is important that we do that.

One of the tragedies of democratic India is not recognising culture and art are the cornerstone of political discourse. All we have done is use art of sloganeering, which the Left has done. But beyond that, art in its various traditions, various practices have not been included actively in political conversations. So, culture itself has been ignored. Workings of art and culture have to become a political being.

Left party members are critical of caste but don’t ask questions of Carnatic music when they go and listen to concerts. There is a problem there, which means they are trying to conveniently partition these two things. That cannot happen and we have to robustly confront these things. Centre and Centre-Left have not understood the power of culture in the democratic discourse. The RSS knew this from the beginning and that is why they have called themselves a cultural body. They understand that culture is where change would happen. It was easier for them because they used existing partitions to further the divide.

We have reached a point where a liberal conversation is understood to be an atheistic conversation and liberals are to blame for this.We have treated faith and rituals with condescension, and we have to accept that we were and are wrong. Faith is the fundamental feeling of humanity as we would not get up in the morning if you don’t have faith in something. Faith is hope; you may say it is the Constitution and I may say it is Ayyappa. Whom am Ito say that your belief in Ayyappa is lower than my faith in the Constitution? That is why it is important that religion, culture an art become an important part of democratic conversations. It is difficult but it is time to start now.

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Published: 23 Feb 2020, 8:00 AM