As performers seated themselves on the dias of the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai, percussion players took centre-stage even as vocalists were settled down by the wings, all ready to render a scintillating performance. Leading this performance, on Sunday, were not the singers but Mridangam players who had the audience enraptured with the beat of their fingers.
This arrangement, in essence, made the priority of the evening clear to the audience. The event in question was the release of Carnatic musician TM Krishna's book 'Sebastian & Sons', which outlines a brief history of Mridangam makers. What would have been just another book launch, drew more eyeballs after Kalakshetra Foundation, a Chennai-based arts and culture academy, withdrew permission for the event at its premises, citing fears of āpolitical, cultural and social disharmony.ā The decision followed the publication of an excerpt of the book titled āKeeping the cow and brahmin apartā in The Hindu on Tuesday. The chapter touched upon how the world of Carnatic music is dominated by Brahmins but mridangam makers are primarily from Dalit communities. It addresses a dichotomy in the Brahmin culture where the community insists on cow worship and restrict consumption of the animal's meat but still uses the mridangam made of cow skin. Specifically, it refers to the reluctance of celebrated Brahmin artistes in acknowledging that the mridangam meant needing the skin of the cow.
And in the presence of close to 50 mridangam creators (who were featured in the book), all present at the venue, two chief guests - VCK founder Thol Thirumavalavan and writer Rajmohan Gandhi reiterated that Kalakshetra's refusal proved how deep rooted the caste system is in the state.
"This entire controversy shows that Manu dharma still exists in our society," said Thol Thirumalavan. "As soon as I heard the event is cancelled, my first thought was that, it was because I was called. They probably also thought why should 'he' come for this event (Thirumavalavan is a Dalit leader). But I think the cancellation just gave the event more publicity and made it more successful," he added.
Thirumavalavan further reflected on his conversation with a mridangam maker who alleged that they received no recognition from the government, how they were ignored in award functions and why a pension could help the cause.
"It got me thinking, if this was the situation of the mridangam makers, then imagine those who make the parai, " he pointed out. "It was continuously looked down upon because it was used by the working classes. It cannot be played in temples like the mridangam," he added, drawing parallels to communities, as he described the instrument.
The VCK chief further mused, "I (a Dalit) make the mridangam holding it between my feet, but the instrument is allowed into your puja room, and I am not."
Raj Mohan Gandhi meanwhile pointed out the cancellation of the event in Kalakshetra, only reflected on the larger politics attempting to grip the nation.
"Today, thanks to some people I should not name - Gandhi, Tagore, Ambedkar, Periyar, Subash Chandra Bose and Nehru, I see something common in all of them. Because of the drive to foist on our social hierarchy, our legal and constitutional hierarchy, of one religious group on top and others well below. It is because of this drive today, that we see all these figures as one. Secular Indians and devout Hindus are banding together to resist this legal and constitutional hierarchy, this bid to alter the constitutional design that is made Indian democracy a proud feature," he said.
He further termed the book pathbreaking and credited it with having brought those kept in darkness, to the light.
"The top layer (in society) needs the bottom layer. In the relationship, there is mutual need for each other. There is also ignorance and contempt at one side and silent indignation on the other side. Krishna has captured the relationship,ā said the writer.
In a panel discussion that followed however, TM Krishna himself admitted that he was unsure about how this book would change the lives of the mridangam makers.
"Will this change anything? I don't know," said TM Krishna. "People will engage with these makers with more seriousness but beyond that, change will require political will. What we need is a combination of literature, social consciousness and political will," he added.
Krishna further acknowledged his own caste privilege and admitted that he had faced criticism for taking up the subject.
"No matter how much I speak about caste, I don't lose my privilege. I have privilege in terms of my gender, my caste and my ability to converse in English. I am in a catch 22 situation. A lot of people said I have taken the discourse from the Dalits. Why do I get to be the bridge? I am still conflicted about this," he told the audience.