TM Krishna is negotiating a very thin space. Inside the world of Carnatic music, he is a rebel. For the last few years, Krishna has not been performing in the much famed Margazhi festival citing the inequality in Carnatic music as a reason. There should be some effort to set this right, he once told me. Outside of it, he is still perhaps an outsider. In his latest book Sebastian and Sons, Krishna pauses on occasions, checking his privilege to understand if he is right in doing what he does – asking people about their lives as mridangam makers. But that does not make him any less articulate or powerful.
In bringing his music out of its ivory tower to streets and restaurants, Krishna single-handedly strives to democratise the rigid traditional space. His decision to have his book launch in Kalakshetra is by extension another attempt towards democratisation of such spaces. In fact, everything about the book is.
The title, I thought, was a challenge to the notion of conventional hierarchy-based institutions that so proudly proclaim themselves as sons. But sons of Sebastian are strikingly different in that they are not from one family. “Every mridangam maker is a son of Sebastian,” Krishna said at the launch.
The schedule for the book release had an interesting and diverse line up of events. There was a musical offering to the creators of the mridangam, followed by the launch. Right from the start, Krishna had Lok Sabha MP and VCK chief Thol Thirumavalavan as one of the two names to launch the book.
In withdrawing permission for the book launch, Kalakshetra has chosen to remain a regressive space that vehemently disallows any kind of democratisation.
The withdrawal of permission came soon after the piece in The Hindu which speaks about Palghat Mani Iyer’s internal conflict in making life out of an instrument made of cow skin and how he overcame it. The book, Kalakshetra declared, will create political, social, cultural disharmony and had strong ‘political overtones.’
Sebastian and Sons as most of us would now know is about the makers of mridangam. The 300-odd page book travels across the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu, some parts of Kerala and Andhra Pradesh to bring us the authentic accounts of people involved in making mridangams. It rues the fact that mridangam making is seen as labour and not art. In interviewing maker after maker, in walking with them, in trying some processes, in going to the abattoir despite their protests, Krishna lays bare the laborious, exacting work that generations of mridangam makers continue to do.
And why is this important?
Because as Krishna rightly point out, their work passes off as labour despite the detail and acumen it demands. Because in making mridangams they have to work with cow skin which is seen as stuff of cheap labour while the end product itself (which still remains the cow skin in different form) is sacred. In laying bare the glorious details of creating the mridangam, Krishna does what Rajaji warned Mani Iyer against. He not only sees the antecedents himself but shows it to the world.
Again, why is this important?
Because the mridangam makers, despite their backbreaking work and tremendous talent, have remained invisible all along. There are some who are extraordinarily talented and share a warm relationship with the musicians but even they are not spared of castiest slurs. In bringing them out of the darkness that they have been consigned to, Krishna attempts to set right an historical wrong. The book will definitely let the world know of them but whether it will help the people themselves is still a tall order. “Honestly, I don’t have an answer,” Krishna told me at the conversation during the book launch, “But now we can at least use this book to campaign for some benefits for them like pension etc.”
I knew the book would ruffle a few feathers. When I finished reading it, I realised it would do more than ruffle just a few feathers. It would most likely leave you either deeply guilty or flagrantly unsettled depending on who you are. The kneejerk reaction of Kalakshetra, and of some people on social media is perhaps a reaction to this unsettling feeling that Sebastian and Sons will leave you with. It is an expression of contempt towards Krishna’s decision to show you the mirror. It is that feeling of discomfort when the pedestal is shaken even if slightly by the knowledge of what or who goes into building it.
Krishna’s book, as writer Rajmohan Gandhi pointed out, was more sociological and anthropological in nature, not political.
But it is something beyond the comprehension of Kalakshetra’s rigid gates. Also, it has no intent of creating any kind of disharmony. The book in fact tries to bring some kind of harmony into a disharmonious atmosphere that is almost violent to some people. Because the disharmony and violence are silently and almost wilfully accepted by those at the receiving end, does it mean that they do not exist? If caste hegemony is not disharmonious in India, what is? If caste discrimination is not violence, what else is? Peace, you know, is not absence of war.
Kavitha Muralidharan is a journalist with two decades of experience, writing on politics, culture, literature and cinema.