Sarvam Thaala Mayam, written and directed by Rajiv Menon, is the story of a dalit youngster Peter Johnson, who aspires to learn playing the percussion instrument mridangam and enter the gates of the Carnatic music world hitherto dominated by brahmins.
While the plot appears to talk about an important anti-caste intervention, in reality, the movie only reinforces various brahmanical myths, prejudices and narratives. When one analyses the movie and tries to understand its politics, Sarvam Thaala Mayam reveals itself as brahmanical propaganda that is cloaked in an anti-caste gown.
Because the movie is centred around thaala or thalam, it might be a reasonable idea to use the elements of thaala to analyse it. Thaala Dasa Pranas refer to the ten elements of musical time and they deal with the analytical study of rhythm in all its aspects. So, why don’t we try to understand Sarvam Thaala Mayam through the Thaala Dasa Pranas.
But then, we are going to shuffle their order a bit to enable a convenient flow in this piece. Because why not?
1. Kaala or: How centuries later, the brahmanical narrative remains unchanged.
Well! Kaala here should not to be mistaken for Pa Ranjith’s Rajinikanth film. In the context of thaala, it refers to the categorisation of the various measures of time taken by a thaala’s constituents.
But what hasn’t changed over time is the brahmanical narrative. The storyline of Sarvam Thaala Mayam is loosely based on the legend of the 7th century saint poet Nandanar, who was one of the Nayanars. The Nayanars were a group of 63 saint poets in the 6th to 8th century who were devoted to the Hindu God Shiva in Tamil Nadu.
Like Peter Johnson, Nandanar too comes from a dalit community that makes drums and musical instruments out of animal skin. If Nandanar, a staunch devotee of Lord Shiva wished to enter the Sivalokanathar temple at Tirupunkur, Peter Johnson aspires to enter the Carnatic world – both spaces controlled and dominated by brahmins, and out of the reach of untouchables/dalits.
In dalit-bahujan folklores, retellings and politics, Nandanar is considered as a radical anti-caste saint poet who was murdered in a pyre at Thillai Nataraja Temple of Chidambaram. However, in Periya Puranam or Gopalkrishna Bharathi’s retelling of the story in Nandanar Charitram, they strip off the revolutionary politics associated with Nandanar and make him a ‘brahmin friendly’ saint poet.
While Nandanar Charitram was not willing to critique the caste system or the brahmin’s role in it, it was at least willing to offer some mild criticism of a powerful brahmin character at an individual level. The brahmin landlord Vetiyar is portrayed as an evil, powerful man who tortures his bonded labourer Nandanar. But after a point, he realises Nandanar’s devotion for Lord Shiva and offers his apology and seeks forgiveness.
Nandanar and Peter Johnson
But in Sarvam Thaala Mayam, Rajiv Menon dilutes the narrative even further. He not only refuses to offer any criticism of the caste system, but rather goes further and glorifies the powerful brahmin individuals who have benefitted because of their upper caste location. The mridangam guru Vembu Iyer who is one of the gatekeepers of the Carnatic music world is portrayed as a very fair, kind and generous man. While the movie positions itself as an anti-caste tale, it deliberately stays mum on how the rigidity and exclusivity of the caste structure are maintained in the Carnatic music world.
2. Maarga or: The Guru as the knowledge gatekeeper.
Maarga denotes the path or the way a thaala is put into action. It reveals the rhythmical construction of a musical composition.
However, in the Carnatic music world, the path to enter is rigidly controlled by its gatekeepers. The gurus, singers, instrument players, sabhas and even the audience perform the role of gatekeepers in varying degrees. But the most powerful among them is the guru.
A popular brahmanical phrase in Sanskrit says ‘Matha Pitha Guru Deivam’ (Mother Father Teacher God) and refers to the order in which one must pay reverence. It is interesting to find that the guru is placed even before God. The guru here should not be mistaken for a regular school teacher or a college professor. But the guru in this reverential order represents the brahmin. Because traditionally, only the brahmin was allowed to play the role of a teacher or a priest and thereby control one’s access to both knowledge as well as God.
The guru – sishya (teacher – disciple) relationship that the movie glorifies is primarily a brahmanical tradition. Outside of it, the guru – sishya relationship is hardly emphasised the same way. Bahujan traditions look at all forms of art as a collective source of knowledge. The learning and practice of art is democratised and never tied to any individual guru. There are absolutely no instances of anyone having to negotiate gatekeepers to learn playing the parai drum or dance karakattam or sing gaana.
Thirukural, written around 2000 years ago by poet Thiruvalluvar, is considered by the Tamil people as the most important non-brahmanical, secular text on ethics and morality. It talks about almost every aspect of the Tamil way of life. But in the chapters on knowledge (kelvi), education (kalvi) or elsewhere, it makes absolutely no mention of the guru or his importance.
Guru and Sishya
In Nandanar’s story, he tries to access Lord Shiva by bypassing the intermediate brahmin priest. In fact, in dalit-bahujan folklores, the bull or the nandi that blocks Nandanar’s view of Lord Shiva is considered as a metaphor for the brahmin priest. Nandanar’s radical act is in circumventing the brahmin priests and accessing Lord Shiva directly. Similarly, in the Carnatic music world, any serious criticism of its rigidity or exclusivity can only begin by focussing on the powerful guru who acts as a gatekeeper.
But instead, Rajiv Menon romanticises the guru-sishya relationship. He portrays the powerful gatekeeping guru as a noble man and refuses to problematise his role. Rajiv Menon, in fact, goes further and draws a parallel between Lord Shiva in Nandanar Charitram and Vembu Iyer in his film. By doing so, he essentially puts the guru and the God on the same plane. And converts the original Sanskrit phrase to ‘Matha Pitha Guru=Deivam’. In Sarvam Thaala Mayam, the brahmin, who so far only played the role of a gatekeeper, has been promoted to the position of God himself.
3. Anga: The deliberate and immoral glorification of merit.
Anga literally means limb or part. And it refers to the constituents of the thaala.
One of the key constituents of the movie’s narrative is the emphasis on merit. The movie claims that if an individual is meritorious enough, he or she can succeed in the Carnatic music world, irrespective of the caste, class or religion they belong to. It illustrates this by showing how a lower class, dalit Christian could successfully reach the Carnatic music space.
The notion of merit itself is brahmanical because it pretends that everyone in a caste society has similar privileges, resources and network to reach or occupy elite spaces. While the society continuously forces Peter Johnson and his family to live under harsh discriminating conditions, Rajiv Menon suggests that if Peter Johnson is meritorious and passionate enough, he can emerge victorious. The filmmaker refuses to understand or acknowledge that merit is an extremely problematic concept in a caste society that is built on graded inequality.
Even in the promotional interviews of the movie, Rajiv Menon and the movie’s music director AR Rahman argued that if one is meritorious enough, s/he could succeed in the field of music irrespective of their identity. They also cited the success of music composer Ilaiyaraaja to validate their argument. Ilaiyaraaja, who comes from a dalit community in Theni district, dominated the Tamil film music scene for almost two decades. This is a misleading defence of merit because while it handpicks one success story, it remains silent on the barriers that caste has imposed on several other talented and hardworking lower caste individuals who could never make it.
The argument the film’s makers put forward within the movie and outside of it is extremely violent. When a society or a cultural space is fundamentally unequal, it is only logical to make interventions that would push it towards equality. However, the movie expects one to accept the unequal conditions and still work hard in overcoming them to prove one’s own merit. Such a stand is not only inhuman and violent but also an apologia for the caste system.
4. Kriya or: Dummy’s guide to count the number of bad brahmins using the fingers on one hand.
Kriya means ‘to do’ and denotes the physical action or the act of counting time, utilising various gestures. It includes the action of the right hand and its fingers in counting the inner units of a thaala.
However, it is not an easy task to count the number of good brahmins in Sarvam Thaala Mayam. The movie classifies powerful brahmins into two categories. (a) Good and (b) Very good people. The reality show judges who are real life singers like Karthik, Srinivas and Sikkil Gurucharan are portrayed as fair, well meaning individuals. Even the other student of Vembu Iyer, Nandagopal, is portrayed as a friendly and generous person who willingly accommodates Peter Johnson and treats him as an equal. These are the good brahmins. The very good brahmin posts are, of course, reserved for Vembu Iyer and his wife.
The less powerful brahmins are unfortunately the evil ones, too. Mani, a mediocre student and an assistant of Vembu Iyer, and his sister Anjana, a reality show host, play the bad brahmin characters. Even here, Anjana is merely opportunistic, but only Mani is shown as a casteist person.
Good and bad brahmins
Rajiv Menon asserts that the key powerful roles of the music world, Carnatic or otherwise, are filled by just and good brahmins. And only in some rare intermediary and less powerful roles, casteist brahmins exist. In essence, Rajiv Menon awards a clean chit to the brahmin community that has, for decades, controlled, monopolised and benefitted the most from the Carnatic music world.
In his seminal work Annihilation of Caste, Dr B R Ambedkar argues that there can never be a good Hindu, but only a better or worse Hindu. This is not because there is anything wrong with the Hindu’s personal character. But what is wrong is the entire basis of his relationship to his fellows. However, Rajiv Menon makes a case for good brahmins in the movie. He refuses to understand that as beneficiaries of an unequal caste system, it doesn’t matter how good or bad a brahmin is at an individual level. What needs serious intervention is the structural problem in the Carnatic music world. Focussing and highlighting an individual brahmin man or woman’s virtues is similar to defending slavery by claiming that most white masters were nice individuals.
5. Graha or: How the movie skips the brahmin and critiques the dalit.
The commencement of the thaala in music is known as graha or the take-off point. The music can start on the beat (samam), after the beat (anagatam) or before the beat (ateetam).
The movie, however, misses the beat in its supposed criticism of caste hegemony in the Carnatic music world. Instead of critiquing the brahmin community and their hegemony, it chooses to critique the dalit individual and his family. When Peter Johnson enters Vembu Iyer’s house, we notice four prominent characters there – Vembu Iyer, his wife, his assistant Mani and another student Nandagopal. Out of these four characters, three of them are supportive of Peter’s aspirations and goals. It is only Mani who is caricatured as an acutely jealous and casteist individual. As a result, the resistance that Peter has to face at Vembu Iyer’s house is remarkably low.
Peter's family resists
On the other hand, at his own house, his parents are shown as fiercely resistant towards his ambitions. Even though his family belongs to the heredity of mridangam makers, his parents are shown to be aloof or opposed to Peter’s fascination with playing the instrument. They actively discourage his ambition and offer absolutely no support, in spite of the fact that Peter clearly exhibits talent. Peter’s father Johnson laments about not having played the mridangam for a career but he is still depicted as someone who is unwilling to nurture his own son’s talent. In fact, he goes to the extent of selling Peter’s mridangam to meet the family’s daily needs.
It is quite unfortunate that Rajiv Menon chooses to problematise an individual dalit family instead of the brahmin community’s hegemony. This way, he seems to suggest that the Carnatic music world is open and inclusive, but it is only the dalit-bahujans who are uninterested and unwilling to reach there.
6. Kalaa or: The process of ridiculing anti-caste history.
Kalaa denotes the number of minor time units into which each count of a thaala is subdivided.
Likewise, the history of the anti-caste movement has repeatedly articulated that caste is the fundamental unit of Hindu religion. To counter it, dalit-bahujans have undertaken various anti-caste efforts. They have left the Hindu fold and embraced religions like Buddhism, Christianity, Sikhism or Islam among others. They have practised atheism or at times even stayed within the Hindu fold and offered resistance.
In Sarvam Thaala Mayam, Peter is not a Christian by accident. It is something that he has inherited from the history of dalit-bahujans’ attempt to leave a religion that refuses to treat them as equals. However, Rajiv Menon almost performs a ghar wapsi on Peter in the movie. Peter voluntarily embraces all visual symbols of the Hindu religion. This he does in spite of the fact that Vembu Iyer or others don’t even insist on it. And if that wasn’t enough, he tries to hide his Jesus cross chain as well. It is as if Peter can belong to the Carnatic music world only if he suppresses his own faith and displays an outwardly Hindu look. It is ironical that the movie seems to suggest that to achieve social mobility, Peter should embrace the religion which was responsible for his oppressed condition to begin with.
7. Prasthara or: The reinforcement of the ritual purity and pollution.
The term prasthara means permutation and it refers to the process of splitting up the angas of a thaala into its possible constituent and presenting them in all possible permutations.
Similarly, Sarvam Thaala Mayam splits the domain of purity and pollution and keeps them caste rigid. Gopalkrishna Bharti’s Nandanar Charitram opens with the song Varugalaamo meaning ‘May I come?’ Some of the translated parts of the song read as,
“May I come to you?
Are you not the ever-compassionate Lord?
Untouchable as I am, may I not serve you?”
“I was born in this world a Pulayan;
In my life I did no deeds of merit;
Even so, my Lord, I come to your presence!”
“May I not come to you?”
The question “May I come?” reflects Nandanar’s untouchable status and his plea to access a space restricted to him. But almost 1500 years and innumerable anti-caste movements later, Rajiv Menon retains his protagonist Peter as meek and docile as Gopalkrishna Bharati’s version of Nandanar. And superimposes the passive phrase Varalama (May I come?) on Peter’s attempts.
Peter is purified
While Peter voluntarily acknowledges his polluted status, Vembu Iyer asserts his purity by claiming that his house is like a temple. Like the brahmanical myth that Nandanar was purified in the pyre at Thillai Nataraja Temple of Chidambaram, Peter here purifies himself by embracing brahmanical food practices and visual symbols to become worthy enough to enter Vembu Iyer’s house.
8. Yati or: The art of stereotyping dalits on screen.
The arrangement of angas of various durations gives rise to various rhythmic patterns called yatis.
However, the only pattern of depicting dalit-bahujans in Tamil cinema is to criminalise, victimise or exoticise them. Rajiv Menon chooses to do a mix of all these three. Peter is portrayed as an uncouth youth who drinks often, is irresponsible and violent, doesn’t care about his education or career, stalks women, builds cut-outs for his favourite movie star, indulges in fan club fights and skips exams to plays drums in a theatre that screens his favourite star’s movie.
If this wasn’t enough, Rajiv Menon tries to put down dalit-bahujan political consolidation by insinuating that dalits play ‘caste politics’. In a brief TV interview scene, the movie introduces a caricatured dalit politician and suggests that the ‘dalit card’ is liberally used to falsely blame individuals or incite caste riots.
Throughout the movie, Peter and his parents have absolutely no agency. They offer no resistance and do not register even a feeble protest against their oppressed conditions. Peter’s father Johnson thinks it is important to stay within his caste boundaries in order to keep his livelihood intact. Peter willingly listens to all the casteist taunts and insults that are thrown at him by Mani or the patronising comments that several others offer. He remains a voluntary victim of his location. The only thing that has the power to offer him salvation is Vembu Iyer’s generosity.
To provide authenticity to the dalit characters in the movie, Rajiv Menon resorts to an embarrassingly exaggerated and outdated north Chennai dialect that probably only exists in his fantasy. Someone must inform the filmmaker that repeatedly uttering the words ‘mersal’ and ‘bejaar’ cannot make up for an authentic north Chennai dialect.
9. Jaati or: Do it yourself kit to make an anti-caste film that doesn’t address caste
Jaati here refers to type or kind. And it defines the variations in the magnitude of the angha ‘laghu’.
However, jaathi or caste is almost non-existent in Rajiv Menon’s universe. He seems to suggest that caste is too insignificant an issue to warrant our attention in such modern times. He reiterates this by repeating only two arguments throughout the movie.
a. Brahmins are predominantly nice people. So kindly don’t blame them.
b. If you are meritorious, you will succeed.
Forget about critiquing the role of caste hegemony in the Carnatic music world, the movie doesn’t even make an effort to understand or acknowledge it. Instead, it beats around the bush and introduces a bizarre TV music reality show to prove how its winner could earn a place in the world of Carnatic music. Like, seriously? If all that dalit-bahujans have to do is win TV reality shows to escape caste, one does feel disappointed that Mahatma Jyotiba Phule, Dr BR Ambedkar or Periyar didn’t suggest it.
10. Laya or: Why film critics find it easy to love Sarvam Thaala Mayam.
The flow of a thaala in conjunction with the song, without fluctuating is termed as laya.
Not surprisingly, the critics in the English media have responded to the movie in conjunction with Rajiv Menon’s politics. S Subhakeerthana (The Indian Express) writes “We know where the problem exists, but Rajiv beautifully translates them on to the screen without blaming anybody.” Baradwaj Rangan (Film Companion) argues, “He (Vembu Iyer) thinks that someone like Peter doesn’t have the discipline to commit to the guru – shishya protocol that’s at the heart of his teaching. This is its own kind of snobbery, sure – but it isn’t entirely due to caste.” Srinivasa Ramanujam (The Hindu) claims, “STM triumphs by bringing out certain truths about caste and class conflict in the kutcheri circuit.” Except for a few critics, most others have said something very similar. Overwhelmingly, English media critics have stated that even if the movie’s criticism of caste hegemony in Carnatic music is mild, it is still very well intentioned.
However, that is not true at all. As elaborated in this piece, the movie’s sole intention seems to dissociate the brahmin from the brahmin’s hegemony in the Carnatic music world. Instead of critiquing the brahmin’s aggressive monopolisation, it merely puts the onus on others and suggests they work harder. By parroting every brahmin-savarna narrative around caste, the movie defends the brahmin community at a time when increasing voices are critiquing monopolisation in the field of art. Not surprisingly, singer Srinivas who once critiqued the anti-caste band Casteless Collective for ‘bringing caste’ to music has tweeted recently saying Sarvam Thaala Mayam is a fantastic movie. Ah! Well! The irony.