T.M. Krishna On ‘Sebastian and Sons’, Dalit Mrdangam Makers And Being An Ally

In ‘Sebastian and Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers’, the musician profiles the unsung heroes who have, for generations, handcrafted the beautiful percussion instrument, the mrdangam.
A file photo of Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna.
A file photo of Carnatic musician T.M. Krishna.

For years, T.M. Krishna, author, musician, writer, speaker and Magsaysay awardee, has worked on the much neglected intersection of caste and art. The result is visible in Sebastian and Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers, a timely, well-researched book where he profiles the unsung heroes who have, for generations, handcrafted the beautiful percussion instrument, the mrdangam.

Two men dominate the narrative—Parlandu, a brilliant innovator and mrdangam maker, and Palghat Mani Iyer, a legendary player. While Iyer’s talent is still remembered and celebrated by music lovers, Krishna had to piece together the contributions of Parlandu, a Dalit Christian who was the second of Sebastian’s three sons “who ruled the mrdangam-making industry”.

Viewing this history through the lens of caste, Krishna travelled to various towns and villages in four states in south India, dug into archives and oral histories, and recorded materials and methodologies. The stories inform us that the mrdangam makers—the majority of them Dalits—have an intimate knowledge of bovine anatomy, a brilliant understanding of skin, stone and sound, and can translate the vague requirements of the players into a bespoke instrument.

“All the artist will say is that the mrdangam does not have the tone, tension, depth, roundedness, sharpness, feel or resonance that they are looking for. But what does this really mean? How does the maker translate that abstraction to a tangible sound? Over a period of time, the maker does indeed find a way to attain the perfection that the artist seeks. This is not a mind-reading game, but a matter of discovering the artist’s emotional nature, the texture of his fingers, the strength of his strokes, playing style and his inherent musicality. To attain that tone, the maker will have to work minutely, and with scientific precision, on every aspect of the making process, from the selection of the skins to the final tuning touches,” writes Krishna.

And the complexity of the task doesn’t end with producing the instrument. Mrdangam makers are often called to carry out repairs in all kinds of places, from a moving train (in the corridor of a first-class compartment!), to the sidelines of a concert stage; in backyards and by wells. And for their troubles, they earn unfortunate epithets: drunks, untrustworthy, labourers who must be kept in their place.

From his unique position as both an insider—in the field of classical music—and an outsider—in mrdangam playing and making, Krishna has collected stories of struggle and success from several families of makers (including the few women and dominant-caste makers) and drummed up a complex, yet accessible book on the men who make the mrdangam.

In a telephone interview, Krishna spoke about his research process, the power relations between mrdangam players and makers, and being a dominant caste ally. Edited excerpts:

In the book, Kasumani, a mrdangam maker from Kerala, asks why a vocalist is documenting the art of making these instruments. What was your reaction?

In the 40-odd interviews I did—Kasumani was the last one—nobody had asked me why I was writing this book. But I realised why he did. Like his son said, many people come and take photos and make a film on the making of the instrument. You’ll find several videos on YouTube, and in many, I found the maker is, as a human being, invisibilised. You really don’t know anything about the person. Their life doesn’t change because of it. And they don’t believe that it will because of this book either. So while I was surprised at the question, I understood the reason.

Two men dominate the narrative in 'Sebastian and Sons'—Parlandu, a brilliant innovator and mrdangam maker, and Palghat Mani Iyer, a legendary player.
Two men dominate the narrative in 'Sebastian and Sons'—Parlandu, a brilliant innovator and mrdangam maker, and Palghat Mani Iyer, a legendary player.

Tell me about the process of research and writing: how many makers did you interview in all? How long did it take to do the transcription and drawing up the family tree?

If you come to my house, there are four chart papers on the wall even now! I interviewed 43 makers and 10 mrdangam players. The Thanjavur family tree drove me crazy, it was so complicated, like a huge jigsaw puzzle. I was making multiple calls, ‘he’s saying this, you’re saying that’, confirming relationships, getting the names of great-grandparents and aunts. But I thought it was very important to have it all there. By the way, the family tree ( in the book) only lists those who are related to mrdangam making. I have not included the daughters and sons who have gone into other lines.

As for the transcribing, I tried doing some of it, but I quickly realised I would die, there were so many. So five people including musician Sangeetha Sivakumar ( my wife), my students Vignesh Ishwar and Ravikiran and a couple of friends Rajesh Garga and S. Hariharan helped me transcribe the interviews. Many of the interviews were long and complex in content. But I went over every recording once again and annotated every transcription, replaced the English word with the original Tamil if I thought that was better and made notes of subtle ideas that might have been missed. At one point, I really didn’t know how I was going to tell this complex story. And then, as I kept listening to the recordings and reading the transcripts, the structure emerged.

The book’s strength—and if I have to nitpick, a small drawback—is that there were too many people to track. Could you tell me why you decided to retain all the voices?

I had the thought, at the back of my mind, that these are lives that have never been recorded. I was trying to get as many people as possible in the community to talk. And I did not want to get stuck only with the big names, among the makers. Because if you do, inside that ecosystem, you’re speaking only with the powerful. Besides, this is a book of many stories, that weave in the making of the mrdangam. And through these stories—and places and locations—some of which are contemporary, some set in the past, the mrdangam emerges.

The makers are credited with doing the “dirty work”, “low grade work that anyone can do”. The earnings are also skewed. This dismissal of skill happens in almost all instrument making. Why is it blatantly so?

It’s very true that all instrument makers in this country are spoken about—if at all—in technical terms. Most importantly, they’re not credited with the idea of knowledge itself. They’re looked at like a maestri who is working in a construction site. The player would be the architect. The reason credit is denied—or frugally and grudgingly given—is because of caste. I think we talk about caste only in terms of economy and scholarship, but we need to engage with it in culture, art and learning. This is a classic case where caste diminishes, even negates, knowledge. As you go up the caste ladder, the separation between the maker and the player keeps on increasing. In the case of mrdangam, working with leather makes it even more stark.

“I think we talk about caste only in terms of economy and scholarship, but we need to engage with it in culture, art and learning. This is a classic case where caste diminishes, even negates, knowledge.”

Why is it that despite being an unequal partnership, both players and makers refer to their relationship as that of ‘father and son’?

Ultimately, caste—like gender, race and colour—is about power. So these emotional tropes such as father-son, guru-shishya, husband-wife are all used as metaphors to normalise unequal and unfair relationships. When the person who is being oppressed normalises this power, it becomes so difficult to digest it.

Can you comment on the timing of the book? One is, it comes at a time when social inequalities are sharp and savage, and when at least one group of people seem ok with openly showing discrimination to the ‘other’. Aren’t these precisely the things you highlight in the book? There’s this fabulous line by a maker: ‘Those days they kept us away and discriminated; today they keep us close and discriminate.’

Every society is discriminatory. But in my opinion, what is even worse is when a person of privilege of caste or gender is turning the conversation to almost make themselves the persecuted victim. A person who’s had every kind of caste privilege is saying, actually, I think I’ve been vicitimised. I hear this so often from people of upper castes. There is little self-introspection or attempt to understand the crevasses through which caste operates.

During the #MeToo movement, men felt that women were simply targeting them. I mean, there cannot be something more ugly and vulgar and obnoxious than that. It also shocks me when upper-caste women forcefully fight gender discrimination but refuse to acknowledge their own caste-discriminative nature. The book itself was four years in the making, so the timing is accidental. But if it makes a few people think, then it is worth it.

There is a tendency to weigh the playing higher than the making. Which is why this question of “can you play the instrument” is asked of the maker, but typically, the player is not expected to make the instrument from scratch, in fact never asked if he can make a mrdangam. Automatically, this creates a hierarchy. A player need not know mrdangam-making but is still celebrated. Are similar concessions made if one wanted to transition into playing?

When a mrdangam maker wants to become a player—and in the book there are a few instances—they’re not going to get any benefit. It’s not as if any player is going to give them any extra attention. In fact, the opposite happens. And uncomfortable though it may sound, sometimes I wonder if the players teach the maker’s son only to prove that they are “casteless human beings”, more a sign of their progressiveness than any interest in nurturing talent. I think this is why you have a maker saying in the book that a young man [from their community] learns mrdangam; had he been from the brahmin caste, he would have performed by now. The reason could be a level of disinterest, a dismissal that ‘this is all they’re capable of’ or just a condescending favour. At the same time I have seen arangetrams done for mediocre, mediocre students. The whole arangetram industry operates on two counts: one is money, it is a money-making racket; and the other is caste. The maker loses out on both. To put it bluntly, he doesn’t have the money to buy the player, or the caste for the player to think he and his family will be good. That’s the mess.

What would you have asked Parlandu and Palghat Mani Iyer if you could?

I have one question for Palghat Mani Iyer: describe Parlandu the human being. I tried to get a feel of him as a person, but I still want to know how much Mani Iyer knew him. I don’t want to know about his technical wizardry, I want folklores about him, the individual, like there are about Mani Iyer.

For Parlandu, I would ask why he got angry with Mani Iyer on many occasions. He was a person who spoke very little, so I would want to know what he felt. I’d really like to know the anger…

'Sebastian and Sons; A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers' by T.M. Krishna; Published by Context/Westland (2020)
'Sebastian and Sons; A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers' by T.M. Krishna; Published by Context/Westland (2020)

This was a very unexpected line in the book: “To my mind, at least part of this need for a larger mrdangam was driven by male testosterone.” Was this something you realised when you were writing the book or is it common knowledge?

This emerged as I was writing. One of the players, Madras Kannan, said to me that previously the instrument used to fit comfortably between the hands. The verdict is still out about the relationship between the size of the mrdangam and the sound, so the question is, why do you need a larger one? To me, going up to 30 inches seems driven by the need to be a hero. The increase in size definitely changed the perception of the mrdangam and the instrumentalist. It is a very similar narrative to what happened in Nadaswaram, when Rajarathinam Pillai wanted a bigger instrument so he could sit down and play in concerts.

Mrdangam making seems dominated by men, including in the families that traditionally made it. What did the women you spoke to—the few who have gotten into the trade and in the families of the makers—have to say about this? And do you, personally, see this changing?

Yes, it is dominated by men, though the women have always helped with crushing the stone that is used for a paste and in the drying of the skin. The few women who have become makers or as skin suppliers have had different experiences depending on their own social environment. The independent Madhammal was the lone bread-winner in her family who carried on her father’s profession of supplying skins to makers in Chennai and other cities. Ashwathamma comes from a traditional brahmin family where her husband moved into this profession. Young Geetha is proud of her work as a prominent skin processor and supplier and is supported by her family. Right now, I see these individuals only as exceptions because the work is still seen as male and patriarchy does govern its functioning.

Geetha's father was a well-known Coimbatore-based mrdangam maker, and she grew up watching him work.
Geetha's father was a well-known Coimbatore-based mrdangam maker, and she grew up watching him work.

What about drinking and caste? How is it perceived if a person from a certain caste group is addicted to alcohol?

It is said so casually about makers that they are perpetually drunk. I think it is the middle-class morality that makes us hide alcohol. The whole notion that poor people are drunkards is such a dangerous line to take. In Kerala, the alcohol policy that the Congress-led United Democratic Front regime brought to force—where you get hard liquor only in five-star hotels—feeds into this hackneyed perception. This is so problematic, as it plays up the stereotypes in the intersection of poverty and caste. [The policy has since then been reversed.] A maker in the book also makes a point about how alcohol is a release from the everyday oppression in their lives. And that is also important, because we create a social structure that does not allow certain people to breathe as individuals and collectives, then we point fingers saying ‘you are all drunkards’. They get hit from all sides, isn’t it?

The slaughterhouse was quite graphically described. Was it something you wanted to do to bring to your readers the actual reality, one that’s been hidden from view all along?

I wanted the reader to understand the reality of making the instrument.

The mrdangam is prayed to, so it is very easy not to think of the gore and blood. I wrote what I saw: of the animals being slaughtered, the skin being peeled, the intestines flowing out… It is very convenient for us to say, I didn’t know all that, just because someone else is doing the work. Even worse, when we don’t want to engage with this reality of the makers’ lives, but we think we’re very equal people because we sit together and have a cup of coffee with them. That is so problematic. All we’re doing is constantly patting ourselves on the back.

“The makers know how salt in the water affects the skin, which portion of the hide—and which breed of buffalo—will work. The observation skills of the makers are incredible, they can walk to a particular area and pick out the stones with a high iron content just by looking at it. I felt this kind of information should be there.”

It is very interesting that the hides are from native animals, and the makers are particular about the water the animal drinks while grazing. Similarly, there’s the native knowledge of stones that can become excellent ‘sadam’, the right kind of wood for the body. Has all of this ever been recorded before?

I don’t think it’s really been recorded in this manner. The books that talk about technical aspects discuss other things, like frequency etc after the construction of the instrument, trying out different mixtures for the ‘sadam’ and so on. But there aren’t any details on how these materials are chosen, the knowledge base of this, nor have I read anywhere about people checking what is there in the stones (that are ground up and used in the ‘sadam’). I got five of them from different locations tested. I couldn’t get one more done, but I hope I can at some point. To me, this is also a way of establishing that these are knowledge systems. The makers know how salt in the water affects the skin, which portion of the hide—and which breed of buffalo—will work. The observation skills of the makers are incredible, they can walk to a particular area and pick out the stones with a high iron content just by looking at it. I felt this kind of information should be there. In fact, I sarcastically mention in the book that I needed validation from Harvard, they knew what they were doing.

Can you tell us about being a dominant caste ally trying to amplify voices normally not heard?

Being a person born into the most dominant socio-cultural caste (brahmin) I have to always be aware that even when I reject caste, I never lose the privileges that come with the accident of my birth. Along with this comes the awareness that I will also be occupying spaces that belong to those who have been marginalised, which means I must know when to speak and when to move aside. Therefore, as a friend, I have to always be ready to be corrected, criticised and change my ways. I am convinced that those belonging to castes with privilege need to engage with the caste issue and in the process, unlearn and learn.

Can we expect more books from you, on other instrument makers?

Right now I don’t know. I have few ideas about a book, but for now, I need a break!

Disclaimer: Aparna Karthikeyan’s book ‘Nine Rupees an Hour’ was also published by Context. She is mentioned in the acknowledgements of T.M. Krishna’s book, as she and the author had discussed the Viswakarma community, whose skills and work are featured in both their books.