The Rest is Not Noise

Sumangala Damodaran
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Selvaraj working on a mrdangam. (Photo by TR Rajamani)

Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers
TM Krishna
Westland Books
366 pages
` 799

In recent years, a number of books have been published that layout the social history of classical music traditions, tracing how social hierarchies based on caste, gender and religion have been important in determining the structures, conventions, and institutions of their performance in India. These were mostly written by historians or cultural theorists, with a few contributions by practicing musicians like Aneesh Pradhan’s Classical Music in Colonial Bombay and Chasing the Raga Dream, or TM Krishna’s A Southern Music. Krishna’s scholarly work, as well as his activism related to music in recent years, have laid bare the caste (and class) dimensions of classical music. His new book, Sebastian and Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers, marks a completely new dimension in music publishing — it combines scholarly rigor with the knowledge and experience of the seasoned music performer and the passion of the ethnographer with the technical acumen of the organologist.

Through 12 chapters running into more than 350 pages he takes the reader through the instrument’s beginnings in Thanjavur, the migration of its makers to Madras and the establishment of the crafting tradition there, the specific aspects of mrdangam-making – working with wood, the curing and preparation of hides, other materials used to create tone and timbre — and debates around the aesthetics of the instrument’s sound.

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Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers

Sebastian, or Sevittian, was the son of Arogyam, who is said to have been the first mrdangam maker, according to oral history uncovered by Krishna. Dating perhaps only to the early part of the 20th century, the mrdangam’s precursor was the tavil, and Arogyam was a craftsman of the tavil before he and his son started producing the mrdangam, supposedly at the behest of the player Ratnam. Sevittian is said to have developed the important, and, perhaps most prominent tradition of mrdangam making, the Thanjavur Bani. The story begins with the crafting of the mrdangam by Sevittian under the supervision of Thanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer, a legendary mrdangam player. Krishna describes how Vaidyanatha Iyer gave lessons to a young boy from Palghat, when the latter travelled with his father from Palghat to get a mrdangam repaired. The young boy, who would become the legendary Palghat Mani Iyer, is credited with highly innovative techniques and the extraction of exquisite tones from the mrdangam. While this is a well-known fact, the relegation of Parlandu, the son of Sevittian, who made mrdangams for Mani Iyer, to the role of a mere “executor” being “unacceptable” marks the starting point of the book’s finely-grained arguments.

The first part of the book intricately weaves the story of how Sevittian’s three sons S Shengol, S Parlandu and S Antony came to “rule the mrdangam-making industry”. The family’s social identity is Christian, converts from formerly untouchable castes. One of Krishna’s key sources, Selvaraj, the son of Parlandu, facilitates his entry into the streets of Nanganallur in Chennai and then to the bylanes of Thanjavur, as he traces a history of migration of mrdangam-makers from Thanjavur to Madras, and the consequent spread of their art. The second part consists of detailed expositions about woodwork, animal hide, rice paste and sunnambu (lime) that are used to produce particular kinds of tone or to play in specific registers. While in the first few chapters, Krishna discusses the people connected with making and playing the mrdangam in Thanjavur and Madras, and how they related with each other through familial ties and social hierarchies, the second part traces the relationship between people through the materials used for making the mrdangam. The third part discusses “outliers” from the citadels of Tamil Nadu, the mrdangam-makers of Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, and the women who have been associated with skin work as well as mrdangam production.

Like an anthropologist, Krishna takes the reader on walks into the field. The descriptions unfold through his view of the present lives of several makers in Thanjavur and Madras, as well as stories about their fathers and grandfathers, to layout family histories, the emergence of mrdangam-making techniques, the physical processes involved, material procurement chains and the qualitative and normative assessments of all these that are inscribed by caste and gender.

The stories of the mrdangam-makers and their relationships with musicians bring alive the contradictions that dog the playing out as well as the persistence of caste relationships in the world of Carnatic music. There are examples of how some rigid caste boundaries are breached, though this is highly qualified by rules set by the players. Vaidyanatha Iyer, Krishna writes, was “an unusual man... He taught a Muslim lad and a female student...it is safe to assume that, within each one of these uncommon relationships, Iyer had set regulations for both himself and the student, and these allowed him to maintain his own notion of purity.”

The ultimate custodian of the aesthetic remains the Brahmin mrdangam player, even as he might rely on the skill of the producer to deliver the requisite quality on the basis of the nuances of the former’s judgment. Is this, then, an important dimension of the relationship, the unacknowledged acceptance of the aesthetic abilities of the producer that in turn allows for the breaching of caste boundaries? Krishna finds self-deprecation mixed with pride in the makers’ testimonies of how they learned a lot from observing the artists play, implying a one-way transmission of the demands of the aesthetic, rather than a two-way process of co-creation.

Some players are non-Brahmins, like Rajamanickam Pillai from the Isaivellalar community, but they remain not only much less acknowledged in comparison to doyens like Palghat Mani Iyer, but are also subjected to ritual discrimination, like having to eat separately from the Brahmins, including their own Brahmin students. Krishna dwells on how Palghat Mani Iyer’s status got elevated to a level that cannot be explained only by his great artistry and virtuosity, but reveals processes of hierarchisation that characterise Carnatic music.

The book eloquently brings together what could otherwise be an unwieldy and ambitious set of issues that undergird the reality of mrdangam-making in South India. Unusual for music writing in India, descriptions of the materiality of the mrdangam is combined with a nuanced understanding of how social relations unfold through these materials being put together in the production of sound. At the same time, the aesthetic dimensions of the production of percussion sound are explored through his musician’s acumen, but with full recognition and detailing of the process of knowledge transmission between the musician and the mrdangam-maker. The book is thus an important contribution to the world of Indian classical music.

Sumangala Damodaran is Professor of Economics, Development Studies and Popular Music Studies at Ambedkar University, New Delhi