TM Krishna
TM Krishna

Southern Music raised casteism in the world of classical music seven years ago. Were you engaged with the issue of discrimination, exclusion and invisibilisation of mrdangam makers even then?

No, I was not. I did not even think of mrdangam makers or for that matter any instrument maker. A realisation of this lacuna in my being led me to meet mrdangam makers and understand their history, life, relationships and workmanship.

Could a non-musician write Sebastian and Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers?

Ideally, this book should've been written by a maker. Unfortunately, society is structured in such an unfair manner that I needed to write this book. There is no doubt that my own privileges ( caste, gender and linguistic) gave me the required access to make this book happen. But I need to be aware of this and now that the book has been published, I need to step back. The discourse needs to be taken forward by the makers and others from marginalised communities. It would've been difficult for a person who does not understand music to write this book simply because to be able to understand and communicate the exquisite work of the makers, the writer would need to know music, even if s/he was not a musician.

How long did you take to actually research, actually write and edit Sebastian and Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers?

I began the research in 2016 and over a period of about three years interviewed over 20 makers, of different generations, from different regions of South India and many senior mrdangam players. These interviews lasted about an hour and a half each. I also had innumerable short conversations with others and constantly called some makers to clarify doubts and better my own understanding. The research also required field trips to various places. I spent a lot of time listening/watching the interviews repeatedly and reading the transcripts. After going through many possible ways of putting these stories together I decided upon this form and writing style. The actual writing and editing took about eight months.

In the West, the person who actually crafts a cello/violin is celebrated but in India a hierarchy pedestalises players while looking down at makers. Has this always been located in the stratification embedded in the caste and religion dynamic?

In India, caste stratifies and partitions society in such a manner that people's, work and knowledge is segregated, stigmatised and in many cases kept beyond the sight of those who belong to caste privilege. The people who enforce this invisibility are people like me and we need to take responsibility for it. In the case of mrdangam makers, we are all complicit in keeping them uncelebrated and we have not treated them with respect or equality. We have even appropriated their knowledge and surreptitiously taken credit for their innovations, rarely acknowledging them as people of brilliance.

How and why, according to you, did the exploitative toxic nature of the maker and musician become normalised even among the exploited?

What we see in this relationship is no different from what happens in every section of society, including our own homes. Discriminative systems such as caste, race, colour and gender always normalise exploitation and oppression in such a manner that those who are at the receiving end feel grateful, obligated and honoured to even have a relationship with the privileged. This further increases the power of those with socio-cultural power. What is worse is that the powerful believe that condescension, benevolence and sympathy are expressions of progressiveness and equality. This is a violent system.

Filmmaker Rajiv Menon's Sarvam Thaala Mayam which released a year ago dealt with a similar subject about mrdangam players. Didn't Menon reach out to you to play the part vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan eventually did?

Rajiv Menon did reach out to me to act in the film. I am not sure if it was the role that Sikkil Gurucharan did.

We live in a charged sociopolitical climate where bigoted polarisations and their narratives are mainstreamed. Is this why you timed the book now?

The timing of the book was entirely accidental. It just so happened that the book has been released at a time when society is filled with anger, hate, parochialism.

While mrdangam makers are invisiblised this is doubly so when women become mrdangam makers.

Gender discrimination is probably the first type of social segregation that humans practised. It cuts across caste, ethnicity, even continents. Mrdangam making is a male bastion and the makers tell you that since it is hard, physical work it is very difficult for women to participate. At the same time, the very tough job of braking stones into a powder ( used for the black spot on the playing surface) is done by women. I don't think women have not actively participated in this occupation only because it entails skin-related work, which includes visits to the slaughterhouse, blood, gore, skinning, cutting, cleaning and more. This is patriarchy at work. It is also possible that the fact that 99.9% of mrdangam players are men has played a role in this unsaid continued taboo. In the book, you come across Geetha (from, Peruvemba, Kerala) and Madhammal (from Ambur, Tamilnadu) who are brilliant at selecting and preparing cow, buffalo and goatskin for the mrdangam. And there is also Ashwathamma (from Bangalore, Karnataka) who used to make mrdangams. They are indeed exceptions.

Whether your visit to the slaughterhouse to write about buffalo hide extraction, curing and preparation or your exploration of hurt and anger of the mrdangam makers, would you agree a 'helper's high' is at work here?

Constant reflection on my privilege prevents a 'helper's high.' The helper's high can be very dangerous because it also results in a person like me feeling I've done something exceptional. Right through the book, I keep questioning my own self, checking my thoughts and actions. I would like to believe that this kept me watchful of falling into the 'helper's high' syndrome.

You've explored how conservancy workers, manual scavengers, or makers of percussion instruments dealing with carrion and skin are casually called perpetually drunk by many.

Yes, this stigma needs to be addressed. We almost never speak of alcoholism in upper-caste families. Just because it happens within closed doors and our own moral conservatism forces us to keep it under wraps, we escape the 'drunkard' tag. Sometimes we even joke and celebrate the drunkard in our family, saying that this is acceptable because he is brilliant, a genius etc. But we are the same people who stereotype people who belong to marginalised communities as drunkards. This is very similar to how we never call out sexual predators and abusers in our own 'upper-caste' homes but casually and arbitrarily point fingers at people from marginalised sections of society.

Why was the 'i' was dropped in the way you spell mrdangam in the book?

Phonetically the sound 'mr' does not need the 'i.'

The launch of Sebastian and Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers was also mired in controversy when Kalakshetra, Chennai cancelled the venue last moment. Was it caste supremacy hitting back or the powers-that-be shaken with your questioning?

You need to ask the director of Kalakshetra this question.

Well-known artistes like Shubha Mudgal, Ankur Tewari, Anushka Manchanda and yourself performed recently at the Shaheen Bagh protest - which BJP politicos including prime minister Narendra Modi have demonised. Doesn't this put you all at risk?

I can only speak for myself. People like me should not complain about the little discomforts that we go through because of the positions we take. It is the women in Shaheen Bagh and all those protesting on the streets across the country who need help, support and protection. What just happened in Delhi (a pogrom which has left over 50 dead) is a clear example of who is truly at risk. They need to be protected, not me.

What are you working on next?

Right now I'm trying to keep my mind from thinking of another project!

Constant reflection on my privilege prevents ‘helper’s high’: TM Krishna

I spent a lot of time listening/watching the interviews repeatedly and reading the transcripts. After going through many possible ways of putting these stories together I decided upon this form and writing style. The actual writing and editing took about eight months.

In the West, the person who actually crafts a cello/violin is celebrated but in India an hierarchy pedestalises players while looking down at makers. Has this always been located in the stratification embedded in the caste and religion dynamic?

In India, caste stratifies and partitions society in such a manner that people's, work and knowledge is segregated, stigmatised and in many cases kept beyond the sight of those who belong to caste privilege. The people who enforce this invisibility are people like me and we need to take responsibility for it.

In the case of mrdangam makers, we are all complicit in keeping them uncelebrated and we have not treated them with respect or equality. We have even appropriated their knowledge and surreptitiously taken credit for their innovations, rarely acknowledging them as people of brilliance.

How and why did the exploitative toxic nature of the maker and musician become normalised even among the exploited?

What we see in this relationship is no different from what happens in every section of society, including our own homes.

Discriminative systems such as caste, race, colour and gender always normalise exploitation and oppression in such a manner that those who are at the receiving end feel grateful, obligated and honoured to even have a relationship with the privileged.

This further increases the power of those with socio-cultural power. What is worse is that the powerful believe that condescension, benevolence and sympathy are expressions of progressiveness and equality. This is a violent system.

We live in a charged sociopolitical climate where bigoted polarisations and their narratives are mainstreamed. Is this why you timed the book now?

The timing of the book was entirely accidental. It just so happened that the book has been released at a time when society is filled with anger, hate, parochialism.

While mrdangam makers are invisiblised this is doubly so when women become mrdangam makers.

Gender discrimination is probably the first type of social segregation that humans practised. It cuts across caste, ethnicity, even continents.

Mrdangam making is a male bastion and the makers tell you that since it is hard, physical work it is very difficult for women to participate. At the same time, the very tough job of breaking stones into a powder (used for the black spot on the playing surface) is done by women.

I don't think women have not actively participated in this occupation only because it entails skin-related work, which includes visits to the slaughterhouse, blood, gore, skinning, cutting, cleaning and more. This is patriarchy at work.

It is also possible that the fact that 99.9% of mrdangam players are men has played a role in this unsaid continued taboo. In the book, you come across Geetha (from, Peruvemba, Kerala) and Madhammal (from Ambur, Tamil Nadu) who are brilliant at selecting and preparing cow, buffalo and goatskin for the mrdangam.

And there is also Ashwathamma (from Bangalore, Karnataka) who used to make mrdangams. They are indeed exceptions.

Whether your visit to the slaughterhouse to write about buffalo hide extraction, curing and preparation or your exploration of hurt and anger of the mrdangam makers, would you agree a 'helper's high' is at work here?

Constant reflection on my privilege prevents a 'helper's high.' The helper's high can be very dangerous because it also results in a person like me feeling I've done something exceptional.

Right through the book, I keep questioning my own self, checking my thoughts and actions. I would like to believe that this kept me watchful of falling into the 'helper's high' syndrome.

Well-known artistes like Shubha Mudgal, Ankur Tewari, Anushka Manchanda and yourself performed recently at the Shaheen Bagh protest - which BJP politicos have demonised. Doesn't this put you all at risk?

n I can only speak for myself. People like me should not complain about the little discomforts that we go through because of the positions we take. It is the women in Shaheen Bagh and all those protesting on the streets across the country who need help, support and protection.

What just happened in Delhi (a pogrom which has left over 40 dead) is a clear example of who is truly at risk. They need to be protected, not me.

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