In his new book, TM Krishna explores how caste oppression invisibilised India's mridangam-makers

Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna's new book Sebastian and Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers cuts to the chase with a palpable urgency, right from page one. The mridangam is a young instrument, only a century old, that has deftly travelled up the musical ranks to secure its place on the stage of Carnatic music. And yet its makers, many of whom belong to Dalit Christian communities, continue to reside on society's margins.

Arshia Dhar January 31, 2020 09:30:07 IST
In his new book, TM Krishna explores how caste oppression invisibilised India's mridangam-makers
  • Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna's new book Sebastian and Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers navigates the sensitive terrain of caste, while zooming into the invisibilised lives of the architects of the instrument.

  • Their rare mention in the history of Carnatic music has truncated their presence to mere hands repairing the instrument that is now synonymous with the school of music it belongs to.

  • Its makers, like the Dalit Christian community, mostly continue to live on the margins of society, despite the instrument's prominent position in the world of Carnatic music today.

"Mrdangam-making involves skinning, cutting and curing hides, and hence this work was almost never done by the mrdangam artists. In the established caste order, skin-work has always been allotted to the lowest of castes. Even a century ago, when the conversions began, the procuring of hide and the making of the mrdangam would have been executed by caste groups that worked with skin and leather, and were considered 'untouchable'." 

Carnatic vocalist TM Krishna's new book Sebastian and Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers cuts to the chase with a palpable urgency, right from page one. The mridangam is a young instrument, only a century old, that has deftly travelled up the musical ranks to secure its place on the stage of Carnatic music. And yet its makers, many of whom belong to Dalit Christian communities, continue to reside on society's margins.

Read on Firstpost: Kalakshetra rescinds permission for TM Krishna's book launch in Chennai auditorium, cites possibility of instigating 'political, social disharmony'

The architects of the mridangam are known to possess an inexplicable, almost preternatural ability of carving the instrument out of abstract ideas and words uttered by musicians. Krishna — described as "the most interesting personage in the world of Carnatic music" right now by music writer Arunabha Deb at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet — navigates the sensitive terrain of caste in his book, while zooming into the invisibilised lives of mridangam-makers. Their rare mention in the history of Carnatic music has truncated their presence to mere hands repairing the instrument that is now synonymous with the school of music it belongs to.

In his new book TM Krishna explores how caste oppression invisibilised Indias mridangammakers

Sebastian and Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers, by TM Krishna

When Firstpost caught up with TM Krishna only an hour before his session in Kolkata, the artiste alerted us to the various nuances of writing on a subject steeped in a history of oppression, and why it was a "difficult book" for him to write.

In one of your earlier books, A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story (2016), you had dedicated an entire chapter to caste politics. In Sebastian and Sons, the premise of the book is caste itself — Dalit Christians making the mridangam, which is played by Brahmin musicians. As a musician belonging to an upper caste community yourself, how aware or conscious were you of your caste privileges while interviewing for, or writing the book?

There are two parts in the book where I talk about this issue. With caste privilege also comes the blindness of how we discuss caste, because the truth is, we've never discussed caste. Therefore, I was aware of it, and I was always conscious about whether you can even ask these questions, or have these discussions. It was not easy, and I must say that I learned a lot in the process. And I am probably going to continue learning all my life, so that's the truth.

It was a difficult book for me to write, because I needed to enter a space that I don't really understand. The truth is, I don't understand oppression. I am a man, an upper caste man — everything goes my way. So it is still something that I grapple with. Even during the interviews and conversations, I was constantly checking myself, and wouldn't really get into conversations. Or I would wait for a point where I would feel that the person is willing to talk about the subject.

There are many things that I've not included in the book, for the simple reason that I felt that it is something that I believed was a part of the trust that we had. And many times, I also changed the names of the makers, which was also my decision, the makers never asked me to. I knew very well that they've said things that will probably affect them and their livelihood, but will not affect me — I can get away with anything.

So, I think I've been very conscious, and even in the process of editing, I've been through this many times with my editor. That was, in fact, the most crucial aspect.

In his new book TM Krishna explores how caste oppression invisibilised Indias mridangammakers

TM Krishna. All photos by Tanumay Naskar for Firstpost, except where indicated otherwise

One family is Dalit Christian, but every other family involved is from a marginalised community. So, it is kind of a knife-edge — being consciously aware. You're not telling a fictional story — these are real people and real lives. You should realise that these are real happenings and experiences. So you've got to be very careful about why you're saying something. There are so many stories that they've told me. Now, why are certain stories in the book, while certain stories are not in the book?

These are things that you realise as you read, and listen to the transcripts again and again, and listen to their tone. I am so glad I actually videotaped almost every interview, except two. Everything was recorded on a handheld camera, and that was very important, which is something I realised while watching the videos. By looking at the face, I can say so much more about the person, than what I can by just listening to an audio file. So all of this was a part of the learning process for me.

Do you remember any conversation being particularly difficult?

I mean, there were many conversations that were difficult, but difficult for different reasons. Sometimes they were difficult because I couldn't reconcile with what was being told to me. See, that's the thing about any kind of discriminative mechanism — and I call caste a discriminative mechanism — which is that it normalises such practices in the mind and heart of the person being oppressed. And that was something that I found most difficult to grapple with, because I can't argue that. I will never argue that with the person I am interviewing. I am just listening to them. If they're open to a conversation, I'll ask them that can I look at it this way? But to accept that that is what it does — for example, what gender does. So for me, personally, that was a struggle. Because when you come from privilege, you think of the right to question, or the right to opine, as being natural. You take it for granted, especially if one comes from the kind of privileges we come from. In your household you're told words like 'open', 'democratic'. But these words don't mean the same things for everybody.

Sometimes, you don't see fighters, and you wonder as to why this person is not fighting. Then you realise that that is the reality of the world to which they belong from birth. From one's environment, to one's interaction, to the way people look at you — even what people don't say is more important than what people say to you.

There were many interesting nuggets that I can remember, of which one I'll surely never forget. One of the early interviews I did was [with] the first person who appears in the book — Selvaraj. He's no more. He was a fascinating man. That interview went on for two days, for over three-and-a-half hours, and I am so glad I archived him. He was the most senior maker at that time, and the stories he would recount, and the way he would relate incidents that happened, was very casual. The liberal world might look at these instances and think as to how could someone let that pass, but it was the first time I was encountering this 'casualness' towards an oppressive reality, from Selvaraj.

But then, what was also interesting for me to see was how it changed with the generations. The younger generation was far more feisty, far tougher. They would question you in private as well. There were statements that I will never forget, one of which features in the book, where Selvaraj says: "Those days, they kept us away and discriminated; today they keep us close and discriminate." I will never forget that in my life, because that's the nuance of discrimination that most people of privilege do not understand. And the fact is that the person facing discrimination knows it. That's important.

If you think that just because I share a cup of tea with somebody from a marginalised community, that somehow that person thinks that I think we are equal — that's rubbish. That person knows why exactly we are consuming tea, and knows exactly what is happening behind it. So that statement, I will never forget.

Now Sharada, wife of one of the makers, was arguing with me about whether Tamil Nadu's social environment has changed behaviours. She said I am being very pessimistic, and that people have really changed. In that, the whole question of religion also came in, which is again something I will remember, especially in today's context. It's very important.

If you go to any of these shops, you'll see Ganapati and Mary there, and there's no dichotomy or doubt about the fact that there are two faiths in the house. It's just faith and belief — they worship Ganapati and Jesus, both lie there in the temple. And they also worship the mridangam for what it is.

In his new book TM Krishna explores how caste oppression invisibilised Indias mridangammakers

I also remember Sharada talking about her grandfather, who was a communist leader. Her family is very interesting. She features in only two paragraphs, but I put them in because she is so important. Her grandfather was a Brahmin, who removed his cross-thread in protest, and went on to marry someone from the Dalit community — if my memory is correct — and then her daughter is married to someone from a Sri Lankan background. I mean, just look at how many different people from different cultures are coming in! This is not even talked about in their household, it's normal. And finally, Sharada is an atheist. So you can see how multiple beliefs, non-beliefs, secularism — all these things are there in those two paragraphs. It's just there, nobody needs to even label them as anything.

The third one is when I met Kasumani. I will never forget how he was so disinterested in me, and I think that was a great knock on my head. He was not interested in having any conversation. He humoured me only because his cousin told him that this man is coming. I think I was glad it was the last interview, and I was glad I was put in my place. So these were all important.

No matter how democratic one shows the arts to be, one is aware that the classical arts in particular have a history of systemic, state-sponsored oppression behind them. How does that affect your involvement with and understanding of your craft? Do you think it's ever possible to de-class or de-caste the arts, at least in India?

Your question actually asks if it's possible to de-class and de-caste India — fundamentally that's what you're asking me, right? In a Utopian world, I'd like to say yes. But, I think if more and more people from all backgrounds — which is why I believe it's important for the privileged to grapple with caste, to make mistakes and be told that you're making mistakes — can be active in their minds and actions of the caste that they are blind to, then I think we can have more conversations as a society. We can build a society which is more contested.

The problem with discrimination is it makes society less contested, and that's why discrimination is important for people who are discriminating, because there is no contestation. I can build a society that is only the voice of a certain kind of people. Now, that is why discrimination is important for the people in power. But if you can damage that notion, and say no, then that is the hope of democracy — the fact that we live in a contested environment. I think anybody in the arts will tell you that any contested environment is the most conducive environment for creative things to happen. We should also realise that lesser the contestation, the more mundane a society we'll have; one with no thought. Hence, we will have more people engaging actively with what's around. It's not about being right or wrong, it's about being ethically conscious. And then I think it becomes difficult for discrimination to remain status quo. The invisibility of that which you don't see in an overt manner, becomes less, because people then become more nuanced about it. One of the problems is people don't have the nuance to understand how it works. So they'll say, "no, I didn't say he shouldn't enter the room. So I am not discriminating." You know, if you think about this, there's no nuance to it. You don't feel what the other person is feeling. So, I think that is possible, and that is where we should head to. Let's not look for a solution, let's look for problematising it perpetually, and then let's see what happens. Because when you start from the point where you say, "let's solve it," — from science to arts, everybody will tell you that that is not how solutions come about.

So this has definitely changed my engagement with my craft, and has made it more complicated for me. It's not just about my sociopolitical actions as an artist, it's also about the form itself, as an internal body. There are many things that I am comfortable with in terms of form, so I work with it. I work with content and structures, because I also think structures are born entirely from external scaffoldings. The important thing — and I think that's where we all miss it, including the "progressives" — is that an aesthetic awakening of discrimination does not exist in this country. You don't realise that how I experience something is itself because of a certain discriminative foundation. It is something we've never spoken about.

We can speak about education, access, the very tactile, temporal things, and they are completely important. But I need to address as to why I feel that a Fabindia pillowcase is the idea of Indian colours or Indian art, for example. Just go to any privileged, or trying-to-be-privileged Indian house — they all look the same. This whole country looks the same. My home doesn't look different from yours — I can put a wager. There are only two possibilities — either your home is very 'nouveau-modern', or it is 'Indian ethnic', and we both know what that means.

In his new book TM Krishna explores how caste oppression invisibilised Indias mridangammakers

TM Krishna's concert at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet 2020

So, I can't argue and say that okay, you think this is beautiful? But can we investigate and find out why something is not beautiful? For example, why does a house that's painted fluorescent pink look ugly to me? Now that for me is a crucial investigation, because if I can change the way you feel about something, I can change everything like that. I am also an artist, and I work with emotions, so I enter this space quite often.

I think this discrimination about beauty is something we need to grapple with with greater seriousness. The investigation is about how these presumptions come about. But they're not only about the face of a human being, they're also about the colours I choose in my home. All these things are a part of a certain palette of consumption. This is something that has affected my craft — say, the way I look at sound.

I was telling somebody the other day that something that was noise to me a few years ago has become music. Now that's the day I knew as to how we define these two things. My inability to recognise it as music was actually my inability to shed my aesthetic bias. That's it.

I'll give you a very classic example that lives within the elite world. To a Hindustani musician, Carnatic musicians seem besur (off-key). Simple. Why? Because they just don't know how to listen to Carnatic music. To us, Makhaam music sounds besur, because we don't know how to enter that culture. I'm giving you elite examples purposely, to show you how it constitutes every section. So imagine how difficult it is if it's down the discriminative ladder of society. That is an important aspect that we need to investigate.

You've always been very open about your political views, not just in prose, but also through your music. In the current political context, what is your opinion on the artists who choose to call themselves 'apolitical'? Do you think they're relevant?

'Apolitical' artists are political. Those who say they're 'apolitical', please remind them that the moment they use that term, they make a political statement. If they don't understand that, they need to look up the meaning of the words 'political' and 'apolitical' in the dictionary. They're completely capable of doing that. So let's not even buy the fraud of being 'apolitical'. To put it bluntly, it's bullsh*t.

Every human being is born political, everything else is added. Where did your mother conceive? Was it consensual and born out of love? Did she want to keep the baby? Which hospital did she deliver in? Every one of these things is political. Your very existence is political, so anyone who says otherwise is either blind to the idea of the political, or frauds. They have to be one of the two. I don't like binaries, but I will throw in that binary here.

Now, are they relevant? While I am being so harshly critical, I will still say that conversations are important. Those who live in extremes, whatever extremes they may be — extremes of oppressive right-wing notions, or the extremes of oppressive liberal notions — we can't have a conversation with either. But I think there are a lot of people in between, and they are shades of greys and other colours. Those are the people we all need to be talking to. And we too belong to that shade, by the way. We are as messed up as everybody else. I am giving you an interview because I have privilege, that's the truth. But I am messed up — I really don't know anything, I sound confident, but that's it. That's the truth.

Therefore, if we can continue this conversation for all the messed up people in between, and if they are 'apolitical' artists, it's important. So I would be critical, but I would still say we need these conversations. We need to nudge and push, and sometimes say harsh things, or have the conversations in private, because there maybe something else going on there which you and I don't recognise. Something that people can't say in public. I don't know, I mean we have to be politically strong, but also emotionally sensitive, in some sense. I'll make no excuses for Karan Johar, but I'll make excuses for many other people. It's important that we talk and listen, and we also must realise that a lot of this is coming from social habit. We are a society of accepting favours from somebody or the other.

We talk about democracy, but the plain fact is that we are not a country of rights. Rights are the foundation of our democracy, our Constitution. Can you tell me what the fundamental rights are now? The fact that you and I can't actually say it, says something about what we think of democracy. The fact is that I don't think, as a society, we have developed a culture of democracy, and that's why I think art has become so important, because we need a culture of democracy. Democracy is not something you read and access, and academics write papers about. It's something you can culturally feel. That I don't have to think twice about protesting on the streets, is a cultural feeling. Now that I think twice about it, or when I am told by my family that why do I need to get in trouble, is also a side of our culture — let's not forget that. That needs to change.

Quite expectedly, music and poetry have become major tools of protest in the anti-CAA-NRC movement happening nationwide. People are subverting the national anthem by singing it at protests. What do you have to say about that?

Yeah, I recently called the national anthem a protest song at the Kerala Literature Festival. It's a protest song because it protests against all the misinterpretation of this country that is being propagated by Narendra Modi's government, and all the stooges that are operating at different levels across this country. Therefore, Rabindranath Tagore did not only give us the national anthem, he also gave us a protest song.

And I will sing not just the anthem part, but every part of it in protest. So yes, it is a protest song.

Many parts of the anthem are left out...

Yes, so now I'll be singing those bits regularly, including the part which calls every person and every religion, and the part that reminds us that the North-East is an important region of the country, especially in the time of the NRC, we have to sing it again and again. It also reminds us that we have to wake up. He says "jaago". He says, "you're all scared", and he's right, we're terrified. He says "no, but you need to wake up". The song is an emotional rollercoaster. It starts by describing our beings, and then it says that we are in this darkness. And then finally he says, "but there is light at the end of the tunnel". You need to wake up.

At the Kerala Lit Fest, I interpreted it as Tagore sending messages to both the Raj and the Congress movement, and maybe we can send messages to the present government and to the wonderful young people who are protesting and risking their lives. We need to tell the government that if you continue like this, you are not going to last. And we will tell the protesters that you are right.

In his new book TM Krishna explores how caste oppression invisibilised Indias mridangammakers

Your book too comes at a very crucial juncture in Indian politics, when the divides on the lines of privilege are becoming increasingly glaring, and people are questioning them more and more. I have two questions based on this observation. Firstly, how important is it for your art to align with your politics, especially because you are a classical vocalist, which in itself is a testament to your caste privilege, as Kasumani pointed out.

I agree. But there is no clean answer to your question, let me be very honest. It's always a work in progress. There are always things in my repertoire that I wonder if they should be in my repertoire. There are things I am tinkering with, things I am bringing in. But I am convinced about one thing for now — which I may change in a few years, but I can tell you for now — is that just like you need a contested society, it is important that the practice of the practitioner is also contested in its being. So, Thyagaraja is very important for me — he's an incredible composer, but I may completely disagree with him sociopolitically.

But instead of saying that I will throw Thyagaraja out of my repertoire, suppose I contest him by giving another composition that's an opposite reflection of society to Thyagaraja. What happens in that play between the two? Because both are real, even today. So I like to play with that possibility, — of the past, present, and future — of saying that okay, there are certain things I know I will not have as a part of my repertoire, but certain things can remain, while certain things can be contested. And we have to look at the aesthetics and the beauties that can be allowed internally — sounds that may not be 'classical', how can they become so. How can the notions of 'classical' itself be debunked? That is one of the most important things that I talk about, actually. I think the word 'classical' is just discriminative. Nobody deals with these words as being discriminative. The word 'classical' is an obnoxious word. Even the liberal argues that with me! Don't you get how it's not too different from calling out somebody based on discrimination on race or caste? It's calling out somebody in the name of taste. And you've constructed a word that has got nothing to do with aesthetics, which includes form, structure, and intent. This word has nothing to do with any of these elements.

I like to live in grappling. I am not saying everything I do comes out right every time. No, it does not. And I am thankful that it does not. Because there's definitely something wrong if I think everything I do comes out right. So it's fine — I think it's a mess. But it's good to be confused.

Secondly, do you think Sebastian and Sons comes at an opportune moment, and that people might be willing to appreciate such a book now, more than they would at other points in time?

Maybe. But it is completely accidental that this is happening. I worked on this book for four years, and didn't even know when I would be publishing it. And then my editor said that you need to start writing it at some point. Honestly, I could've gone out on field work for another three years, because there was enough field work left to do. But I guess you reach a point when you know that you need to bring the stories out. And a very important part of the book is knowledge, for me, which is why the book takes you through the entire process of making a mridangam. I realised that that was the fulcrum of discrimination. The social stories are there, but they are built around the fundamental fact of making a mridangam. So what does that mean? Establishing knowledge is important for me.

When you totally disintegrate a person's knowledge, or a community's knowledge, along with their contribution, you make them completely invisible and irrelevant. So whether it is the Dalit Christians in Thanjavur, or Kasumani's family, or the Andhra makers, or the Madras makers, they are irrelevant to the idea of the society we are creating. Which is why the heart of the book is the making of the instrument, and I wanted every nuance to come in. It was complicated, but I said let it be.

If you can read a book about some astrophysicist who walked for the first time in some space walk, you can spend some time to see how difficult it is to braid that hide — and how gorgeously the guy does it. Spend that time.

So yes, the timing is probably good. People may find it accessible, but that's accidental.

Finally, tell us what features on your playlist right now...

Right now, I just heard the Tamil version of "Hum dekhenge". I heard it an hour ago, and I tweeted it immediately. It's a beautiful version, and I hope I can learn it by today evening.

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