When singer, writer and activist T.M. Krishna realised that nobody spoke about mrdangam makers, he knew that he had failed them too. In his first book, which examined caste in Karnatik music, he had not explored the world of the makers or the maker–player dynamic. The mrdangam, a two-faced drum, is the primary percussion instrument used in Karnatik music recitals and Bharatanatyam performances, he writes in his new book, Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers. The mrdangam’s body is a hollow, resonating chamber made from the wood of jackfruit trees, and its two tapering ends are covered with layers of cow, buffalo and goat hide. Thereby hangs a dark tale of caste discrimination and other slights. An excerpt:
There is a general belief across the globe, and even among many Indians, that Hindus do not eat beef. Yet, there is evidence that there was considerable beef-eating in the Vedic period and later, including among brahmins. Many Hindus continue to eat beef, especially among the dalit communities but not restricted to them. Besides, India is among the world’s top five beef exporters. That the cow is an unslayable holy animal is a modern brahminical concept, not one necessarily shared by the larger population. But the brahmin castes, who have had an outsized impact on policy and in constructing cultural norms when compared to their size in the population, have established this untruth as a sacred universal, so much so that it found a place in the Constitution of India. Although this provision is only in the Directive Principles, which means it is not enforceable by any court, the cow still finds special mention. And over the years, many State governments have brought in laws that banned or regulated cow slaughter.
Born in a traditional Palakkad brahmin family, Palghat Mani Iyer went through a period of battling a contradiction: an instrument that necessitated taking the life of three animals — most crucially, of the holy cow — was his very life. Although Iyer believed that the mrdangam was a vedavadyam (a Vedic instrument), he asked himself whether it was right to kill a cow to construct it. In search of self-reconciliation, he decided to approach the Shankaracharya of Kanchi Mutt. But Iyer hesitated: was it not inappropriate to pose such a question to the pontiff? Unsure, he resolved to instead speak to C. Rajagopalachari, whom Mahatma Gandhi called his conscience-keeper. Through friends, he reached Rajagopalachari and asked him this question.
Rajaji, as he was known, gave him a pragmatic answer by quoting a proverb: ‘Don’t look for the source of a river or the antecedents of a saint’. In other words, he asked Mani Iyer not to seek difficult answers. How convenient! It is the maker who plays the role of an intermediary for the artist, veiling the origins and allowing the latter to seek comfort in such a proverb.
The cow is removed from the artist’s sight. Since the killing and skinning happen beyond his circle of existence, he can act as if it does not happen. The maker stands at the threshold, keeping the cow and the brahmin apart, helping the latter maintain his ‘purity’. So, the maker is vital for the player, yet his role also keeps the maker ‘polluted’ and unequal. Once the blood is removed, the skin is cleaned and cut in shape, then dried and finally brought to the artist, it has been transformed through the labour of the makers into a resource, a lifeless ingredient. To Ravikumar, the maker, the skin itself has life; one to which no negativity is attached because it comes alive through shruti. But he either did not acknowledge, or did not see fit to speak the hard truth: that it is the maker — he, and others like him —who give the skin life after death. I had to intervene and remind him.
At any rate, the irony does not escape the makers, even if the players fail to see it. As a maker told me, ‘We talk about goats and cows. Most artists are brahmins. They don’t like the smell and don’t know anything about how we process the skin. But the instrument will be in their pooja room. The makers are not given that respect.’ Another said, ‘When I work on the mrdangam, I use my legs to hold it. But you take the same mrdangam inside your room and worship it.’ (The legs and feet are, of course, another source of ritual pollution in the brahminical worldview.)
To maintain an unblemished image, artists need to distance themselves and their audience from these realities. The conservative audience of the sabhas must not get so much as a whiff of the abattoir.
There might have been a trigger to the existential crisis that Mani Iyer confronted. Alkattan, Parlandu’s [who ruled the mrdangam making industry] cousin, was considered an expert at choosing skins and made very good varus. I have not been able to ascertain how exactly Alkattan is related to Parlandu. In such situations, the English generality ‘cousin’ always comes to the rescue. Iyer gave Alkattan a job. He said he wanted top-draw cow skin, no compromises and the cost did not matter. Alkattan said it would cost Rs. 100. Iyer gave him that amount immediately, in advance, and headed out to a restaurant around 3 or 4 p.m. When he returned, he found Alkattan standing outside his house, cow in tow. Iyer was startled, to say the least. Alkattan informed him that this cow had great skin, but the seller wanted Rs. 120, and so he wanted to check with Iyer before completing the transaction. Iyer was shocked. Almost certainly, this would have been the first time he had to make a decision on the slaughtering itself, and take responsibility for something that was thus far hidden. He just shooed Alkattan away, and demanded that he take the cow with him. This incident from Iyer’s life is a universal condition — I am certain that no mrdangam artist would like to be placed in a similar situation. Skin just drops down from the heavens, as far as they are concerned.
Both Mani Iyer and Palani Subramania Pillai really tried understanding how skins are chosen by the makers. They would still only look at skin that had been sanitised by the maker, but they had started buying larger quantities of processed skin for storage in their mrdangam rooms. Needless to say, all of this was purely born out of the need for a special and specific sound — an obsession with the instrument.
Excerpted with permission from Context/Westland. The book will be launched by Rajmohan Gandhi and Thol Thirumavalavan on February 2, 2020, at Kalakshetra, Chennai